Garden Church Gathering November 23rd 3:00 PM

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.


*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. 

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!



Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA


Today a woman was excommunicated by/from the Mormon church because of her advocation for the ordination of women.

This week the clergy of the church that I loved and worked for for many years, and finally chose to leave in order to pursue my calling to ordained ministry, meets and is discussing ordination and gender roles.

At the end of next week I will be ordained into the clergy of the Swedenborgian Church of North America.

These three events are connecting in my thoughts and feelings today and lead me to say:

May women be honored as the whole and created-by-God humans that we are–everywhere, and particularly in our churches and communities of faith.

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: Decomposition (Part Three)

Presented at Gathering Leaves 
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine

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.

2013-08-24 23.06.31To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole piece right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

The Compost Heap and the Church (Part One)

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? 

2013-08-24 23.00.24

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?”

2013-08-24 23.00.36

To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.  

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)


“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.


Into the hand of the child.




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.


“Being Broken Open” Sermon Video and Text

“Being Broken Open”
Preached at Joint Worship for Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary
Richmond, Indiana

September 14, 2012


“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Psalm 51:17

“God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1

“It is our wounds that enable us to compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.” – Rachel Naomi Remen

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” –Rumi

Jesus Walks with the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus and Appears to them in the Breaking of Bread
Luke 24:13-35

It was a warm August evening, Seattle Washington warm that is, the breeze gracing the 75 degree mark, and I was sitting at Café Presse, trying to get some words on the page and write. I sit at a narrow bar, looking out through large plate glass windows to a crowded terrace, filled with couples, girls on an evening out, and what looks like a visit with out-of-town parents. A man pulls up on his bike, another cruises in behind him, they lock their bikes and make their way towards dinner or a glass of wine. A young mother walks by, ear buds in, 3-year-old daughter skipping along in tow. The sun is at that golden time and Indy music lilts in the background.

Not many blocks away, three over and up two steep hills to be precise, is where I had been all afternoon. At Swedish hospital, where I have been all summer in a Clinical Pastoral Education program and where I had been answering calls all day as the on-call chaplain. After walking down the hill, and out of the sterile smell of sanitizing gel, into the fresh air, the faces lingered with me.

The woman I had just sat with and listened to as she told me of her long and desperate struggle with chronic illness. She tells me of suffering. Of feeling helpless, discouraged and not knowing where to turn. She had grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and asked,

“Where is God if I’m suffering like this?”

Earlier I stood with a couple, brand-new parents as of three and half days ago. We were in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, hovered over the infant bed where their son is hooked up to 6, (“just count-um” the mom says to me), different machines that are helping him breathe, eat, pee, be medicated, and monitor his oxygen, heart and his ongoing seizure activity. His father expresses wonder at what their son’s future may look like after the stroke he had when he was 48 hours old. His parents are teary and shaken as they tell me the story. “We’re optimists, we feel lucky we brought him in when we did”. I move into another room. Family is gathered, is it time to say goodbye to their grandmother? Can the family be at peace? Another room. A homeless woman, pregnant, denying recent drug use but testing positive. “I’ve had a lot of loss in my life”, she shares, “people just keep dying on me”. I listen. And wonder, what does the future look like for her? What does the future look like for her child? And I wonder: Where is God in this suffering?

When I stand in these rooms, when a chronically ill woman grabs my hands and looks me in the eyes and asks “where is God if I’m suffering like this?”, my brain quickly starts churning through the theological explanations, the constructions that can help sort through the laws of providence, the origin of evil, the power of human freedom. Her eyes bring me back to the moment at hand. And words bubble up in me: “God is here. God is in this suffering with you. God is walking beside you, holding you, strengthening you and will never leave you.” She starts to cry and I see something change in her face. The anxiety lowers slightly and for a moment she’s being held, apart from her questions and worries and pain. In her brokenness she touches something bigger than herself, a Loving Presence. So often feeling illusive, so constantly available.

My time as a hospital chaplain this summer was humbling. As chaplains we witness brokenness, pain and suffering. Day after day after day we’re exposed to these snapshots, moments, these sacred spaces where people are encountering their own mortality or the mortality of one they love. We walk into rooms where the people we encounter are facing the day where “everything changed”. We witness these moments and stand by to be a presence, a space to acknowledge, reflect back. We’re reminded daily that no one is immune to being broken.

You all know this. This is not a message that is confined within the walls of a hospital. Each one of us have our life stories, the places in our lives where we have encountered loss, or change. We are not immune to brokenness; we’re not exempt from pain and struggle. I believe each of us, when we sit with the question of “what was a time where ‘everything changed’”, we each could find a story. Loss of job. Serious illness. Children leaving home. Divorce. Moves. Internal conflict and confronting our inner battles. Loss of a loved one. Walking through loss with those we love. Seeing the brokenness in the world around us. Shootings. Starvation of millions of children. Mental illness. War. We could name so many.

And why? Why all the brokenness?

In our scripture today, Luke 24:13-35, we see this image of breaking…breaking of bread…Jesus was seen in the breaking of bread. The disciples were walking along the road, talking with Jesus, walking with him, hearing about the scriptures, telling stories, experiencing the companionship of Christ. But they didn’t know who he was. They had walked all day with him, but it wasn’t until they sat down for dinner, he picked up the loaf and broke it that they recognized him. It was in the opening up of the bread, that they saw him as the person they had spent the last three years with. It was in the breaking that they saw Christ.

I wonder if we are not the same way. It is in the breaking we see the Divine at work in the world? It is through brokenness that we encounter and are formed by our Creator?

Texts from my faith tradition, Swedenborgianism, offer the idea that physical things represent spiritual realities and particularly look at imagery in the scriptures and how God’s message comes on a variety of levels. In the book Secrets of Heaven Emanuel Swedenborg expounds on this passage from Luke.  Secrets of Heaven 3863 reads:

“It came to pass when Jesus sat down with them, that He took the bread, and blessed, and breaking it, gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they knew him”. By which is signified that the Lord appears by good, but not by truth without good, for “bread” is the good of love.

This passage illuminates the image of bread as goodness, as love from the Divine and offers the idea that God appears to us not merely in truths without good, but in the goodness itself. Jesus had been walking with the disciples sharing wisdom and truth and stories, teaching them and their hearts burned inside them. Yet it is not until they are seated at the table and he breaks the bread that they recognize him as the Christ.

Walk with me in this way for a moment. What speaks into our lives in this image of bread breaking? If bread is a symbol for love, if we see Christ in the breaking of bread, could one not posit that when our hearts are broken open, we’re given a precious opportunity to see how the Divine has been molding us and teaching us along the road and in the breaking we see God with us?

Before we move any further I want to clearly state my theological stake in the ground: Hurt, suffering and pain are not God’s will. I do not believe for a second that the Loving God of the Universe ever wishes for, or could even contemplate inflicting pain on the human race. The origin of suffering, evil, pain is another sermon—but I will give you my current theological cliff notes: there’s a bigger system going on here and God is not the cause of suffering. God is the God who is with us in it, walking with us and accompanying us. God is the force urging and bringing good out of struggles and using pain to break down the places in us that are stuck, that need to be moved. God is the God who is walking with us.

It is out of these places of struggle that we can find the Divine One molding us, breaking us out of unhealthy patterns, breaking down the view of ourselves and our views of God that are not serving us, and flowing in with healing and renewal. Marianne Williamson, a contemporory spiritual teacher puts it this way:

“Spiritual progress is like detoxification. Things have to come up in order to be released. Once we have asked to be healed, then our unhealed places are forced to the surface.”

There are parts of us that need to change. Our old way of being needs to change. We all need transformation. And our world needs transformation. Pain and suffering in the world often alerts us to systems and structures that need to be exposed, broken down, rebuilt, redeemed.

It is not a clear-cut system. The rules aren’t: do everything “right” and you will not experience pain and loss. We live in a much more complicated ecosystem. Our own inner-beings are complex and filled with paradox. We live in a world where there is freedom to make choices, choices that have consequences. And we live in a world where our individual choices and our communal choices ripple out and the collective affects us. Sometimes bodies break down. Sometimes people die in accidents. Sometimes people we trust betray us. Sometimes we do our best and things don’t work out the way we planned.

I don’t like it honestly. There’s still a piece of me that is attached to the idea that there is a set of rules that one could follow that would make it all “work out”. But that doesn’t seem to be the system. The system seems to include times where we are worn down, cracked open.

So, when we encounter these seasons, be they a moment or years, we can choose to encounter them as a sacred space of opportunity. A time to choose something new and to look at ourselves and the world differently. When we encounter times of brokenness and suffering, knowing that it can be an opportunity for transformation can change us and guide us in how we encounter and lean into brokenness.

This past winter I took a class from Carole Spencer on the Christian Mystics, the great teachers, contemplatives and prophetic voices of the church throughout history. We saw that across the mystic traditions, there is a similar three stage process that is outlined: purgation/being emptied out/being broken, illumination, infilling God’s presence, and unification—being connected and united with God. As I was taking this class I was walking through a dark time in my own journey. When we read St. John of the Cross, and he talks about “the dark night of the soul,” I could relate. I found great comfort and power in having words to name the feelings of darkness and great strength in knowing that this could be part of a journey closer to God.

The darkness, the brokenness became an opening, a crack for God to break through to cracks and crevices in my soul. Parts of me that I had held “within my control” were crushed and things I had counted on were no longer true. I wondered how I could even consider being in ministry when I was so flattened and broken. Weren’t we called here to seminary to be taught and built up as ministers for God? How on earth could I ever contemplate being there for others on their spiritual journeys when mine was crumbling and being flattened?

When we encounter these times when we feel we have nothing to give, times when God is working us over, chiseling away, forming us in the refiners fire, blowing away the chaff so hard we feel we might be blown away with it or be consumed by the heat. During this time I wrote a song, or a song came to me. I found strength and healing putting voice to my feelings of helplessness and I found the Divine One’s hand on my back when I was able to cry out, like the psalmist, lamenting the dark places and groping around to feel how God was working with me, standing with me. I share it with you this morning, (because we are talking about vulnerability after all…and we’re all friends here right?) as an offering, a witness to the Sacred breaking in. As I share it, I invite you to close your eyes and let the Sacred speak to you, move in the cracks of where you are today.

Broken ©Anna Woofenden 2012

You call to feed the hungry,/To comfort to those in need.

You call to clothe the naked,/To offer some relief.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

You say You’re always present,/Closer to my heart.

In trial and in struggle,/In restless night’s apart.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

I feel the pain around me,/I ache with loss and fear.

How can I keep on going,/Will You hold me near?

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

I am the one who’s hungry,/I’m lost and I am raw

All I have to offer,/Myself empty and flawed.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

Surrender to Your journey,/Formed by the fire.

I have no strength left in me,/It’s You that I require.

My soul cries out,/My soul cries out.

I’m broken,/I have nothing left to give.

Giving voice to these feelings and finding witness in community we can find wholeness. God can flow into those cracks and broken places with gentle healing, strong molding and formation and reconciliation and hope.

As I’ve been preparing this sermon I’ve felt resistance – to sharing this topic, singing a song of lament, wrestling with what could be a “downer” of a topic. Coming off of this summer, I want to bring you a cheery message. CPE is great. Go God. There’s part of me that wants to wrap it all up in some pretty little theological box and hand it to you. To tell you that this “seminary formation process” is as glossy and smiling as it looked on the brochures when we first applied.

But that would not be honest to the message that’s on my heart, and that would not be the gospel truth for this morning. The truth the Divine One is teaching me is that life is messy. And if I’ve learned anything this summer doing chaplaincy work, it’s that life is messy and no one is immune to this messy. There are no magic religious fixes, no pithy phrase that can wipe away struggle, grief or doubt.

And while we’re at it, being formed for ministry is messy. And painful. And just so we don’t leave anyone out, being human is messy and each of us are formed through engaging in it. Henri Nouwen talks about the “wounded healer” how we are formed through our struggles and wounds and how, if we allow it, these wounds can become a source of powerful ministry. He writes:

“…ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.”

As I came back to school, just a few days after finishing CPE I was so ready to be a student again. A full course load and a stack of books greeted me as welcome change after the summer in the hospital. I had put in my 11 weeks of learning and giving, gotten my certificate and was ready to focus on my classes, disappear into the readings and put the memories of death and suffering, trauma and loss behind me. But it turns out it doesn’t work that way. My body and psyche are still processing the summer and demanding attention to give space for healing of secondary trauma, to move through the compound grief that piled up. I hit a point last week where I cried out. “I didn’t sign up for this!”  A gentle reminder came back from a colleague. “Yes, yes you did. That’s part of the ‘formation’ process. It’s in the fine print. You consciously agreed to God rearranging your life in answer to call to ministry.”

Yes, yes I did. We all did. We continue to. It is what forms us. Engaging in the lives we encounter, engaging in our own process of discovering authenticity and wholeness, it’s part of what we signed up for. It’s part of our formation for ministry, our formation as spiritual beings. As we heard in one of our readings this morning from Rachel Naomi Remen,

“It is our wounds that enable us to compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”

Because here’s the secret, that I know all of you know: it’s in the brokenness that we see the Divine at work and that we are formed. The presence of God that walks with us through the joys and the sorrows, the pain and the celebration and works us down to the core of who we are created to be. The way you can look back at a difficult time and see how you grew closer to God in it. The humbling that comes when we are honored to witness loss with another. The theological de-construction that takes you to the place of wondering and doubt that you never wanted to encounter. The reminders we receive to hold life as precious and sacred after a loss. The intentionality we can take into who we are and the choices we make as we’re healing from struggle. It’s in these spaces of brokenness that we are reminded; we glimpse that which is true all along. We are not alone. We cannot do this on our own.

And that’s where another gospel message, the good news, shows up: the gospel of community. We can experience the power of being a community that can walk with each other through the joys and celebrations and in the struggles and dark times. I see in this group faces that know brokenness and that know community and know the joy of God’s Spirit moving. I feel a spirit here that offers a place for people to come and be real, to bring their whole selves. A place where those that are struggling can give voice to it and can feel God’s love and care, in the message and in being lifted up by this group. And I hear a deep passion and desire from this people to be this to the community, to our current ministries and our future ministries, to the world. That you are here, gathered together today, because you know that people’s lives are breaking, that there is loss and pain in the world AND you know the power of God’s love and healing and the power of people who are humbly looking to be the hands and feet of God. Conduits of the Divine work in around us.

Because at the end of the day, we are vessels, vessels infused with Divine Light, urging and pressing to be received and to flow through us. We are vessels that are cracked and broken, broken wide open to receive God’s ever-flowing energy and love. We are humans, all of us, walking broken in a broken world. Does that sound depressing, maybe, or maybe it’s beautiful. We can wallow in the brokenness, or we can dance. Dance as we’re broken open. Dance as we tear the bandage off. Find the beauty, because in the brokenness that the Sacred flows in. It’s when we surrender to something bigger, because we realize we have no choice left, that the Spirit moves. It’s when we’re willing to walk knowingly into a room filled with pain and suffering, to be present, engage, and witness and name the Divine urging and pressing to be received. If we are willing to be broken open by the world and filled to overflowing with God’s love. Then broken is beautiful. Broken is sacred. And broken is holy.

 May the God who breaks us open, the God who heals the brokenhearted, the God who walks beside us every step be with us all. Amen.

Easter Morning 2012

Christ has risen!


Christ has risen from the dead!

The newsfeed proclaims,

This Easter morning

two thousand years later.

We reach to touch

the awe

the wonder

confusion and fright



of Mary

and Mary.

Disciples who walked with Christ.

They couldn’t believe,

How could this be?

I struggle too.

Is this God of resurrection,

Christ incarnate Word,

Alive and well today?

I, like Thomas,

Want to ask for physical proof,

Show me the children being fed,

Show me the marriages being healed,

Show me the wars subsiding,

The violence ceasing

The hateful words subsiding.

If you are the Christ,

Get down off that cross,

And change things,

Change things for us today.

But not my will,


Thy will be done.

Into this world,

Christ was born.

Into the humanist

of human conditions,

Christ entered.

Walking step by step

Into the contradictions we face.

Providing a constant,

a beacon,

a Divine Light

to follow and let grow inside.

This beacon we reach for,

This light we hope for,

This new hope we glimpse,

This Easter morn.

The Human One,

Risen! Divine!

Our Hope

Our Beacon

Our Spring Bulb,

Bursting forth

with Color

with Vibrant Strength

Out of the cold ground,

After a long, dark winter.

“I Heard An Owl” by Carrie Newcomer

This song has been one of my musical prayers of late.  It wrestles beautifully with the nature of evil, love and healing and what is God and what is human and where the hope and action come in.

Here’s a link to a youtube video someone made using the song if you’d like to listen to it. Or check it out on iTunes.

I Heard An Owl
by Carrie Newcomer (on her 2002 CD “The Gathering of Spirits”)
I heard an owl call last night
Homeless and confused
I stood naked and bewildered
By the evil people do

Up upon a hill there is a terrible sign
That tells the story of what darkness waits
When we leave the light behind.

Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves
The whole world weeps and is weeping still
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love.

I am a voice calling out
Across the great divide
I am only one person
That feels they have to try
The questions fall like trees or dust
Rise like prayers above
But the only word is “Courage”
And the only answer “Love”

Light every candle that you can
We need some light to see
In the face of deepest loss
Treat each other tenderly
The arms of God will gather in
Each sparrow that falls
But makes no separation
Just fiercely loves us all.