revelation in clay

This is a newsletter message sent to my congregation in February 2020. I came across it today and, for some reason, decided to post it here as a reflection.

Beloved Community,

Brother, Give Us a Word – Revelation, by Br. Geoffrey Tristam, SSJE

“God creates with love and tenderness and in God’s image. The imprint of God’s very hand – the divine potter – is on everything he created. This intimacy between creator and created is very important, because the created world – the trees and flowers and birds, the sunshine – even the snow! – have the power to reveal God to us.”

When I was in college – I can’t remember if it was my first or second year – I took a pottery course.  Although longer than 40 years ago, I still remember so much about it.   The art building was in an old barn on the beautiful, hilly campus in the Berkshires, surrounded by wonderful expressions of God’s grace in creation.  I remember walking the paths from my dorm to the barn.  I feel the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet.  I see the structure – a traditional New England barn, wooden and red, with large doors that were inviting me to enter. I feel the warmth of the space on the chilly days and the warm welcoming feel of the hard wood interior that did not feel at all cold or harsh.  I see the warm lights of the space beckoning me back after dusk for some time of comforting quiet.

The feel of the clay is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.  At first solid- hard even- it gradually becomes more pliable as it is worked with a bit of water.  It has a smell, too, which I realized many years later while visiting family in northeast Texas is of the earth.  And the messy process of molding and shaping, of sometimes pounding the clay down to begin all over again, is one that I found deeply meditative.  More than a few times since those days I’ve thought working with clay is something I might like to do more of, though I’ve yet to make the time to do it.

Reading Br. Geoffrey’s words this week brought all of these memories flooding back.  With the wisdom of hindsight and of many more years, I realize that this one course did more for me than satisfy a requirement for an elective. It showed me something of the beauty and power of creation in hands that are not divine.  It makes more grateful each and every day for the divine potter, who reveals so much more than a teenage girl’s somewhat clumsy attempts to create something beautiful.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Responding to Oliver’s question

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

That question, the last two lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”, is one of the best questions ever asked. It is a question that both compels and defies an answer. How can anyone of us know with certainty that what we plan to do in one moment or one period of time will be what we plan to do with our whole life? Sure, there are those things – marry, have children, travel, go to seminary, buy a beach house, etc. – that are plans we can make and then achieve. There are those things, sometimes even the marrying, having children, traveling, going to seminary, buying a beach house, etc., that aren’t actually plans made in advance but more responses to opportunities that present themselves.

What strikes me when I hear Oliver’s question and think about the kinds of plans we make is that often our responses do not answer the bigger question, the question Oliver seems to be asking in this poem: How do you plan to live into the fullness of who you were created to be? Or, asked another way: How do you envision living as your best self and reflection of the image of God within you?

No matter how we frame the question, no matter the specific language we use, the question essentially is one of discernment, a.k.a. listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to your life. One of the best ways I know to do that is to take some time – some planned, intentional time – to do some listening. For many of us, summer is a good time to do that because the rhythms of our daily lives change in ways that offer space and time. I encourage you to try to avoid filling all the “empty” space in the calendar with activity. Instead, redefine this time to be “Spirit’s” time or “listening” time or sabbath or retreat time or whatever works to remind you that Oliver’s question is an important one, important on more levels and in more ways than I can articulate in this message.

I’ve got some of this kind of time planned this summer. I’ll be at Cross Roads Camp the week of July 10th. I’ll be chaplain for the first week of summer camp, which is a gift of spiritual renewal and time to listen, as well as fun and worship with the campers and staff. I’ll be away from August 16th to September 6th, which is both some vacation with Katie and then with Ron, Kevin, and Alex, and time on a mountainside in Golden, Colorado to pray and write, which is one of the ways I listen for the voice of the Spirit. I’ll also spend some time thinking about my sabbatical, which is tentatively scheduled for September thru November, 2024.

My hope and prayer for you is that you hear this question and find some time to respond in the ways that nurture you, body and soul.

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Silence speaks

My handwritten original has “January 13, 2018 (from God’s call to Samuel?) written at the top

The silence speaks
of longing, wisdom of ages
Listen! to her
speaking unsaid thoughts,
naming fears,
dreaming hearts' desires,
asking you 
to Listen! to her
call your name.
The silence is full.
God speaks.

Copyright 2018 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Ordinary hands

One day in early 2017, I was holding the ciborium, which is the container in which the Communion hosts are kept before they are consecrated, a.k.a. made holy. I was setting the Table for the Eucharistic Celebration. For some reason I noticed, with startling clarity, the embossed Cross on each of the hosts. The image stayed with me all day, moving in and out of the forefront of my consciousness. It must have stayed with me while I slept because I woke up the next day with this poem.

My hands hold the bowl
of the broken Body of Love perfected

Bread embossed with signs
of Life offered for you,
formed of sacred mystery

Ordinary hands loved
into holiness shared
with the grace of divine imagination

Copyright 2017 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Baptized into freedom

This is my sermon from June 26, 2022, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. It was a great day at St. Stephen’s. We baptized two of God’s beloved.

The lectionary may be found here. We use Track 1.

In this week in which we are reminded by congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, and a mass shooting targeting LGBTQ+ people in Norway, of these reminders of our brokenness and the ways in which we struggle so often, so consistently with living into God’s commandments, today’s reading from Galatians some much needed clarity, some comfort, and some hope.

We are reminded that God is a liberating God, the God who will free us from all bondage, including that which we inflict and impose on one another and ourselves.  This is the God of love, God human and divine, the God who gave us the command to love one another and lived with us, lived as one of us, to show us what it means to overcome our fears and our brokenness and to incarnate, to embody, the love of God for all people. This is the God of love, who died as one of us and then rose again to show us that even death cannot overcome God’s love.

We are told that living by the flesh – which is a way of saying living according to our will, as opposed to God’s will – that living by the flesh limits our ability to feel and express the love of God in us and for all people. But when live by the fruits of the Spirit we can be free from all that limits our ability to experience the fullness of God’s love.  And that, my friends, is the comfort and the hope.

Wen we live as God created us to live, as Jesus showed us how to live, as God’s Holy Spirit, here alive with us, will guide us in the way of faith, then , and only then, we will know what it means to be truly free.

Br. Luke Ditewig of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastic order, wrote:

What God promises and commands, God also enables.  By the Spirit, we coming more into life, one step at a time.  Jesus keeps telling us that there’s more.  What is Jesus inviting us into?  What might our teachers in our lives and our collective history reflect about Jesus’ invitation into more?  It is not a height to be reached, but a widening embrace of mercy and grace.”

And that brings us to today

Today we are going to baptize Beatrice and Alistair.  Baptism is a Sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” (BCP 857)  “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” (BCP 858)  That’s the teaching of the Catechism in the Episcopal Church.

In Baptism, we are welcomed into the household of God, reminded of God’s promises and God’s commands. It is a step we take together – those being baptized and the community of faith.  It shapes  us and it forms us in ways that are truly a holy mystery. And it reminds us that we are part of a collective history, the story of God’s work in and through creation since the beginning of time. 

Baptism frees us from the limits of our brokenness. It is the foundational way of accepting Jesus’ invitation to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something so much better than ourselves, something that is about the unimaginable, unconditional love of God for all of God’s people.

We are welcomed into the embrace of God’s mercy and grace. We are claimed as Christ’s own forever.

And then to remind us that is real in our lives today in ways that are more tangible, maybe more accessible, we are welcomed into the love and safety, comfort and security, challenge and opportunity of a community of faith that commits to helping us to grow into the fullness of who God created us to be so that we can better reflect the image of God within us.

We become a part of that widening embrace in which all of the fruits of the Spirit are present and in which we are emboldened, enlivened, encouraged, and empowered to live by that Spirit and to love one another as we are loved by Jesus.

We going to welcome Alistair and Beatrice into that embrace, reminding them of a truth that exists whether we do that or not: God’s love for all of God’s people and God’s invitation to all of us to live into that reality with joy and intention in all aspects of our lives.

For those of us who have already been baptized, we’ll affirm our faith using the Baptismal Covenant, as a reminder that the Spirit guides us every single day, not just the day we are baptized, and that this journey of moving deeper into the heart of God is one we can choose to take each and every day of our lives. Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Let us be the good

This is my sermon from June 19, 2022, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. On June 16, 2022, at a potluck dinner, a man welcomed into the community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, shot and killed three members of that parish. This tragedy hit close to home for us. The parish was founded by The Rev. Douglas Carpenter, whose sister is a long-time member of St. Stephen’s Millburn.

The lectionary for the day may be found here. We use Track 1.

At the start of today’s service, I offered the prayer from our Presiding Bishop for those who were killed and those who survived the shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.  I heard about that shooting when I logged onto the internet after getting a couple of notifications on my phone, one being news of the shooting at St. Stephen’s and the other being an update on the arrests of the 31 men who were heavily armed and in body armor on their way to a Pride event in Idaho. 

Though I’m not sure why, because we’ve had a steady diet of these kinds of violent acts, literally several in any given week, but there’s a part of me that is still surprised. It boggles my mind that in a country that has all of the resources we need to stem this flow of violence and death, we continue to lack the will to do it. And I know that it is because resources without the will to use them for good is the civil equivalent of praying with no intention to change one’s behavior and attitudes.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is continuing his healing ministry, his ministry of radical love and radical hospitality. He’s been journeying by boat and by foot all around the Sea of Galilee.  He’s veered off into the countryside away from the shore and then comes back to where we meet him today.

As they arrive by boat to the southwest shore of the lake, he and his followers encounter the man struggling with demons.  We’re told that the other villagers, the man’s community, have been trying to help him.  No doubt, trying to protect him was also about protecting themselves. Demons are unpredictable and scary, but they do try to help him.  He asks Jesus not to hurt him as Jesus is exorcising the demons, restoring the man and his community to health and wholeness. 

Now the man is thrilled. He begs to be able to follow, to travel with Jesus, but Jesus says “No. What I want you to do is to go back home and to witness the Good News of God’s love working in you. The man does just that.  That really doesn’t come as any surprise.  I’d like to think that all of us would listen to Jesus, who has just healed us, and that all of us would do what Jesus asks.

But there were so many other people.  I would have expected that this man’s community would be thrilled.  Or, if not thrilled, I would expect that they felt some relief. Yet that’s not what happens.  We’re told that some were afraid and then, in verse 37, we’re told, “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear.”  

“Seized with great fear” after witnessing a healing. Why? 

Was it the magnitude of Jesus’ power that overwhelmed them, causing them to feel afraid? 

Was it that Jesus spoke to the demons, giving them what they asked for, only for them to be drowned with the sheep when the sheep flee into the lake?

Was it that the loss of those sheep, their livelihood, meant economic peril? 

We’ll never know. It could have been one of those things. It could have been all of those things. The Scripture doesn’t tell us so I’m going to offer another possibility, and that is:

Even the change we say we want can be scary and overwhelming if we get it, especially if it means we have to give up something important or familiar.  We would rather hang onto to what we know, what we have, even if it is contrary to our wholeness and our wellbeing, and to God’s will. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum and there’s a reason for the phrase “fear of the unknown.” We need something to fill the broken places, something to fill the places where fear resides in us or we choose to hang onto it. 

We don’t like to feel vulnerable.  Vulnerability scares us. Fear makes us feel vulnerable because it reminds us that we are not in control. And, for some people, at least, feeling vulnerable and afraid, out of control, makes them feel angry and leads them to act violently. The anger and the violence mask the fear and fill the place in them where the control they think they should have doesn’t exist.

When I read that all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them,             

when I heard about the shooting at St. Stephen’s and the situation in Idaho, when I heard about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, and the mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Uvalde…, I wondered why it is that we can’t trust in God’s love, why we can’t trust our faith to be what fills those broken places.

Why is it that we sometimes act more like the demons in today’s Gospel, asking for what we need and then still going to a place that is about violence and destruction and our own deaths, both literally and figuratively?

Why is it that we cannot see God’s love, mercy, justice, and compassion, God’s grace, for us and all people? Why is it so hard for us to let God’s Spirit, God’s grace fill the place where fear resides?

I don’t have an answer to these questions.  What I do have hope, though I’ll admit in this moment that if it is possible to feel a bleak hope, I think I do. And yet it is still hope. It is hope rooted in Scripture, which is how we’re help to understand God working in and through us.

In today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, as is true in all of the Gospels, we are shown the unconditional love of God for all of us.   I heard on a podcast this week [Terrell Carter on Pulpit Fiction] that “Jesus always goes to all the wrong places, at all the wrong times, and spends time with all the wrong people.” Obviously, “wrong” is a human understanding because for God there are no “wrong” people. There are only people needing healing and wholeness, compassion and forgiveness, love and grace.

In today’s Gospel we are reminded that Jesus travels a long, hard road, literally and figuratively, to give us what we need to fill the places of vulnerability and fear. And all it takes is one teeny tiny crack in our defenses, in our hardened hearts, for God’s Holy Spirit to make her way in and to do what she does best: to work in and through us to guide us deeper into the heart of God, deeper and deeper into that place where we are a reflection of God’s love, and not our own vulnerability and fears.

God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s compassion, God’s hope can overflow our hearts and fill all of the brokenness in our lives. That is what happened to the man cured of his demons. And then he does what we should do. He does as Jesus asks, as Jesus would have us act.  He goes and he gives witness to God’s love and God’s grace.  And I have to believe that his witness opened at least one heart, changed at least one life in a way that furthered Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.

The man cured of his demons is an example for us of how live our faith, how to live our trust in God, how to invite God’s Spirit to give us what we need, to empower, enliven, and embolden us to act in ways that bring healing and reconciliation.  That is our call as Christians.  We are to shed light on the darkness, to be beacons of God’s light and God’ hope in the world.

I’m going to end with a passage from the book that Alex’s brother Doug wrote in the book, The Story of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church: Birmingham, Alabama 1972-2008:

Yes, it was cozy at St. Stephen’s, and yes a parish is the best place in which to absorb the shocks of brutality. The parish is also the best place to learn how to respond to cruelty near at hand and far away. Jesus responded to the news of the brutal death of John the Baptist by feeding five thousand people and healing the sick later that day. He responded to the brutality that preceded his own death by spreading out his arms that all might come within his saving embrace. Paul sums up this radical teaching of Jesus in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Let us all be the good that God created us to be.  Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Praying with our feet

This is my sermon from today, Trinity Sunday. If you’d like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here. Near the end there is a reference to rainbow masks. As part of our Pride celebration, which also included having a table at NJ Pride, we wore rainbow masks this week.

Today is Trinity Sunday and we are reminded that the nature of God is unity.  God the transcendent, God the incarnate, God the imminent, all one God.  God the creator, redeemer, and sustainer – not separate but one whole, in relationship with and to God’s self and to us. 

This is so very hard to understand.  This Sunday is often talked about in preaching circles as “heretical” Sunday because it is so easy to move into heresy when talking about the Trinity.  I think the Trinity is one of those truths that might be described “within our reach but beyond our grasp.” (borrowing from Rabbi Heschel) 

We are created in God’s image, though no one of us can ever even begin to come close to what that means, to being a full reflection of the divine.  Together – and that means all of us – we can get ever so incrementally closer, but it still is one of those truths that it beyond comprehension and one that takes focused intention, effort, and energy as we seek understanding.

That brings me to the question I ask myself and you all the time: “If we believe in God, if we trust in God, if want to follow Jesus, how do we live our faith?”

Today’s reading from Proverbs has something to say about that.  The last verse feels like the place we need to start:

              rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.

God delights in the human race.  Not just one of us. Not just some of us.  The whole human race.  All of us.

On this day that we will be at North Jersey Pride, God delights in all of us.

On this day after some of us were at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C, God delights in all of us.

In this week before Juneteenth – and if you’re wondering what is Juneteenth, it is the recognition that it was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that the enslaved people were told they had been emancipated – that is Juneteenth.  In this week before Juneteenth, God delights in all of us. 

In this time in which it is all to clear that we do not understand what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, when we let hatred and vitriol and division lead to unspeakable violence and death, God delights in all of us.

No matter who we are or where we’re from, God delights in us.

No matter what we look like or who we love, God delights in us.

No matter the language we speak or the way we know God, God delights in us.

Sometimes that seems as incomprehensible as the Trinity.   How can God delight in us, how can God delight in me, when it is so clear that we repeatedly fail to live into being created in God’s image? When we repeatedly fail to live into the image of a loving, merciful, compassionate, healing, and reconciling God?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he understands how hard it is to understand how to live into this truth.  He says, “I have more things to tell you but you cannot bear them now.”  He also says that the Spirit, the third person of the one God will be among us to lead us into deeper understanding.  And, lest we forget, that is the same Spirit who descended upon the disciples and the crowds on Pentecost, opening God’s Word so that all could hear it in the way they needed to hear it.  That is the same Spirit who abides in and with us, and who works in and through us.

And that brings me right back to the question: “If we believe in God, if we trust in God, if we want to follow Jesus, how do we live our faith?”

And once again, the reading from Proverbs has something to say, this time in the very first verse:

              Does not wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?

When we know that God delights in the human race, we listen for the voice of the Spirit.

We trust the Spirit to help us discern how to act.

And then, because we are created in the image of God and followers of Jesus, we raise our voices, literally and figuratively.

First of all, we raise our voices in prayer.  We ask for the guidance and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and we ask for the courage and the strength to follow where we are led.

And then we act, which is sometimes known as “praying with our feet.”

We align our voices with and for those who suffer every day from injustices that are really hard for those of us who don’t experience them to imagine.

We march.  We rally.

We send in letters to the editor, if we’re in a place where such a thing still happens.

We write to and we call our elected officials.

We vote.

We reach out to our siblings who are hurting and suffering and tell them clearly and unequivocally that they are loved by God and that we love them, too.

We give them space to express their sadness and their grief, their frustration and their anger, their hopes and their pride.

We do not claim to be experts but to be allies and people who seek deeper understanding in ways that do not put the burden of our understanding on them.

We recognize and acknowledge, publicly as well as privately, that we do not have to have had the same life experiences to know that these our siblings speak necessary truth.

We love them and we honor them.  We celebrate them and their lives, with a whole lot less of a focus on how they are different from us and whole lot more about how we are all beloved children of God.

We lift our voices, literally and figuratively, always seeking deeper understanding of how to reflect the unity of God.

We do all of these things that people of faith and good conscience do to show in real ways – and those are the ways that matter now and in the future – that we share God’s delight in the human race.

And then we keep doing it.  We do it as often as we have to until “this world becomes the dream God has for it, rather than the nightmare it is for so many.” (The Very Rev. Michael Curry)

I pray for you and with you and for us that we continue the ministry of outreach and social justice that is such a hallmark of this place.  We each have a voice – we’re expressing it nowb in a fun way with rainbow masks, of all things – but let us together lift our voices.  Let us together pray with our feet.  Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland