Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice


The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Gratitude is a funny thing really. We likely can all get on board with the general idea; it’s good to be grateful. This time of Thanksgiving we get prompted all over the place to be “thankful” to “give thanks.” It gets us thinking about it, which is excellent, and then it can invite us in to looking at gratitude more deeply, and looking at what it actually mean in our lives, and how engaging a life of gratitude can actually change us.

I’ve noticed something in myself when it comes to words of gratitude—sometimes it’s authentic and genuine, and sometimes it’s totally a cover up. Cover up for something that’s really hard and painful and I don’t really want to deal with. “Yup, yup, that hard painful thing happened, but I shouldn’t complain, I know I should be grateful for.” Rather than feeling the pain or the sadness, I find myself using words like “I should be grateful” and some other cover up. Maybe you use it to smooth over conversations we need to have, or to brush off acknowledging vulnerability “I’m grateful I’m not that person, or group of people, or life situation.

This time of Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to explore gratitude, and explore the words we use as we look at our own expressions of gratitude, and commit or recommit to a practice of gratitude.

Because when we actively practice gratitude, things change in us, and around us. Our orientation to the world, how we see people and situations changes, I’m told even our brain chemistry changes. As we actively practice a life of gratitude, we start to notice things differently; we connect with people and the world with more attentive eyes.

In my tradition we talk about how God is always drawing good out of any situation. That God is an expansive, loving, God, a God who values our freedom, a God who does not cause the pain, the broken places, the sadness, these come from our individual and collective actions and choices as a world, but God is always present in all of it, and as the source and force of love and goodness in the world. And that as the Source of this love and goodness, this force is always drawing us to bring healing and hope, reconciliation and goodness out of every situation and in the daily actions of life.

So what if we use Gratitude not as a Band-Aid or a Thanksgiving tag line, but actually a deep spiritual practice.

A deep spiritual practice that taps into God’s goodness ever moving and loving and showing up and surprising us in the world.

And when we are in this spiritual practice, and we all fall and get up again multiple times a day, we might notice that good is, being brought out of the difficult things. We might notice that we stopped long enough to engage another person and something beautiful came out of the connection. We might have a difficult situation come up in our lives and rather than being sure that it’s all helpless, we might open up to there being redemption in it, through the neighbor who shows up to help change the tire, to the emotional muscles that are stretched and exercised when we’re dealing with an illness or the illness of a loved one.

Having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean that suddenly our lives are all peachy and we never have hard days. And having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to the pain and brokenness in the world.

No, I think having a practice of gratitude is having a practice of paying attention…paying attention to where love is breaking through, paying attention to where we are called to see differently, to be instruments of compassion, to be curious and to be the vessels by which God infuses more love into the world.

Edwin Arlington Robinson said, “There are two kinds of gratitude:  The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.” 

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we will see our own lives differently, we’ll see the gifts and how we’re being taken care of, in little ways and big. We’ll pause and notice the colors in the sky, the rich flavors of the food in our mouths and the light in each other’s eyes.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the people around us differently, we see how we might have not noticed privilege and inequality that we’d been taking for granted, we’ll see the people in front of us, not as other or different, but as fellow-human-beings, all on the path together, hungry for some more love and compassion in the world.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the world differently. We see the world not as a place to fear or shirk from, but as a precious human family, with it’s deeply broken and cracked places, and always with flowers urging and pushing to grow out of the cracks.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we may just find that we are noticing more, noticing the goodness, and noticing where we can be bearers of that goodness, compassion and light.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the face of God.



“Go in Peace”


The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Psalm 16 


After  a speaking/preaching/fundraising tour in the mid-west last week I popped down to Tennessee to visit good friends of mine who have recently bought land and are starting a small organic farm. I soaked up time tromping all over their property and getting to know the fields and the ridge, the woods and the stream, and even exploring the cave they have. I put my hands in the rich soil there and broke apart clumps of dirt as we planted apple and cherry trees, felt the earth seep into my fingernails as I pulled beautiful delicious carrots, and watched the sun move across the property from the front porch. There is a sense of connection there, paying attention to the way the soil interacts with the plants, how the ladybugs eat the destructive insects, how the sun moves across the sky. In some ways it is so simple there, peaceful and removed, but when I looked deeper it was so intricately connected and complicated.  Choices made in spacing of the planting of the beets are showing their results now a few months later. The mix and level of nutrients in the soil being balanced changes the quality of the plant. And interconnected with the broader planet. Weather patterns changing, people’s choices upstream, all being part of this interconnected world.

So when it came time to turn my phone back on and get caught up with all the news of the week, I was both prepared and unprepared.

As I sat in the Nashville airport I read and watched and saw photos of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, devastating earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, protests in Seoul, and reminders of the violence and hurt and pain in the world. And I felt so tired. Another round of communal weeping. Another act of violence. And another. And part of me just wanted to go back to the farm where it was simple.

But another part of me knew, the farm held the truths and lessons that teach us to be part of this interconnected world, that remind us that we are all one, and that our lives are intertwined.  And so there it was, another week, another sermon, and my job as your preacher, to listen to the world around us and to listen to the scriptures and to wrestle the two until a word, a truth, a blessing from God emerges from the chaos and pain of the world, the confusion and wisdom of scriptures, a word for us today as we gather together as the church.

And so as I squeezed into the little airplane seat, I went back to the text again, and read this story of Hannah, longing and crying out and praying and petitioning God for a child. The direction this story had been taking me earlier in the week faded as Hannah’s longing intermingled with mine and the child she longed for overlaid with my longing for peace, a world where acts of creativity and love and compassion dominated the news cycles rather than more violence and fear.

As I listened to the story of Hannah again I heard the stories around us in her story…she was longing for something that was not, longing for a child, and so she went to the temple, and she cried out. She prayed. She wailed. The text tells us that: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. I picture her bent down on the temple floor, maybe pounding her fists, raising her hands in the air, curling up, weeping and crying out to God.

And then Eli the priest came along and accused her of being drunk, as her prayers and her grief were spilling out.  But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

And Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made.”

“I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord…” Hannah says… Pouring out our souls before God.

As I looked at the photos of candles lit and flowers carefully laid on sidewalks and memorials around the world, as I see Facebook posts and profile pictures, articles, and comments, I see this stream of feelings being poured out…we’re pouring our souls before God.  As the psalmist cries out, “Protect me God, for in you I take refuge” as our hearts cry out #prayersforparis, as our hearts and minds are expanded and reminded, #prayers for Beirut and Bagdad, for Syria and Israel Palestine, for those in the wake of earth quakes and drought, for the religious extremists, for the many more faithful peaceful, for places where desperation has led to violence, where fear perpetuates fear, for the violence and pain in our communities, for the violence and pain in our families and homes.

We cry out. We pour our souls before God.

I’m reminded of the wisdom of grief therapists who share the idea that anger is unprocessed grief. And so I did some more reading on grief this morning and found an article where a chaplain named stages of anger in response to grief, that hit home and made sense to me, both in my own reactions and the ones I am seeing around me.

The first is PROTEST—“an attempt to ward of a reality which is seen as too devastating to one’s own sense of survival. This is an acute stage. Intense. Even frightening.

Anger is also a means of RETRIEVAL—it’s craves a target, someone to blame, someway to reverse the death and damage, someone to take the anger out on.

And anger is a means of CONTROL—we erupt in anger when we have lost control, as an emotional response to regain control, as the helplessness can often be the most painful piece in light of loss. (see source for more).

These three reactions ring true to me, personally as I respond to loss in the world and a world that is not as I wish it to be.

I notice my own responses when violence and anger strikes and how much I want to go to CHANGE IT, to control it, to DO something. And then Hannah’s voice comes to me…

No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.

Reactions—fear, helplessness, wanting to DO something, protect those we love. The waves keep coming and we tune out or tune in as we are able. And I think that’s important to note. We can’t hold all the pain of the world all the time, it can paralyze us. While at the same time, I believe it’s important for us to include a practice of feeling it, of breathing it, of engaging it to transform it.

This evening a few of us are attending the South Coast Interfaith Councils annual dinner. The director of the South Coast Interfaith Council, Milia Islam-Majeed posted this quote from a colleague last night: (Thank you Omid Safi bhia, for this perspective)

“When I got the news and had a chance to catch up with the grief, I then made a point of turning down media interview requests and actually took the time to mourn. I hope more of us do take this necessary time. How sad it is to see analysts on TV opining, when we have not yet buried the dead and mourned the loss of life. I am concerned when our response in times of crisis is to strike out, lash out, and express rage before we have had time to sit with, and process, sadness and grief. Unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways. “

Because here’s the thing that’s extra hard to remember in a time like this, when we feel fear rising and the desire to other and to separate ourselves, is that all human beings experience these human emotions, that “unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways.”

The urge to differentiate ourselves out of harms way, demonize the other, protect those that we deem “our own” is strong in us. And understandable…and we can choose to enter into our own experience of these feelings and be transformed by the larger truth in the world. That we are all connected, we are all created by our loving Creator, we are all part of the human family, and whatever our nationality, whatever our religion, whatever our skin color or financial mobility, ideology or opinion, we are created and beloved by God and we are all called to love our neighbor, and not only our neighbors that look like us, but the neighbors that we need to engage in conversation and get to know as the humans we all are, the neighbors in different parts of the world, the neighbors in that other part of town. Because it is in expanding and recognizing our interconnectedness, our humanness, that I believe we can engage in the work of transformation, of ourselves, our communities, our world. It’s in our willingness to look again and see each other and feel the pain of those across the world, to be curious and engage in the conversations with those we don’t understand. To put our hands in the earth and recognize how we are all connected.

Joanna Macy, an environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology puts it this way:

“Basic to most spiritual traditions, as well as to the systems view of the world, is the recognition that we are not separate, isolated entities, but integral and organic parts of the vast web of life. As such, we are like neurons in a neural net, through which flow currents of awareness of what is happening to us, as a species and as a planet. In that context, the pain we feel for our world is a living testimony to our interconnectedness with it. If we deny this pain, we become like blocked and atrophied neurons, deprived of life’s flow and weakening the larger body in which we take being. But if we let it move through us, we affirm our belonging; our collective awareness increases. We can open to the pain of the world in confidence that it can neither shatter nor isolate us, for we are not objects that can break. We are resilient patterns within a vaster web of knowing.”

She goes on to say:
“Because we have been conditioned to view ourselves as separate, competitive and thus fragile entities, it takes practice to relearn this kind of resilience. A good way to begin is by practicing simple openness, as in the exercise of “breathing through,” adapted from an ancient Buddhist meditation for the development of compassion.” (source)

And so we breathe. We breathe with this pain and we breathe with our fears. And we breathe with our connections and interconnections, how the pain of the world is our pain and how our pain is the pain of the world. And as we breathe and as we allow ourselves to feel and to be, we may find something emerging.

As our lungs inhale and exhale. As we take in life-giving oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. As we feel the breath of God pumping through our bodies and settling and sorting our thoughts and feelings, we feel our place in this larger web of life, in the longing for peace and the experiences of violence, in the fear, in the determination for hope.  We take it all and pour our souls out before the Lord….

And then, after Hannah poured herself out to the Lord, may we, as Hannah receives a blessing, “Go in peace, for the God of Israel will grant you your petition.”

Go in peace. Go in peace. Go in peace.

If there’s anything that church can be today, that this word of God and word of the people, that our gathering together and being in community together, I hope and pray that we can embody and be this blessing. Go in peace.

Not as some magic answer, a snapping of fingers, there’s not some set of words or ideas that’s going to “make it all better.”  No, we go in peace because this is at the heart of the expansive loving God of the universe, this is at the heart of all religious paths, this is at the heart of the work that we need to do, deep within ourselves and in each breath we take, Go in peace, be in peace.

Because yes, there is deep pain and suffering in the world and we are absolutely helpless and it is overwhelming and just too much. And yes, we are connected and interconnected and part of the web of the human family, this world where neighbors are people across the world as well as across the street. And yes, we feel helpless, and yes, we are part of the solution not in our outrage and anger and blame, but in our willingness to breathe with the pain and to go in peace.

Breathing in and out.

And then, when we leave this space, when we listen to the news on the way home, when we have a conversation with a family member later on or co-workers tomorrow, when we read people’s comments on Facebook and search through the multiple commentaries on the news…may we remember to breathe with it. Going in peace.

Going in peace as we confront the lies that any one group of human beings is less important than the one we identify with.

Going in peace as we question and confront extremism in any form, from any religious path.

Going in peace as we have the courage to look deeply at our own propensity to anger and violence, fundamentalism and judgment.

Going in peace as we own how each of our religious traditions and texts can and have been used for violence and go in peace as we look to the majority of our brothers and sisters across faith traditions that are committed to living the way of peace.

Going in peace recognizing the fragility and the resiliency of our interconnected web, how our reactions and actions ripple out and, calling us to choose wisely and act well.

Go in peace as we walk out into the world and engage those who are different than us without fear.

Go in peace knowing that God is with us.

Go in peace knowing that God is with all of humanity.

Go in peace.

Putting Down Roots At The Garden Church

The seeds we have planted have grown beautifully! Now it’s time to put down roots….will you join us?

Please donate today! Your continued commitment through monthly pledges and one-time gifts give us the support we need in these early years, as we scale and move into local sustainability. Thank you!

Click here to donate via Razoo

Note that you can choose to have your donation one-time, weekly, monthly, or annually. We welcome your generosity in any form!

It’s amazing to look back and see all that has happened since last year at this time, when we launched our Seed Money campaign. All of those wonderful seeds have grown into a beautiful reality—the Garden Church has been planted and grown. We are so grateful for your support, and invite you to celebrate with us all that your prayers, pledges, and participation have cultivated!

As we’re looking towards our second year, we are focusing on putting down roots. Putting down roots in the earth as we continue to cultivate and grow food for the local community, putting down roots in our community as we continue to bring people together for individual and communal transformation, and putting down roots in our faith as we re-imagine church and loving God and neighbor.

Your continued commitment through monthly pledges and one-time gifts give us the support we need in these early years as we scale and move into local sustainability. We believe that this work is part of something much bigger than the people who come through our gates. We know that we’re part of an interconnected community and conversation with people all over the world who are committed to bringing more love and justice, compassion and peace to the world. We want to keep showing up and cultivating this piece of earth. Thank you for joining us in this work.

If you would prefer to write a check, you can send it to:

The Garden Church, PO Box 5257, San Pedro, CA 90733

Click here to donate via Razoo

Stories and Worship from The Garden Church, Richmond, IN 11/7/2015 and Cincinnati, OH 11/7/2015

Stories and Worship from the Garden Church – Two events
November 8th, 10:30 am
Glendale New Church
845 Congress Ave, Glendale, OH 45246
Come join the Cincinnati Swedenborgian Church on Sunday, November 8th for worship with Rev. Anna at 10:30 am, where she will be sharing a message around the feeding of five thousand and the Tree of Life from the book of Revelation. Worship will be followed by a presentation at noon on the work of the Garden Church, a new Swedenborgian Church start in Los Angeles CA, that’s re-imagining church as they work, worship and eat together, transforming an empty lot into a vibrant urban garden.
All are welcome—bring your friends.
November 8th, 7 pm
At Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, IN
615 National Rd W, Richmond, Indiana 47374
Have you been seeing glimpses of the planting and growing of the Garden Church in Los Angeles and wanting to hear more stories and dig in with the cultivation?  Come join Rev. Anna Woofenden, (pastor and founder) and Rev. Amy Gall Ritchie (board member and spiritual director) for dessert, photos and stories of the Garden Church, followed by a simple evening Communion Service, Garden Church style.
 7:00 p.m. in the Bethany Theological Seminary Gathering Area
 All are welcome—bring your friends.

Communion of Saints | Sermon for The Garden Church from 11/1/2015


Communion of Saints

Rev. Anna Woofenden


Link to Audio

Isaiah 25:6-9

25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

 John 11:32-44

11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”

“No one becomes an angel, that is, comes into heaven, unless we carry with us from the world something of the angelic character; and in this there is present a knowledge of the way from walking in it, and a walking in the way through a knowledge of it.” Divine Providence 60 Emanuel Swedenborg

A few Thursdays ago, at a very long stoplight on Oceanside Blvd, I received sad and shocking news. A friend and colleague of mine that I know from seminary had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

I pulled my car over and parked in a lot next to the beach—frozen in disbelief and needing to know more. Through texts and Facebook messages, this impossible truth was confirmed—my young vibrant, full-of-spirit and life friend had died that morning, from very unexpected complications while recovering from surgery.

When something like this happens, it seems like the light is suddenly different. The filter on life sharpens and feels so precious and so precarious. The line between life and death—the physical and the spiritual—thins. It feels like the world should stop turning and we should be allowed to just sit and stare and not understand.

How can someone so full of life, be gone?

Today we honor the Feast of All Saints, also known as All Saints’ Day, All Hallows, Day of All the Saints, among other names. This is a feast day; a religious holiday that has been celebrated in various forms across traditions throughout the ages. A day to pause and remember those who have lived and died and gone before us.

It’s a day to celebrate those Saints who have been officially sainted, the great leaders of the faith. To celebrate the stories of Mother Theresa and Saint Francis, Hildegard of Bingen and Joan of Ark. It’s a time to think of other saints in the world and in our lives of faith, ones that may not be recognized by the church per se, but are influential in our lives of faith. Some of mine are Dr. King and Helen Keller, Gandhi and Dorothy Day. And then, it is a time to remember those ordinary saints, those saints that we knew and loved who have died, the ones we called Grandpa, Great Aunt Gertrude, or Tracy.

It’s a day to remember. It’s a day to honor those lives. It’s a day when we allow ourselves to stop, to pause the world, if but for a few moments and feel. Feel the loss. Feel the preciousness of life. Feel the inspiration and wisdom of the amazing humans who have walked the earth. Feel ourselves here and now. Feel the connection with that communion of saints, the angels that surround us. Feel God holding all of it, the death and the promise of resurrection.

In our gospel today, we get a glimpse of how God, incarnate in Jesus, responds to life and death

We have the story of Lazarus, this good friend of Jesus’, who, with his sisters, are part of Jesus’ inner circle, and who died while he was out of town.

Jesus arrives on the scene and is immediately met with, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.”

Jesus saw her <who?> weeping and the friends who were with her also weeping, and he was deeply moved and disturbed and began to weep with them.

So often our response to death, be it of a loved one, another school shooting on the news, or even the death of a part of ourselves that needs to die and change, is to go straight to trying to fix it, to make it better. To explain it away, to figure it out. We try to figure out how we and the people we love can never have to go through that kind of pain again. We have all sorts of ways that this happens within our religious conversation and communities. Phrases like, “she’s in a better place now” or “that was part of God’s plan” make me generally want to shake the person saying them and cry out, “don’t try to make it all better; death sucks and is sad and painful and that’s all there is to it!”

Jesus grieves. Jesus weeps. Jesus stops and takes the time to feel all the feelings, to acknowledge the loss, the pain, the life lived.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there—because while death is hard and sad and real and painful—the proclamation of God is that death is not the final word.

Christ says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The expansive God of the universe, the incarnate God in Christ, is the resurrection and the life. God creates and animates our physical bodies yes, but more than that. The physicality of body and this world is indeed infused with a spiritual reality, spirit that goes beyond the physical, life that goes beyond death.

As Jesus calls out “unbind him” and Lazarus is raised from the dead, I believe Jesus is showing us that there is a larger principle at play here. That death and loss are intrinsic in life, and in our processes of faith, as are being unbound and brought back to life, death is followed by resurrection. That physical death is not the end, that loss is held within a bigger story, an eternal whole.

In the Swedenborgian tradition, we have a rich, extensive, and textured collection of theology of the afterlife and the nature of the natural and spiritual worlds.

In his mystical and theological writings, Emanuel Swedenborg describes the afterlife as a vibrant real place—“real” not in terms of its physicality, but “real” in terms of the spirit. That there is something about our spirit that goes beyond this physical life, this flesh and blood. That our loved ones live on in this realm. That there is something beyond death.

Even coming from a tradition that has rich ideas about the afterlife, I can’t tell you for sure what comes next. And I’m not here to try to prove heaven or a specific view of the afterlife to you.

But I can tell you what I have experienced and what I believe in my bones to be true: That there is a loving God holding all of us, our bodies and our spirits, life and death, all of it. And that this God is a God of continual resurrection.

It’s this resurrection that I see all around us, in the cycles of human lives and spiritual connection and in the wisdom of the earth. It’s the resurrection I see in these bulbs we planted today.

These withered, dark little things that look like they are dead. That we put under the ground, in the tomb, where they are going to stay for the cool winter months. With really no indication that there is any life, whatsoever. And then, we’re promised, come spring, beautiful daffodils and gladiolus will come up out of them, as God’s promise of resurrection. The reminder that death is not the final word.

That’s why we have spaces like All Saints Day, to pause and remember that death happens and that resurrection happens. Death and resurrection in this story of Lazarus. Death and resurrection in each of us as we have to die and let go of things on a daily basis. Death of our bodies and resurrection of our spirits in afterlife where we return to God, from whom we came.

Our tradition describes the afterlife as a place where the truest parts of our inner natures show themselves, where we continue to learn and grow in being the people we were created to be. And that heaven is place where all different kinds of people are together, from different faith paths and ideologies, different loves and ideas. That the way of heaven is the beauty of variety and expressions of the vastness of humanity. And that yes, heaven is a realm for our spirits after we physically die here on this earth, but that heaven is also right here, and right now. Wherever we engage in loving God and loving our neighbor, wherever we allow the death of our egos and the resurrection and new life of God’s love.

Maybe heaven is something like that feast described in Isaiah; this feast that the Lord prepares for us on the mountain, a feast of rich food, and well-aged wines, this table where God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all people, and will swallow up death forever. That the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all the faces and call us to rejoice.

As we come to the table today, and share in Holy Communion, we take this sacrament with all that have gone before, and all that God continues to prepare the feast for, all of our interconnected community of humanity, in body and in spirit.

On that Thursday a few weeks ago, I got out of my car and took off my shoes and started walking on the beach. And I kept walking and walking and walking. As if I could walk off the reality of this loss if I just kept going.


The sun was setting and there was a family with a few dark curly headed little ones playing in the waves. Gulls called out overhead. I looked out over the smog in the distance, tinged with golden rays. And you know, it’s just so absolutely obvious to me that there must be something beyond this physical reality. Not because I need to “prove” heaven or “make it all okay” by assuring myself or others about what might come next. No, in that moment there didn’t have to be heaven to make it all better, but I knew and felt that there must be something beyond this physical life because my friend’s spirit is so much brighter and lasting and shining than this earthy body can contain. And I know her spirit must live on, and that from God she came and to God she returns. I felt one of those “we’re all one/eternity is now” moments that sounds corny as soon as I share it out loud, but it was the most peaceful, beautiful, achingly true thing in the moment.

I walked down to the water and took the water, as is my ritual, and made the sign on the cross on my forehead, tracing the sign and words of my baptism. But this time, the words that came were “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” The ashes of Ash Wednesday mixed with the salt of the ocean and the light of the setting sun

Dear ones, the Communion of Saints are with us. Showing up, in the butterfly, the flash of a memory, the feeling of closeness, the tinge of sadness, the love of loss. And dear ones, God is a God of resurrection, a God who created us, who is with us, who grieves with us, and who is always making all things new. This is the God who holds us all and who holds all things within Her huge embrace. Amen.

“Gathered Around This Table” Rev. Anna Woofenden, 10/25/2015


Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
Isaiah 61
Revelation 21 & 22

“The Spirit of The Lord is upon me, for God has anointed me, God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal the broken hearted and to proclaim release to those held captive… to comfort all who mourn, to give flowers instead of ashes…the oil of gladness instead of tears, the cloak of praise instead of despair.

They will be known as trees of integrity, they will rebuild sits long devastated; they will repair the ruined cities…

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden brings its seeds to blossom,

O Exalted God makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.”

These words of Isaiah echo in my ears as I look back over the past six months of the planting and growing of the Garden Church.

The Spirit of The Lord is upon us, for God has anointed us.

On May 1st when the Garden Church opened our gates here on 6th Street, the very first thing we did was to place the altar, the table, God’s table, in the middle of what was then an empty lot, and anoint it with oil.

Stories from The Garden Church 1

The practice of anointing—anointing with oil—is one that is usually reserved for priests and kings, for prophets and leaders, people are anointed to lead, to proclaim, to be a prophetic witness. But on May 1st, just after we opened our gates, we anointed this table and we began with these words: “May the God of all creation, bless this space and its many parts, for the seeking of the peace of the city. This lot has been waiting for us, longing to be a life-giving element in our city and in the lives of the people who live here. It is our partner, our co-creator, our home for this season.”

We went on to bless the gates and the soil, giving thanks for God’s presence in the earth and the sky.

We then consecrated the table with these words:

“We consecrate this table with the anointing of oil, the oil that runs over the head of those who are prophets and priests of God’s message in the world. We anoint our table with oil as it in itself, at the center of our worship space and of our life together as a community, bears God’s prophetic message to the world. All are welcome at this table. All people, in all expressions of humanity, welcome at this table to feed and be fed. This is God’s table, all are welcome here.”

And that, my friends, is exactly what has been happening. All kinds of people, from various walks of life, young and old, housed and un-housed, from different backgrounds and languages, race and gender, gay and straight, wealthy and living in poverty, from different faith traditions or none at all, varied ideologies, and so many stories, are meeting together in the garden—feeding each other and being fed.

And we keep finding that something happens when we gather together around this table, as two sets of hands meet to help each other plant a basil plant, or open our eyes to the beauty of a vibrant yellow flower.

Something happens when we show up and open our hearts to each other and see each other as valued and human.

Something happens when little Laya calls out “Quia, Quia” across the garden and something happens when Brett reaches out and welcomes James into the circle.

Something happens when we encounter Karen’s friendly face at the front gate and a watering can waiting in Darlyn’s hands,

Something happens when we see the cucumber go from a seed in the seed tray, to a little seedling ready to go in the ground, to a growing plant ready to be harvested, then into our salad, and the scraps go back around to the compost to make more soil.

Something happens when a new voice stands up and reads scripture, and when we hand each other the bread and the cup.

Something happens when we see God’s Light in each others eyes, as we look across the table.

This table where all are welcome. This table where we interact with people we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This table where all people come to feed and be fed.

This table, God’s table, where we experience a loving expansive God who is more interested in transformation than conversion, more interested in us treating each other with love and respect, than there being one right way. This God that doesn’t just tolerate diversity, but actively creates and delights in variety, the God that is everywhere and moving in all things, the God that it is right here, incarnate, present with us.

As we gather around this table.

In the anointing of the table, and the naming of the space, over and over again, seeds of justice and collaboration, healing and hope, love and transformation were planted

The earth has brought forth its shoots, and this garden brings its seeds to blossom.

And now dear ones, take a look around us. Look at this table in the center, and then look around you, to this beautiful sanctuary we have created together. From the creamy plumeria, to the yellow stalked Swiss chard, to the lovingly made picnic tables, to the faces of each of you and of the thousands of others who have been part of this space over the last six months.

The Lord God has made justice sprout and praise spring up before all nations.

This truly is more heaven here on earth. And this is the church, the garden, the urban sanctuary, our little bit of heaven, right here in the middle of the city, which we have built together.

Together with collaboration with all kinds of people and organizations, from our friends on the block, to the local recovery homes, our denominational partners, and Cultivation Team members all across the globe, to our core collaboration, with Green Girl Farms. Our partnership with Farmer Lara and her team have been integral in this work and a continual blessing on so many levels as we share this work hand in hand. It has truly become a place that is bringing more love and healing and goodness into our community as we collaborate and grow together.

Our second scripture reading for today came from the very end of the book of Revelation, and invoked this image that we circle around every week here at the Garden Church—the Tree of Life.

We continue to explore and remember the Tree of Life—and that Heavenly City that it is in the middle of—as we show up to this work and engage in doing our part to bring more justice and peace, healing and transformation to our plot of land in the middle of this city.

As we re-imagine church, we’re walking outside of traditional comfort zones of pews and stained glass, one right way and specific belief statements, one and only one way of seeing God and people.

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Our tradition often draws on these images from the Heavenly City, New Jerusalem to imagine, to re-imagine what it means to be the church in the world, what it means to be people of faith, what it means to be community and to be part of the human race.

As we look to these rich images of the Heavenly City, we see twelve gates, welcoming people of all kinds, of many different backgrounds and traditions, ways of life and belief, all to be part of this place together.

We read that in this Heavenly City, there is no temple, because God is everywhere. God is not contained within a specific church or belief structure, or only accessible if you’re good enough or right enough or pious enough. No, God is everywhere, in the cracks in the sidewalks and the cracks in our lives, in the rich soil and in the depth of human connection, God is in and amongst it all, the ground of all being, the spiritual reality infusing our physical world and experience, and accessible, right here, right now, for all of us.

There’s a river running through the middle of this Heavenly City—the River of the Water of Life, renewing, cleansing, teaching. Clear as crystal—God’s wisdom and truth that leads us and opens us up to God’s transformative ways.

And then there’s this Tree of Life that is right there in the middle of the city. A tree that has twelve kinds of fruit, one for every season, and leaves that will heal the nations. It’s this tree that we keep returning to here at the Garden Church, on our icon as we unpack the tabernacle each week, it’s on our logo, it’s one of the spiritual images we look to as we continue to discover who we are as a community and what God is calling us to in the world. And it’s this Tree of Life that is central to our communal art project that Ebony Perry has been beautifully leading us in over the past eight weeks, and will share more with us now.

“I want to begin by saying thank you to everyone who made this possible and I also want to mention what an amazing journey it has been. I feel very honored to be a part of the Garden Church—and the transformative effect it is having on San Pedro. Every time I leave this space, I feel at peace and incredibly inspired, by all of the hard-work, positive energy, and dedication that not only goes into making this garden grow, but also all of the hard-work and dedication that goes into helping grow and heal the community that surrounds it. So thank you.

Now, this piece that we are about to unveil, is the result of an eight-week, multi-generational art series known as “Enlightened Art.” Enlightened Art began as a very loose, very experimental idea inspired by the belief that art can be used as a vehicle for positive change in the world… That by placing it here in the garden, we could continue enriching and engaging the community through communal art, nature, gardening, and spiritual connectivity via shared space. After I presented the final proposal to Anna in September, we put the series into motion.

For several weeks, my good friend Stephanie Ramirez and I joined forces, prepared, and lead meditational art workshops for the community in this sacred space—creating leaves to heal the nations, with all who came to collaborate with us.


Each week we used a different artistic medium, and more importantly, focused on a different mantra, theme, or positive intention to incorporate into our creations. Each of these mantras, themes, or positive intentions was meant to reflect what we desire to see happening in the world around us.

  • ` During sessions one and two, we focused on the themes of Yin and Yang. We meditated on the importance of bringing light into our lives as well as serving as a source of light in lives of others. This was done in order to find balance and harmony within.
  • During week three, we meditated on the importance of consciousness, being aware, and awakening the creative spirit.
  • For week four, we meditated on the importance of unity and celebrating the beauty of a world with diversity.
  • Week 5 focused on strength, fearlessness, and peace.
  • Week 6 focused on the theme of healing through positivity, and the importance of having faith when life presents us with obstacles that seem impossible.
  • In week 7, we meditated on the virtue of compassion, in order to continue inspiring compassion in our community.
  • And now for week 8—the conclusion of the Enlightened Art Series—we have come full circle, by using the mediums in which we began the series, while focusing on gratitude, counting our blessings, and giving thanks for how far we’ve come as a community.

And with that, we present to you the final, living, community art piece that you all helped to create, and will now crown with the leaves you hold in your hands today for our ceremony. A true symbol of the power and beauty in unity, and a true symbol of you all being part of the positive ripple effect that began here.”

And that ripple effect, that individual and communal transformation, that belief that the seeds we plant here, the love we engage, the work we do, the gospel we live, here in this space emanates out, ripples out, into the world.

Because dear ones, when we look at the world around us, we know that it is not all as we wish it was, not all people are being fed in every month by that fruit, there are people who are hungry and hurting, there are tears that are being shed, there are places, in ourselves and in the world around us that need healing. We need these leaves that will heal the nations. The hope. The peace. The justice. The more heavenly way of being, here on earth, that we all make together. Amen.