Sunday, February 24, 2013

Land of the Living

Preached at Prescott American Baptist Church
February 24, 2013
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1

The human heart is a muscle. It contracts, squeezing and releasing, constantly without tiring. A healthy heart beats about 100,000 times daily. In an average lifetime, the heart will beat 2.5 billion times without stopping. While we depend on that fist-sized, cone shaped muscle in order to stay alive—we rarely think of it or take time to express our gratitude toward the heart for its tireless work on our behalf. It is just there and our expectation is that it will function adequately and accurately. The muscle contracts and it sends freshly oxygenated blood through our body, feeding all of our organs and insuring that we can get out of bed, eat our breakfast, do our work and live our lives.

There was once a very nice man who washed himself every morning. He took out each organ every morning, washed them and then put them back in place. One day the man forgot to put his heart back after he washed it. People in the neighborhood liked this nice, clean man very much. He had always been a favorite in town. But when he went outside without his heart, the man insulted his neighbors. He ignored the needs of the very old and the very young. He spoke harshly to the beggar on the street corner and pushed him aside. He got into a terrible argument at the grocery checkout line. The cashier who had known the man for a long time asked, “What is the problem with you today?” The man remembered. He had not put his heart back in place after washing it. So he went home. There was his heart sitting on the table where he had left it. He put it inside himself and went outside and down the street apologizing for his heartless behaviors. *

Put your hand on the left side of your chest and feel the beat of your heart. So ordinary, this beat, beat, beat. So absolutely critical to our life.  I invite you to practice this, taking a moment to recognize that steady thump in your chest, and allow that beat to serve as a reminder to you that God is with you.  And let that beat also serve as a reminder of your promise to live in faith that God is with you. Each one of us carries the treasure of God’s presence.

No matter what, the light and love of God are with us and within us. As we walk from today and into tomorrow, the presence of God makes a difference in what we encounter and how we encounter people, places and problems along the way.  In this season of Lent as we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross, we are aware of frustration, fear, pain and sorrow. Suffering is real. But our journey becomes tragic only when we choose not to recognize and lean on the ceaseless and unstoppable presence and power of God along the way.

For about a year, I have gone to a Monday morning yoga class. I go to Evergreen Yoga Center and join a group of about fifteen other people who are sitting, standing, bending and stretching together. Our teacher, Leah Nichols, is good at guiding us into new poses and allowing us to have the experience of making progress. The practice of yoga has taught me how to find and use support when poses are challenging.  Yoga practice increases my strength, especially in my legs so I can stand more firmly. And it has helped me to stay balanced, a very good thing as we age. It’s that loss of balance which contributes to so many broken hips for us as senior citizens.

Each class ends with savasana, a time when we simply relax and allow the floor to hold us. It’s a time when we can focus on the joy of being, when I can recognize what is essential within me. There’s a light within each one of us, the presence of God. Each class ends with the teacher and students bowing their heads toward their hearts and saying, “Namaste,” which means “The light within me recognizes and honors the light within you.” 

Like the beating heart, the presence of God within us is something we too often ignore. We forget to pick it up and take it with us when we go outside. And when we leave our heart at home, we are left vulnerable to attacks from whatever enemies we might face on the outside.

The psalmist says: “Teach me your ways, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” It is assumed that we will encounter challenges in life and that is why we need to regularly practice focusing on the presence of God within us. The more we focus on that presence the more light we will discover within ourselves and the less power our enemies will hold over us. 

There was once a farmer who lived long, long ago in a faraway place. This farmer loved his black and white cows. He made sure the cows had plenty of green, green grass to eat and lots of fresh cool water to drink. He called each cow by name and petted them each day. One day the man went out to milk his cows, as he did every single day, and was shocked to see that the cows had no milk to give. They were dry. This was a mystery to the man. The next day the farmer went out to milk his cows and once again discovered the cows were dry. Their milk was gone. On the third day when the farmer found his cows to be dry with no milk to give, he decided that there was a problem. And he made up his mind to see what the problem might be. He hid in the shrubbery beside his cows and stayed there for the night. 

When darkness covered the pasture and the moon was high in the sky, the man saw a rope drop down from the heavens and three star women scampered down the rope. The man watched as the three star women raced to his cows with buckets. They milked his cows and drank the milk. The man realized all of a sudden that he did not care so much about his cows. He was not concerned with the milk. He was focused only on the three star women and they were beautiful! He wanted one.

So the farmer ran out from his hiding place in the shrubbery and he chased the star women round and round the cows until he caught one. The other two scampered back to the rope and disappeared. The woman caught in the farmer’s arms begged, “Let me go! Let me go!”
But the farmer held on tightly saying, “No! I won’t let you go! I want to marry you!”

And the star woman said, “OK. But on one condition.”

The farmer was delighted, “Anything!”

“I carry a basket with me. You see?” The farmer noticed for the first time that she had a beautiful basket on her arm. “You must promise me that you will not look inside the basket until I am ready to share its contents with you.”

The farmer leaned back and laughed. This was a piece of cake! “Of course! Of course I promise. Anything! Now please become my bride!”

So the farmer and the star woman were married and they were happy together. The star woman loved the black and white cows. She called each cow by name and petted them each day. She took the cows out to pasture and made sure they had plenty of green, green grass to eat and plenty of fresh cool water to drink. 

One day while the star woman was out in the pasture tending the cows, the farmer looked at that basket. It was sitting right beside the front door where she had put it when first they were married. The farmer was thinking, “We are married. What’s mine is hers and what’s hers is mine. What could it hurt if I simply look for myself?” And so he leaned over and lifted the lid on the beautiful basket. He looked inside. “Nothing!”

Absolutely nothing was inside that basket. Empty. All these years and all this waiting—for nothing!

The wife came in from the pasture. Her face was full of love as she entered the house. “What a beautiful day! The cows and I have so enjoyed the sunlight and the breeze. What have you done with your day, husband?”

“I looked in the basket.”

“Yes! I looked in the basket.”

“And what did you see?”

“Nothing! I saw nothing. The basket is empty. Look for yourself!”

“Oh heart of my heart! That basket holds everything! Everything that I would give to you is in that basket, every treasure I’ve ever known. It’s all there. And we could have shared it together forever if you had kept your promise to me.”

With that the star woman picked up her basket and went out into the pasture where a rope dropped down from the heavens. She climbed up the rope and was gone. 

And that was that. *

There are times when we see the basket as empty. We harbor the voice of the enemy and it tells us that nothing good exists in our relationship with God. We grow weary with waiting for the Kingdom to come on earth and we lose hope. We can be persuaded that the love of God is not here in the land of the living. 

I invite you to let your beating heart serve as a gentle reminder that you are a partner to the presence of God in this life. Your promise to remain aware of God’s love is as much a part of our faith’s redemptive story as is the promise of God to remain faithful to you. 

So let us together practice our focus on the light that lives within us and we will allow that light to guide us to Jerusalem, into the land of the living where we stand firm in the presence of God. By staying aware of God’s presence with us on the journey, we will discover the support, strength and balance necessary to receive all the gifts and goodness that God longs to share with us.


·        Both the “Heartless” story and the “Farmer and Star Woman” story were found in this book: Our Secret Territory: The Essence of Storytelling, Laura Simms, Sentient Publications, Boulder, CO 2011

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Rev. Elaine BlanchardThe Rev. Elaine Blanchard

Writer, storyteller, actor
in Memphis, TN


  1. What is the most exciting book or film you have read in the last year? What about it captured your imagination?

    The most exciting book I have read in the last year is Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, written by Margaret Wheatley. She reminds us that our capacity to look at each other and listen to each other is the foundation for our human evolution. We develop our potential as individuals and as communities by engaging in respectful conversations. We can diminish our fears by choosing to listen to those who disagree with us. This is not about sitting in front of a television or computer screen. It is not about exchanging e-mail messages. It is not about talk radio. This is an invitation to be transformed by the simple act of conversation.  She says, “When we don’t talk with each other, we give up our humanity.” 

  2. What in your view is the greatest challenge facing people of faith today?

    The greatest challenge facing people of faith today is accepting life’s opportunities to rediscover the joy of curiosity.  We fail to have fun, to make things up and to enjoy playing with love and life. We have fallen into an unimaginative approach to things of the spirit, thinking that the questions have already been answered and we need only to memorize what has already been discovered and decided. The written text in the Bible is given more authority than it warrants for our time and our experience. I believe that God is in partnership with each one of us urging us to ask questions and to look for answers and authority in our own particular reality. If our faith is to be meaningful during the living of our lives, then, we do not have to be afraid of our own curiosity and imagination. They belong to us, just as much as our nose and eyes belong to our faces.  

  3. Of all the figures in the Bible, with whom would you wish to spend a day, and what would you hope to learn?

    If I could spend a day with someone from the Bible stories I would choose to spend a day with the child who was taken up on Jesus’ lap when the adult disciples were arguing about who might be the greatest in the reign of God. (Matt 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48) I choose to imagine the child as a girl and I would like to know how life turned out for her. I love family stories. I am intrigued by family dynamics. I wonder if that child had previously been recognized as a person of value or if Jesus’ choice to acknowledge her was the first time she had been noticed in a way that set her apart. I am curious about how she lived into that incident in her childhood and as she grew older. Jesus’ teaching that we must all become imaginative and trusting like a small child is radical. It must have been a priority with him since three gospel writers record this incident.  I wonder if the girl lived into a radical faith. I would like to spend a day with her so I could know the rest of the story.

  4. You have worked with women in prison to help them find their own voices in their own stories. From these stories emerge dramatic performances called “Prison Stories.” What was your inspiration for this work, and how have you been changed by these encounters?

    My inspiration for doing the work of “Prison Stories” originally came from performing my own story, “For Goodness Sake,” on stage. In therapeutic settings I have told and retold the FGS story from my childhood about the black boy in the field being beaten by my brother and a church member. I have done my best to find meaning in that senseless act of racist violence and to find redemption for the victim, for me and my family. Therapy has been helpful and allowed my shame to be diminished. Writing and performing the story as art for live audiences has been healing and empowering for me.  My willingness to be open and vulnerable creates safe space and opportunity for audience members to be open and vulnerable during the talk-back session. There is healing in every place where the performance is staged. Because of these amazing experiences with making art from my own life story, I wondered who else might benefit from creating something out of their confusion, pain and shame. I went to the county jail and described a story sharing and performance process to the people in the administrative offices. They granted permission for me to come inside and listen to the stories of 12 women at a time over a four-month period and to make theater from their shared stories.  

    My continued inspiration and commitment for doing the work of “Prison Stories” come from the sincere gratitude that the class participants express at the close of each session. The women in the class choose, at some point along the way in our four months of telling our stories and listening to stories, to trust the process and to intentionally be vulnerable.  I can see the light of Love’s transforming power in their eyes when I hand each of them their certificate of completion. My own transformation has been profound. I have learned from my time with women in the jail that I fear being trapped more than I fear anything else. I long for freedom at almost any cost. Going inside the jail twice each week allows me to outgrow my fear and grow into my courage and faith. I have discovered a bright light within myself.  By choosing to share this light, I can help others to discover the light that they have been given. I am consistently amazed at the willingness of the theater community in Memphis to make the performance happen over and over again. Actors, directors, stage managers, musicians, producers and sponsors come through each time and share their time and talent by bringing stories to the stage. I have been changed by an evolving process of living into radical trust. I am responding to God’s invitation to trust Her and to share the gifts I have been given.  I see that my response opens the door for others to trust God and share their gifts too. It is a partnership inspired by God’s calling and my desire to know the freedom of living into God’s call. 

  5. How did you become a story teller, and what are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?

    Sometimes I tell stories that I have read in books. Sometimes I tell stories that I develop from Bible characters. I most enjoy telling stories about my life experiences and my relationships. My art as a storyteller has grown from hours spent sitting on couches or chairs in therapy sessions. I have told and retold and rehearsed my life stories so many times that I have boiled them down to the bitters and the sweets. I have found the places where my stories connect with the stories of others. My life stories are relevant for the lives of my neighbors and friends. I have found the universal within the particulars of my life. I tell my stories and I speak for all of us, our joys and our sorrows. When I am telling a story I feel like the listeners and I are held gently in the palm of God’s hand.  

  6. What question do you wish we would ask you?

    I wish you would ask me how on earth I can afford to give so much time to this work in the jail. How is it that I am free to write, preach for various congregations, lead retreats, market my work, engage in public relations, fight for justice, read books, and travel to listen to other storytellers as a way to improve my own art and inspire my own work?  My answer to that question would allow me to sing the praises of my life partner, Anna Neal. She values the work that I do and she steadfastly supports my determination to continue on the path of freedom. We share a rich and joy-filled life. We are an amazing team and we know we are fortunate. I know that I could not respond to God’s call on my life without the loving support of my partner.

Lent at Calvary

The 90th anniversary of Calvary's Lenten Preaching Series and Waffle Shop begins on Thursday, February 14.  Learn more about this year's excellent line-up.