Circle of Mercy began as a shared daydream among Nancy Hastings Sehested, Ken Sehested, and Joyce Hollyday during hikes in the mountains of Western North Carolina in the spring of 2000. Their conversations on the trails finally led to the launching of Circle of Mercy in December 2001, on the first Sunday of Advent. Initially, the congregation worshiped in participants’ homes, but it soon outgrew all available living rooms, and space was secured in the parish hall of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville. On December 3, 2006—the fifth anniversary of Circle of Mercy’s launching—Nancy, Ken, and Joyce offered the following reflections on the history and vision of the congregation.
Wondering and Wandering
By Nancy Hastings Sehested
We “wondered as we wandered out under the sky” how three restless friends could find a church home. It was the spring of 2000. Joyce, Ken, and I wandered in the wilderness, the Pisgah Forest wilderness, winding up the trails, jumping across creeks, tossing sticks to the dogs, and naming our heart longings for a community of faith. I am not certain who said what, but the conversation sounded something like this:
“Wouldn’t it be great to be a part of a community clearly called out for the mission of peace and justice?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we did not have to fight the battles over using expansive language for God?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if the doorway was always propped open, offering welcome for any wayfarer, from young ones to older ones, and all kinds of folk in-between?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could experiment with some other forms of leadership, like the three of us being co-pastors?”
"Yeah! Then we could be more like spiritual midwives than institutional managers!”
“And maybe we’d find folks who really want to explore what it means to be pastors to each other…that ‘priesthood of the believers’ thing…and other leaders would emerge among us too.”
“And music!!! That would have to be at the heart of worship. And it would be diverse and enlivening. We could be a singing church.”
“And we would be attentive to all kinds of arts—visual and performing arts.”
“And don’t forget eating! We’d want to eat together!”
“And let’s meet on Sunday evenings. Evensong time, 5 p.m…so folks can spend their day like today, wandering about in a wilderness.”
We wondered as we wandered out under that sky.
“But wait! What are we thinking!? This is nuts! We don’t want to start a church. Have we forgotten how many failed communities we have been a part of?”
“What do you mean by ‘part of’? Heckfire! We’ve been the leaders of those failures.”
“Oh, yeah. There is that. We do have a rather disastrous track record. What do we have to offer?”
“We can hope that no one who comes asks us for references or credentials.”
This is the part of the story when someone brought up Jesus.
“You know that he didn’t give us a blueprint for church. No by-laws. No covenants. No creeds. He hung around twelve guys who didn’t always get the message…much less get along.”
Ah….there’s hope for us.
We wondered as we wandered why we would ever imagine starting a church. What is it in us that can risk loving again when our hearts have been broken? And what is it in us that knows our hearts will be broken again and that we will wound hearts again too…yet still, yet still…we risk the relationship?
When Jesus prayed and pleaded in Gethsemane not to drink the cup, to let it pass…was he speaking about his certain death on a cross? I wonder. I wonder instead if he was agonizing over the death of all those dreams. Perhaps the cup that Jesus did not want to drink was the cup of failure…failing to do more, failing to do what more he could for those who suffer, failing to bring reconciliation even among his own small band of disciples, and failing to see God’s movement more fully realized. Joyce and Ken and I have drunk from the cup of failure.
So, here is not why we sounded a call for this church: that we thought we could do it perfectly this time around.
Here is why we sounded a call for this church: because we know the story…the story of beginning again. The story of redemption and resurrection, mercy and hope in the stark and terrorizing face of all life’s failures. The advent of hope remains.
Here is why we sounded a call for this church: we know that we are shaped most profoundly in community. We are a forgetful people. We need to sing and dance and tell this story regularly until it becomes embodied in our flesh. We practice it and we live it.
Here is why we sounded a call for this church: we just could not let go of the story…the grand story of
God, the radical story of Jesus…that story that stirs us, baffles us, mystifies us, challenges
Five years ago, we sounded the call in the dark and listened for others who might be within earshot who would want to walk with us on this trail. And you came. You came from your many paths. And we saw the same undeniable longing in your step. And we have laughed and wept together in the clearings…and listened for the echo of the Holy One to keep us going.
The advent of new life emerged. The story holds. The Holy One is among us. We are still wanderers, starlit by wonder.
Selah. May it always be so.
Reflections on Our Name
By Joyce Hollyday
“Mercy!”…That’s my response to Nancy’s rich and eloquent sharing.
It seems we used that a lot in the early days.
“Let’s start a church.”
“Let’s be a circle.”
Ken was the best at “Mercy!”-ing. He had it down.
Before we launched this church, when Nancy and Ken were living in Clyde and I was in Pisgah Forest, we emailed a lot. I began to notice that Nancy signed off on all her messages with the closing, “Mercies.” I liked that. I felt like I received a blessing along with every message. I needed it.
It may well be that mercy is what our world needs most of all. We live in a time of revenge, of “three strikes and you’re out,” of “tough on crime”—and tough on “terrorists” and immigrants and anyone else we’ve decided we don’t like. We need mercy.
When we were pondering a name for this congregation, I consulted the dictionary for a definition of mercy. I found five: 1) a disposition to be kind and forgiving; 2) something for which to be thankful, a fortunate occurrence; 3) kind and compassionate treatment of an enemy; 4) alleviation of distress; and 5) God’s gratuitous compassion. I love that mercy encompasses compassion and justice, forgiveness and love for enemies.
Ken recently went to the internet to find biblical references for mercy and forwarded the results. There were sixteen pages’ worth. My concordance says that the word mercy appears, in some form, 327 times in scripture. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with references to the “mercy seat” as the resting place of God, the place from which God speaks to the people. There’s the wonderful promise that “God’s
mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23). And the marvelous words from Sirach, with the repeated refrain that we voiced tonight in our litany of celebration, “God’s mercy endures forever.” Romans 12 refers to presenting our lives as a living sacrifice, “by the mercies of God,” not being conformed to this world but being transformed—which has a lot to do with why I want to be part of this community.
The beatitudes tell us, “Blessed are the merciful”(Matthew 5:7). Psalm 23 assures us, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” (Don’t worry, I’m not going to quote you all 327 references). “Have mercy on us” was the cry of many of the people whom Jesus healed. James 2:13 claims, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” And the apostle Paul began many of his epistles with the greeting, “Grace, mercy, and peace to you.”
We sit in a circle as a sign of the mercy that we extend to one another. The circle reminds us that there is no hierarchy here. We all have equal access to the table of grace, and we’re all welcome here. We are indeed a Circle of Mercy.
From Paul’s opening to Nancy’s closing, mercy is the blessing we give to one another. As tonight we both celebrate our fifth anniversary and mark the beginning of Advent, it seems appropriate to end my sharing with another blessing. This one comes from Zechariah, the father of John, who would come to be known as John the Baptist.
Zechariah was rendered mute for his doubt that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age. He’s just one of many people in the Christmas narrative who received visitations from angels. To a “much perplexed” Mary, the angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid.” To a mystified Joseph, he declared the same. To shepherds quaking in the fields, and a “terrified” Zechariah, the angels proclaimed, “Do not be afraid.”
When John was born, Zechariah’s speech returned, with passion and joy. He burst into poetry, ending his psalm of thanksgiving with these words, which I offer as blessing on us all tonight:
By the tender mercy of our God,
The dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
By Ken Sehested
Obviously, there were a variety of elements of the “vision” which Joyce, Nancy, and I pondered as we discussed the possibility of a new congregation. Of those, four are still clearly imbedded in my memory. And the first two have to do with leadership.
1. How can we create a community of shared leadership?
Among the questions that surface when considering the function of leadership are:
- Can we create a culture in which leaders do not create relationships of dependency, a leadership “style” that encourages a few to hoard the trailblazing role and turn the many into passive participants?
- Can we envision the role of leaders as similar to that of midwives, assisting all in the Circle to “give birth” to the unique shape of their vocations?
- How can we effectively authorize leadership—turn loose the creative energies of those who have particular abilities, skills and insights—yet also require accountability to the community’s sense of direction?
Over the years I’ve actually developed a stronger conviction about the need for leadership. I think leadership is one gift of the Spirit. But only one. There are others. Everyone has at least a little leadership capacity; and some people have a lot. And like with every ability, the more you use it, the better you get. I believe everyone in this Circle has something to say. Our goal should be to order our common life—that is to say, develop a leadership structure—that encourages everyone to make use of as many talents as possible.
2. How can we create a congregational culture that doesn’t wear people out?
The social class in which most of us are embedded is one with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We often come to church expecting the congregation to meet all our needs, defining success as an ever-expanding list of programs and projects. And like our larger culture, we actually want more than we can afford. When you combine that tendency with our commitment to shared leadership, what you often get is exhaustion: too many people trying to do too many things.
The challenge for us is this: How can we create an environment that navigates the competing convictions we hold—of shared leadership, of active commitment to our mission—without wearing people out with programmatic responsibilities? So that our fellowship is characterized by delightfulness rather than duty.
3. How can we create a congregation in which people aren’t reluctant to call themselves Christian, to be committed to this particular tradition and history and identity, without also creating arrogance?
Everyone in this Circle is very aware of the long history of exclusivity, sometimes enforced with outright violence, done in the name of Christian commitment. I am convinced that the way forward is not to abandon the particularity of our religious tradition, but to go more deeply into it. Exploring the boundaries of one’s identity is more effectively done when you’re clear about the center. As has been truthfully said: “When you’re thirsty, and in a desert, it does no good to dig many shallow wells.”
4. Finally, can we create a congregational culture that helps keep us alive?
To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story. Several years ago, while I was hiking with friends on the Appalachian Trail, an unexpected weather front came through and dumped a bunch of snow on our path. There wasn’t a problem during the day walking through the snow—except for the fact that we hiked through several rhododendron forests, with their branches bent low under the weight of it. Which meant that the tops of our packs were hitting those branches and snow was showering down our backs. By the time we made camp late that afternoon, our clothes were pretty wet. And the temperatures were plunging after sunset.
On the previous year’s hike, I’d brought my heavy sleeping bag, which was too warm, so that I was in and out of it all night every night and didn’t get enough sleep. This time I brought my lighter bag. Which would have been fine had not that arctic air arrived. For a couple hours I simply shivered in my bag, to the point that I began to get worried about hypothermia. I finally woke up the two guys I was sleeping between (Circle of Mercy members Mahan Siler and Mark Siler), told them I was freezing, and asked them to scoot up close to me to share some body heat. And it worked!
We need one another. When we were dreaming about this Circle of Mercy, we wanted to create a place of sustenance for Christians who, precisely because of our convictions, often find ourselves on the margins of mainstream institutions of all kinds—including religious institutions. Our vision for how the world could be ordered is such that we repeatedly confront the forces of vengeance and enmity and violence in the world. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, paraphrasing a text from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd!” We are some of those odd ones. And because of that, we get slapped around in the world. We often want to quit . . . or conform . . . or withdraw. So what Joyce, Nancy, and I wanted was a community of conviction.
The world as it’s now ordered can be a toxic place to live: This Circle is a place to detoxify our systems.
The world can be wounding: This Circle can provide a healing environment.
The world often pushes us to the edge of despair: This Circle provides an occasion for the renewal of hope.
The world can be confusing and disorienting: This Circle can be a place of clarification and reorientation, a place to stay in touch with the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth.”