Mary Bea Sullivan

soul stirring stories

The Light that Shines Into the Darkness

This sermon was offered to Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on December 31, 2017. The scripture was John 1:1-18.  May the Light shine brightly in the world in 2018.  

My parents live on the beach in Amelia Island, Florida.  One of their guest bedrooms has a balcony that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  Being one of eight children, it is a rare treat when I land in that bedroom for a couple of days. 

When I am in the front guest room, I get up early and make my coffee, traipse back up the stairs to the balcony, wrapped in a blanket, and silently sip my brew as I await God’s show.

I peer out at the darkness that covers the face of the deep. As many times as I have seen it, I am always enlivened by the first indication that a new day is dawning, when the dark, grey sky above the water is slowly transformed by shards of pinks and oranges. Moment by moment the show intensifies until a tiny semi-circle of yellow makes its way on the horizon.

The hint of yellow becomes larger and more intense.  And then, within minutes, the oranges and pinks are gone, the sun is up over the horizon and a new day has begun.

There are times when I go to visit my parents when sadly, the show never materializes.  There are times when storms roll in and I might catch glimpses of the sun behind the clouds, but the radiant sunrise I have come to treasure is denied me.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  (Genesis 1)

God’s word spoke light into being.

In the very first verse of the very first chapter of our sacred texts we learn that God’s word is a mighty and creative force.  We learn, says Gail O’Day, that “Light was the first gift of creation.” (The Word Disclosed Preaching John’s Gospel, p.22)

And this light provided crops and warmth and life.  And the people of Israel loved their God and forgot their God and they returned to their God. And they loved their God and they forgot their God and they returned to their God.

And their God was always with them, even though they did not always feel that God was present, even though they did not always trust that God was there. Ultimately, God donned human flesh to live among the people so that we might better know God, and so that we might better follow God.

Patristic Father, Athanasius famously proclaimed, “God became man so that man might become God.”  (On The Incarnation) 

Does that sound heretical to you?  It did to me the first time I heard it.

Only God could become God.  And yet Athanasius was widely quoted in the early church. Martin Luther referred to this saying (Theolgia Germania),  It is even deemed doctrine in Roman Catholic Catechism and Protestant hymns (Wesley).

Most important, it is scripturally sound. In John 17 we learn, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

After all of the attempts to pierce the human heart, in the face of our remembering and forgetting, God became human so that human beings might become God.

The same God who spoke  light into being.  The Same God who donned human flesh.  The same God who is the light that shines in the darkness. That same God, Spoke each and every one of us into being.  Like the sun was spoken into being to provide warmth and light, each of us was created for a purpose. 

That purpose is to work toward union with God and carry the light of Christ into this world. 

Christmas is not a season, it is a way of being.  Howard Thurman’s poem  “The Work of Christmas” speaks to this truth:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

The love of Christ transforms us—makes us better, makes us want to be better, and it transforms those around us.  If we have felt the light of Christ in our own lives—we are to shine it upon all who are around us. 

We have an inspiring example of this in our own community.  Remember Kay our deacon-in-training from last summer?  She has created a “warming station” at Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn.

Kay is spending her Christmas vacation recruiting and staffing a 24 hour place of warmth, food, and respite for homeless people to get out of the cold.

Kay and her volunteers carry the light of Christ. 

Birmingham lost a giant this past week when Judy Bridgers died.  Judy and her late husband, Bill, who was the founding Dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, were known for their generosity and gracious hospitality, especially to those of us in need of extra care.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s when HIV/AIDS patients were being shunned by families and churches, Judy and Bill opened their home to them and she tended them in their dying days. 

I have benefitted from others shining the light of Christ in my own life. There was a time when I found forgiveness elusive and the hardening of my heart negatively impacted those around me.  Additionally, deep grief had a way of making me feel as if  I was sitting on my parents’ balcony enduring an endless storm.

I found no solace in any of my usual places of comfort.  Finally, I sought help and shards of the light shone upon me in the form of a Christian grief counselor.  I felt the warmth of the sun in a Buddhist teacher who compelled me to go home to Christianity, and furthermore, he instructed me to go deeply in following the ways of Jesus.

But the full radiance of the sun shone upon me in the unconditional love of my husband, Malcolm.  I was hesitant to return to Christianity for a host of reasons.  I was turned off by some of what I had experienced and heard and read from some who claimed the mantle of Jesus.  I had been hurt by a denomination that treated women as second class citizens. 

While I struggled with all of this, Malcolm simply loved me. He loved me unconditionally.  I watched the way he generously loved other people too—especially people on the margins, the untouchables-people with HIV, people who were mentally ill, people who were homeless. 

The light shone in the darkness of my heart and I found a Christianity I wanted to be a part of. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

I love Christmas as much as anyone—the music, the food, the laughter and tears with family. And in all that we have laid upon this mystical, magical time we are to remember most of all:

God became human so human beings might become God.

We have a choice, do we receive or reject the light?

I want to take a moment to speak to those of us who may be experiencing a stormy time in our lives.  I know that it feels cold and it feels dark. It can be particularly painful to be feeling this way when it seems as if the rest of the world is wrapped in joy. I promise you, even if you cannot see it; even if you cannot feel it—there is warmth beyond the clouds.  Seek out someone you trust to help shine that light for you.

And for those of us who feel bathed in the glow of Christ’s love, I have a challenge for us-share it. Love others unconditionally. Be generous.  Give away more than you think you can afford in time and love and resources. 

At every Rite 1 Eucharist we claim, “All things come of Thee or Lord. And of thine own have we given thee.”  All this love, all of this light is not ours to hoard, but to share. Malcolm and I both give our parents great credit for shining Jesus’ light on us and on others.

Who has shone the light for you? 

How are you or can you carry this light to the lost, or the broken, or the hungry, or the prisoner?  How are you, how are WE participating in rebuilding communities, bringing peace, making music in hearts?

In the beginning God created light, God became light, we are to be light.  Amen 

Perspective

It is snowing here in Birmingham, Alabama.  That is cause for great joy among little ones, and varying

Photo by Malcolm Marler

degrees of stress for bigger ones.   The forecast calls for one to three inches of accumulation.  A winter storm warning has been issued. Basically, the city is shut down.

The town of Rangeley, Maine is accustomed to an average of 121 inches of snow each year. Accumulation of one to three inches of snow is a disappointing dusting for Rangeley’s residents.

Having lived in many places in the United States and in Tokyo, I have heard folks snipe at the perspective of others who are from different parts of the country or the world. Rugged Rangeley folks might chuckle at Alabama’s snow-fearing wimps.  People from Birmingham can’t understand why anyone would want to live in such God-forsaken country.

Our perspectives are shaped by our cultures, our climates, our family history, our personal experiences.  What is ONE perspective among many, can easily become THE perspective. Judgment and the overlaying of our perspective onto another, prevents us from understanding and loving the “other.” It limits our experience of life.  If we truly believe that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, it limits our experience of God.

Response to snow is an innocuous example of how we judge and exclude.  When the stakes are higher the judgment can become dangerous. When we are open to listening to one who is different, with a  willingness to be changed by the encounter, our perspective broadens.

Jesus knew about this when he walked through enemy territory in Samaria and chatted with a cast-out woman at a well.  Despite the cultural taboos about Jews and Samaritans, and men speaking with women, Jesus took the woman seriously. He listened to her. She questioned him. Love pierced her and she could not help but run to tell her fellow Samaritans about the one whom she knew to be the Messiah.  Jesus and the disciples stayed in Samaria for two days teaching, transforming, and being transformed.

Yesterday, inspiring leaders from the international mission program, Global Teams came for lunch at Saint Luke’s.  At one point in the conversation we discussed the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Kevin Higgs, a Christian man who has lived, and respectfully assimilated into Muslim countries for more than two decades, pointed out that for the two days when Jesus and his disciples stayed to teach in Samaria, they stayed in the homes of people whom their tradition taught them were unclean–filthy and offensive really.

Yet they stayed. And lives were forever changed, so changed that we continue to tell the story 2,000 years later. Let’s keep living that story. 

Happy Snow Day!

 

 

Softening Graces

May softening graces shroud us like fog drifting into the cracks of steely, cold boulders.

May softening graces heal relationships that harden our hearts.

Photo by Malcolm Marler

May softening graces douse the doubt and despair that destroys us.

May softening graces envelope the grief that dares to steal our joy.

I pray for softening graces to transform relationships.

I pray for softening graces to give courage to trust that life is good.

I pray for softening graces to give strength to embrace grief as honoring the loss of the love, or the dream, or the vitality held so dear.

Softening graces to see beauty this day.

Softening graces to give thanks this day.

Softening graces to quicken the soul with joy this day.

Softening graces to throw caution to the wind and love with abandon this day.

Softening graces.

Softening graces.

Softening graces…gently, fiercely, come this day.

Amen.

Inspired by John Philip Newell‘s Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter, Wednesday Morning Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession, page 40 which concludes:

“But where the glistening is lost sight of, where life’s colours are dulled and the human soul grows hard, I pray for grace this day, I pray for your softening graces.”

 

AWAKE

Leaning over, I gently blew out the candle and lifted my eyes to the hill in front of me.  While I was deep in prayer, God was creating a magnificent sunrise.

I grabbed my yoga mat and stood at the top of it,  appropriately poised to commence sun salutations. With each breath, each movement, the configuration of the clouds recast into something new–a shape-shifting show.   

One moment  the sun prepared us for her grande entrance with a display of oranges, yellows, and pinks. The next, grays and greens took shape.

In less than fifteen minutes the show was over.

It goes so quickly, life does.  We are children squabbling with siblings. We are eager college students making our way in the world. We are parents shepherding children through their own squabbles. We are bold and ambitious. We are calm and resigned. Lithe, athletic bodies morph into soft centers and creaking bones.

Suns rise, moons set –breathing in, breathing out a life begets.  

Amen.

Waiting

I repeatedly vow not going to start my day reading the news.  And yet I did it again this morning. After absorbing the events of the day, I felt discouraged and angry. What do we stand for as a country when we imperil the safety net for the least of these? What does it mean to be Christian when Christianity is wielded as a shield for one who is accused of harming children?

I lamented to Malcolm about how powerless I feel in an age mired in greed and lies. I told him I worry that we are wasting our time in our desire to make the world a better place. Then I put down the news, lit a candle, and opened one of my favorite prayer books,  Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter  by John Philip Newell and read,

Photo by Malcolm Marler

“Wait for God, be strong, let your heart take courage, wait for God.” Psalm 27:14

Tomorrow begins the season of Advent, a time of holy waiting, a time of preparation, a time of expectation.  Like Lent, Advent is a penitential time–a time to reckon with that which broken within us, and among us, a time to acknowledge our shortcomings, and turn back toward a merciful God, asking for forgiveness and willing to live into new life.

I am not very good at waiting.  I am suspicious of the way “waiting” has been used to continue to oppress the marginalized. And yet, the psalmist links waiting with strength and courage. The psalmist reminds us we are a people of hope. 

Pondering this holy waiting, I am aware that waiting is not a passive pursuit. After Mary bravely  assented to carry the Christ-child, she did not sit still. Her holy waiting began with a revolutionary proclamation of praise and a trek to her cousin, Elizabeth’s home.

As we settle into this Advent-eve I wonder what awaits us as we ponder waiting for God. I pray we will be strong, that we will let our hearts take courage as we wait for God.

God’s deep and abiding peace,

Mary Bea

Communion of Saints

It was early in the service at St. Luke’s.  The first five pews were filled with joyful families and four glorious babies.  Each infant adorned in magnificent christening gowns, some if not all, surely worn by their ancestors.

Two of the babies grew restless as babies are known to do, especially in church.  Their grandmothers gently whisked them away into the sunshine to distract them as they awaited the moment they would be washed with baptismal water and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.

One of the grandmothers returned with her young charge.  She stood at the rear of the small chapel, swaying back and forth, soothing the restless baby.  Next to them, along the back wall is a columbarium where there are niches with nameplates identifying saints who have gone before us.

As I gazed upon this tender moment between grandmother and grandchild, the baby reached out her arms toward the columbarium wall.  I imagined the communion of saints , those who have already run their race, reaching back toward her, and the other babies as well, welcoming them into the Body of Christ.

The grandmother took a step backward, a little closer to the wall and the baby reached out to touch  a number of the niches in what seemed to be a blessing.

Those of us who are alive in this moment carry a sacred responsibility to continue the work of those who have gone before us and to prepare the way for those who have yet to come–to do our best to move the world closer toward the heavenly kingdom. 

For Christians, we do that by living out “yeses” to the questions in our Baptismal Covenant (from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer according to the use in the Episcopal Church):

  • Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
    fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
    prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
    you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
    News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
    your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all
    people, and respect the dignity of every human
    being?

We will with God’s help.  Amen.

 

Take Courage!

This sermon was preached at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, AL.

Let’s face it, there are some scary things happening in the world today — The dramatic escalation of the rhetoric between our country and North Korea. An epidemic of depression and addiction among our young people.

And the disturbing reports out of Charlottesville VA of white supremacists marching with torches Friday night, and the ensuing violence as protestors and counter-protestors clashed yesterday. 

How are we as Christians to faithfully respond in light of the divisiveness and anxiety we are experiencing in this country and the world?  Some of our cultural responses are quite unhealthy—shifting blame to the “other” as the source of our fear; masking fear with alcohol or drugs or numbing ourselves with social media.

We have so many reasons to be afraid. In today’s Gospel, Peter is a symbol of being afraid in the midst of the chaos. Like Peter, we are experiencing these fears where it feels like the place on which we had hoped to stand, is just not there.

How do we personally and as a body of Christian people, begin to act on this faith that is calling to us, like Jesus is calling to Peter? Peter has something to teach us about how to respond.

I want to share a little context about our passage from Matthew (Mt. 14:22-33).  It immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus commands the disciples to go into the boat without him so he can dismiss the crowds and pray by himself. 

The disciples are commanded to go out to sea.  As you probably know, there is much Biblical symbolism in the sea—it is the locus of evil and chaos, and mystery.  Only God has control over the sea. 

Peter and the others were violently tossed about. This must have been a terrifying experience.  The harrowing lasted nearly all night. 

Finally, Jesus comes to them—in a form that scares them even more. 

In our NRSV translation, Jesus says, “Take heart. It is I.”  Many other translations interpret the Greek to be, “Take courage. It is I.”

My friends, it takes courage to have faith. Courage to believe in the face of overwhelming odds. Courage to believe God cares or even exists. Sometimes, it takes courage to pray.

THERE ARE STORMS WHIPPING UP AROUND US—words of war, racial tensions broken open reminiscent of the 60’s, and many other struggles. 

It would be easy to be discouraged, but Jesus compels us to take courage.  Oftentimes we would rather stay in the boat and just tremble.  OR sit in the boat talking about how crazy Peter is.  Taking courage looks like leaving the relative safety of the boat, and walking into the chaos, trusting we are not alone.

Both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels include this story of Jesus walking on water.  In Mark’s version, the disciples don’t understand who Jesus REALLY is, because their hearts were hardened.

Only Matthew’s version includes the exchange between Peter and Jesus. In Matthew, Peter gets it.  PETER KNOWS WHO JESUS REALLY IS.

Listen closely to Peter’s response to Jesus.  “Lord, IF it is you..” Did you hear that? Inherent in his response is questioning. “IF it is you command me to come to you…”

And Jesus does.  Peter begins to be like Jesus, walking on water. Notice how Peter asked Jesus to bring him closer to Jesus, not for Jesus to come to him.  Also, Peter asked to do what Jesus was doing— to walk on water.  If we are going to get closer to Jesus, we have to model our lives after his.*

Faith in Jesus means—praying like Jesus, loving like Jesus, forgiving like Jesus, speaking like Jesus, giving sacrificially of ourselves—like Jesus. 

SO IN THIS TIME OF OVERWHELMING EXISTENTIAL FEAR AND ANXIETY, HOW ARE WE AS CHRISTIANS TO RESPOND? Jesus is inviting us to trust him. What does that mean?  What is he inviting us to?

I hope you will pray with those questions.  Let me assure you, your preacher does not have all of the answers. That is one of the gifts of doing this in community. Each of us is made in the image of God, given the Indwelling Spirit of God. Each of us has a unique relationship with God and a unique wisdom. I welcome a conversation about what comes to you in prayer.

In the meantime, here are four scripturally based suggestions:

First, Be mindful of LANGUAGE—Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6).  A lot of the turmoil we are experiencing is a result of the violence that is a part of the rhetoric of our time. In words, we are being so violent.

I’m talking about the words that we speak, the words we write on social media, even the words we think.  We must be vigilant in not participating in perpetuating an environment of violence. We must not be complicit in language that incites hate. Words matter.

Second, FORGIVE. When we live in a zero-sum world where there have to be winners and losers. Everyone loses.  Rather than a spirit of superiority and dominance, Jesus calls us to a spirit that seeks to carry the possibility of reconciliation and healing. 

So much of the hurt and suffering that is out there is caused by people who just don’t know what they were doing.  They would not say these things or do things if they were in their right mind. Many are reacting from great hurt and pain.

I am not suggesting we condone violent, belligerent, or any kind of sinful behavior. We are held accountable for what we do.  But the spirit that is like unto the spirit of Jesus always looks for more than punishment.  It looks for a path toward reconciliation. 

The best modern day example of this is Bishop Tutu—reconciliation that held people accountable, but always for our common deliverance for victims and perpetrators.  For Jesus there are no winners and losers. Christ sees us all perfect.  Everything is grace. 

The Church has its mission to think and act and witness to a redemptive kind of relating to one another.  Do we dare to voice this unconditional love that looks beyond all of the brokenness? 

Third, if we want to understand more of what Jesus is calling forth from us in this time, we must have a REGULAR AND RIGOROUS PRAYER LIFE. I once heard a a personal trainer say, “There are so many ways to exercise, just choose one you love and be faithful to it.”  That is true of prayer too. 

There are so many ways to pray. We can read Scripture, or pray with beads, or say mantras while running or turn off the radio and plead with God on the way to work. At the center  of all prayer is a lifting of our heart to God. Our job is to take time to consent to God’s presence and action within us.  Like any relationship, our relationship with God requires time and attention.

I encourage you to recommit to a faithful prayer life, and pray for those you deem to be your enemy.

Fourth, develop a relationship with someone or a group of people who thinks differently than you, believes differently than you, lives differently. Barriers break down through relationship.

When  Peter  began to walk on the water, he became afraid. That is when he started to sink.  It is a natural response. And in his fear, Peter cries out for help. Frequently, we interpret this exchange as Peter failing the faith test. What if we were to push back on that reading and instead, see how much good Jesus can do, even with a little faith?

Remember, later in Matthew Jesus tells us  that if we only have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. Also later in Matthew Jesus identifies Peter-faith-wavering Peter, as the rock of the church. 

We are invited to take even our smallest kernel of faith and courageously follow Jesus.

Look at Peter—Jesus LOVED Peter, did not expect perfection from Peter—just faith and following. 

The revelation of God in the chaos may not come in the time we desire—that storm lasted a long time for the disciples. Or in the form we desire. You know they weren’t hoping for a water-walking ghost.

But, if we continue to move toward Jesus, and follow him we will have an experience of the risen Christ in the midst of our storms.  And, we will be the Church that fulfills Christ’s mission. 

I pray we will have the courage to have faith, that Jesus is with us in the storms, to live out our faith and bravely follow in the way of Jesus.  We as Christians have an important voice in the conversation.

Jesus asks not our perfection—only a mustard seed of faith. Yes, we will forget. We will sink under the waters of our doubts. Still, take heart! Take courage! God can make miracles with the smallest of seeds. Thanks be to God.  Amen

Notes– I am grateful to the following for their influence on this sermon

* Michael Renninger   http://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a38-tenth-sunday-pentecost-year/

Sarah Dylan Brewer  http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/08/proper_14_year_.html

The Rev. Joe Elmore, retired Methodist Minister and beloved friend.

 

God Is Gathering Us

photo by Cameron Nations

Transitioning back to work after an active, invigorating two-week vacation was hindered by the lingering effects of a sinus infection.  My clergy colleagues were eager to support and took care of my assigned duties.  Unexpectedly, I was worshipping without the responsibility of holding any details.  I love to lead worship. I love to celebrate the Eucharist. I love to preach. Yet this day, receiving the gift of being carried by the liturgy as my colleagues skillfully led, and read, and prayed, and preached was a soothing way to re-enter after vacation.

Dropping into the deep space of observer, I looked out into the congregation and their stories welled-up. Stories of love and loss and joys and fears.  Stories of dreams beyond measure fulfilled. Stories of dreams dashed and making meaning from “what is.”

Since we had an abundance of clergy, out of an abundance of caution, I did not even  participate in administering the Eucharist. Stationed behind the altar, I prayed as the incarnate manifestation of those stories bravely knelt, raised their hands and received the Body of Christ.  I noticed that two people were next to each other who had each lost dear loved ones in the past year. I prayed they would experience the communion of saints present at the Eucharist–their loved ones present in this moment with them.  As they rose, nearly simultaneously, the elder of the two–whose loss was a bit longer ago, gently put his arm around the younger, the one whose wound is quite fresh.

Today was the first Sunday for our new organist, Kenneth Hamrick. Staff members who do not usually worship at the 10:30 service made it a point to come support  Kenneth on his first day. I adore our former organist Jim Dorroh.  Jim helped to install the organ at my former parish, played at my ordination. He will always be dear to me. There were many changes with the music today. All supported beautiful worship in my unmusically-trained opinion. I couldn’t help but smile when I looked to the choir loft and saw Kenneth exuberantly oozing his love of music, I dare say, love of God during the offertory anthem. He could not be contained as he played, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Ps. 96:1). I kidded Kenneth afterward that I was afraid he was going to bounce off of his bench, out of the choir loft, and tumble into the congregation. Kenneth’s love of music and people is infectious.

Recently I have been challenged to defend the Church’s relevance in today’s world. Do we really make a difference?  My experience today and so many days is “yes.”  God is gathering us–to play and pray and cry together and laugh together. God is gathering us to study together and support one another and even call each other out when we are not living in accordance to the Gospel.  God is gathering us to care for the least of these and share the bounty of gifts God has bestowed upon us. Together we find truths inaccessible on our own. Separate of community, there is a danger of making ourselves gods.

Yes, piling a bunch of humans together in organized religion is messy. That’s true of our families and our workplaces too. And yet in the mess we grow. We forgive one another. We are humbled by our own mistakes. We are lifted up by the encouragement and inspiration of one another. At the core is our Great Thanksgiving for everything–breath, and life, and struggle, and work, and love, and beauty, and most of all for Jesus who came to show us the way. Personally, I have to be in intentional community to be able to follow his greatest commandment, to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

God is gathering us. Welcome to the table.  Amen.

 

 

Wisdom Circles

In the early days of founding Project Compassion, a community-based end-of-life care non-profit, a few of us realized we needed a format for people who were grieving to share their experiences in a confidential and safe way. We wanted this new way to be different than a traditional support group.

Martha Sorensen, a therapist who was living in Chapel Hill at the time, suggested we facilitate Wisdom Circles, a small-group model which had been adapted from the Native American tradition.  That was 16 years ago. The lessons that Martha, the initial group, and the members of the hundreds of circles I have facilitated since, have been some of the most formative in my adult life.

I have been transformed by listening to the stories of others and sharing my own in sacred and safe space.  I believe others have been transformed as well. To be transformed is to be willing to humbly let go of our own agenda and make space for the wisdom of the “other”–be that “other” God, a friend, a perceived enemy, nature, or an experience.  

Over these next few posts, I will endeavor to provide insight into the mechanics of, and my experiences with, the Wisdom Circle format.

I offer this series as a way forward for us to listen “with the ear of the heart,”* to our lives and to one another.  I offer this as a counterweight to a culture mired in “echo chambers” that reinforce our own beliefs.  I offer this as a way to follow Eli Pariser’s lead and begin “seeking and finding folks who don’t think like me who I’m genuinely interested in, as people and thinkers.” I offer this as a way for me to teach what I need to learn.

Frequently we read or hear people say that we are the most polarized we have ever been–as a country, as a world. This observation is frequently made in a passive tone, as if we are separate from the polarization. I am sorry, you and I, we are contributors to this environment of polarization when we surround ourselves with those who look like us, think like us, believe like us, and spend like us.  

In my next post I will outline the guidelines for a Wisdom Circle and then in subsequent posts, delve more deeply into the essence of each of those guidelines and how they can shape our listening to our lives.

Thank you for coming along for the ride. I live in hope that with God’s help, you and I can transform the world, one blessed heart at a time. Most likely, the first heart to turn will be our own.

*From St. Benedict’s Rule of Life

Where Do We Stand?

Burundian refugees arriving in Tanzania, 2015

Early in my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was approached by Joseph, a quiet priest from the African nation of Burundi. My classmate was young and towered over me in his thin, 7-foot frame.

Sheepishly, he asked if I would join him and a few other students at St. Clement’s Church for a private memorial service that Saturday. “It is the 17th anniversary of my parent’s death.” Joseph said, “I never got to bury them.”

“Of course,” I replied. 

On the morning of the service, I regretted my “of course” because I was recovering from bronchitis, mid-terms were the next week, and I had paper due on Monday. I didn’t think Joseph and I were that close, I wondered if my participation really mattered. Thankfully, guilt, the wrong reason for going, prevailed. 

When I entered the small, brick church, there was a tiny contingent of students—Michael from Liberia, Joel, who some of you know from Kenya, and three other American students, all sitting in the front row.  I slipped in next to them.

Joseph stood up and expressed his gratitude for our being there, especially for the parish deacon, who had heard Joseph’s story, heard his lingering pain, and suggested this gathering in the service of healing. 

We listened to Joseph tell his story—the most tragic first person account I have heard in my life.

When Joseph was a teenager, Burundi broke out in civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi clans. “Neighbor turned on neighbor,” Joseph recounted. On the morning of October 22nd, 1994 there were violent clashes in his village and Jospeh was told to take his younger siblings and hide in the basement.

He heard his parents being taken from their home.  When the violence subsided, when the screaming was over, when they lifted the cellar door, Joseph and his siblings re-entered the world as orphans.  They never saw their parents again.

“I knew when I accepted Jesus in my heart,” Joseph spoke as tears streamed down his face, “I knew I  had to forgive my neighbors for killing my parents.” Miraculously, Joseph had forgiven his parents’ killers.

What now haunted him, Joseph explained, what had haunted him all these years, was the fact that he had not fulfilled his duty as an eldest son in burying his parents. That, we learned, was the purpose of our gathering that day. 

After we prayed, after we celebrated the Eucharist, we followed the Deacon who carried the processional cross, out into the parish garden. We prayed prayers from the burial office, Joseph dug a hole and we planted a golden mum in memory of his mother and father.

“A weight is lifted.” Joseph smiled. “I give thanks to God.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first sermon was the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes—a bounty of blessedness which at first hearing doesn’t sound so blessed.

One aspect of the Beatitudes is their relationship to location. 

Fr. Greg Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart writes, “Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered ‘Blessed are the single -hearted” or “‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’

Greater precision in translation would say: ‘You are in the right place if you are single-hearted or (You are in the right place if you) work for peace…The Beatitudes are not spirituality after all.” Boyle contends, “They are geography. They tell us where to stand.”  (Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart 74-75.)

Each of us is born into a particular time and a particular place into a particular family and a particular culture with a particular set of gifts and challenges. This is our time. This is our place.  Where do we stand?

If you have ever read or watched Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, you know that those tales take place in troubled times.  There were wars and Frodo Baggins’ journey was epic in its danger and adventure.

At one point, Frodo, feeling weary of the weight of having to play a most dangerous and important part in the restoration of peace, lamented to the wizard Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring.)

The Beatitudes helps us to set our hearts, and our voices, and our feet in the right place in the time that is given us. 

My classmate Joseph, chose reconciliation over retaliation.The deaconess who gathered us for that 17-year late burial service, chose compassion over complacency.

Blessings are made real by the power of God working through our particular lives.

I want to switch gears for just a moment, so we can notice the language in the beatitudes:

Blessed ARE those who mourn for they WILL be comforted.

Blessed ARE the merciful for they WILL receive mercy.

Blessed ARE the peacemakers, for they WILL be called children of God.

Do you hear that bending of time—that already, but not yet? This interplay from now to that which is to come, is the hope and fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

It is the hope of a man who has lived through the hell of civil war, who has seen men and women, at their absolute worst, and he still chooses love, he still chooses to forgive, and to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ as a priest in God’s church. 

The Beatitudes harken to heaven, something we imagine as the future, yet it is touched by earth right now.  “Earth hallows heaven.” Says David Bartlett. ( Dave Bartlett, “The Beatitudes,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. XL, Number 2, Lent 2017, p. 17.)

 In the Beatitudes, Jesus is beckoning us toward heaven.

Perhaps that is why we read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day.  We are reminded that the we are intricately linked with all of those who have gone before us—the Johns and the Judases, the Marthas and the Marys, the grandparents, and the children, and all of those who had their opportunity to be in a particular time and a particular place in which to live out their blessedness. 

All Saints’ Day is a stark reminder that one day, it will be our own name that will be read in memory.

Thus the urgency for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

What a fruitful time we live in to be the conduits for Christ’s blessedness.  We are blessed to be a blessing. 

Everyone of us is blessed in God’s eyes—no matter our age, or country of origin, or physical capabilities, or GPA, or salary, or affiliations.

We are blessed to be a blessing. 

We live out this blessedness in community because it is impossible to do it on our own. Notice how my classmate Joseph’s healing came in community.First, when as a refugee from civil war, he was introduced to Jesus by a community of faith that loved him, cared for him, and encouraged him to forgive his parent’s killers. And then by a community gathered to bury a golden mum in memory of his parents.   

We learn where to stand in community.  We uphold one another when the world thinks we are so foolish to believe in the promises of Christ. Even when the world seems fractious and hateful and merciless we believe the promises of reconciliation, and wholeness, and mercy. Together we live into the already healed, but not yet visible restoration of all things in Christ.

We believe that listening to one another’s stories, and planting golden mums makes a difference—that they are ways we awaken to the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. 

Jesus taught in community, healed in community, died in community, and was resurrected to a community. Christianity at its core is about relationship.

The beatitudes give us the hallmarks of what it looks like to be Christian community.  They help us to see if we are standing in the right place with the shared humanity Rich referred to in his sermon last week. 

The Beatitudes tell us:

You are in the right place, if like Joseph’s deacon, you listen to someone who is different than you, with a heart willing to be moved.

You are in the right place if you are Care Team members offering presence, and prayers, and food; if you are teenagers stuffing bags for Stop Hunger Now; if you bring water to a homeless person in Linn Park parched by the summer heat.

You are in the right place if you welcome the stranger into your heart and your home.

You are in the right place if you are  Sunday School teachers guiding little ones with love and listening to parents worries and complaints;

You are in the right place if  you are doctors giving heartbreaking news with mercy; if you are judges deliberating with justice and compassion; if you are advocates giving voice to the marginalized; if you are Kairos visitors bringing the Gospel to prisoners.

We are in the right place if we are a community choosing to be single-focused on embodying God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy;

We are in the right place if we are a community willing to foolishly believe that we can change the world one blessed heart at time.

This is our time. This is our place, it is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”  Amen.

Audio will be available here.

 Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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