Beloved Community

This post is adapted from a message shared January 15, 2023 at Islands Community Church on Bailey's Island, ME.

There are a few vital elements necessary for gathering and sustaining community – choice, practice, and the seed of awareness that instigates them — the seed of awareness of the sacred right in front of us.

Last month, at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine where I work, we had our first in-person retreat in two years. As 28 people came together for a weekend, we had opportunities to recognize our differences of belief, disposition, and upbringing and we celebrated our shared humanity and common commitment to nurturing the spiritual life in ourselves and each other. We paid attention to the evidence of the divine among us.

Our retreat theme was Beloved Community and, as we stepped toward one another, we had ample opportunity to nurture both the resilient and the fragile places in our community. 

Beloved community is a term popularized by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It refers to a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate.

We are a long way from realizing Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community in our nation and in our world, but we can continue to raise up the vision as an aspiration and a promise… and we can actively strive to cultivate the beloved community in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and here within this church.

At the ChIME retreat, in service to the vision of living in beloved community, there were tears and laughter, whispered conversations and raucous conversations, meals and stories shared, sunrise meditations and sunset walks, messes made and messes cleaned up.

Ultimately, we all left the weekend exhausted and clear that we had only just begun. Community requires ongoing effort and commitment. It requires choosing to step toward one another again and again.

adrienne marie brown describes community this way:

“Community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong… not just allowed to be there, but be valuable…to heal. To recover. Community feels responsible to each other. Community is a choice. More precisely, community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.”

To this definition, I would add that community is woven one intentional relationship at a time, with attention and care. And we each all belong to several or many communities throughout our lives. Each of your communities may overlap in many ways, or they may only overlap in one place – in you.

For me, a sense of community is deeply personal — more a felt sense of being connected than a logistical or practical one — and that sense of community extends beyond the human to all the beings and forces that sustain and encourage me.

Last summer, Thomas and I took a hike in the White Mountains. The weather was beautiful, trails were dry, and bugs had not yet hatched at those elevations. Hiking conditions were perfect for just giving myself to the scenery and becoming one with the forest. After a busy spring tending to the needs of our family, and our work families, I was craving this re-connection to the wider web of life.

But the trails were rocky and seemed to be either straight up or down. I was constantly looking at my feet or looking around for rocks or trees to help me pull myself up or lower myself down. My knees ached and the amount of attention required by the technical trail kept me in my head and isolated from the ecosystem that I longed to connect with.

On the third day, on a long descent, I reached out to steady myself as I stepped off a tall rock. The bark of the birch tree was smooth and, as I reached out to it, it seemed to be reaching out to me. Growing as it did alongside that trail, it had likely been steadying hikers for decades – and would continue to. It accepted me in my vulnerability, and I recognized its strength and generosity… This encounter was an invitation to reciprocity. I had been reaching out to helper trees and rocks for the entire trip but I had not been paying attention. They had been offering me their groundedness. The least I could do was offer them my attention and gratitude.

Now I was on high alert. Each time I reached out for support from a trailside tree or rock, I acknowledged its integrity and gave thanks for its presence. My vulnerability and physical needs suddenly became an opportunity to recognize myself in relationship with dozens of beings along the way. Each time I reached out, I was received. One relationship at a time, I was feeling my way back into awareness, back into community.

Charles Eisenstein offers, “community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs.”

Today, I invite you to consider the awareness, choices, and practices at play in your own experience of community.

Where do you notice divinity? To whom or what do you extend welcome? From whom or what do you receive welcome? How do your personal communities of belonging and responsibility resonate with Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community?

I will close with a poem by Joy Harjo that reminds me that I am always intimately connected within a vast and timeless beloved community. Just like you.

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Joy Harjo, Remember

Blessed are We: Keepers of the Light

This post is adapted from a message originally shared at the Islands Community Church on Bailey’s Island, Maine on February 2, 2020. It was well received there and I am glad to share it here as well.

This weekend, we celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, honoring birthing and new life, and we celebrate Imbolc, the ancient Celtic celebration honoring the Goddess Brigid’s return to the land at springtime, bringing light and life to all that is dark and frozen. The Goddess Brigid and the Saint Brigid share many of the same qualities — generosity, compassion, creativity, and birthing. Their domains are the hearth, the forge, wells, and poetry.

As I prepared for this morning, I studied up on these two iconic figures. I tried to keep the stories of the Saint and the stories of the Goddess separate. I wanted to share one of the stories of Brigid’s miraculous capacity to feed the hungry by turning well water to beer or nurture a cow until it gave a lake of milk rather than a bucket. I wanted to tell of how Brigid delivered an imprisoned man from the cell where he was held to the threshold of his home in the instant he muttered her name. But I couldn’t remember whether the Goddess or the Saint was the heroine of each story. These mythic figures insisted on mingling in my mind.

Eventually, I came to believe that is probably how it should be anyway. Brigid, whether goddess or saint — was an elemental figure, associated not only with earth as bearer of spring’s fertility, with the air as breath of life, with water as a source of purification, and also with the fire as summoner of the sun. It is this last element, the fire, that we will spend a little time with this morning.

In what is now known as the village of Kildare in Ireland, a sacred fire burned for centuries, an offering to the Goddess Brigid for protection of herds and harvest. The ritual flame was tended for an entire day by one of nineteen priestesses. On the 20th day, the goddess Brigid herself tended the sacred flame. Centuries later, when Christianity moved into the region, St. Brigid built her monastery and church in that exact location. She continued the custom of keeping the fire alight. Now nineteen nuns were the flame keepers and on the 20th day, Brigid tended it herself. The sacred flame is believed to have survived up until the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century when it was extinguished. In 1993, the Brigadine Sisters of Kildare relit the perpetual flame and there are communities of flame keepers throughout the world that maintain perpetual flames dedicated to Brigid’s honor.  

What delights me about this story, is the continuity. What a wonder to consider a single flame persisting through storms and wars, changes in government, changes in religions, major shifts in human behavior. And it seems that, even in the 300 year period when the flame at Kildare was extinguished, a flame somewhere (or perhaps in someone) was kept alive. The memory of Brigid remained strong, ready to resurface when and where it was safe enough to do so.

This is a literal story but it is also a wonderful metaphor for our own lives and faith journeys. Spiritual traditions throughout the world honor light as an expression of the Divine. In Quaker tradition, we talk often of the Light, as in I am holding you in the Light or I recognize the Light of God within each one of you. Consider that if there is the Light of God within each one of us, that means it is here in me too. I suspect I am not the only one in the room who finds it easier to recognize and honor the Light in others than it is to honor it in myself… 

In the spirit of Brigid’s flame, in the next few minutes, consider how you tend to the Divine Light that burns within you. For it is that eternal, internal flame, that leads each one of us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly in our hearts, our homes and in the wider community.

    • Tending to the divinity within us and around us is an act of devotion. It requires commitment and it requires community. Remembering that there were 19 priestesses and then 19 nuns keeping Brigid’s flame burning, how do you enlist help to tend the burning flame within you?
    • Tending to the divinity within us and around us is an act of courage. Remembering the profound systemic changes that the perpetual flame at Kildare survived, how do you lean into the eternal divine light that permeates the roller-coaster of your finite, terrestrial life?
    • Tending to the divinity within us and around us is an act of creation. Remembering that Brigid fed and nurtured, healed and transformed with a generosity that was without limits, how do you sustain a flame that offers compassionate heat and light to those who need it most?

As we close, I’d like to share with you a simple practice that helps me welcome and nourish my own Light. It can be a particularly potent practice today. Imbolc is the half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This time, when the increasing light becomes more noticeable and the earthbound plants and critters (including us) begin to peek out from our winter retreats, is thought to be a time of union between light and land.

If you are comfortable, close your eyes and notice the points of contact between your body and the earth. Notice that the wood of the floorboards and the pew connect you physically to the church which stands upon the living earth. As you take a long, slow deep breath, imagine pulling the breath up through the earth, through the soles of your feet, through your legs, up into your heart space, and finally into your head. Release the breath with a long, slow exhale.

As you open your eyes and take another long, slow breath in through the soles of your feet, know that through your very life — in words, in actions and, quite simply, in breath — you bridge the divine and the earthly. May you know that you are whole and holy.