My mom called me the other night to tell me about a television show on HGTV that she thought I would like. The show is called, "Bargain Block," and it is about a couple, Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas, who are purchasing horribly dilapidated houses in Detroit--often times for as little as $1,000 per home--and renovating them. But the couple doesn't just renovate one home on the block, they renovate several homes on the block...with a twist. The couple keeps the renovation costs down by doing the work by themselves, living in the homes (as soon as they are somewhat functional), and shopping at thrift stores for furniture and supplies. The idea is that if renovation costs are kept low, the purchase price can be kept lower as well. This does two things: 1) Allows for many first time home buyers to be able to qualify for home loans; and 2) Allows the couple to have just enough of a profit to continue transforming the city they love. In other words, Keith and Evan do their very best to ensure that their work is mutually beneficial for them and even the most entry level of buyers.
As I watched the show, I noticed how Keith and Evan were inviting curious neighbors over to see their work, and how the potential buyers who came to look at completed homes were often people with ties to a particular street or neighborhood who were looking to move back and make home ownership a reality. All of them commented on what a difference just one home renovation made in the community, let alone several on the same block. It was almost like the revitalization that Keith and Evan had to offer was revitalizing something in the people of and connected to the neighborhood as well.
You might be surprised to learn that our communities of faith were intended to function in this same way. In Paul's letter to the church in Rome, he wrote, "I really want to see you to pass along some spiritual gift to you so that you can be strengthened. What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine," (Romans 1:11-12, CEB). But so often, our faith communities don't function this way at all.
One reason, I think, is that we simply are not present to one another in ways that strengthen us. Yes, this can mean being physically present in the life of our community of faith (i.e. worship, faith formation opportunities, missions to the community, servant leadership, etc.), but it also means being fully mentally and spiritually present to one another when we are physically present with one another. Deepak Chopra is an Indian-American author and alternative medicine advocate. He shares that in order to be fully present in the moment and with each other, "we must let love creep in and allow it to become the healer and motivation for everything we do”. He urges us to remember that, “we are not our experiences or external results”, and reminds us to, “get into the habit of realigning daily & witnessing our mental space." In short, how we care for ourselves, how we open ourselves to love, and how we allow love to move and shape us, dictates how we are able to do the same with others.
If what Paul wrote is true--if our encouragement comes in the faithfulness we find in each other--what, I wonder, have you cultivated in your own life and in your own faith for people to find in you? How have you been caring for yourself so that others may find care in you? How have you been open to love so that others might find love in you? In what ways have you allowed love to move you and shape you, so that others might find the transforming power of love in you?
Our answers will be different, but one insight, I think, will be the same for us all: Our faith doesn't exist in a silo. Our faith isn't just about us individually. Our faith is about our COMMUNITY. How we live our faith and how we show up for one another directly impacts the health of the faith community. We can, dear siblings, be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in one another, but only if and when we show up--fully--mind, body, and spirit. Not some cleaned up version of ourselves, but who we are, just as we are.
Encouraged by your faithfulness,
It wasn't exactly what I had planned. I had planned a wonderfully relaxing vacation fishing, kayaking, gardening, grilling, driving to visit friends, and hiking. The weather was going to be unseasonably cool for the last week of July, and I was absolutely ready to leave my phone behind and get going.
That's how it all started out too. I was up early on Monday morning and started my usual walk with my dog Hank. Just two houses up from our house, we noticed a fledgling hopping in the grass. Hank and I kept strolling, not wanting to disturb the young bird's lessons from what I was sure was its nearby mama. Evidently we didn't stroll fast enough. Within seconds, a mama catbird came swooping toward us. Instinctively, I side stepped to protect Hank (I have a little Mama in me too, you know), and when I did this, I did not land squarely. My left foot rolled just a smidge, but that was all it took. My left knee hurt.
I continued the walk. I was an athlete in high school and--back then at least--the first steps when something rolls or twists are 1) See if you can bear weight and 2) Try to walk it off. So I walked, but the pain didn't go away. As I sat down to eat breakfast that morning, my knee throbbed. Sitting definitely did not help. I knew I was not going to have any choice but to go see the doctor.
The verdict at the doctor's office was I had strained my knee. I was given a brace, told to ice it, take some ibuprofen as needed, keep mobile, but not to do a lot of walking or pounding on my knee. And just like that, my vacation plans were altered...severely. Less than 24 hours into the break I desperately needed and everything seemed to be falling apart. I was down because I couldn't travel as far in the car with my knee bent for too long, so I couldn't go see my old friend. I couldn't go hiking with my spouse after they got off work. I didn't feel stable enough to go kayaking alone. I was going to get plenty of rest, I supposed, because I couldn't do anything.
Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother, Pema Chodron, once wrote, “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
The truth that I see as I look back now is that when I made room for everything to happen, I was the most content over vacation. I went fishing. My spouse drove me to meet my parents in Marshalltown to have pizza for my birthday. I could garden in short bursts. My sisters and my nephew came down for a surprise visit. We went to the Farmer's Market, I laid in my hammock, I detailed my truck, I canned pizza sauce with my beloved, I took time to watch a goldfinch out our front window. I had backyard campfires and my dog Hank was right by my side. I was sad over what I couldn't do. I was upset that some of the days felt wasted. I was renewed with the sense that no day is ever really wasted when I am present to it.
There's no great end to this story, and there's not great against-all-odds victory either. I went on vacation. I got hurt. I got rest. I found renewal, and I was sad. And all of it was good. And all of it was part of the sacred coming together and falling apart that happens over and over again in our lives. I didn't fall into that rhythm gracefully, but I fell into it all the same.
What about you? When was the last time everything fell apart for you? Were you able to make space for your hurt and your grief as well as your resiliency? Were you able to allow for pockets of both joy and sorrow? What do you think kept you from doing so? What would it take for you to let healing come from the room you create in your heart, mind, and spirit for these things to happen?
Making room for healing with you,
I, like so many of you, am taking the time to enjoy some R&R this summer. This week I hope to--amongst other things--practice unplugging and being present as a means to renew and replenish my mind, body, and spirit. Thank you for all that you are doing this week to make my time away possible.
In my absence, however, I didn't want to leave you empty handed in this week's ePistle. Rather, I wanted to share with you an inspiring story out of Faith UCC in Iowa City. Faith UCC is a small church, with 20-30 in worship every week. But they have worked to do a REALLY BIG THING. They didn't do it through isolation or separation from their community...they did it WITH their community. Be sure to read the article below to learn more about the BIG THING Faith UCC has done.
St. Paul is doing BIG things too (Suds of Love, to name one). And we are able to do these BIG things (and BIGGER still) when we remember that we are not alone. We are not on an island in the middle of gently rolling hills filled with corn, we are part of a community. And when we work from a space of UNITY with our community, we are truly able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine. We are truly able to help draw the kin-dom of God nearer still.
So please, in this era of mega-churches and mega-budgets, do not underestimate the power and the reach of our little community of faith. Do not underestimate the love and justice that can be born from 2 or 3 people gathered together in Jesus' name. Do not underestimate what faith can do when faith works with others.
You are ALL in my prayers regularly, and especially this week.
(Click the picture to read the article.)
For many years now, St. Paul, like the county courthouse on the square and other historic buildings in town, has shared its sacred space with honeybees. At the rear of our church building, near the gutter, is a beehive that has been living and active for more years than anyone seems to remember. On a number of occasions in the past, the leadership of our church has discussed the presence of these bees. We've brought in experts and hobbyists alike, trying to figure out the best course of action for the bees and the humans with whom the bees share space. And every time the topic has come up, the conclusion has remained the same: We will learn to coexist with the bees.
Interestingly, there is a spiritual connection to bees and their hives. In many Christian texts, the human heart was often referred to as a honeycomb. It is a place where sweet things, and not-so-sweet things, are stored away. All kinds of things get stored away into the honeycombs of our hearts.
Celtic Author Justin Coutts, tells the story of John Cassian, a monk who travelled throughout the Egyptian wilderness learning from the desert mothers and fathers. Cassian wrote down what he learned during his time there into two books which shaped the future of Western monasticism in general and Celtic monasticism in particular. In his book Institutes, he spoke about the honeycomb of the heart in the following way:
“The monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it more intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate.”
In other words, the vices and virtues which we gather from the people around us are stored up in the honeycomb of our hearts. An old Irish prayer associates this honeycomb of the heart metaphor with the beeswax of the candle. When we light a candle, this prayer submits, we are "inviting the Holy Spirit to cleanse the honeycomb of our heart. When the candle is lit, we set our hearts on fire along with it."
Which begs the question, what's taking up space in the honeycomb of your heart? What, in the very center of who you are, needs to be set on fire in such a way as to be purified or refined? What are you gathering up from those around you that isn't serving you or isn't helping the honeycomb of your heart thrive and grow and love? What sweetnesses are missing from the very center of who you are? What would it take to light the fire of your heart again so that renewal and growth might take place?
I wonder if we might learn to better coexist with one another, Creation, and the "me" each of us is away from all of the have to's and should do's and supposed to's of our lives? I wonder if we might learn a thing or two from the "St. Paul bees?"
Learning to navigate the honeycomb of our hearts with you,
On Monday morning I was having a discussion with another person from church. During that conversation, I was asked to answer a question with the understanding that my answer would essentially be me making a decision about a church program. I knew what my initial or "gut" reaction was to the question asked. However, I also knew it was Monday morning, and on Monday mornings I find that I feel the energy and the movement and the rhythms of Sunday mornings uniquely in my body, mind and spirit. So, at that moment, I declined making the decision, and instead simply and respectfully responded, "Let me think about that...I don't want 'Monday' to make this decision." In other words, I didn't want my "morning after" fatigue and overwhelm to have enough power to make such an important decision.
You heard me say last week that it's okay to wait and listen to your life and then "proceed as way opens," as our Quaker friends say. This is true and is a practice worth engaging, I think. However, it is also true that the ways in which I am able to listen to my life and what it is saying to me are deeply impacted by the condition of my ears, my heart, my spirit, and my mind. My life might be screaming at me to proceed because way is opening a big 'ol hole for me to walk through, and yet my unchecked anxieties, my fatigue, my anger, or my listlessness are making it nearly impossible for me to hear any message pointing to any way other than the way to my couch, in my house, alone, and under a blanket (dogs or cats, optional).
In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah gets SO UPSET that he wants to die. To be fair, he was afraid because Jezebel had vowed to kill him by the next day. So Elijah flees and runs out into the desert where he finds that in addition to being scared he is now exhausted as well. This is the state of his mind, body, and spirit as he cries out, "It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” But God, we read, encourages Elijah not to let fatigue, anger, or fear have enough power to make such an important decision. God provides a solitary broom tree under which Elijah could take a nap, and God also sends a messenger encouraging Elijah to eat and drink because he had a long road ahead of him. Rested, fed, and no longer thirsty, Elijah is able to press on for 40 days and nights to arrive at Mount Horeb to receive instruction regarding whom to anoint as his successor (Elisha).
The truth is, some days our hearts and our minds and our spirits are just not in any condition to make decisions--big or small. Our invitation as followers of the Way is to cultivate a practice of checking in with ourselves BEFORE we jump to decisions or conclusions. Do we have to make a decision right now? If so, what emotions or conditions of our lives do we need to name as that decision is being made? If not, what emotions or conditions need tending to before we are in a more balanced frame of heart, mind, and spirit?
The practice can start small--even with just an agreement that you make with yourself that you'll wait at least 5 minutes before making any decision, and in that 5 minutes, you can listen for your body to cry out with fatigue, or for your heart to whisper its fears, or for your spirit to name its anxieties. Our beautiful lives are speaking to us and are letting us know not only whether or not to proceed, but also whether or not we are in a balanced enough place to do so.
Learning the practice of checking in with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.