You Can do big things!
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,
I recently read an article describing the traditional Quaker phrase, “Proceed as way opens.” According to the article, the phrase, “Proceed as way opens” or “As way opens,” is “an encouragement to live with a kind of intentionality and willingness to “be” with a question or decision rather than jump to a rash action out of panic or pressure.” As way opens requires us to check in with ourselves–to consult our hearts and that place of deep knowing that lies at the center of each of us. And it asks that we view the time of waiting and checking in and consulting as something that is itself holy.
Which is NOT at all how I tend to look at this time because honestly, time spent checking in or waiting or consulting my heart or my place of deep wisdom is all pretty touchy-feely for me. I don’t want to sit in my questions in a place of pondering for too long. I want to act. I want to do. I want to fix. I want to draw my sword and storm the steeple and do it all YESTERDAY. I don’t want to be uncomfortable for too long. I don’t want to feel my mind and my stomach churning and turning with questions for days on end. I want to move. I want to decide…even if what I decide isn’t the best decision at least it was a decision! I wonder if you can relate?
This weekend I was mulling over some decisions in my own life, and I decided to try to sit with them instead of diving into some decision feet first. So I did my laundry and hung the clothes out on the line as I pondered…and way did not open. I worked in the garden and read a book on the front porch… and way did not open. I did the dishes and learned to make soap…and way did not open. I went to see the fireworks and swam my 12 lengths of the pool at the Y…and way did not open. I spent time with my dogs, and my spouse, and my parents…and way did not open. With each passing moment I pondered, and I listened, and I watched…and way never opened. And eventually, this attention led me to understand that way was not opening, and the sacred rhythm of my life was not leading me to proceed in this particular direction at this particular time.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, author and poet, Parker J. Palmer, tells the story of an elder Quaker woman who explained to him that, “An open door and a closed door are the same thing. They both send you in a direction.” But I wonder how many times I have missed a holy message my life was speaking to me because my attentions were all caught up in my discomfort and my fear and my panic of not knowing the way forward. How many times have any of us forced ourselves out of the sacred rhythms of our own lives and into a decision that was out of sync for us personally? How many times have we tried to make something be because we were too impatient or afraid of letting something–or ourselves–just “be” while way opened…or didn’t open…within us or around us? I can’t answer that for you, but for me…more times than I can count.
What I learned over this long weekend is that, when I trust the process, way opens…or it doesn’t. My job isn’t to force something or to make something happen. My job is to listen. To be attentive. To do the simple things that comprise my life and to wait for my life to speak to me. For it is, I think, in my life’s own voice, in my life’s own sacred rhythm, and in my life’s holy ordinariness where I brush up with the Divine.
Learning to proceed as way opens 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.