“Plant your garden. No matter what, plant your garden” were the wise words that Bob, a devoted father, offered his son as Bob lay dying in the early spring. The son understood Bob’s words literally. After all, his dad was an avid gardener who never failed to plant his garden every spring.
Yet, I think Bob’s words have a deeper spiritual meaning, and the garden that he had planted, tended, and nurtured was the garden of friends and family – of relationships – in his life. Wherever he was – whether at church or at the store or a restaurant – Bob greeted everyone he met as though they were an old friend. He reached out and made connections, so that each relationship grew like a seedling.
Bob’s life was grounded in Christ. He truly living out his baptismal promises by seeking and serving Christ in all persons and loving his neighbor as himself. As a state patrol officer, he served his wider community. As a friend, parent, husband, and parishioner, he served others – always planting and tending his garden as Jesus would, sowing Jesus’ way of love.
I’m struck by how we all can apply Bob’s wisdom to our own gardens. We can enrich the soil with the apostles’ teaching and faithful prayer and Eucharist. We plant our seeds of our relationships with love, and nurture them with respect and by seeking Jesus’ goodness and guidance. As our gardens blossom and flourish, we then share the good fruits with one another. And it all begins with that first step of planting our gardens!
Lent, Holy Week, Easter Day – the journey through the Resurrection cycle of the Christian year has brought us to the Great 50 Days. We walk through the time between Easter and Pentecost remembering the stories of the Risen Christ appearing to disciples who were shocked and amazed by his presence.
Nearly 2000 years after those appearances, many of us are still shocked and amazed to recognize the Christ present in our world. Just like the disciples on the Emmaus road, just like Peter and his friends eating breakfast on the beach, we can miss the true identity of that compelling presence, until we suddenly see it. The moments when we become aware that Christ is among us point us directly to the calling Christ has placed on our lives.
Aaric Eisenstein, who calls himself “The Avian Rebbe,” describes his work as “teach[ing] Jewish wisdom seen in the beauty of birds.” Recognizing that the value of everyday work is not always immediately apparent, the Rebbe commented:
The Hebrew word Avodah is an enormously rich tool with multiple meanings. This word is used in the Bible to describe the Hebrew slaves toiling in Egypt. Avodah can mean prayer or worship. Its meaning can be as simple as “work” or “vocation.” And there is a sublime interpretation, which reclaims the “servitude” in Egypt and instead speaks of devotion to HaShem and our community. All of these are valid interpretations, each one – though wildly different in detail – sharing the commonality of “service.” Avodah means to labor on behalf of another, sometimes horrifically – think the slaves in Egypt – sometimes beautifully – think the joyful way we serve God and those around us.
Evaluating work, our own or others’, how do we think of it? …. Avodah, a single word which incorporates meanings from slavery to most worshipful service, is no coincidence. The work we do – the service we offer – is defined by us, not others. It is ennobled by the way we do it and the underlying intention.
Living into our calling often begins with the surprising awareness of what God is up to, and then contributing our own avodah. The work of living into the fullness of a life patterned after Christ may begin with the surprise of Easter; as we learn to perceive Christ’s immediate presence, it can become a lifelong path of daily steps along the Way of Love.
After over two empty years – thanks to the pandemic – at Saturday’s Great Vigil of Easter we had the joy of gathering around the baptismal font as it was filled with water! By the Paschal candle’s light, we prayed with keen anticipation as the waters of new life in Christ flowed and were blessed. And although we’ve renewed our baptismal promises several other times since the pandemic’s inception, this renewal was clearly different. We renewed our baptismal vows with fervor, kindled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
With God’s help, we proclaimed our promises to
continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers;
persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord;
proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and
strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
Then, as the priest showered us with holy water from the font, we were reminded: “Remember your baptism! Remember your baptism!”
We might think, for a moment, that the renewal of baptismal vows ends there. However, this renewal offers us a new beginning. After being fed and strengthened at the Lord’s table, our renewed baptismal promises prepare us to go forth into the world, dripping wet, as bearers of Christ’s light and love, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit! Alleluia! Alleluia!
We’re about to enter Holy Week, an opportunity to feel the power and the poignancy of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We can choose to walk through those eight days as a memorial, a tradition, a liturgical banquet, a personal sacrifice. For me, this Lent, I’m drawn to reflect deeply on how each day’s drama is challenging me to live differently, starting now. How might my daily life be transformed?
My prayer is for God to change my heart. This song, “Last Words” by Karl Kohlhase has offered me a framework to press into opening my heart more fully. It calls me to see the habits I must let go to allow my heart to be – every day – more tender, trusting, thankful, holy, loving, perfect, and faithful.
"Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,”
I hear you pray for those who torture you.
These are the words that tear my grudges all apart.
Create in me a tender heart.
You turn your head to address a dying thief.
“Today you’ll be in paradise with me.”
These are the words where every hopeless soul must start.
Create in me a trusting heart.
Your darkest hour you cried out from the tree,
“My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
These words of anguish pierce me through just like a dart.
Create in me a thankful heart.
Then unto Mary, “Woman behold your son,
Behold your mother,” your dying words to John.
These words begin a family of which I’m part.
Create in me a holy heart.
You said, “I thirst,” yet it was not for wine.
You thirst for love from desert souls like mine.
And with these words a flowing river you impart.
Create in me a loving heart.
Then “It is finished!” Your work on earth was done.
For in three days your battle would be won.
These are the words with which you crown your works of art.
Create in me a perfect heart.
“Into your hands, Father, I commend my breath.”
Your final prayer as you close your eyes in death.
And with these words one day I’ll fly to where you are.
Create in me, create in me, create in me a faithful heart.
“Last Words” by Karl Kohlhase
John O’Donohue was an Irishman – a poet, a philosopher, and a former Roman Catholic priest. He died in his sleep just days after his 52nd birthday in 2008.
His book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace carries the subtitle Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope. He explores our intimate human relationship with beauty, calling it “a homecoming of the human spirit.”
In the midst of pandemic and war, our souls are parched for the strength, integrity, and imaginative connections that beauty calls forth. O’Donohue summons us to open ourselves to the beauty we can discover in the dailiness of our lives. As we do that, we find ourselves strengthened by the blessings of our daily work.
Blessing of your work
May the light of your soul guide you. May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart. May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul. May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work. May your work never weary you. May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement. May you be present in what you do. May you never become lost in the bland absences. May the day never burden you. May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises. May evening find you gracious and fulfilled. May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected. May your soul calm, console, and renew you.
– by John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
Nathalie is a young business owner, entrepreneur, and mother of a toddler, expecting her second child. She was taught to sew by nuns in a Kenyan orphanage and now designs and makes beautiful clothes that combine African colors with French and American styles. During Nathalie’s early childhood, war raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and she and her siblings were forced to flee after their parents were murdered. The nuns recognized her gift and encouraged her to pursue her passion.
Faith and resilience led Nathalie to apply for refugee status in the US as a 14-year-old. She continued to sew; found community with both a local Refugee Choir and an Episcopal congregation; completed a business development program; started her own business at age 21; and then saved enough money to locate and bring her younger sister and brother to the US.
Yet, despite the trauma and hardship that she has experienced in her young life, Nathalie strives to encourage and support others in the name of Christ. She recognized that, although fellow refugees could speak English fluently, their inability to read and write limited their job prospects. So she began to hold reading and writing classes. And because of her own difficulties moving out of the foster care system at age 18, she began advocating for refugees – and others. When her shop was vandalized and a GoFundMe account was established on her behalf, she pledged to give any excess money to neighboring business owners whose shops were also vandalized.
Stitch by stitch, Nathalie sows and sews God’s love as she transforms the colorful fabric into clothing. Each choice of fabric and each stitch reflect the merciful and saving love that Nathalie has received from God and that she shares with others – through her encouragement of others, her Christlike actions, and her vibrant and unique fashion creations.
Baptism is about belonging and identity. When we know whose we are, we know who we are. We are “Christ’s own forever”! That is our truest, fundamental identity, which has the power to set us free. We already belong to God. Our struggle now is to become what we already are.
When I worked as a community newspaper editor and publisher, I often stood with parents and families sending their high school athletes and band members off to an away game or tournament. In Central Texas, along with admonitions to “be safe,” “play hard,” and “be a good sport,” always part of the send-off was the shout from at least one adult: “Remember who you are and where you’re from!” Part “do us proud” and part “don’t shame us,” those words also carried the message: “Be the amazing people we know you to be.” They were reminding teenagers that their behavior testified to their character, witnessed to their values, and proclaimed their true identity.
Teenagers aren’t the only folks who need reminding. As Br. Geoffrey offers in our lead-in, “our truest, fundamental identity … has the power to set us free.” Every time we renew our baptismal vows, or stand as witness to a baptism, we have an opportunity to remember the identity and behavior that makes us most truly who we are. Br. Geoffrey affirms, “As we promise to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace for all people, to respect the dignity of every human being, we are proclaiming before God, before ourselves, and before all the world, ‘This is who we are!’” Each of us lays claim to our true identity: Child of God, beloved and called.
Through scripture and our faith community, as well as the day-to-day world we encounter, God reminds us again and again both who we are and whose we are. As we daily practice walking the Way of Love, our life-long task – our ministry in our daily lives – is to become what we already are.
“Be Kind” were the words written on our 2½ year-old granddaughter’s shirt on the same day that a new book arrived. The cover of the book, 10 Hidden Heroes, shows children and adults helping others as they go about their everyday lives. Because I believe strongly in making our world more loving by living out our baptismal promises in daily life, I was eager to share this book with our little granddaughter.
She and I sat down together and searched through the pictures on each two-page spread. One set of pictures features hidden heroes nursing others back to health. Although one setting was in a hospital with nurses and doctors caring for patients, there was also a child tending to another child’s scraped knee and a girl caring for her injured cat. Another set of pictures highlights hidden heroes striving to protect the environment by planting trees, recycling, composting, and riding bikes. A boy stocking shelves in a food bank shows young readers how to serve those less fortunate. There are even hidden heroes who invent and do research to develop medicines and “treasures for humankind.”
Hidden Heroes author, Mark K. Shriver, is the president of Save the Children Action Network, and hopes that it can help children and their parents make the world a better place. When I read the book with our granddaughter, not only is she learning to count as she searches for the hidden heroes in the pictures, together we’re also making connections as we look to her family, friends, preschool, and community for examples of kindness and compassion. And this is a time for talking, too, about how she herself can be kinder and more compassionate.
Who are the hidden heroes in your life, and how might they inspire you – us – to make our world more loving and just?
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
— Howard Thurman
A few days ago Christians celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, remembering the long-ago visit of kings from the East to a Jewish newborn. For Christians, the day marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, and the beginning of an “ordinary time” season of the Christian year notable for its focus on Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry in first-century Palestine. In the here and now, Christians are busily packing away the candles and tinsel, the nativity scene and the Christmas decorations for another year.
It’s significant that only a few days after Epiphany, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, Jesus has zoomed forward in time from infancy to the beginning of his active ministry. On that day in many churches, congregations gather for baptisms of new members and the renewal of baptismal vows. Christians echo the Gospel reading for the day, proclaiming to one another God’s message of love heard from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
Standing with Jesus in the waters of baptism, we are equipped to begin what Howard Thurman called “the work of Christmas,” the work of all the baptized. For those of us who feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of that work, Br. Todd Blackham of the Society of St. John the Evangelist offers a reminder:
The Christ who was born in Mary is the Christ who was born in you at your baptism. The treasures and the promises of Mary are yours to ponder in your heart. Like Mary, they will carry us through the years when things just seem ordinary, when drudgery and monotony set in, when we are led, like Mary to the foot of the cross in our agony, our grief, and our longing. Even in the dark days of the tomb, the promises of Christ are waiting to be revealed in his resurrection.
For those of us at the beginning of a new calendar year, perhaps it’s appropriate that this week reminds us of baptism and the need to continue the work of Christmas. Our Christmas candles lit to push back the darkness of long winter nights need to burn longer than a mere twelve days. Our baptism calls us to light, in the word of Howard Thurman, “candles that will burn all year long.”
I will light candles this Christmas, Candles of joy despite all the sadness, Candles of hope where despair keeps watch, Candles of courage for fears ever present, Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens, Candles of love to inspire all my living, Candles that will burn all year long.
In early October, our local Islamic Center was burned in an arsonist’s hate attack. Between the fire and water damage, our Muslim brothers and sisters now face a rebuild and remodel of their mosque. In the meantime, they have been forced to find a new place to gather for worship.
Without a second thought our Episcopal church opened our doors and invited them to worship and pray in our large parish hall, which was appropriate for many – though not all – of their needs. Our congregation wasn’t the only one to provide support, and after several weeks the Islamic Center was able to find a larger space that would support their longer-term needs.
Our Muslim brothers and sisters were stunned by the hospitality. Many are immigrants from countries where Islam is the dominant religion, and they have felt marginalized in a nation and community where they are victims of indifference, if not outright hatred. The power of our congregation reaching out, then, was more than practical. It was highly symbolic. By stepping forward we were saying that this Christian community not only believes in a set of values, but also lives them out. We showed that Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loves us means something. We showed that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and we showed that our neighbor doesn’t need to look like us or worship like us. We showed that not only do we strive for justice and peace, we also seek the dignity of every human being.
The Christian ethic that we profess in our baptismal promises reminds us that our needs and the needs of our neighbor are bound together. We are all made in the image of God. And if we truly believe that, and if we put God first, we are called to seek our neighbor. Our neighbor just might be the marginalized shepherds in the fields. Our neighbor just might be the poor carpenter and his pregnant betrothed who could find no place for them in the inn. Our neighbor just might be the lowly babe whose crib was a manger.