Greg Yost, November 2014
One of the curses of theological education is that you forever after over think the simplest of things. When I read that my church affiliation renewal faith story tonight was to be entitled in the bulletin “Why I believe in this church”, my first thought was, “Why, I’m not so sure that I do!” After all, declaring that you believe in something is a pretty sweeping statement. It’s a little understood fact that no person can believe in more than just a handful of things at a time. You really ought to pick what you believe in with great care.
So let me start more modestly and just tell you a few things about this church and me. Terri and I were there for the early days of Circle in Kim and Stan’s basement. It was, and still remains, a very long drive for us from northern Madison County. But from the beginning we had a strong sense of what we could give to and receive from Circle. We came back to North Carolina from a vital community of culture-challenging faith in Kentucky and well understood the near impossibility of finding another such community in our new home. When this Circle formed, we eagerly attached ourselves and our young family to it in spite of the distance and the resulting time and expense involved. It was worth it to us for Anna and Will to grow up around people like Bill and Linda Mashburn, Louis Parrish, Dale and Kaki Roberts, and all of the rest of you. And it wasn’t just for the sake of Will and Anna, either. Would I have found adequate spiritual sustenance elsewhere for myself in these last 15 years? Probably not.
So what has Circle meant to me? Just these things:
- I am challenged and inspired by your lives more than your words.
- You have supported me as I have grown as a person, and you were there for me during a time when I came to understand that I have long suffered chronic depression, and also when I was able to seek treatment and return to a quality of life that I haven’t known for decades, or maybe ever.
- You have supported me in my calling to work for climate justice. When my arrest in 2009 resulted in an unanticipated criminal fine of $1900, you spontaneously took that burden from me to be your own, something that I will never forget. Your support continues in the present day, too, most recently in the unsolicited, generous gift from one of you to help pay the fine for my blockade at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington. That gift was made sacrificially by someone with no desire for recognition, and I honor and respect that, except to say that his name was Jim Miller.
- You are a place of warmth and friendship for me. You are my comrades, my compañeros, by whose side I struggle and with whom I journey, called to a distant horizon. My patience has worn thin to the point that I can hardly abide hearing Jesus’ name invoked apart from that call, but that doesn’t mean that I am emotionally autonomous and free of the community which spiritually birthed me. You are my tether to a larger community of faith without which I would undoubtedly be diminished rather than enlarged.
So, do I believe in this church? Yes! I really do. I’ll say it and I won’t mince my words. Terri and I will be reaffirming our commitment to Circle Of Mercy again this year and we’ll be making another pledge of financial support, too. That pledge will have to be less than in years past because Terri and Will are in college now and I am a North Carolina public school teacher. If ever there were a recipe for creeping penury, there you have it.
But the life of Circle of Mercy is not, has never been, and never will be contingent upon the size of its budget. We grow when we invest ourselves. I’m ready to do it.
RR, November 2014
Just the other morning, I was visiting a school in Hebron, Palestine where I’m serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams. I walked out into the schoolyard to hundreds of boys covering their faces and crying as teachers shepherded them inside. The Israeli military had just thrown tear gas right outside of the UN school. The gas began to sting my eyes and my throat as I made my way through the crowd of children, but I kept looking, and I kept breathing.
This scene is all too common in occupied Palestine. And it’s easy to let daily detentions, child arrests, and home demolitions feel ‘normal’ and expected. But as people of faith, we know that this is not the world community that God has called us to be.
Some of you have been joining me in reading the book of Isaiah. Those well-known verses in Chapter Two have been sticking with me recently: ‘They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this vision will actually come to pass, when I live across the street from a military base where soldiers are training for war and when thousand year-old olive trees are being burned, making pruning hooks useless.
But together, we chip away at the cracks in the walls of occupation and oppression. Each of us in this Circle takes our tiny hammer-hands and bangs away at those swords. When one of us loses faith in the Vision of the Beloved Community, the rest of us are called to hold the hope for each other. Because our most faithful God did indeed promise plowshares and pruning hooks.
While we attempt this work as a Circle of Mercy, we’re learning the necessity of celebrating life in the midst of a culture of destruction. Emma Goldman tells us that “It’s not my revolution if I can’t dance.” And I sure know that I need to dance my heart out at a church prom every once in a while. I also need to tube down some rapids in the fresh mountain waters with good friends. I need to come back to this circular, merciful table again and again to eat the Bread of Life and drink from the Cup of Joy.
And through all of this—through the work and the celebration—we grow nearer to our loving, liberating God. So as I choose, once again, to be a part of Circle of Mercy, I’m daring to be faithful to a promise, to a particular group of people, and to following the Holy Spirit. And I dare you, too, to move in a little nearer.
Dancing Forward: Reflections on the Stand Against Racism 2013
Faith Story by Beth Maczka
May 5, 2013
As most of you know, I am the new Executive Director of the YWCA of Asheville. I’ve been on the job for just over nine months, and I still learn something new every day. One of the first things I learned, which a friend helped articulate for me from her own experience, is, “Everything is racial and everything is political.” To say the least, it’s been a steep learning curve, with one step back for every two steps forward.
Many days I have been frustrated by the lack of trust among my co-workers at the YW. Long-held hurts and complaints are raised up many years later, as fresh as if they happened yesterday. And sometimes, those concerns are from yesterday.
I’ve wondered, how will we ever live into our amazingly bold mission? Eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. Some days it just feels like a set-up. When will be become that Beloved Community?
And so, I braced myself for the recent Stand Against Racism, expecting the events to uncover more unmet injustices, both within the YW and the broader community. And I also hoped that, even if we have to take one step back, we will still make two steps forward.
About two weeks ago, there was an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times highlighting the upcoming Stand Against Racism events. I was briefly quoted, noting the importance of community groups coming together to address racism in our community.
The very next day I received a letter from an inmate in Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine. An African American gentleman had written to thank me for the work we were doing at the YWCA to address racism, but expressed his doubt that anything would make a difference during these “evil times.” He wondered if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had died in vain. He shared his plight of being a black man in prison and examples of being ignored by anyone white.
As with most of us, I don’t receive many letters these days. I was inspired to turn away from my e-mail and computer screen and write Mr. Davis a brief note of thanks and encouragement. I mentioned my excitement about the upcoming Stand events, including our all-staff retreat that weekend and the conference on inclusion in the workplace the next week. I then turned my attention to the two busy weeks of Stand activities that culminated with our Black and White Gala.
It would take me a long time to go into all that I learned during the different Stand Against Racism events. I’ll share a few heartbreaks and highlights.
It broke my heart to hear of a study shared by Dr. Robert Livingston that noted that when, given time, both whites and blacks stopped to help a black person who had fallen on a sidewalk. However, when rushed and with a pressing commitment ahead of them, whites helped a black person in need much less frequently. They were given a “socially sanctioned excuse” to act on their unconscious racial bias.
But it gave me hope that this esteemed academic shared this study at a sold-out conference co-sponsored by the City of Asheville, Buncombe County, UNC-Asheville, and the Center for Diversity Education, which was attended by more than 200 people representing 50 other community organizations. Information is a start.
It was hard to hear another speaker, sponsored by Mission Hospital, share a story about her experience of Election Night 2008. A rare African American Ph.D. in a new college community, she went to the home of a colleague to watch the returns. Shortly after Barak Obama’s historic win, an older white colleague, who didn’t know she was a new member of the faculty, pointed a finger at her and said,” Now you have no excuses.” She is a third-generation Ph.D...and she was speechless.
But it gave me hope that Dr. Jeffrie Anne Wilder told this to a group of older white doctors and hospital administrators at the YMI Cultural Center, and that a clear example of white privilege was shared so publicly and without blame, but with the hope of educating a new audience.
I cried the first time I saw the video series called Unnatural Causes and learned of the difference in birth outcomes for white and black women, even when there were similar backgrounds in education, wealth, and neighborhoods. African American women have a much higher rate of premature births – simply from the stress of being black in our culture, from the daily micro-aggressions that wear at one’s soul. But it gave me hope to know that MAHEC [Mountain Area Health Education Center], ABIPA [Asheville Buncombe Institute of Parity Achievement], and the YMCA shared this video and provided facilitated conversations around racial equity in healthcare outcomes.
We don’t stand against racism because it is easy or socially correct. We stand against racism because it is our work, our challenge as white people of privilege to learn, and reflect, and take the next steps forward.
Last Monday, I got another letter from Mr. Davis at the prison. He was thrilled to have received a response to his letter. He wrote me six pages about how he debates fellow inmates about the Apostle Paul and the role of women in the church and why he thinks women should be in charge of more things. I can’t wait to tell him about the Circle of Mercy and the all-women Board of Directors at the YWCA. And I can’t wait to tell him some of the things I learned through participating in the Stand Against Racism.
And I want to tell him that last Thursday night, at our Black and White Gala, I saw a glimpse of the Beloved Community: more than 500 hundred people—African American, Caucasian and Latino—celebrating together. AmeriCorps volunteers in their 20s dancing side by side with 92-year-old Leah Karpen. Childcare workers dancing next to the parents of the children they watch, and after-school counselors teaching board members and corporate donors to Wobble and do the Electric Slide. It was a truly beautiful sight…and I’ve decided that I don’t mind taking those steps back as long as I get to dance forward!
March 17, 2013
This will be just a slice of the faith stories behind my war-tax refusal and work for human rights. First, a poem by G. K. Chesterton:
… In everything that bends gracefully there must be an effort at stiffness.
Bows arc beautiful when they bend only because they try to remain rigid…
Rigidity yielding a little, like justice swayed by mercy, is the whole beauty of earth.
Do not try to bend, any more than trees try to bend.
Try to grow straight, and life will bend you.
I was a child of the South. And like poet-priest Dan Berrigan said of his relationship to his birth church, I felt deeply in touch with the traditions of my birth community and at the same time deeply at odds with those traditions. My generation watched as the civil rights movement struggled to change those traditions. And over time and incrementally, I came to understand that the gospel narratives, when read through the lives of people struggling for equity and human dignity, could create social change. I witnessed the people of the town of my birth change.
I entered the Vietnam War years convinced that a movement of nonviolent civil disobedience could change history. When the Selective Service came knocking, I found myself in the midst of Quakers. Their simple belief, “There is that of God in each person,” resounded within me as a more populist understanding of the incarnation. “Our All, within All.” It became the bedrock of my decision to refuse military service in Vietnam.
My experiments in community – Plowshares in Durham, North Carolina, and the St. Louis Catholic Worker – led me to see that truth is not something we hold. Rather it is what we release for each other in our attempts to create the Beloved Community. “Wherever two or three gather…”
The truth that was released for me within those communities was an ancient one: “The earth is God’s, and the fullness thereof.” The resources that pass through our hands, the products of labor or the proceeds of wealth, are sacred trusts. I could not invest them in war.
After the birth of my first child and the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, I began with others to openly refuse to pay federal income taxes and to redirect those taxes to the needs of people. How could I with one hand refuse to fight in Vietnam and with the other hand pay for others to fight in my place, or for bombs dropped in my name?
This is a “rigidity” that I have practiced for more than forty years; and just as Chesterton predicted, life has bent me. I’ve come to see that there are many ways for people of conscience to respond to war taxes. I’ve discovered that the redirection of war taxes is perhaps more prophetic than the refusal itself, and now I manage an alternative fund for war-tax resisters. I have learned to welcome those with reservations as eagerly as the resolute.
I was forced to create a human rights project as a form of self-employment and became a more effective advocate for the protection of human dignity and came to know, more profoundly, inequity as a primary cause of war. The annual ritual of writing the letter of refusal and redirection has become almost a mantra, a prayer. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of non-war-tax resisters who supported my children when my resistance impacted their lives.
On several occasions I’ve been tempted set aside war-tax refusal. But the chronically poor people in neighborhoods where I lived in St. Louis, the besieged villagers I visited in El Salvador, and those threatened today by Drone strikes just will not allow it. For me the redistribution of the earth’s resources begins over and over again with a simple question: How will I handle my portion of this sacred trust?
February 10, 2013
Yesterday at our church retreat, we shared faith stories from the communities we grew up in. It was fun to learn things about you all I hadn’t known before. Faith stories are like highly personal creation myths and sacred scriptures. Each of us is a cosmos in miniature, and faith stories explain how spiritually we came to be.
Some parts of our stories are like the early chapters of Genesis: stories from our very beginnings as small children, pulled from prior nothingness into spiritual existence by the families which loved and nurtured us. Other parts are more like I and II Samuel and I and II Kings, stories that depend on a clear chronology and lots of details for them to make sense. And I suppose still other parts are like the Psalms: recollections we have of periods in our lives in which we felt close to God, or estranged, or angry with God, or comforted by God’s care and presence.
Tonight, on a Sunday in which we focus on climate change, it occurred to me that I might try to talk about my faith story in a slightly different way. Rather than looking back on the past or reflecting on the present, I’ve wondered if I ought to tell a story of the future, a story which has yet to happen. It’s not that climate change itself, the physics of it, demands that sort of treatment. Clearly climate change deserves to be discussed in the present tense because it’s happening right now. Its early manifestations are beyond serious debate.
No, the impetus for framing my own story in the future is an abiding sense I have that the enormity and existential challenge of climate change has recast all our lives now as a prologue for a drama which soon will follow. Like European Jews before the Holocaust, or kidnapped Africans on the Middle Passage; like the Cherokee before the Trail of Tears, or Judah before the Exile, climate change will soon uproot our lives. The shared tragedy will define us and bind us for an unforeseen number of generations to come
However, as dire as that sounds, alone it makes for a pretty boring story, and it’s certainly not a faith story. Try this one instead. It’s the story I would like to tell with the remaining years I have:
I reached a point in my life when I realized things would change. I realized that greed, alienation, and idolatry, the sin and evil which had bedeviled humankind since the beginning, were now so tightly focused by capitalism’s global lens that their damnable heat had at last become smoke and fire. The beautiful world I loved was burning.
But I was pissed off. I wasn’t ready to lose it all. I didn’t walk 6,000 miles through this country’s mountains, didn’t receive the gift of so many friends over half a century’s time, didn’t witness the resilience of my communities of faith both religious and secular, didn’t watch all those sunsets and drink all that cold spring water, didn’t have a son and a daughter just to wave my hands in surrender and let them take it all away.
And so that’s when I figured out I would empty my hands of the things I was just holding. I filled them again with things I could actually use. Things like loyalty, and rebel energy, nonviolent action, and urgent love.
It was only when I let go of the hope of winning that I was set free of the fear of losing. I wasn’t frozen in place anymore. I could move.
So that’s my faith story, and that’s part of what’s on my mind as I and the rest of our Circle delegation head up to D.C. later this week for the climate change march. The Washington gathering is going to be large. Hopefully it will prove important in moving President Obama to consider the n
egative climate consequences of allowing TransCanada to dig and refine Alberta’s tar sands.
But as energizing and obviously potentially important as the D.C. rally will be, I want to spend a moment to describe and ask for your help with another situation which may hold equal significance to the Keystone XL Pipeline, but is here close to home. Duke Energy, thanks to its recent but not yet fully consummated merger with Progress Energy, supplies 97 percent of North Carolina’s industrial and residential energy needs. If you take the merger into consideration, Duke is the nation’s largest energy company, with a service territory that covers many states, power generation facilities across the country, and even operations in Central and South America. Duke has become an industry leader, a huge boat that swamps others in its wake.
Duke operates in North Carolina as a regulated monopoly, which means that ostensibly we the citizens of the state have some oversight through a Public Utilities Commission of Duke’s rate-setting and infrastructure purchases. The oversight process requires Duke periodically to submit an Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, for Commission approval. The IRP details Duke’s twenty-year plan for supplying the state with power and how they propose to produce and pay for it. Without strong guidance from an engaged Public Utilities Commission, the IRP is little more than a blank check which Duke writes according to its fancy. With the approval of the state, Duke is able to draw upon the funds of its captive ratepayers to underwrite profits, irrespective of the wisdom or fiscal responsibility of its business practices.
Hidden in the current IRP lies an environmental disaster every bit as daunting as the Keystone XL Pipeline. At precisely the moment we have to (not should, but have to) reduce energy usage and transition to a post-carbon-based energy economy, Duke wants to expand the role of fossil fuels and cost-prohibitive nuclear plants, while effectively decreeing a deadend for clean energy sources such as wind and solar. Wind, solar, and drastically enhanced energy efficiency should be the foundations upon which we build the next generation’s energy needs. Duke’s plan relegates these crucial elements to a mere decorative bow for the dirty and expensive cash cows that they’ve milked successfully for so many years.
If the IRP gains approval, Duke will carelessly spend the money that is our state’s last, best hope to face up to climate and energy reality. At this point, a clean energy economy doesn’t have the time to arise organically, winning the field against its heavily subsidized, dirty competitor—if indeed it ever did. The money spent on fracking, coal, and nukes is the very same money that won’t be spent on wind, solar, and efficiency. We’re talking about billions and billions of dollars over the next two decades. The oversized, quasi-public entity that is Duke Energy must fundamentally alter the course it has set for itself if we are to have any chance to adapt.
There are ways to resist Duke’s plans and, as a beginning, to use designated democratic channels of free
expression. On March 5th here in Asheville, there will be a Utilities Commission hearing into a Duke/Progress proposed 14 percent rate hike. We have to oppose this proposal both before and during the hearing, as it will affect consumers across the board, including the many thousands in our area who already struggle to keep the lights on and make ends meet. Environmentalists, poverty advocates, the business community, and most of all, citizens themselves need to recognize and respond to this attempt to siphon away the wealth of our communities to tangibly harm our communities’ futures.
As for the IRP itself, its only public hearing was to be tomorrow night, February 11th, in Raleigh. We petitioned across the state for additional local hearings in Asheville, Charlotte, Wilmington, and elsewhere, and in the end were successful in gaining one in Charlotte on February 28th. There is a lot we can do to make use of the Charlotte opportunity: letters to the Commissioners, speaking at the hearing, publicizing the event and educating the public, and showing up in Charlotte energized and engaged in mass numbers are all obvious steps we can take.
If you’d like to link arms with the statewide network pushing back on Duke Energy, let me know after tonight’s service. Organizing ourselves to harness our collective ability to speak up and act up will be the key in this fight and, indeed, all of our struggles going forward. In the end, the most important faith stories we will tell here at Circle of Mercy won’t be the ones we hear from individuals from time to time on Sunday nights. They will be the ones we live together out in the world.
Jessica Sehested Mark
November 18, 2012
An excerpt from Maria Rainer Rilke’s Book of Hours:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
For those of you who may not know me, my husband, Rich, and I opened a Pilates, yoga, and bodywork studio named Happy Body in South Asheville a little over two years ago. It was the realization of a decade-old dream of having many mind/body services together in one place. And the realization of an “ever-since-I-can-remember” dream of helping people of every age and ability feel a more connected sense to the bodies they inhabit.
I knew from the inception of this business that I didn’t want to follow the standard rules for how most businesses are operated. One thing I knew I wanted to integrate into the foundation of Happy Body was that giving back to our community through services and finances was paramount to our integrity.
I knew that I did not want to build Happy Body on the idea that one day we could hopefully be a business that gave back to the community—maybe one day, when we had enough money and it felt safe and comfortable and we were 1,000 percent positive that our extra giving would not make a dent in our profit margin. I knew that that one day would be a very long way off, if it came at all, if all of those conditions were met first.
So, why not start from the beginning? Why not allow our efforts of giving to be the pillars of our strength and health, not the wishful maybe-it-can-happen-someday pipe dreams? Why not embody those very ideals and begin to live into who we really want to be in the world? Yeah...why not?
So before I even knew it, Happy Body, in its first 16 months in business and in the middle of a recession, had given away more than $4,000 in cash and almost $5,000 in services to non-profit organizations in our community. I do not give to our community in order to feel warm and fuzzy inside, or for more stars in my crown or pats on the back. I do not give back to assuage any guilty feelings. I give back in order to more fully embody and live into the spirit in which I was created and Happy Body was birthed. We have already set ourselves on course to go to the limits of our longing.
Another reason Happy Body was created was to be able to use our resources of experienced instructors and financial support to begin to bring movement awareness to groups of people who otherwise would not be able to afford classes. This story began about three months ago when a yoga instructor named Jaime called and asked if we had any openings for a teacher. I recited my usual canned answer by saying that we did not at the moment, but we would love to keep her resume on file if she could send it to us.
And then suddenly my normal script took a detour, and I began saying that Happy Body was looking for instructors who might want to work out in the community. Happy Body was interested in funding a few hours a week for someone to teach yoga to groups outside our studio. Jaime responded that her passion was teaching yoga to underserved kids, so when could we meet? Three days after an initial meeting, Jaime had lined up six classes per week with kids at the YWCA and Children First, a non-profit working with children and families to empower them to greater potential through education, advocacy, and services. Both organizations were ready for her to start the following week.
I came home with a mix of emotions—some feelings of great excitement that this idea was already coming into fruition, some feelings of unpreparedness that “all of my ducks were not in a row,” and many feelings of concern of how we would pay for these added six classes a week. Rich, the watchful eye of all the numbers, did not have a mix of emotions. He only had one. Where, again, was this money coming from? I wasn’t sure, but I knew we would find the money.
Fast-forward a week or two when I was having a bodywork session with Donna, a new-to-me client. She had been a regular of Happy Body’s Pilates classes for a few months, but I did not know her well. During her session I was learning more about her story out of poverty. I am always curious about how people make dramatic shifts in their lives.
As I was listening to her story, I happened to mention that we wanted to begin to help kids learn good habits of body awareness from the beginning, and that was why we had just started employing a woman to begin some kids’ yoga classes at the YWCA. I expressed my excitement and my faith of knowing the money for these classes would appear, and it was of greater importance to me that these kids begin to learn how to use their bodies as a resource for increased support and peace. She asked how much we needed for the program. I responded, “Around twenty-five hundred dollars for four months of classes.” She immediately said, “Well, I’d be in for a thousand.”
In the days after Donna’s generous gesture, I thought about why she decided to make such a bold offer without hesitation. I don’t think it was because she was searching for warm fuzzy feelings. I don’t think it was because she might have felt guilty if she didn’t give. I have a hunch Donna’s giving enabled her to deepen her embodiment of herself by supporting the embodiment of these kids.
I have come to learn that my understanding of the world, other people, and myself comes not through my cerebral cortex, not through words or thoughts or images, but through my senses and my body. I have come to easily recognize how feelings of fear, anxiety, and discomfort are made manifest from the inside. When you think of fear, can you notice what your body does physically? Can you feel a sense of tightening or restriction or pulling away?
Usually we are fearful because we want to protect something, to shield ourselves from harm. It is a natural, physiological instinct that has kept our species alive for many years. I have learned that, for me, many of my fearful feelings are, in some manner, connected to the fear of not having enough money. If I don’t have enough money, how will I eat or have a place to live or clothe my body? Not to mention be able to afford my daughter’s college tuition or travel or pay for my goat cheese addiction.
So I have played with noticing in my own body where fear likes to take up residence. I have noticed how the feelings of discomfort around talking about money can easily be avoided by changing the subject or distracting myself. But when I look away, I disassociate that space in my body from the rest. I rob my body of more understanding of itself and a deeper sense of knowing, which allows for the embodiment of the whole.
Noticing this, I have then played with how those fearful, uncomfortable feelings can have a different relationship in my body and how fear might find support and have the possibility for change. I’ve noticed that in softening the tension around fear, my body can widen and create more space. And within this space I begin to feel more support, more communication, and more presence to all that is. I find that I can inhabit more of who God created me to be in the world and discover more and more beauty in and around me.
And so here we are in the season of Circle of Mercy that requires bringing our money conversations into the light. Those feelings of uneasiness and discomfort may or may not rise to the surface for you. If they do, I invite you to pause and notice. I invite you to look around and search for what might bring support to those feelings. What might it feel like to widen and soften the area around your fear?
November 11, 2012
Whenever it’s stewardship time, or I encounter one of the many Jesus stories about money, I am reminded of a family canoe trip we took a few years ago. We were peacefully floating with the current when [my daughter] Leigh decided it would be fun to get out and play on a rock in the middle of a wide section of the New River. I carefully guided the canoe so she could climb out, and I held on to the rock while she flitted around for a few minutes.
Then it came time for Leigh to get back in. As she stepped into the canoe, a great wind blew. Suddenly, with one foot on the rock and one foot in the canoe, Leigh looked at me with a face of panic as the distance between the rock and the canoe grew. She desperately squeaked, “Dad.”
There wasn’t much I could do. The wind was too strong. I helplessly watched as Leigh performed an impressive split over the water and, you guessed it, eventually plunged into the flowing river. We laugh about it now, but Leigh is quick to say, it was not funny in the moment.
I’m guessing you feel it, too. When we try to mix Jesus with our lives, with giving, it can feel like we have one foot on a rock and the other on a wind- blown canoe, and we are doing a precarious split over a great river. And maybe that’s how it’s supposed to feel. Not that Jesus wants to scare us, guilt us, or shame us, but I do think he wants to baptize us, again and again and again. He wants us to fall more and more into the great river.
It’s clear to me that the economy he describes to the rich young man, in today’s story of the widow who gives “everything she has to live on,” in the parable of the prodigal son, in basically all of his stories and teachings, this Jesus economy is not the same economy around which my life is oriented most of the time. Most of my time, energy, and money goes to the “ordinary” economy, not the Jesus economy. It goes to the rocks that give me a sense of stability and the canoe that gives me a sense of control.
At the heart of it, I don’t think this Jesus economy is really about money. We see that in today’s story. The widow’s offering is not going to do squat for the church budget, but it’s the full-stimulus package in a Jesus economic recovery plan. Perhaps discerning what we do with our money is just an obvious way that Jesus stretches us from one kingdom to the next. It’s one way that we get to unleash a little more heaven on earth. It’s how we move a little closer to the great river.
But wait. Before we start thinking that this is about “success” or “outcomes,” let’s be clear. Giving ourselves to the Jesus movement, financially or otherwise, is a waste, at least by any ordinary economic tool’s measurement. It makes no sense. It does not add up.
An activist friend named it perfectly for me a few years ago. He said, “I just don’t get the whole church thing. I mean, my church is this: I give my time and money to non-profits because they accomplish things that the world needs.” In one way, he is exactly right, and I imagine that’s why we as individuals and as a community support the important work of non-profits that accomplish the many things that the world needs. And, I want to suggest that this giving of ourselves, of our money, to the church is something different.
It’s not about keeping the Church (capital C) going. The Jesus movement will be fine without us. It’s not about accomplishing goals that we can see and celebrate, though that may happen too. It’s not about a return on our investment. It’s about returning on God’s investment in us, in humanity, in creation. It’s about remembering that God is God and we are not.
It’s about giving ourselves to the river, the one that keeps flowing regardless of what we do. It is the River of Life that Jesus so wants us to bathe in. Not for the sake of some church’s budget, but for the joy and peace that await us and God’s world.
It’s about true freedom, not just the freedom to choose. This river is at hand, it is near. We gather to try to remember it, to try to see it so we can help ourselves and each other drink from it, wade in it, and maybe even fall in it. It’s so worth our attention and our giving.
In the end, it’s nothing to fear. If you don’t believe me, ask Leigh.
November 4, 2012
I think this would make a fun writing prompt for a stewardship testimony: Compare and contrast a typical church stewardship emphasis with an NPR pledge drive. Circle of Mercy, you’re Asheville. I don’t have to explain National Public Radio pledge drives to you—huge, steaming bowls of guilt sweetened with humor sprinkles. Lord, deliver us from me turning the next few minutes into an NPR pledge drive.
But don’t worry. That’s not going to happen. While the aspiring creative writer in me might relish the opportunity to chuckle about foibles of church and radio, the Christian disciple in me knows that this is not the way to go.
Even with the genuine warmth Jesus often displays in the gospels (such as last week’s story of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), Jesus never puts any stock into being cute or clever. And it’s not that the Jesus of the Bible is a perpetual scold. Rather, Jesus’ teaching, stories, and actions are simply focused. Jesus cuts through fluff and distractions to get to the heart of a matter.
We’re unused to this. It’s why, I think, that the gospel so often hits us like a bucket of ice cold water to the face. It’s why, once Jesus wakes us up, we want never to fall back asleep.
The stewardship story in the gospels which best exemplifies what I’m talking about is the familiar passage of the widow’s mite:
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in her two mites. “Truly I tell you,” he said, this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:1-4)
There are three things Jesus teaches us here. The first is that God doesn’t care how much you have. Maybe that’s not surprising; after all, this is God we’re talking about. The second, however, is that God doesn’t even care how much you give. The real issue is, how much do you keep for yourself?
The key difference between public radio fundraising and Christian stewardship is that the radio business, or any business, takes money to run. The church, on the other hand, doesn’t need money and sometimes would be better off without it.
Yes, you heard correctly; your church treasurer just told you that the church doesn’t need money. Really, all the church needs are disciples who can stand with Jesus in the temple and see what it is he sees. And, honestly, it’s a lot easier for us to raise boatloads of money than it is for us to understand what Jesus saw that day in the widow.
I’m not saying it’s hard for us to understand intellectually or romantically or even aesthetically. On a shallow level, the story is beautiful and appealing. What I mean is that it’s hard for us to understand existentially, such that the widow’s faith in God’s providence becomes our faith—a faith in which sacrificial giving is possible not because we’re driven forward by the cruel whip of guilt, but because we’re skipping lightly ahead in pursuit of a new life that we’ve discovered in the nick of time was our birthright all along.
Yes, it’s hard. How hard is it? It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Who then can be saved? With God, all things are possible.
My own stewardship testimony is that I have learned that for me to understand things like that, I have to be in a place like this. And I can say that to you more confidently today because of, and not in spite of, the last three years that I’ve spent on the Circle of Mercy Church Council.
Church Council service is useful not just in the sense of the necessary chores that get done there, but in the vantage point it offers over the wide range and often little noticed ministries and works of mercy that you, the church, perform. I watch you taking care of each other and our wider community, even our planet, and I know that what I’m witnessing is what Clarence Jordan would have called a test plot, or a proving ground, of the Kingdom of God. Of course I want to invest in that! How could I not?
When Terri and I soon get around to the mundane act of filling out our pledge card for Circle of Mercy for the coming year, we’ll do it because we know—albeit now still only as through a glass darkly—that that which we keep for ourselves only keeps us from joining that celebration where the hungry feast and widows dance. And that beats a coffee mug or a chance at a spa visit for two any day.
Broken, Yet Beloved
How do they introduce themselves in AA and NA meetings? “My name is Susan Presson, and I am an alcoholic.” Well, I’m not an alcoholic, but I am Susan Presson, and I am “broken.” I recognize that very, very clearly.
The thing that is harder for me to really believe is that I am also “beloved.” This struggle is one of my life-long themes. Perhaps some of you here can identify with this story.
For the last year, working at the Health Department has been so, so hard for me. Around Christmas time I kind of had a breakdown. Since the previous July, I’d been getting bad evaluations at work: my charting wasn’t good enough or detailed enough; I didn’t check all the boxes I needed to; I did a PAP smear on a woman who did not need one; my clinical judgment was a concern.
After working at the Health Department for 22 years, I was really falling apart. I realized that I couldn’t think of anything good about myself. I was a failure.
I did have it together enough to recognize that I had to “call in the troops.” I had to call upon the people who love me. I called Jeanine Siler Jones, who is an incredible counselor! I was desperate. She and her family were leaving town the next day to visit Russell’s family, but she could hear my brokenness on the phone, and she offered to take a walk with me that chilly December morning, two days after Christmas.
I called up Dr. Charles Murray, the retired medical director for the Health Department. I took several walks with Mahan Siler. Dr. Marianna Daly casually asked me, when I was walking in her neighborhood, “How are you?” (Be careful when you ask someone that!) She heard my brokenness and invited me into her kitchen for coffee.She was one more angel to me at the right time.
I asked Dale and Kaki Roberts if I could just come over to be with them. Dean (my husband) was very “present”—doing more than his share of the Christmas shopping, cleaning, cooking, and decorating. All these people were there for me when I just really needed to be loved. I sort of apologized to Isaac and Luke (my sons): “Sorry, guys; I’m having a bit of a hard time right now.”
So…the “troops” just listened to me and loved me. It wouldn’t have worked to shower me with praise and affirmation. I wasn’t ready. That would have seemed false. I just needed to be listened to, and for my pain to be heard and appreciated. I needed to be accepted and loved.
I read over and over again Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. A Catholic priest, Nouwen was a prolific writer, speaker, and professor at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. He was very open about his own struggles with feelings of inadequacy and depression. In Life of the Beloved, he writes about knowing that we are broken, and the harder challenge of accepting that we are also beloved.
When I’m stuck on just seeing the crummy things about myself, I surely am no good with my patients or with anyone else. I can’t be present to others. At work they knew that I “wasn’t quite right,” and they let me take off Thursdays and Fridays for the month of January. So with some break from work, and with calling on friends to love me, I slowly started getting better.
Being all too aware of the brokenness in myself, I’ve come to think that perhaps we’re all broken in some way. Some of us just fake it better than others. (Think of “puffed up roosters,” bullies, cocky people that you can think of.)
As I acknowledge my own insecurity, I recognize that though I admire people who are strong and successful, the people I am most drawn to are not really the people who seem to “have it all together,” but rather the people who recognize that they, too, are broken.
I can see others—the homeless, the immigrants, the prisoners, the poor—and I know that God loves them. The harder thing is to accept that God also loves me. This has been a recurrent challenge for me all throughout my life.
In high school I was pretty popular; I seemed like I “had it together.” You remember “senior superlatives”— “most popular”, “most likely to succeed,” “most athletic.”? Guess what mine was? “Most nominations.” I didn’t win much, but I got nominated for a lot of stuff.
Well, after high school I went to an Ivy League school, and dropped out when I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I went to work in the Congo as a “volunteer in mission,” travelled around Africa alone, and was in a bad accident that resulted in being in a coma and half-paralyzed for a week. My father called me “Jangled Brain” for years afterwards. I came back from a terrible accident after a heroic year in Africa, and I was “simple.” I was like a child.
But so many people came to visit me when I got home. And, you know, I don’t think many would have come by if I’d just come home triumphantly from a year of Christian service in Africa. Nope, I think they came because I was “broken” and nonthreatening. I was just simply me, stripped of all the pretenses.
I wasn’t smart enough at that point to fake it. I was very vulnerable. I realized that, sure, on the outside, I had looked great—as if I had it all together—but really unconsciously on the inside I was working hard to prove to myself—not especially to others, but to myself—that I really was worth what others thought of me. I really was worth all those high school nominations.
So if I, who seemed on the outside to have it all together, really was so insecure, then we must all have areas where we feel anything but beloved. I think, really, that this is my calling: to recognize my own brokenness, as well as the harder part—my belovedness—in order to acknowledge to others that they, too, are God’s beloved.
Faith Story: Why I’m Invested in this Circle
By Leigh Sigmon Siler, age 10
November 13, 2011
Circle of Mercy is important to me, because we help each other and share with each other in hard times and good times. I also like how we support people’s ideas and desires to do important things in the world.
For example, with the XL pipeline protest [in Washington, DC, on November 6], we received a lot of support from Circle of Mercy. And, without Circle of Mercy, we probably would have never joined in the XL pipeline protest. I especially want to thank Greg Yost. There were three rings of people around the White House and the government buildings beside the White House.
The organizers say that there were more than 12,000 people. It was powerful to me, because I learned that so many people care about our world. I have never seen so many people protest before. It felt good to be a part of the protest because this pipeline will affect my life and the lives of those who come after me.
That’s why I am so glad that I am a part of Circle of Mercy. You all help me see and do what is important.
Faith Story: Andrea Arias Soto
November 27, 2011
Andrea Arias Soto is a member of Circle of Mercy who will be returning to her native Colombia December 2011.
In September 2008, I attended my citizenship ceremony at the Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was part of a group of 480 immigrants who would become U.S. citizens that day. I remember having many mixed feelings about this, but I felt that citizenship was a tool to increase my access to the many things I had wanted, like traveling to other countries, bringing my family here, going back to Colombia to live for a while, and participating in civil disobedience actions.
I entered the auditorium and sat next to a tall black woman. The ceremony started with a video by President George Bush. Then the emcee started naming the 80-plus countries that were represented in the room. And then we all stood up and started reading the oath of Allegiance to the United States of America (emphasis is mine):
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
As soon as we started reading this oath, I began crying and so did the black woman next to me, and other people around us. There were very strong emotions going on inside me. But the most overwhelming one was because of the first sentence: the idea that I had to absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to my homeland, Colombia.
That meant betraying my family, my ancestors, my people. It meant to leave who I was out the door. The truth is that I never finished that sentence or the oath. I just couldn’t do it.
This oath is probably just a formality, but for me it felt very, very real. I thought about the people who, unlike Colombians, can’t have dual citizenship and do indeed have to give up their citizenship. And I thought about the woman next to me. Was she crying of happiness because this is what she wanted from the bottom of her heart? Could she now reunite with her family? Was she a refugee for whom becoming a citizen truly meant freedom, safety, and peace? Had she always wanted to live in the U.S.? Did she grow up in the U.S.?
I never knew. I never knew why all those people were crying, but I could feel that even though it was a sad experience, we all were very thankful, happy, and relieved to have such an immense privilege to be a U.S. citizen, at least on paper, and have access to things that, not long ago, were unimaginable for us. That day was a milestone in my understanding of my personal migration story as part of a much larger, complex, diverse, and resilient history of millions of people who have left their homes behind in search of a better life.
This September I went back to the Central Piedmont Community College, this time to exercise one of those privileges I acquired. I went to support a civil disobedience action in which seven undocumented students, who were brought here when they were little, were arrested and put in deportation proceedings. Very ironically, in that very place I was granted citizenship, which I accepted reluctantly and resentfully. Yet these youth, who grew up here, and for whom North Carolina is their first home, were denied citizenship.
After living in Western North Carolina for ten years, I now call this place home, too. I love these mountains, my friends, my mentors, the food, even the winter (just a little bit). And this week on my tenth November here, I enjoyed a yummy Thanksgiving dinner with Mexican molé, spinach casserole, cranberry sauce, plantains, rice, and German apple crisp.
There are many thoughts I could share with you about my immigrant experience. The one that has stuck with me for a while now, though, is this idea of el derecho a quedarse—“the right to stay”—as a human right. The right to choose not to immigrate; the right to live and die at home, whatever that means for you.
For me, it is now hard to know how to claim that right. Going back to Colombia? Staying here? I don’t really know. Ten years later, that concept of going back home is not clear-cut anymore.
I do know that now I want to return to Colombia and spend time with my family, in my Andean mountains. And I am going as a new person with new identities. As an immigrant, a Latina, a person of color, an activist, a pacifist, a Southerner, and a Colombian, one with lots of gringa traits, one with a broader definition of what it means to be 100 percent Colombian and yet embrace and uphold other traditions and beliefs while staying true to my values and fighting injustices.
One my biggest dreams for my Colombia is that farmers can return to their land and live peacefully. Perhaps this is very close to my heart because I come from a tradition of farmers, of mountain people; or perhaps because, in a way, I have been separated from my land, and I know, in a tiny way, that feeling of being uprooted.
I am really excited to spend time in Colombia. I can’t wait to witness my parents’ and my sister’s lives beyond visiting them for three or four weeks each year. I want to learn about the social justice work happening in a country shaped by decades of violence, U.S. intervention, militarization, and impunity.
But also a country where my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have lived and died. A country where there is always a reason to party and laugh (even at tragedy!), and where my sister and my 40-plus cousins are managing to survive and enjoy life. And in that new journey I am about to take, I am bringing in my heart the 200-plus friends and family members I’ve made here—and a renewed belief in God and a stronger connection to my spirituality.