This past Sunday morning I met the end of myself. I didn't know it would happen as it did, and I certainly never imagined it would happen in the middle of the hustle and bustle. But sure enough it happened and, looking back, I am so glad it did.
If you were in worship on Sunday morning, you know that our musician for the day sent a text that morning to say that she was in the ER. So, I scrambled to put together a CD of service music for worship that morning. I had also brought in Fellowship Treats, unaware that someone had signed up after I left the church Thursday evening for my Sabbath. SO I was trying to do this as well. I also hadn't gotten the online worship service pre-recorded for Sunday due to my knee injury and subsequent doctor's appointments, so I set my phone and the tripod up on Sunday morning to Live Stream the worship service to the church's Facebook page.
Evidently, I should never play poker. For many reasons, really, but for one in particular: My face tells everything. It always has. And what my face was saying Sunday morning, I think, was "I am anxious. I am sad. I am overwhelmed. I am exhausted." And that's when it happened. I met the end of myself. I met the end of myself, and my hustle, and my tendency to over-function. I met the end of myself, and met the beginning of community....and I met that beginning in you.
When I finally stopped trying to do all of the things, I met concern. I met kindness. I met camaraderie. I met relief. Through offers of help. Through hugs. Through willing hands ready to pitch in. Through encouraging words. Through laughter and conversation and a mutual desire to care for each other, I met the end of myself and my limitations and found new life in the embrace of St. Paul's Beloved Community. And I thank God that I did.
I know some weeks that church feels like one more thing to do. I know if feels like one more direction we're being pulled in. But I also know what a DIFFERENCE your presence makes for me and for others when you show up. For someone, your presence isn't "one more thing," it's "the only thing" that pulled them through. For someone, your presence is what pulls them back from a direction filled with despair. For someone, you and your willingness to be church and offer community support and connection is just what they need to be reminded that not one of us gets through this by ourselves...not you...not even me.
Each of us free-fall from time to time. That is a part of the human condition. But, to quote the fictitious doctor, Meredith Grey, from ABC's Grey's Anatomy, "If there's an upside to free-falling, it's the chance you give your friends to catch you." May each of us take the chances we are given to catch one another in the embrace of a loving, compassionate, grace-filled community. Maye each of us remember that this community is here to catch us too.
Free-falling into grace with you,
Sometimes as I read and study throughout the week, I find myself so moved and inspired by something that to try to recreate it would be a disservice to the original author and to the work itself. This week, such inspiration came my way, and I want to share it with you. The following is an offering from one of my most favorite folk singer/songwriters, Carrie Newcomer. Carrie is a Quaker, a musician, a lover of nature, and the co-host of the Growing Edge podcast with fellow Quaker, author, and friend, Parker Palmer. Please soak in her words this week and let them be balm for you.
Learning to become a lake with you,
Stop being a glass. Become a lake.
What to do with a handful of salt
I was working on a new song this week with my friend and colleague Gary Walter’s. When we sat down to write, Gary read a quote from an old story. This is the story.
Once an unhappy young apprentice came to an old master and told the master that he was deeply sad and asked for a solution. The old master instructed the unhappy young apprentice to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it. Then he asked “How does it taste?” “Terrible!” spat the young apprentice. The master nodded and asked the young apprentice to take another handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to a nearby lake and the apprentice swirled his handful of salt into the lake. The older master said, “now drink the lake.” The apprentice cupped his hands and drank. Again, the old master asked, “How does it taste?” “Good!” said the apprentice. The master then asked, “Do you taste the salt?” and the apprentice smiled and said, “No.” The master sat beside the trouble young apprentice and took his hands. “The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same. But the amount we taste depends on the container we put it into. So when you are in pain, the wisest thing to do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”
Stop being a glass. Become a lake.
I really loved this story. I know that when I am angry my vision narrows. When I am worried or in pain my world tends to get smaller and feel more confined. I’m trying to drink a glass of water that contains a handful of salt. The salt is bitter. A human being cannot survive on water that salty, you can drink the full glass and still be utterly parched. But that same amount of salt in a lake is diffused, becomes part of a larger whole. When I am suffering, in pain, worried or outraged, it is wise to enlarge my sense of things. Yes, there is a handful of salt, but the lake is also filled with so much more. My life may have its struggles, but there is still the light on the water, time working in the garden, walking with my dogs, chatting with my daughter. There is music and laughter, potlucks and fresh blackberries. There is poetry and birdsong, kindness, courage and decency. There is beauty and there is a handful of salt. Sometimes there might be 2 handfuls of salt.
I think the point of the story is not to deny the salt, to pretend it isn’t there. I think it is a story about how we negotiate the presence of that handful of salt. To know it, acknowledge it, feel it—but then to enlarge to heart and mind and spirit in a way that helps me carry that salt in a more life giving way.
In such troubled times, it can feel as if the world has poured a handful of salt into my open palm. But that is not the end of the story. I can expand my sense of things, engage in life-giving activities and heart opening contemplation. I can hold unease or outrage in tension with love and grace, simultaneously and creatively.
Life is going to bring salt. But oh my friends, there is a wider lake and the most beautiful living water to help us carry what might otherwise leave us in despair or stuck.
Question: What does “Stop being the glass. Become the lake.” mean for you? When some kind of pain or suffering narrows your vision, what helps you to expand your vision and enlarge your heart?
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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,
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.