The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
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.