Ordination Sermon


Anna Woofenden
July 4, 2014
St. Louis, MO

Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31-40

“God created us in such a way that our inner self is in the spiritual world and our outer self is in the physical world. This is so that the spiritual part of us, which belongs to heaven, can be planted in the physical part the way a seed is planted in the ground.”
–Emanuel Swedenborg

When the ocean and I meet, we have a ritual. I walk to that salty shore and I bend down, right at the edge of the waves. I take a deep breath, and breathe a prayer to God as I look out on the vast ocean. And then I take the water, and with my fingers I make the sign of the cross on my forehead and on my chest, tracing the mark that was placed there so many years ago in my baptism. Something happens when flesh meets water. When my fingers meet that salt. In this act the internal, that which belongs to heaven, meets the physical reality of the natural world, of my body. In this physical act I experience and can name the presence of God with me, the revelation, the incarnation of God in the world.

Swedenborgian theology illuminates this idea that the natural world is infused with spiritual reality. That we, at our core, are spiritual beings, created for heaven, and as we’re living in this natural world we have the opportunity to increase our awareness and receptivity of God’s influx, infusion, and infilling in all things. In this framework we find an invitation not to reject or to conquer the physical, but instead to be conscious, aware, and appreciative of the world around us, as it is the conduit for the spiritual, the celestial, the heavenly. That the physical world around us and our very bodies are the skin that God’s love and wisdom can come together in to act in useful service.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. For whatever you do for the least of these, who are members of my family, you do this for me.

These words of Jesus invite us into the incarnational reality that the Lord embodied while walking on earth, when the One God of heaven and earth chose to come on earth not as a mere concept, as a set of rules to follow, or merely as an ethereal presence, but to come on earth as a human being. Feet, and dust, hands, and healing. Demonstrating what the kingdom of heaven looks like, mustard seeds and loaves of bread, bending down and washing feet, feeding and being fed. We may not know the ins and outs of the arguments of who God is and who we are. But we can know this: That God is in all things and created us to for a life of love and service. That in a hand reaching out to another God with us. That when we bend down and wash the feet of one whom we hesitate to even touch, Divinity is being incarnate. That when we take the bread and the wine, the water, God is incarnate with us. Cooking supper, writing poetry, wiping noses, digging in the dirt, love in action. As my late grandfather, Rev. Dr. Bill Woofenden, put it, “Love, by its very nature must be doing something.”

In doing these acts, love is revealed. Love is revealed, as the truth of all people being created and seen as beloved children of God is named. When you do this to the least of these, you do it for me.

My calling to ministry has been revealed to me through my body, through the spiritual reality of who God created me to be pressing and yearning to be manifest in the world around me.

For many years I had the honor to serve at a church congregation that I love, a church that was born into an organization that will not ordain me because of my gender, my body. I have much gratitude for this church and this organization and I hold them in great love and respect. And it was in that messy mixed bag of delight in service and the limits and prescribed roles of how I could serve, that my calling to ordained ministry became clear.

In our congregation we had an annual family camp. And every year on Saturday evening we would have a Holy Supper, Communion, service. Now, every year, I would prepare for this. Being the lead on the camp, I would have gathered together the staff, prepared the program, set the theme and so on. And then when the evening arrived I always took great joy in setting that sacred table. Spreading the white linens, creating the shape and space of the service, sprinkling candles and flowers, silk and stones, and setting out the bread and wine. Preparing a table for our community to gather around.

I loved this worship, and looked forward to the profound moments I witnessed in the lives of our congregation during this yearly ritual. But after a few years, another tradition developed. I would cry. Before, after, sometimes during the service. And I’m not talking a few tears, a tissue, and a “oh, isn’t it beautiful when the Spirit moves us” kind of crying.

No. These tears exploded out of me, taking over my body and catching even me, especially me, off guard.

The inevitable trigger: When it came time to start the service and I could not stand beside my colleague, the minister of our congregation, to serve Communion to our community. There was something about the elements of the sacrament–the bread, the wine, handed, received–that transcended the rational arguments of why I could not be an ordained minister and exposed to me the truth of my calling. 

I needed to be presiding over this meal, alongside my colleague serving our community together as we did throughout the year. My being ached to be breaking the bread and pouring the wine, telling the story of the Lord’s feast with us, offering spiritual food and drink and blessing these people I held so dear.

Afterwards I would find myself curled up with close friends, crying and going back over the evening. Picking apart the trigger phrases and being sure I was over-reacting to un-intentional words and actions of exclusion and ignorance. We were all ignorant. I was ignorant of how the fibers of my being were shouting out my call, my call to serve at the table. My friends were ignorant, comforting the pain in the specific situation, but not knowing, not seeing and naming the question of what God was stirring inside me.

The next year my body didn’t wait and contain itself until after the service. I found myself pounding up the hill to the bathrooms after setting up the space. I scared myself as I slammed stall doors, stomped my heavy boot-clad feet. This emotion that was pressing out of my body was not something I was used to, or comfortable with. I assumed since it was so strong, intense, it must be something bad

I can see and ask the question now–Was it God? Was it God letting every fiber of my being know that there is something powerful, deep and sacred about sharing the bread and cup, and that not only was I called to do it, but that I’m called to stand for an opening of the sacred table, that for the Lord’s table to be open to all, not only must it be available to all to receive, it also must be open for all who are called to be trained, gifted, and ordained to serve, to serve.

Whether I like it or not, I know what it’s like in the very fiber of my being, to be told–be it in words or systems, cultural norms, or well intentioned theories–that I am not hearing the Lord properly, that I am inadequate and unlovable, that I am fundamentally flawed. I know what it feels like to question whether I am wholly created in the image of God, whether I am loved and okay. I know this wholly human experience of questioning who we are in relation to God and the world.

It is out of these times of struggle and doubt, pain and darkness that we can find the clarity, truth, love and light of the Lord and claim who we are in God. It is the sacred charge that I stand here today, to claim for myself, and to claim for others whose call may be different, but who are also called to do and be incarnations of God’s love in the world. All of us are whole. All of us are loved and all of us are created in the sacred image of God. And God created us to embody love and wisdom, and made us to be changed and transformed. 

And I stand here before you because you have seen me, and claimed me, and given me a home to serve from. I stand here today with a grateful, passionate, and peaceful heart as I step forward to serve from a this denomination and tradition that is embodying love in action, seeing the Lord at work in the beauty of creation, the variety of humanity, and is committed to the work of being receptors of heaven here on earth.

This is what propels me forward in my future ministry to re-imagine church, to facilitate and serve a church that is attuned to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of our community. I am stepping forward as an ordained minister to plant a church, the Garden Church in San Pedro, California–church that is founded on the principles of interconnection, embodied theology, and seeing all people as whole and precious creations of God. I am stepping forward to take the charge to feed those who are hungry, visit those in prison; clothe those that are naked as the incarnational charge that it is–finding the incarnate God as we bend down and look in the eyes of the withered woman huddled on the street corner; finding the incarnate God as we watch the toddler pulling a carrot out of the dirt; finding the incarnate God as we work together, worship together, and eat together. Naming the dance between the spiritual reality of heaven and the physical alignment and un-alignment of earth as we claim people—each person–as an expression of God’s presence in the world. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.

In a few minutes, hands will be laid, words will be spoken, and a mantle will be taken on. It is with deep gratitude and humility that Elizabeth and I thank this gathered body and church for seeing us and seeing the Lord’s call on our lives and for providing the container for our inner selves to be fully expressed in the world as we step into the role of ordained ministry.

We stand here today, called, prepared, and ready to commit to the life of serving the Holy One and the holy humanity. Dually broken, wholly healed, prepared, and nurtured, called, and ready for this holy work.

Here is my body, here is my mind, and here is my spirit. Wise, loving, and useful, here I am, send me.

1Watch the Rite of Ordination and Prayer of Blessing or the Full Ordination Service 

 

Holy Week Contradictions

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Reposted from A Palm Sunday Sermon given at the Montgomery New Church 4/1/2012

I heard an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently.  In it he talked about the ongoing deep work that is needed as South Africa moves from Apartheid and three centuries of oppression and domination of people with white skin over people with black skin. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, posed the conversation of how one would know whether the work Bishop Tutu had been doing had “achieved” it’s goals and what “recovery” looked like for the people of South Africa.  Archbishop Tutu responded with this story: I recommend listening to the interview. The story is from: 22:52-25:21

TRANSCRIPT: “I think that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made —I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this. And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?” And well of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged somewhere in me.”

This story stopped me in my tracks and brought home the deep contradictions that each one of us hold in our beings, in our words, in our history, in our actions, thoughts and feelings. Here is a man who has dedicated his life and his work to breaking down oppression, bringing justice and raising up the worth of all people.  A man who himself has rich black skin and a heritage of the people’s that he is dedicated to opening up a way for, even this man wrestles with the contradictions inside himself when the very thing he’s fighting against bubbles up in his own being.

Contradiction.

Here’s another example: The next day the huge crowd that had arrived for the Feast heard that Jesus was entering Jerusalem. They broke off palm branches and went out to meet him. And they cheered: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Yes! The King of Israel!” (John 12:14).

In the same city, just a few days later, the same Jesus Christ was raised up in question in front of crowds of people.  The story goes something like this:
“Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.  Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”

But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”

But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed.  So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will (Luke 23:13-24).

It’s uncomfortable to place ourselves in this story, particularly if we are part of the crowd on both days.  But are we not part the crowd? Is there not a place inside each of us that sings praises and asks for God to save us one day and then calls for crucifixion a few days later? Have we not stood in the shoes of Bishop Tutu? Seeing inside ourselves the very things that we have been working to change in the world around us? We are filled with these contradictions between how we want to live and how we speak and act and think and feel.

Through these weeks of Lent, as part of my practice, I have been striving to name these contradictions, these tensions inside. It is uncomfortable work and makes me squirm to realize how much like these crowds I am.   How I can cry out to God, “save me” when life is feeling difficult and I think God could remove the challenges, and then soon after deny my need for God or even reject God’s presence in the people around me.  I have noticed disconnects between my words and my actions, between my ideals and my reactions.

There is something disturbing to consciously name these contradictions. There is something liberating and freeing in naming these contradictions.  To name that we carry selfishness and arrogance within us as we strive to do good and follow God and to admit that we are sinner and saint, villain and hero, benevolent and selfish and throughout it all—loved by God.

What’s this? Loved by God? Even when we speak critical words? Even when we are arrogant and vindictive? Even when we go against what we know we are called to?  And here is the gospel, the good news, and the power of the Lord in our Holy Week Contradictions.

Let’s go back over the stories…we’ve noted the contradictions between the crowds that cheers on Palm Sunday and to the ones that deny him and call for crucifixion just a few days later. We’ve noted the way we operate in these contradictions in our own lives and how we are continually in flux in our thoughts and actions.  Where is the Lord in all this? Jesus Christ, that of God, God Incarnate, gospel message to us, an example of how God acts in the world. How does Jesus respond throughout these stories in the gospel? Jesus consistently meets them where they are. With love and compassion. With truth and accountability. With forgiveness and reconciliation.

Even to the point on the cross where Jesus calls out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Can you imagine being called to that level of forgiveness and compassionate response? Can you imagine being embraced by that level of understanding for the contradictions we hold in ourselves and being gently held and encouraged to continue to show up, to observe and name the contradictions, to keep inviting the Lord into our lives and move us in ways of reconciliation and wholeness?

What does this look like? How do we do this? I believe each one of you have wisdom to bring to this conversation and I look forward to hearing your responses. To frame our conversation I’d like to offer us two doorways for receiving and connecting with God’s work in each of us.

Mystical theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg writes, “If we believed that—as is truly the case—everything good and true comes from the Lord and everything evil and false comes from hell, then we would not claim the goodness as our own and make it self-serving or claim the evil as our own and make ourselves guilty of it” (Divine Providence #320).

There is such freedom from suffering and guilt and freedom from arrogance and pride when we integrate this concept into our lives. We can integrate this teaching by holding and returning to an awareness of our thoughts, our words and our actions.  And as we live this teaching, we let go of the strength of the thoughts and habits that have been ingrained and plague us, or as Bishop Tutu said, the things that have become “lodged” in us. The misshapen ideas of who we are and our need to beat ourselves up or clamber to be better than others. We can spend more time dwelling in the land of wholeness and peace where we know that we are a vessel and that we want to surrender and have the Lord be the one who is forming that vessel.

And the second doorway that I want to suggest is to develop a practice of asking the question: “Where is the Lord in this?”   We asked this question of our gospel readings this morning and found the Lord being the constant presence of love and strength, healing and forgiveness, reconciliation, persistence, and hope.

And we can ask this question as we navigate our inner and outer lives.

Where is the Lord in a heated interaction?
In the deep breath we take?
In the flash of insight opening us up to a third way?

Where is the Lord in the contradictions of grief and loss?
In the comfort from a friend?
When we reach out to grasp at something in our places of great darkness?

Where is the Lord when we are convicted with a way that we are living in arrogance and pride?
In the challenge to be changed?
In the gentle spirit that we can be held in as we change?
Is it the humility of seeing ourselves in others?

As we walk into this Holy Week…let us notice the tensions and the contradictions, in the gospel story and in ourselves. And let us explore these two doorways. To remember that all good comes from God and all evil comes from hell. And to ask the question, “where is the Lord in this?” Drawing on God’s presence to be in us and through us and guide us. And loving us when we shout out “Hosanna” and loving and when we cry  “Crucify him”.

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. 

God Pitched Her Tent Among Us

tent Sermon for Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church
San Francisco, California
December 29, 2013

Text: John 1:1-18

Audio:

Last weekend my siblings and I flew and drove in from all over the country, to gather on Guemes Island in Washington State, at our childhood home. We gathered to surround our mother as she said goodbye to her home of 30+ years, the home which my parents built, the gardens she’s worked, the field that housed various cows, pigs, and even a few goats over the years, the property where all seven of us, her children, were raised.

 “Momentous,” is the word a friend used to expressed this move. Momentous to be saying goodbye to the place and space that has held so much for my mother for so long and has been what she has known as stable, something to count on, the place to come home to for over 30 years.

I, on the other hand, have lived in six different states and 13 homes since I left this childhood homestead and my statistics are more in line with the transient population we find here in the Bay Area.  Many of us in this room can identify with the pause and faraway look when someone asks us, “Where’s home?” and we try to decide which way to answer that question today.  “Home” being a concept that can be a little shaky.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And God came and dwelt among us… God came and made a home among us.  What is this Word that makes itself at home? The Word, the Logos, is a Greek term that is a struggle to even begin to capture in the English language.  It can refer to any part of communication, or the total act of communication…the speaking, the proclaiming, or the connecting conversation between. We can read this as wisdom showing up to communicate and be present with us, God’s self-revelation to humanity. 

The Logos was God and God came and made His home among us. Or a translation that has caught my imagination, God came and pitched Her tent with us, beside us, among us.  In this poetic telling of the gospel story that starts off the Book of John, God established a residence that moves, that is transient, that accompanies, that’s every changing.  Invoking the way of God with the ancient mothers and fathers, who wandered in the wilderness, following signs and pillars of cloud and fire, setting up the Tabernacle wherever they made camp. God Incarnate followed in this ancient tradition and came and pitched a tent among us, born through a woman who was far from home, away from all she knew as stable and known. And this God, is audaciously indiscriminant about who She pitches her tent beside, who She loves, reminding us in the very location of Christ’s birth, in a shed, behind the inn, with the animals, visited by shepherds.

As the season of advent is still lingering in the smell of Christmas trees, and the twinkling lights, the audacious message of incarnation is fresh in our minds. God showing up on earth in fleshy, ordinary, extraordinary form, as a baby. An infant. God didn’t show up fully-grown, clothed in armor, or sleek and strong with black-belt karate moves. God came to this earth and slipped into the skin of baby Jesus. And this incarnate God did not come and built a palace, or a mansion, not even a humble cabin to spend all his days. Just as Incarnate God does not come to establish surety in a religious club, or create exclusive spaces where certain people can access Divinity. God came in the intimacy of a breath between a mother and infant, in the vulnerable nature of flesh and straw, in the immediate presence of Emmanuel, God with us.

Because that’s the thing about Incarnate Divinity: It’s not just in one sacred place, and it doesn’t just show up at Christmas as we call out, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Incarnate Divinity is in the flesh and bones of the world. Dwelling with us. Accompanying us. Moving with us. Incarnate Divinity in the Bread and Wine, in the compassionate acts in unexpected places, in the intimate safety between two who know each other’s hearts, in the ache of loss when we remember those we love and miss. Incarnate Divinity, is what accompanies us through each movement of our days and lives, it is this Audacious Love, the Word made flesh, the Wisdom-in-person.  The Gospel of John takes the Christmas story right down to its essence. God. Light. Love. Coming and being with us, among us, in the flesh and breath of the human story.

And this God who incarnated love through flesh of a baby boy two thousand years ago, is the God who pitches Her tent with us. Who walks through each day with us. The God who moves homes with us and promises that there is a world beyond the life we’ve come to know.

On Sunday afternoon we packed a few cars worth of boxes and headed over to the bright little apartment that my Mom will be moving into in a few weeks. We oohed and ahhed at the nice big windows, the cozy kitchen, and the wooded view out the back window. As we unloaded boxes we gave our suggestions as Mom mentally rearranged the furniture that was yet to be moved in.

And as we pictured how it could be, she began to relax and feel the possibilities that this could be home and that her children could gather here, and be family. That life and traditions, love and connection can carry on beyond space and time and be present in this new place.

She got teary as she said, “So you all will come here and visit and we can continue our family traditions here?” We all assured her yes and then one of my sisters in an inspired moment, recognized that the layout of the little apartment mimicked the circular track of our childhood home where we had spent hours running around with various games. She took off with a grin and quickly a stream of grown adults were running in a big circle, squealing and laughing like the toddlers and six and eight and ten year olds we used to be. 

After the crowd had piled down the stairs, my mother grabbed my hand and asked, “Will you pray?”  We prayed and blessed that home as a place where family gathers, where love and connection is felt, where traditions are enacted and new memories made. We named God’s presence, incarnate in that home as we stood at the top of the stairs. I felt the brush of the Spirit. I could almost hear the click of bamboo tent polls being assembled and feel the brush of a silk tarp on my cheek.  God moving in. Dwelling with us. Setting up Her tent.

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Sabbath, Sorrow, and Sending: Sermon at Almont Camp

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This sermon was offered on Sunday at the close of Almont Summer Camp, addressing the Seventh Day of Creation and Sabbath rest. It was adjusted significantly just before and during to strive to respond to and meet the needs of a community that suffered an unexpected loss in the community late the night before. I was humbled to stand before the community and strive to offer words and space in that moment. 

Fish and Birds

Reflections on Day Five of Creation at Almont Camp
July 26, 2013

1001526_10151588029549094_1631139397_nAt Almont, a Swedenborgian summer camp in Michigan, we spent the week exploring the Seven Days of Creation and the rich theology that Emmanuel Swedenborg presents on it. Swedenborg spends pages laying out how the cycles of the days of creation offer a blueprint for the process of spiritual growth and spiritual creation. Each presenter took a day, and I got Day Five: the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.   The audio is of the lecture portion of the morning.

Audio:

Judge Not

Sermon for Swedenborg Chapel
Cambridge, MA
May 26, 2013

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Readings:
1Samuel 16:1-13
Matthew 7:1-6

The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven, however many they may be, and indeed, if it were possible; even to Godself; for The Lord is mercy itself and good itself. Mercy itself and good itself can never condemn anyone but as humans, we condemn ourselves when we reject the good.

On this account no person is ever allowed to judge concerning the quality of the spiritual life of another, for The Lord alone, as before said, knows this; but everyone may judge of another in regard to the quality of his moral and civil life, for this concerns society.
–Emmanuel Swedenborg (Secrets of Heaven 2335.32 and 2284.3)

Last Sunday was my first ride on the T during my time here in Boston. Riding up from Quincy to Harvard Square for church. There was construction on the way so at the JFK stop we got off, took and a bus up to UMass station where we spilled off of the busses into the parking lot, up the stairs, over the tracks, down the stairs, and onto the platform to wait for the next train.

I’m a fan of public transit for a number of reasons, not the least being the fabulous variety of people watching that one can encounter. As three bus-loads of people crammed simultaneously onto the platform, there was no shortage of faces and voices and conversations to observe.

The mother and daughter heading out for a shopping trip, the group of college students discussing graduation, the out of country tourists complete with cameras and languages that I could only understand the tones of. Amongst the hum of these crowds, two voices rose above, loud and insistent, abrasive in a tone that I heard before the costic words began to sink in.

The two older men moved closer to the pillar I was standing by and I began to listen to the words. Within the three to five minutes we stood waiting for the train, I witnessed a stream of judgment flowing from their lips. Judgment of women and Muslims, school teachers and Jews, educated and those who educate them, immigrants of all kinds (well, except, as I would learn later in this diatribe, those early waves of Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants), Quincy elementary school’s weekly schedule and Harvard’s willingness to accept non-Bostonians into the school and city. I wondered what group would be condemned next, who else they could think of to judge.

Judge not and you shall not be judged.

In your worship time together here at the chapel, for the last few weeks, you have been looking at the sermon on the mount, this series of teaching from Jesus that we find early on in the Gospel of Matthew.

The fact that they were giving on a mountain, the mount, is striking if you think about the spiritual context of such an image. In the language of correspondences that Emanuel Swedenborg opens up for us through his writing, a mountain represents a high plane of thought and feeling. A place where we feel near to the Divine and can gain perspective and then look at our everyday life and maybe interact a little differently with ourselves, God and the people around us.

These mountain moments, these high places, can be times where we can remember that we’re all made in the image of God and we are called to see theDivine working in everyone, the call to love God and love our neighbor.

It’s in this body of gospel teachings that we find these words, “Judge not.” One of the many messages in the Sermon on the Mount, and the message I hope to wrestle with together in this sermon.

As titles were added to the Bible, the term “the sermon on the mount” emerged, but according to my preaching professor, one would not be an effective preacher if we attempted to pack all that Jesus does in these three chapters into one sermon. In fact, as I’ve been mulling and researching these six verses over the past week, I have found a number of sermons in the richness of the text. But today, in honor of my profs words of, “focus in on one idea per sermon Anna”, we’ll focus here. Chapter seven, verse one: Judge not and you shall not be judged.” Seeing the image of God in all people.

Judge not.

Exhibit A I thought, as I listened to the judgement flowing out of this man’s lips as we waited for the train. Is not this man the one Jesus would have used this passage with? In response to the flow of characters and judgements that were being spewed from his mouth would Jesus have dived in and proclaimed these words to this man? “Judge not!” Silencing him and cutting off the diatribe?

There was part of me that wanted to. Each venomous word, directed at some “them” or “they”, reinforcing the “us” that he stood for. The harsh worlds about groups and people stirred up something inside me. Should I, could I, step in and say: “Judge not!”

Was it fear that held me back? Or wisdom? Or some of both? I don’t know. But I did not say anything. I did keep listening though. And breathing and began praying. Judge not and you shall not be judged. See all people as lovingly made in the image of God. Breathing in and out with that prayer enough times to crack open a willingness to attempt to see how The Lord might be looking at this grumpy old man on the T.

Throughout scriptures, sacred texts, in the words of theologians and mystics, people across the ages, have asked the question: Does God judge us? How does God judge us?

Throughout Swedenborg’s teachings we can hear a refrain about who God is and God’s engagement with judgement. We read it this morning from Secrets of Heaven, “The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven…
The Lord is mercy itself and goodness itself. Mercy itself and goodness itself can never condemn”
(Secrets of Heaven 2335.3).

Swedenborg describes this image of God–a God who is overflowing with goodness and mercy, unable to condemn or turn the Divine face away from the beloved creation, always drawing us to Godself and to connection with the goodness and love within our hearts and wills. God calls us to this well known phrase we heard in our scripture reading from 1st Samuel this morning: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

And so, judge not and ye shall not be judged.

If we work from the premise that it is not the Divine who does the judging, as the Divine is mercy and goodness itself, which are incapable of judgment, then it turns the lens on humanity, on each of us, to engage the question.

If judgement is not a Divine attribute, then is it a human one. “The Lord can never condemn anyone but as humans we condemn ourselves when we reject good.” (Secrets of Heaven 2335).

Ah-ha–the crux of the matter, humans having the choice to accept or reject the good from the Divine. This is the place that we live as humans, receiving influence from heaven and influence from hell, as we live in the place of freedom, the place of tension between.

As many of you discussed the very end of the book Heaven and Hell at Thursday evening book group, this topic of spiritual freedom is central to this conversation. The freedom that comes in living between these heavenly and hellish influences. The influences of God, endless love and mercy and the influences of evil, selfishness greed and insecurity pulling us towards hell.

And God, out of love, holding us in the suspension between, giving us choice, the freedom, the spiritual space to build our loves over time, and choose our collective orientation towards heaven or hell.

And so, in this place of suspension that is the human experience, we can choose. Not a one time choice that we are then eternally judged on. And not a choice that is arbitrarily made by a judgmental deity. The choice of heaven or hell, both in our daily experience in in our eventual eternal state, is built on, multiple choices, time after time, choice after choice as we encounter ourselves and others and as we encounter our judgements.

Now before we go any further, I think it would be useful to wrestle with this term “judgment” for a minute. At first glance, we can hear this word in various ways. Judgment. Judgmental, critical, abrasive, crude. The man on the T spewing judgment for all to hear. Our passage implies something of this definition when we’re told “judge not.”

But there is another side to this word. We talk about having good judgment, we strive to “judge fairly” be it in court or in a child’s dispute over the favorite toy truck. We extol those who “judge well.”

How do we reconcile these two diametrically opposed definitions of this same word, and what is The Lord talking about in this passage? Judge not and you will not be judged, the standard you use in judging others is the standard by which you will be judged. So there’s some relation here to the judgment, there’s some place for it, but what is the standard we hold?

Here is where I turn again to a Swedenborgian concept to diagram this judgment chart. Swedenborg sketches out two types of judgement, internal judgment and external judgment. God interacts with each human, not looking at the external, but looking at the heart. We as humans on the other hand, cannot see someone else’s insides, we do not know another person’s story.

It is not our job, let alone our possible ability, to judge another person’s internal state. And it is never our job to deem someone less human, less a beloved child of God, less our neighbor to be loved, on any external expression, characteristic, or definition.

External states, actions, reactions, and interactions bring forth the opportunity for a different sort of judgment. This could be called reason, public judgment, street smarts, or wise choices. The ways that we make observations, choices and actions based on our experience, knowledge and, well, judgement. Or as Swedenborg says, “Everyone is allowed to judge concerning another as to the quality, as to the moral and civil life, for this is of import to society” (Secrets of Heaven 2284).

Listening to our intuition, proactive planning, locking doors, being aware of risks, using good judgment, this is a gift. A gift from The Lord as we navigate this word in which we are all left in freedom, suspended between heaven and hell and encounter a mix of heavenly acts and hellish acts. There is a time, a place, and a use in good judgement in terms of the external actions of individuals and collective forces.

The invitation I hear in this sermon from Christ, this mountaintop call, is to not stop with the act of external judgment. Instead, this call not to judge is an invitation to open ourselves up to seeing something deeper in the hearts of those around us, to look for the glimpses of God, to see all created in God’s image.

To ask questions such as: What is the story of this man on the T? Where are the glimpses of the Divine in and amongst the hurt and anger? Where has he been wounded and shut down, how are the words coming from his mouth asking for something that he is not getting? Crying out to be heard and valued as a beloved child of God, seen as a respected member of the human race. How are his critiques of others a reaching and a grasping for creating his own sense of identity by distancing himself from the many “others,” the “them’s,” the “those people,” that are not him?

Before coming to Cambridge last week, I was in Nashville at a preaching conference, the Festival of Homiletics. Brian McLaren, a favorite writer, preacher and theologian, was there and during his talk he engaged this idea of judgement and how often as humans we work to form our identity by defining ourselves by all the things we are not in other people or groups.

He was looking at this phenomena specifically in terms of groups of people, such as religious gatherings, churches, movements and denominations. I would posit that we could both identify with that and that the some principles occur in us as individuals.

McLaren offered the idea that groups tend to build an identity around something good initially. A mission, a sacred text, a shared culture, land, or a space. There is one thing they all have in common. But then quickly it seems to be the human condition, or something, that if the group starts to question their identity, rather than returning to the center, there’s a tendency to look outside of the group and begin to create a strong sense of collective “us”, by creating a “them” out there to dislike, be hostile towards and differentiate from. James Alison puts it this way, “Give people a common enemy and you will give them a common identity.”

We see this phenomena throughout history, in our neighborhoods, churches, families, interactions in the word, in our personal development of identity of who we are, and yes, as we ride the T.

Each time we cover over the image of God in others based on externals, be it race or gender, opinion, physical appearance, culture, ideology, religion, or dress, we engage in what I hear The Lord speaking against in our text today. It is not our place to judge. It is not our place to quantify another persons worth. And in judging not, we then are not judged. By the same measure we judge others, we will judge ourselves.

Rather than building up our own self worth by defining ourselves by all that we are not, we’re invite to see ourselves as beloved children, formed in God’s image, and from that place, to see the image of God in all people.

As we look for God’s image in others, compassion can arise and the desire to dig deeper and imagine what might be going on in another’s life, or in a collective of people, that has led to actions that display in ways that are abrasive to our sensibilities.

We can be called to imagine what it might look like to develop a strong and benevolent identity, as we individually and collectivity move towards those that we have labeled as “them” or “other” in the past and see them as neighbor and fellow child of God.

Naming, as the prophet did, the choice we each have to follow our own flawed judgement (as Saul did) or to follow the Lord’s judgement, as the prophet Samuel called for. To look at others as The Lord looks, with mercy and goodness, wisdom and humility.

When I began to breath and pray as we settled in on the train, sitting a few seats over and down from our loud friend, I began to wonder about his life and mine and see the places of hypocrisy in my reactions. Yes, he was spewing judgement out loud in public in ways that we can easily deem as inappropriate and harmful. But what was I building in the judgements inside me about his words?

I happen to have enough filter, or fear of what others may think, not to be exposing my judgements and thoughts to our fellow passengers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have judgments. And I am blessed to have safe, healthy places where people listen to my sorting out and to be seen and heard by others. I don’t feel need to vent loudly on the T to all that will listen in order to feel heard.

But maybe this man doesn’t. Maybe he isn’t privileged to be surrounded by people who listen to him, who see him, who hold up and remind him of his preciousness as a child of God. Is each word that escapes his lips a reaching and grasping to be seen–to have it reflected back to him that he, he too, is a beloved child of God, created in the image of the one who does not judge, the one who is mercy itself, goodness itself and who loves us all, eternally.

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Helen Keller–A Woman of Faith and Action

Earlham School of Religion Worship, March 14, 2013

Audio: Helen Keller Sermon 3.14.2013 Woofenden
(Thank you to Jessica Easter and David Johns for lending their voices)

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“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.” ― Helen Keller

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” ―Helen Keller

“Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within” ― Helen Keller

“Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” ―Helen Keller

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ―Helen Keller

“Love should not be viewed as a detached effect of the soul, or an organ, or a faculty, or a function. Love involves the whole body of conscious thought—intention, purpose, endeavor, motives, and impulses—often suppressed, but always latent, ready at any moment to embody itself in act. It takes on face, hands, and feet through the faculties and organs; it works and talks, and will not be checked by any external circumstance once it begins to move toward an objective. Love, the all-important doctrine, is not a vague, aimless emotion, but the desire for good united with wisdom and fulfilled in right action.” –Helen Keller

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” ―Helen Keller 

A young child.

A water pump.

A child who is blind and deaf.

A teacher who persistently spells.

W-A-T-E-R

Into the hand of the child.

Over,

and

over.

In an attempt to communicate as the icy well water pours over the child’s hand.

These may be the familiar images that arise when you think of the woman whose life story we explore today. Helen Keller.

This iconic story of overcoming the loss of physical sight and hearing has become a beloved tale of resilience and perseverance as this frustrated child becomes able to communicate, attends school and college and travels the world as an advocate for those with disabilities. Helen Keller the poster child for the blind and deaf.

Images you might not be so familiar with: Helen Keller the Swedenborgian theologian and Helen Keller a prophetic voice for social change. It is these two I want to bring forward today.

But first…beginnings.

Helen Keller was born in 1880, an energetic, curious, and alert child.  At age two she suffered a serious illness that left her completely blind and deaf. Keller spent the next few years of her childhood struggling to communicate and connect with others, going into rages and tantrums of frustration with her inability to interact with the world around her.

In looking back at this time of life, she writes, “Truly I have looked into the heart of darkness, and refused to yield to its paralyzing influence.”[1]  Helen’s life changed dramatically when she was gently and firmly taught by her teacher and guide, Annie Sullivan.  It was Annie who opened up the world of language to Helen, and through language gave her the ability to connect to ideas, people, and life around her.

Helen was an inquisitive child, asking questions and wondering about everything. She writes: “As a little child I naturally wanted to know who made everything in the world, and I was told that nature had made earth and sky and water and all living creatures. This satisfied me for a time, and I was happy among the rose trees of my mother’s garden, or on the bank of a river or out in the daisy-covered fields.”[2] Keller learned quickly and was a voracious student. Alexander Graham Bell had assisted Keller’s parents in finding her teacher Annie Sullivan and later recommended Perkins School of the Blind as a next step for her education and growth.

As she soaked up her studies, she began to ask more questions, questions about God and Jesus and religion and justice. “I inquired about God, and again I was baffled. Friends tried to tell me that God was the creator, and that he was everywhere, that he knew all the needs, joys, and sorrows of every human life…I was drawn irresistibly to such a glorious, lovable being and I longed to really understand something about him. I persisted in asking questions about God and Jesus ‘Why did they kill him? Why does God make some people good and others bad? Why must we all die?”[3]

It was during this time of questioning, while at Perkins School for the Blind, Helen was introduced to the writings of 18th century mystic and theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg by John Hitz, a colleague of Alexander Graham Bell’s, whom she later would call “the foster-father of my soul.”[4]  Hitz gave her a Braille copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell when she was fourteen years old. Hitz warned Keller that it might not make sense to her at first, but that it would in time “satisfy (me) with a likeness of God as loveable as the one in my heart.[5]

When Helen began reading Heaven and Hell, a new opening in her spiritual life began.  “I was as little aware of the new joy coming into my life as I had been years before when I stood on the piazza steps awaiting my teacher. Impelled only by the curiously of a young girl who loves to read, I opened the that big book… My heart gave a joyous bound. Here was a faith that emphasized what I felt so keenly… The words ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ seemed to caress my fingers from paragraph to paragraph and these two words released in me new forces to stimulate my somewhat indolent nature and urge me forward evermore.”[6]

Helen’s engagement with Swedenborg’s teachings was life-long; she avidly read and wrote about her spiritual journey and how God shaped her after this first encounter with the writer.  “It has given color and reality and unity to my thought of the life to come; it has exalted my ideas of love, truth and usefulness; it has been my strongest incitement to overcome limitations.”[7]

It is clear from Helen’s writing that her faith was core to who she was and from it her life arose. When we look at her legacy and her phenomenal life-long mission to help those who were blind, deaf, or disabled, her work for the emancipation of women and the equal rights and care for all people, we can see the threads back to her theological grounding.

Helen’s ability to live fully, despite her disability is one that has been greatly admired by many. Her physical disabilities gave her much she could have complained about, or fallen victim to, but instead she chose to approach her life’s limitations as teachers and opportunities for internal change.

She credits her approach to challenges to her spiritual path. She states, “Long ago, I determined not to complain. The mortally wounded must strive to live out their days for the sake of others. That is what religion is for—to keep the heart brave to fight it out to the end with a smiling face.” [8]  She saw her challenges as opportunities for growth and internal transformation as she took to heart Swedenborg’s teaching that “Limitations of all kinds are forms of chastening to encourage self-development and true freedom.” [9]

Helen knew in her own being that God had called her to important work to do in the world, and that she needed to continue to do her own internal work in order to follow this call to bring reformation to others.

She writes about feeling like Joan of Arc at times, willing to follow the voice that says, “Come” through any hardship or struggle. As her life progressed, we see her moving through the obvious struggle of functioning without hearing or eyesight with incredible strength, tenacity, and dedication to internal and external reform. Keller scholar Dr. Ray Silverman remarks that Keller “saw herself as a social reformer devoted to relieving human suffering.” [10]

The reform that Helen fought for was often expressed as a need for external outcome, such as women’s right to vote and economic equality. Her spiritual writings, however, called for a reform of the spirit as well.  She spoke up for educational systems that were not exclusively focused on the intellect, encouraging compassion, consideration, and empathy as worthy educational goals.[11]

Seeing the need for systems to be transformed strengthened her commitment to be a voice for internal transformation; she believed that transforming individuals would contribute to changing society as a whole. She drew heavily on Swedenborg’s teaching that humanity without love and pity is “worse than a beast,”[12] and spoke to the recklessness of the power of thought when it is used for harming others. She called for reformation of the human spirit, and a spiritual vision where love, wisdom, and useful service prevail.

Throughout Helen Keller’s writings and speeches, she shares that the overarching message that she drew from the teachings of Swedenborg was one of God’s love for all people—regardless of their religious beliefs and allegiances. Having read the many volumes of Swedenborg’s writings, she sums up her reading of his central theology with three ideas: God as Divine Love, God as Divine Wisdom, and God as Divine Power for use.”[13]  She shares her vision for this eminence of God’s love for all people as she reflects who God is by saying, “Such teachings lift one up to a mountain summit where the atmosphere is clear of hatred, and one can perceive that the nature of the Divine Being is love and wisdom and use, and God never changes in God’s attitude toward any one at any time.” [14]

Helen’s life, teaching, and writing was a continual outpouring of this love from God to all people as she became a sought-after voice for social reform. Silverman touts Keller’s widespread engagement with these movements.

Helen did indeed carry the banner of social reform to all, and fought valiantly to raise consciousness about the plight of the handicapped. But Helen’s social reform did not stop at combating preventable blindness.”[15]  Silverman goes on to outline Keller’s work with the suffrage movement, speaking up for social injustice and against racial prejudice and corrupt politics, denouncing business greed, and openly speaking against the horrors of war.[16]

She shares her draw to see God in all religious paths when she writes: “Instinctively, I found my greatest satisfaction in working with men and women everywhere who ask not, ‘Shall I labor among Christians or Jews or Buddhist?’ but rather say ‘God, in thy wisdom help me to decrease the sorrows of thy children and increase their advantages and joys.'”[17]

She writes about being told by “narrow people” that those who are not Christians would be punished. She describes her soul being “revolted” as she considered the possibility of the wonderful people she knew who had lived and died for truth as they saw it ending up in hell. Helen was able to reconcile her Universalism with her Christianity through Swedenborg’s teachings on the symbolism of Jesus Christ. “I found that ‘Jesus’ stands for divine good, good wrought into deeds, and ‘Christ’ symbolizes Divine Truth, sending forth new thought, new life, and joy in the minds of all people, therefore no one who believes in God and lives right is ever condemned.”[18]  She went on to write often about this view of salvation and how it informed her life, action, and teaching.  Helen’s theological understanding of God being one who created and loves all people came to life in her work, as she advocated for those who were not being seen by society at large.

Through Helen’s beliefs and her own disabilities, she becomes passionate about issues of equality and the care of all people.  According to Dennis Wepman, author of one of the many biographies of Keller, she had been long distressed about poverty and its effects on American children. She had also become a staunch suffragist—an advocate of women’s right to vote”.[19]  Joan Dash, another Keller biographer, connects Keller’s actions for justice to her own experience of feeling on the margins. “When she visited the foul-smelling slums of New York, she was reminded of her hopeless and powerless existence as a child,”[20] which spurred on her work to bring hope to those who are suffering.

As we hear stories of lives such as this one, I notice it is easy to write ourselves out of the story. The person we look to is in some other realm or possibility. We tell ourselves we can’t expect to be one of “those people” who leaves an impact on the world. We draw a line between ourselves and the mothers and fathers we look to for inspiration. Helen Keller’s story calls us each to action and contemplation, work and theological reflection in our own lives and ways.

Her words echo with us…

“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.” 

We are only one. But we are one. I am one. You are one. You cannot do everything, but you can still do something.

Helen calls us to live a life of action and a life of beauty and contemplation.

Helen Keller’s life calls us to do. Arising from our faith in a loving God, to do something that we can do in the world.

She calls us to give bread to those that are hungry,

Stand for those that are oppressed,

Serve a God of love,

And bring the beauty of the fragrant roses to the world.

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[1]  Helen Keller and Ray Silverman, How I would Help the World (West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation Press, 2011), 7.

[2] Keller, Silverman, and Keller, Light in My Darkness, 22.

[3]  Ibid. Page 23.

[4]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World (West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation Press, 2011), 28.

[5]  Ibid. Page 29.

[6] Ibid. Page 32

[7]  Ibid. Page 11.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Helen Keller , My Religion. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1927), 144.

[10]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World, 35.

[11]  Ibid. Page 42.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Emanuel Swedenborg and Jonathan S. Rose , The New Century Edition of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000), 298.

[14]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World, 77.

[15]  Dennis Wepman, Helen Keller (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 33.

[16]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World, 18.

[17]  Ibid. Page 10.

[18]  Keller, Silverman, and Keller, Light in My Darkness, 88.

[19]  Wepman, Helen Keller, 68.

[20]  Dash, The World at Her Fingertips : The Story of Helen Keller, 129.