Garden Church Gathering November 23rd 3:00 PM

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Getting ready to garden together at our Garden Church Gathering. Feed and be fed.

On Sunday, November 23rd we will have our Garden Church Gathering! We have a beautiful collection of ways that we will work and worship and eat together this month.  It’s time to get our hands in the dirt as the Garden Church! Our work together will be planting pots of lettuce seeds that will be able to grow on your kitchen counter and provide fresh lettuce, as local as it gets, for months to come. Each one of us will get to take a bit of the Garden Church home with us. But more than that, we’re inviting everyone to make a second pot and give to someone you think could enjoy a little bit of love and food and goodness.

As we worship together, we’ll be blessed by a couple of guests from out of town. Two of them will be assisting with our music for worship and will be leading anyone who is interested in learning a song to sing as a mini-choir piece during worship. The sermon will be inviting us into a conversation about the dynamic between God and humanity, through the image of the Shepherd and the sheep, as we explore the difference between the goal of conversion or transformation. Our  worship time will culminate in a Sacred Meal (Communion/Holy Supper), which is open to all and where all are welcomed to feed and be fed.

Our Sacred Meal leads into our communal meal where we will eat together and enjoy the sharing of food and of conversations. Lorie will be making her delicious wraps again and we invite each of you to bring some kind of finger food to add to the meal. Fruit, veggies, drinks, chips, etc.

We are looking forward to being church together. Invite your friends, come on over, feed and be fed!

Directions: Our November Gathering will take place at the small park just down the hill from the Korean Friendship Bell in Angels Gate Park at Pt. Fermin in San Pedro.

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*If you’re a GPS type, program it for Pt. Fermin Park. Then, drive past Pt. Fermin park, down below the Korean Friendship bell, and you will see a parking lot on your right (away from the water). You can then pull in and park in the parking lot there.  We’ll then gather at a cluster of picnic tables near the middle of the park. Take the path leading out of the parking lot and you’ll find us. 

Why Robert Supports the Garden Church

Give and share! http://givingtuesday.razoo.com/story/The-Garden-Church-Fund

“The reason I’m so excited about The Garden Church is I believe that there are thousands of people who crave not only physical food nourishment, but also spiritual nourishment that can come about by people coming together as communities and growing things. Whether or not it’s literally food or, growing relationships, growing their own attitudes about the world and why they were placed here, and how they can express their love for their friends and their neighbor and their families.” -Robert Carr, Treasurer, Pacific Coast Association of the New Jerusalem; Member, Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco.

Why Amy Supports the Garden Church


Give and share! http://givingtuesday.razoo.com/story/The-Garden-Church-Fund

“I’m invested in the Garden Church because, the church is changing. I love the church and the future of it matters. And so when people have conversations with me and say, ‘the church is dying’ I can tell them, ‘let me tell you about the Garden Church.  –Rev. Amy Gall Ritchie

 

 

Crowd-funding for the Garden Church is live!


Give and share today! http://givingtuesday.razoo.com/story/The-Garden-Church-Fund

The Garden Church is re-imagining church as we work together, worship together, and eat together.

We’re so excited about the Garden Church, which is being planted in San Pedro, California! And we want you—wherever you live—to be part of it!

We are re-imagining what it means to be church, gathering a group of people together to create a church that is a communal garden, and a communal garden that is church.

Part of re-imagining church is re-imagining our funding sources and methods. The way the world works is changing, and the funding for new expressions of church aren’t primarily coming from our institutions any more.

Instead, we have the opportunity to build a community of support made up of individuals who share our passion. We believe there are people all over who want to be part of doing something to make the world a better place—perhaps including you!

We need to raise $2,000 a month for the next year from our Cultivation Team. That’s 200 people giving $10 a month, or 100 giving $20, or 50 people giving $40—you get the idea. Give what amount is right for you, monthly for the next year, and be an essential part of the team that is re-imagining church and bringing more heaven here on earth.

Be part of our Cultivation Team by praying, pledging, and participating in being church together.

You:
Pray—hold good intentions and energy for the work and being of the Garden Church in whatever way is true to you.

Pledge—to give regularly (monthly is incredibly helpful for our budgeting, but of course we welcome any way that you feel moved to give) during our startup season until we establish local financial abundance.

ParticipateStay connected and participate from afar through engaging in work, worship, and eating in the spirit of the Garden Church in whatever way you are inspired.

We:
Pray—Our community will pray regularly for you.

PledgeWe pledge to share in the experience through monthly newsletters, audio and video sharing of sermons and worship, regular social media posts, and stories of how the Garden Church is growing.

ParticipateWe’ll share stories, ideas, liturgy, lessons learned, inspirations, and whatever else we encounter as we grow. And you are always welcome to come join us in San Pedro and spend some time working, worshiping, and eating together with this community. Because you’re part of the Cultivation Team and there’s a place for you at the Table.

Our goal is to gather this collection of generous pledges by #GivingTuesday (you’ve heard of BlackFriday, CyberMonday, we believe in #GivingTuesday), December 2, 2014. Pledge, celebrate, and spread the invitation!

Give and share today! http://givingtuesday.razoo.com/story/The-Garden-Church-Fund

~Be sure to check the “monthly” reoccurring donation option at check out~

~Your gift to the Garden Church Startup fund is tax deductible through our denominational body, the Pacific Coast Association of the Swedenborgian Church~


A Sermon for the Garden Church

A sermon about Word, the Bible, and how as we want to consciously choose to engage it as a life-giving, rich, deep, wide text that points to loving God and loving our neighbor as we form a community and re-imagine church.

Audio complete with train whistles and the sound of the wind!

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Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
10.26.14

The Compost Heap and the Church

Presented at Gathering Leaves (a symposium for women from all branches of the Swedenborgian Tradition)
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

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I have come to believe that a compost heap is beautiful. Decaying leaves. Crumbled eggshells. And yes, even that slime oozing off a banana peal. I love a good compost heap. I cannot say that I’ve grown to love the odor—that sharp, putrid smell that reminds us of death as part of the life cycle. But I do love a good compost heap, and I do believe that it is beautiful.

I believe dry leaves are beautiful. Dry leaves hold a set of unique colors. Looking out the window over the Saco River today, we see that the leaves are beginning to turn. And in the next month, thousands of tourists will come to New England. And what will all these people flock here to see? Dying leaves! Millions of beautifully shaped colored flags proclaiming in unison the changing of the season and the decay of their little corner of the nature-scape.2013-08-24 23.00.07

This sense of cycles is evoked by the Gathering Leaves 2013 theme, “Changing Colors, Changing Lives.” As are the seasons of nature, so are the seasons of our lives, of our communities, and of our churches. I believe that the cycles and the seasons—like any spiritual principle—do not just apply to their literal manifestations. These cycles in the natural world correspond, or mirror a spiritual process, something that is going on internally. Emanuel Swedenborg talks about the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and that any one principle is true on various levels, leading me to believe that not only do the season and life cycles show up inside an individual, but also in collections of individuals. What we know about death and life, birth and resurrection, in a human setting, can also be true within a community, within humanity as a whole, within nature, and in the church.

And so within this context of seasons and change, I’d like to consider the following questions: What are the spiritual principles of a compost heap? And how does that apply to the church? What does it mean to be part of an organization that is moving through decomposition, fertilization, and new growth? 


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Intergenerational Conversation
This morning at Gathering Leaves we have an opportunity to engage intergenerational conversations around the future of our church. My experience is that it takes effort and is often uncomfortable to talk about the church between generations. I walk in many circles, and I often end up in conversations about church with various generations. I’ve noticed that particularly from the generation that’s most prominently represented here—those over fifty-five—I hear these types of questions: “What’s happening to the church?” and “What’s the future of the church?” And I hear the questions, some tinged with expectations or disappointment, “Where are the young people? Why aren’t they taking over?” Or the laments of, “What are we doing wrong?” “Why didn’t this work? I raised my kids in the church and now they’re not interested.” This is a tender and often difficult subject, and it can be very personal for all of us. I hear and honor these questions.

I want to reframe the questions. I believe there’s great power in how we frame our questions, and I’d like to suggest other options. For example, what about these questions: “What might church look like for different generations?” “What is feeding the spiritual lives of the young people of today?” And the question that is driving my call to ministry, and the reason I’m here today: “What does it mean to be faithful today? What does it look like to be ‘church’ in this generation?”

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Change
This word “change” is not a comfortable word. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a collective embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor.

When Christ was on earth, he certainly didn’t preach comfort or stability, feeling good or that it’s about what we want. That was not Christ’s message, though I often want it to be. But that’s not the message the Lord taught or demonstrated with on earth or that we read about in scripture. Christ preached that we should sell all we have and give to the poor and follow him. Jesus’ call is to take up our mats and walk, to lay down our nets and follow.

It’s so tempting, especially perhaps as Swedenborgians, with our ideas of the internal sense of the Word, to spiritualize these phrases and to push them away into intellectual concepts to keep ourselves comfortable. But I have come to believe that these are direct teachings—God’s call on our lives. I don’t know what it means in your life to sell all you have and give to the poor. But there’s something in there about sacrificing our own comfort and stability to be part of following God and a community. Following the Lord probably doesn’t look like physically putting down fishing nets for most of us, but it might involve letting go of that which has been core to our daily existence, and trusting and following and being changed. Taking up our mats, these things we’ve learned and know, and actively engaging in the work of our lives of faith even when it’s not comfortable or how we’ve always known life to be.

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It’s God then, who seems to be all about change—process, transformation, death, life, letting go, and rebirth. And it’s God who says, “I’ll be with you through it.
” Isn’t that the beauty of the incarnation? God coming to earth in human form, taking on this life process of being born, living, struggling, having joy, being in community, teaching, serving, dying, and then being resurrected, glorified, and coming again. Is this not the call to us individually, this call to the repentance of spirit, to transformation, to death and rebirth, to change? And if this the call to us individually, is not this the call to us as a church?

I think it’s easier to be present to the process of change by looking at the life cycle of an individual. I’ve heard some beautiful stories this weekend about aging gracefully, as people shared about having the courage to let go in a different way in these stages of life. There is a deep wisdom that the generations in their second half of life hold about aging, and that wisdom is needed in this conversation. If I’m standing here speaking as a “voice for the next generation of the church,” it’s important for me to honor and say clearly: this is not about wanting everything to change, getting rid of the old, and swooping in with the new. No, the message is: we need to have some dialog between generations. Because the church is changing, and I believe we all need to be presentto each other and the conversation.

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Giant Rummage Sale
I’d like to zoom out for a moment, and think about not just our local churches or denominations, or even the churches in our neighborhood, but to look at the greater swaths of movement in this cycle. Phyllis Tickle, a scholar of religious history, wrote a book called The Great Emergence. In it she offers a theory that in the sweep of Christian history, every five hundred years there is a giant rummage sale, where things are thrown up in the air and questioned, and then it settles back down and the church is changed in the process.

Tickle posits that the last time this happened was the Protestant Reformation. There was upheaval against the Catholic church of the time, reformers such as Luther and Calvin wrote and preached, and radical break-off groups formed, such as the Quakers and the Methodists, Anabaptists, and a bit later, the Swedenborgians. That was the last giant rummage sale. These rummage sales don’t happen overnight, they stretch over decades. She suggests that we’re in another one of these giant rummage sales in Christendom as a whole. This idea resonates with me within a Swedenborgian framework, and the concept of the Second Coming moving into the world. Maybe what we’re seeing is the actualization of a New Christianity, alive and working in the world. When I look at what’s going on in Christendom as a whole, around the world, something is happening. Something is changing.

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And we’re all in the same boat. From each of our denominations we have story after story about declining membership and churches closing.  So something is changing around us. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. Something is dying, and beginning to decompose.

2013-08-24 23.07.00Decomposition

It seems in general that we’re more comfortable with changing seasons than we are with change in our own individual lives. We are more comfortable with the leaves dying while displaying their vibrant tones than we are with facing our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love. And then when we move from our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love, to the death of our churches, it brings up another collection of responses. The idea that our churches may be dying stirs up emotions and reactions for all of us, and I believe it’s important to recognize and name that.

I’ve spent much of my career in outreach and evangelization, and I was often the person who would come into a congregation or denominational setting and say, “There’s hope! Try this, try that!” And I do believe there is a place for that. There are positive things that are happening and there are good places to put our attention. I have come to believe that in order to be healthy organisms, we also need to be able to see and name the places that are dying and where things need to end. It gets confusing when the cycles of life and death are going on in our churches and our denominations at the same time. Within a community, it’s not always clear what part of the life of the church is on hospice and what is coming to life.

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Church Hospice
Being aware of what is going on in our churches and having the courage to name it is a call to all of us. When a hospice chaplain walks into a room with a family, often the job to be done is to name the thing that no one is going to say, which usually is, “Your loved one is dying.” This is a hard and painful job, but I find that often this honesty is the greatest gift you can give. To name what everyone in the room is thinking and feeling—and not saying.

And so I invite us—collectively—to be hospice chaplains for each other, and to acknowledge and say, “There are things in our church that are dying.” Aspects of our churches are changing—whether it be it a congregation, a way of doing things, or an idea we’ve held onto. We are called to acknowledge that some of our congregations have died or are going to die in this season, in this giant rummage sale that we are going through. We can be honest by acknowledging that this movement and change is held within the Divine cycle of life.

I believe that one of our callings in this time of change is to be hospice chaplains. A good hospice chaplain is present with the cycle of death, not rushing it and not prolonging it.  Sometimes the loving thing to do is to come in and say, “Let’s celebrate and then let go.” To be able to say together, “ You know what, we’ve always done our worship service this way, and we know it’s time to change.” It doesn’t need to be an abrupt cutting it off, and it also doesn’t need to be drawn out on life-support. We could say, “For 100 years we have said that same litany, with those same words. Let’s celebrate that… and then let it go and see what is waiting to be created anew.” This gets harder when it’s our congregations and our buildings—these places and communities we love. I know some of you have been through this, where you’ve had to let go and say goodbye. Let’s be good hospice chaplains together. Let’s celebrate, let’s look at the legacy, let’s claim the memorial, and then let it die.

I believe we need to be open to the possibility that our denominations hold this process of death as well. I do not know what next season is going to look like. I’m not predicting whether our denominations are going to disappear or not. But what I do know is that something is changing in them, and that there are ways of being, systems, concepts, and cultures, within all our denominations that need to die. How can we be present to that? How can we differentiate between the new growth that is alive and from the Lord and the things that we’re clinging onto, trying to survive?

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How can we accept that death is part of the cycle, and remember that death is not a failure? When our elders die, do we criticize them on their deathbed, telling them how they should have lived longer? No, we celebrate their lives, and then lay their bodies in the ground to decompose and go back to be part of the dust from which we all come. Could we not treat our churches, our worship services, or dwindling programs with such dignity and respect? Could we celebrate the years of legacy, the people, the pastors, the buildings, the events, the marriages, the deaths, the service to the community, the heritage of worship? Grieve the loss of something we love, celebrate life well lived, and accept that our churches have a life cycle. Death is not a failure. Death is a part of life.

2013-09-04 15.20.20Fertilization
The second concept of the compost heap is fertilization. Fertilizer, no matter how we cut it, is rarely pretty. It doesn’t smell good. Fertilizer is not what you take and put in a beautiful crystal vase or gorgeous pottery bowl in the middle of the table—you want those fresh flowers or tomatoes there. But fertilizer is incredibly important, and can be something we intentionally cultivate with our dying leaves.

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Leaves can just fall where they do; our churches and programs and ways of being can just slowly fade away. Or we can ask, “How can we purposefully use this thing that is dying to be the nutrients for what is going to grow?” This is the fertilizer. This is what I believe that we all can be called to, to purposefully put the leaves on the compost heap to decompose into useful fertilizer. And we can stop and remember that fertilizer is what we’re all growing out of. We are all here, being the branches of our denominations and our spiritual heritage because of the people who have put fertilizer on in the past.

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Legacy
Personally I can stand in this room and I can think about my ancestors. I think about my great-grandparents, Anita and Louis Dole who were part of the founding of this camp, my great-grandma who wrote the Dole Notes, a rich resource in Swedenborgian Bible study. Bill and Louise Woofenden, pillars in the church and this camp. My maternal grandparents Dave and Shirley Gladish dedicated their lives to Swedenborgian scholarship and translation. Shirley Gladish, my last living grandparent, who’s still doing working on the New Century edition for the Swedenborg Foundation in her late eighties. And I’m humbled, truly humbled by this legacy and how my ancestors gave their lives to the church, and were that active fertilizer that we are growing out of.
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When we talk about this compost heap, it’s not about throwing out the old. It’s not about how the younger generation wants to come in and change everything and blow off the older generation. That’s not the point. The point is: we are each fertilizer for the next generation, so how do we do this purposefully? Rather than throwing out the old in the trash, can we let it be recycled, composted, and become the nutrients for the next generation?

Both my Woofenden grandparents died recently. They had faded out of active life in the church over the last number of years, with their bodies and minds began to slow down. But their commitment and faith to the Swedenborgian was still central to the ethos of their home.

When I went to visit over the last few years, the way that Grandpa would connect with people was through showing us things around the house and telling the stories. We talked a lot about the paintings on the wall, the little squeaky things that made bird sounds, and inevitably, he’d show me the most recent book from the Swedenborg Foundation. And then he would show me with great pride, the bookstand that the Swedenborg Foundation had given him to honor his work with them. Grandma, even when she was struggling to fully communicate, would still have her Greek New Testament out, which she had read her whole life. And every day, at lunch or dinner, depending on the schedule, Grandpa and Grandma would read a chapter from the Bible, slowly working their way from Genesis to Revelation, and back again. They were faithful to their spiritual tradition in their generation.

What does it look like to be faithful in my generation? I am called to be faithful to God and to walk in the Swedenborgian heritage in my generation. And I, and my generation, know that we cannot do it alone. We are able to be the church for our generation, because of the fertilization that has been, is, and will be done by the generations that have come before us.

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Building or Gardening
Built on” is often the metaphor we hear when we talk about generational shifts. Or “stand on the shoulders of.” I appreciate these sentiments. I hold a deep regard for those who have been living the life of faith, and leading and sustaining and innovating the church for each generation. And I know I would not be standing here without that.

However, I’d like to offer the idea of fertilizer as an alternative metaphor. “Building” quickly becomes a linear or hierarchical metaphor. And it is very bound by form. This generation bought the land and built a small chapel, the next generation built on that by adding a larger sanctuary and fellowship hall, the next the parking lot, playground, and a new roof on the original chapel. Now it’s up to my generation to build on that by getting the new carpet and wiring the fellowship hall with technology—and don’t forget that the playground equipment needs to be updated. Being the church takes on the feeling of another thing on the to-do list or an uninvited expectation.

Intergenerational Support
Things have changed in how each generation relates to church, and with this change, we have an opportunity to re-imagine the metaphors. Involvement in church is not the assumption that it was 50 years ago. As someone who is called to be a leader in the church, I can speak for some and share that it is hard to be a faith leader in this era. Gone are the days of community respect, assured job security, and predictable employment. In this era, we are charged with re-imagining church, and ministering to a generation that holds no assumption around the need to be part of church. This work is not easy, and we need each generation to play their part.

We need the coming generations to be proactively trained, equipped, and empowered, and our organizations to consciously make space for new voices. We need our systems to be courageous around change, and cultivate creative and present conversation among all of us. To give voice to the legacy that has been written, and to honor the way that compost can be given for the next generation of leaders. To take the time to ask the generations above and below, “What does it look like to purposefully fertilize?” How can we make organizational choices, financial choices, building choices, cultural choices, in a way that makes fertile rich soil for the next generations and for new life to grow?

2013-08-24 22.34.13New Life
Decomposition and fertilization lead us to the third message of the compost heap: new life. If we learn anything from what the Lord shows us in nature, in the Word, in our own lives, it’s that things work in cycles, and there is new life. We see God is a God of resurrection, cycles, rebirth, and new life.

Friends and sisters, something is trying to be born. The Divine Parent, the Divine Womb, is rich. Use whatever words resonate with you—a new era, a new consciousness, the New Jerusalem descending to earth—something is active and present and urging to be born. The signs of the giant rummage sale are the contractions. Something is pressing to be born, and we don’t know what it is or how it will come. But we can be called to be midwives to it. New shoots and plants are pressing their way through the dirt and make their way into the light. We can notice and we can be present to the hope and the pain, the mess and the beauty, and then we can celebrate the new life.

2013-08-24 21.27.53Look for the Pumpkins
I believe by staying present to the contractions and expansions, being a non-anxious presence in times of change, and keeping our eyes out and celebrating the new birth when we see is a call for all of us. We can actively be on the look out for where the church is being reimagined and born in the world?

We might be tempted to say, “That doesn’t look like church to me. I don’t even recognize that as church. That’s not what I’m used to church looking like.” It’s easy to miss or dismiss these new expressions of life. Maybe because we’re so focused on a nice neat row of lettuce, because that is what we’ve always done—plant lettuce. But, look up and there’s a pumpkin growing out of the compost heap!

Where are these new expressions of church happening in our churches, our congregations, our world? How can recognize and re-imagine what it means to be church?

Because here’s the thing to remember about the compost heap—what comes out of the compost heap is rarely the plant we expect. You can take the fertilizer and spread it around your nice rows of lettuce, and it can help. We continue to maintain the things that are working in our churches and that serve the world.  But when we open our eyes for the new signs of life that are being born as church is re-imagined we see new life. These are the gifts of the compost heap. Not the things that we planted in straight rows, but it’s that pumpkin! And it’s the biggest pumpkin in your entire garden, because it emerged from the fertilizer that came before, and grew in its freedom, and creative new life on the back corner by the shed.

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Re-imagining Church
Last Friday I was at my internship, at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I go on Sundays for worship and it’s beautiful and creative, then on Friday’s I go to be part of the worship that is the Food Pantry, because on Fridays there’s a different congregation there. There’s a different way that church is done.

By noon a long line of people are standing outside the doors of a steep San Francisco street. They walk in the front doors of the sanctuary, and around the communion table, where they find piles of rice, fresh celery, bread, watermelons, and strawberries. Four hundred families, who are hungry, come in and they take communion. And people are worshiping. And passing around piles of carrots. And loaves of bread. And looking each other in the eyes and seeing the face of God.

This is church. To be able to love each person who walks in the door. Many of them I can barely communicate with, because I have yet to learn Mandarin, Chinese, Russian, and only know a little Spanish. But I can greet everyone with a smile and say, “Welcome, I’m glad you’re here” and when they walk out the door, “Have a good day, see you next week.” The Food Pantry one of those pumpkins from the compost heap, it is church.

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God is on the Move
I don’t know what the church looks like in this next season.  My suspicion is that it is going to look many, many different ways. It is going to be creative and the variety is going to be wide. I don’t know what the models are going to be, but what I do know is that it’s not going to look how it looked for my great-grandparents or my grandparents, or even my parents, or even how I thought it would look. Something is moving and shifting in the world. The church is changing.

I believe God is on the move. God is hovering over the face of the waters, continuing to create and move and breathe into all that is. And this is not our creation. This is God’s creation that we are privileged to participate in.

2013-08-24 21.27.39I don’t believe this new life is born of strategic plans, or any one of our specific ideas of what our denomination’s next steps are, though these can be helpful at times in our processes of preparation. I believe this new life is of, from, and will be birthed by the Holy One. We are called to be midwives and hospice chaplains and gardeners.

We are called to be that non-anxious presence in the midst of decomposition to celebrate lives well lived and grieve change and loss.

We are called to honor our ancestors, to notice and name the way their lives and work fertilized all we are today. We are called to be fertilizer, to consciously make choices and changes based on what is pressing to be born.

And we are called to witness new life. Not new life that we quickly fabricate within our desire to survive. But new life that comes from God—and grows out of what has been. New life that arises after we’ve been broken down, our dreams have died, we’ve let go, we’ve released our holds, we’ve sat—quiet and still—through the cold of winter awaiting the new life of spring.

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O Holy One,
Who stirs over the face of the waters,
Who created at the beginning, the garden,
Who gives us this vision of a heavenly city,
With a garden in the middle of it. 

May we, each individually and collectively,
be present,
with the journey of compost. 

May we be present with the decomposition,
to grieve,
to celebrate,
to let go. 

May we be courageous and active to being fertilizer for the next generations.
May we be purposeful and bold,
making choices not out of survival or comfort,
but from our love for all that is good and true.

And may we be curious, engaged, and on the lookout for new growth.
May we be delightfully surprised, and touched to the core of our heart,
When we see how you, O Holy One, are birthing Your New Church. 

We see a garden ahead of us,
The garden of the New Jerusalem,
with the river that flows through the city,
giving truth and quenching thirst,
to all who seek it.

The trees with leaves that heal the nations.
We see twelve gates,
welcoming all to enter and
come and take the water of life freely.

This garden,
where there is no temple,
where God is the center of the city.
And in this garden,
I do believe,
there probably is a
Compost Heap.
2013-06-09 14.18.18

Wrestling Vulnerability

Jacob-Wrestles-with-God

Sermon for Richmond Church of the Brethren
Richmond, Indiana

January 12th, 2013
Genesis 32:22-32
Audio:

I will love the light for it shows me the way,
yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

–Og Mandino

Og Mandino’s words echo with me as I ponder our text for today. I wonder if Jacob would have had the self-reflection to speak these words the night he stood by the ford of Jabbok after wrestling all night? I wonder how he framed the feelings that churned inside him as he prepared to face his estranged brother, the brother that he had so much to apologize for; the brother who he feared would meet him with retaliation and violence?

Oh Jacob the “grabber,” or the “supplanter” the one who had tried to seize his twin brother Esau and pull him back into the womb as they were being born so that he could be the first-born and all that would offer him. Teen-age Jacob, who having failed at his pre-birth acquisition of inheritance and power, tricks his twin by taking advantage of him as he returned famished at the end of a long day, by offering the immediacy of a meal in exchange for Esau’s claim on the family inheritance. A trade which Esau later responded to with the vow to kill Jacob, which understandably sent Jacob fleeing far away to his Uncle Laban’s home, where he met his wife, Rebecca, and lived and grew his family for many years far away from his brother and from the retribution that seemed inevitable.

It is at this moment in time that we pick up the text this morning. Jacob is now returning to his family land and preparing to meet this brother that he had wronged so many years ago.

I picture Jacob, sitting surrounded by scrubby grass, on a rocky shore, near the edge of the Jabbok River. He has sent his family across ahead of him, where they are camped safely on the other side. But he hung back, and as the night fell he was left alone on the side of the river. I see him—a thick garment wrapped around his shoulders, his knees pulled up by body, head in his hands, wondering what the next day would bring. Not knowing what the future holds, fearing for his life, the life of his family, and the world he knew. What faced him that night with the dark sky encasing him, as he looked straight into the fear or guilt, shame, and utter vulnerability.

Wrestling in the Dark

The extreme cold this past week has brought vulnerability in front of us. As the polar vortex swept through the country, we know that many struggled, and the already vulnerable become even more so. In this community, many of us were extremely blessed to have warm houses, woodstoves, electric blankets, and heating vents to cuddle up next to. Even with a warm house, there’s a tension and tentativeness I’ve heard expressed by many this week as we’ve navigated the cold. I heard tell of the exhaustion after a normally “easy drive,” taking hours longer on icy roads, the stories of broken pipes and flooded floors, the care for keeping children, aging parents, pets, and ourselves protected from temperatures where any period of exposure would bring frostbite. I have watched, and participated, in the “icy sidewalk shuffle,” as we do everything in our power not to come crashing down onto the ground. We are reminded how we are not in control, we don’t know what is going to happen next—we are vulnerable.

Brene Brown, a researcher-storyteller whose TED Talk on Vulnerability captured many addresses this topic head-on. Because she believes, from her extensive research, that vulnerability is a key ingredient in people who are whole-hearted, who experience themselves as worthy, loved, and belonging—people who are alive and awake and whole. The whole-hearted, she says, are the ones who are willing to walk into the vulnerability, to be with the feelings, to have the courage to wrestle in the dark, rather than numbing the feelings when they arise.

She offers the idea that we cannot selectively numb emotion. We can’t numb our grief, our shame, our fear, or our vulnerability and still expect to be able to feel joy and delight, purpose, meaning, and happiness. The path to whole-heartedness, to living a authentic life is not to numb the pain and feelings with whatever our favorite coping mechanism is, it’s not to explain them away with a false grasping for certainty, it’s not to turn and go the other way and avoid the struggle. Instead, this is a call to enter into an honest conversation with our vulnerability, to be willing to walk knowingly into the dark and wrestle until daybreak.

Demand a Blessing

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. Then Jacob asked him, “Please, tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, (the face of God) saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:23-32)

Can you picture this all-night wrestling match? The physicality of legs and arms, the ebb and flow as one person rises and leans into control, the other trapped, until that twist, and move, and flip, and coming out on top again. The anguish and struggle, the desire to give up and lie, exhausted on the ground, and the determination and strength to keep going.

This all-night wrestling partner later referenced as an “angel” by Hosea (12:4), and a “man” according to many Hebrew translators, or a “water demon” according to ancient tradition stuck with Jacob through the night, and Jacob would not let go until he demanded a blessing. Whatever the being Jacob encountered that dark night, he experience that he had, “seen the face of God and lived” (32:20).

In this deep night of wrestling, we can imagine that Jacob comes face to face with himself, his God, and his own vulnerabilities. The possible consequences of his past choices are looming in front of him, and he is unsure what is next and whether he will survive it. In all that he brings to the tangled match—all the questions, the fear, the shame—he does not give in. He continues to grapple, to be present with the fight, to feel the feelings, to be in the vulnerability. And, then he demands a blessing. He will not leave this wrestling match until he has found the blessing, and has claimed the conversion that comes out of confronting and working with our deepest vulnerabilities.

A number of years ago, I spent an extended period of time dealing with a life threatening and life-altering illness. It was certainly a season that I could compare to this dark night on the Jabbok River bank. It was a time of profound vulnerability, unknowing, and fear of what might be coming next. At some point early on, I remember saying out loud, “If I have to go through this, I damn well better come out stronger, wiser, more loving, and more compassionate on the other side.” The struggle and grappling didn’t magically dissipate; there was no escape from the all- consuming vulnerability of body, mind, and spirit. But there was a determination, an intention, and a reason to keep going through the struggle. And so I wrestled and I demanded a blessing. That journey was too painful and difficult to waste and not come out on the other side transformed.

Now I do not believe that God ever gives us struggles or challenges as a test, a punishment, or to teach us a lesson. This is not the God I know. The God I know walks with us through struggles, changes, transformations—a God that accompanies us. Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Christian Mystic of my spiritual heritages writes: “Nothing, not the least thing shall occur that some good cannot come out of it.” I have often found encouragement and challenge in that notion. It’s not that good will necessarily come out of our challenges and hard times, but that it can come out of it. The God of wisdom and transformation is always drawing us towards goodness and love, walking with us through the challenges and struggles. But how we emerge? This depends on how we wrestle, how we engage, and if we demand a blessing. When we can, in the midst of our darkest nights, name a good that God is drawing us to, and put our stake in the ground that we will come out the other side renamed and changed forever.

We can demand a blessing when our communities, our families, our churches are going through transition and challenge. Because these seasons of questioning, change, and struggle seem to be an inevitable part of the individual and collective experience of being human, transition, and the vulnerability that comes with it, being an integral part of the life and movement of community. As you—my Richmond Church of the Brethren friends—know so well right now.

The process of transformation is not easy, and embracing vulnerability and change—I would posit—is often more difficult in our collected communities than it is in our individual lives. These times when everything is stirred up and we’re offered the opportunities to look at our past, present, and future with new eyes. In so many denominations and churches we find story after story about the change in the church. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. We are walking through the night of wrestling and vulnerability when we see budgets decreasing, upcoming generations not expressing interest in church the way it’s been done, and congregations across the country closing at a rapid rate. It can leave us wondering what is next for us and bring up whatever our individual and collective coping mechanisms and numbing techniques are. We grasp harder at how it’s always been. We go into hyper-gear to raise the funds, find the volunteers, overcome the challenge. Anything we can do to avoid entering into the water, engaging the night of vulnerable wrestling. Until we land exhausted on the riverbank and name the gift of entering the vulnerability, the transformation that can come from the wrestling.

Renamed

When we face ourselves, our present reality, our vulnerability, our collective transformations, it is often uncomfortable. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a gathered embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor. The church is about collectively being willing to tussle with what it means to be faithful to God and to our community in this season. The church is about being willing to be together, in the beauty and joy, and in the vulnerability and wrestling.

Go Out With a Limp

When we face these seasons in life with the demand to become, “stronger, wiser, more loving, and more compassionate” on the other side, we are forever changed. We are not the same person we were before the illness, the loss, the change, the struggle. When we face the changes in our churches, communities, and denominations with the God of change and transformation, the belief in death and rebirth on our lips, then we are not the same churches and communities that we always have been. We are transformed and re-imagined, changed and reborn. And we can imagine, as our it was with Jacob, being re-named as Israel, the one who prevails with God, moving forward in the morning light to meet his brother who would be awaiting him, awaiting him, as it turns out with an embrace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Friends, we stand on the edge of the Jabbok River, looking out towards the unknown that will greet us in the morning. The call is in front of us, to live in the way of Jacob, with the willingness and courage to wrestle all night, to persevere through the vulnerability, to demand a blessing, receiving our new name and identity, and walk forward into the journey forever changed. Knowing that the God who met our ancestors face-to-face, the God of Rachel and Leah and Jacob, the God of Israel, is the God who walks with us into the dark, and the God who shows us the stars. And that we walk forward together with community, naming God’s work with, pointing out to each other the stars that guide us forward into the hope and transformation, sharing the conversations of curiosity, honesty, and reconciliation, and celebrating together the strength, creativity, and vitality that comes after the night of wrestling, with the morning dawn.

As we continue our sermon together:

Where do you see yourself in this story?
Where do you see this community in this story?
What resonates in you with Jacob’s night of wrestling? What blessing will you demand?

May we walk forward into the dark of the starry night, to wrestle, demand a blessing, to be changed and renamed, when in dawn we will again walk forward, but this time with a sacred limp. 

Prayer for the Church and the Compost Heap

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O Holy One,
Who stirs over the face of the waters,
Who created at the beginning, the garden,
Who gives us this vision of a heavenly city,
With a garden in the middle of it. 

May we, each individually and collectively,
be present,
with the journey of compost. 

May we be present with the decomposition,
to grieve,
to celebrate,
to let go. 

May we be courageous and active to being fertilizer for the next generations.
May we be purposeful and bold,
making choices not out of survival or comfort,
but from our love for all that is good and true.

And may we be curious, engaged, and on the lookout for new growth.
May we be delightfully surprised, and touched to the core of our heart,
When we see how you, O Holy One, are birthing Your New Church. 

We see a garden ahead of us,
The garden of the New Jerusalem,
with the river that flows through the city,
giving truth and quenching thirst,
to all who seek it.

The trees with leaves that heal the nations.
We see twelve gates,
welcoming all to enter and
come and take the water of life freely.

This garden,
where there is no temple,
where God is the center of the city.
And in this garden,
I do believe,
there probably is a
Compost Heap.
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Read The Compost Heap and the Church

The Compost Heap and the Church: New Life (Part Five)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

2013-08-24 22.34.13New Life
Decomposition and fertilization lead us to the third message of the compost heap: new life. If we learn anything from what the Lord shows us in nature, in the Word, in our own lives, it’s that things work in cycles, and there is new life. We see God is a God of resurrection, cycles, rebirth, and new life.

Friends and sisters, something is trying to be born. The Divine Parent, the Divine Womb, is rich. Use whatever words resonate with you—a new era, a new consciousness, the New Jerusalem descending to earth—something is active and present and urging to be born. The signs of the giant rummage sale are the contractions. Something is pressing to be born, and we don’t know what it is or how it will come. But we can be called to be midwives to it. New shoots and plants are pressing their way through the dirt and make their way into the light. We can notice and we can be present to the hope and the pain, the mess and the beauty, and then we can celebrate the new life.

2013-08-24 21.27.53Look for the Pumpkins
I believe by staying present to the contractions and expansions, being a non-anxious presence in times of change, and keeping our eyes out and celebrating the new birth when we see is a call for all of us. We can actively be on the look out for where the church is being reimagined and born in the world?

We might be tempted to say, “That doesn’t look like church to me. I don’t even recognize that as church. That’s not what I’m used to church looking like.” It’s easy to miss or dismiss these new expressions of life. Maybe because we’re so focused on a nice neat row of lettuce, because that is what we’ve always done—plant lettuce. But, look up and there’s a pumpkin growing out of the compost heap!

Where are these new expressions of church happening in our churches, our congregations, our world? How can recognize and re-imagine what it means to be church?

Because here’s the thing to remember about the compost heap—what comes out of the compost heap is rarely the plant we expect. You can take the fertilizer and spread it around your nice rows of lettuce, and it can help. We continue to maintain the things that are working in our churches and that serve the world.  But when we open our eyes for the new signs of life that are being born as church is re-imagined we see new life. These are the gifts of the compost heap. Not the things that we planted in straight rows, but it’s that pumpkin! And it’s the biggest pumpkin in your entire garden, because it emerged from the fertilizer that came before, and grew in its freedom, and creative new life on the back corner by the shed.

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Re-imagining Church
Last Friday I was at my internship, at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I go on Sundays for worship and it’s beautiful and creative, then on Friday’s I go to be part of the worship that is the Food Pantry, because on Fridays there’s a different congregation there. There’s a different way that church is done.

By noon a long line of people are standing outside the doors of a steep San Francisco street. They walk in the front doors of the sanctuary, and around the communion table, where they find piles of rice, fresh celery, bread, watermelons, and strawberries. Four hundred families, who are hungry, come in and they take communion. And people are worshiping. And passing around piles of carrots. And loaves of bread. And looking each other in the eyes and seeing the face of God.

This is church. To be able to love each person who walks in the door. Many of them I can barely communicate with, because I have yet to learn Mandarin, Chinese, Russian, and only know a little Spanish. But I can greet everyone with a smile and say, “Welcome, I’m glad you’re here” and when they walk out the door, “Have a good day, see you next week.” The Food Pantry one of those pumpkins from the compost heap, it is church.

photo
God is on the Move
I don’t know what the church looks like in this next season.  My suspicion is that it is going to look many, many different ways. It is going to be creative and the variety is going to be wide. I don’t know what the models are going to be, but what I do know is that it’s not going to look how it looked for my great-grandparents or my grandparents, or even my parents, or even how I thought it would look. Something is moving and shifting in the world. The church is changing.

I believe God is on the move. God is hovering over the face of the waters, continuing to create and move and breathe into all that is. And this is not our creation. This is God’s creation that we are privileged to participate in.

2013-08-24 21.27.39I don’t believe this new life is born of strategic plans, or any one of our specific ideas of what our denomination’s next steps are, though these can be helpful at times in our processes of preparation. I believe this new life is of, from, and will be birthed by the Holy One. We are called to be midwives and hospice chaplains and gardeners.

We are called to be that non-anxious presence in the midst of decomposition to celebrate lives well lived and grieve change and loss.

We are called to honor our ancestors, to notice and name the way their lives and work fertilized all we are today. We are called to be fertilizer, to consciously make choices and changes based on what is pressing to be born.

And we are called to witness new life. Not new life that we quickly fabricate within our desire to survive. But new life that comes from God—and grows out of what has been. New life that arises after we’ve been broken down, our dreams have died, we’ve let go, we’ve released our holds, we’ve sat—quiet and still—through the cold of winter awaiting the new life of spring.

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You can find this entire article published in the recent edition of The Messenger.