April 7 Sermon from Spring Glen Church: “Faith Beyond Words”

This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut. An audio recording is available online.

Faith Beyond Words 

Let me set the scene for you.

I am walking into a chapel in San Salvador. The doors are wide open. There are windchimes overhead made from seashells. I hear them jingle as a cool breeze comes through the sanctuary. The space is simple, but filled with light. There are windows all around. I see huge flowering rhododendrons outside. I walk farther into the chapel and I focus my attention on the chancel. There are almost a dozen fresh flower arrangements around the altar. Maybe this is because Oscar Romero’s feast day is only one week away?

As I approach the altar my eyes are drawn to a glass engraving on the floor. The glass depicts an outline of where Oscar Romero’s body fell after he was shot and killed while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. I am in the chapel at Hospitalito Divina Providencia in San Salvador. A few days earlier I hardly even knew of the existence of this exact place. However, as I walk around the chapel, soaking in the magnificent beauty of the nature that surrounds me, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I understand that I am walking on holy ground.

A few days before this encounter with the Spirit, I traveled over 2000 miles from New Haven, Connecticut to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador with a group of ten other Yale Divinity School students and our two faculty leaders. We had been preparing for this trip for nearly seven months. We had read over 1500 pages across ten different books to educate ourselves intellectually on liberation theology, the stories of religious martyrs in El Salvador, experiences of global migration, and other academic topics. But this trip was not just an academic learning experience. Traveling to El Salvador was an immersion. An immersion into the Salvadoran culture, an immersion into a country that suffered from a horrific 12 year civil war, an immersion into a new place with sights, sounds, and smells that at times would overwhelm our senses.

In some ways, an immersion experience is meant to be sensory overload. We participate in such trips to shake up our sense of self and return home with a new and different way of thinking. New smells, new sounds, new tastes, new sights, and new feelings. New, new, new. Not only an abundance of new, but old too. While I was in El Salvador, I experienced many old memories rushing to the front of my mind. A taste of a pupusa, the national staple food in El Salvador, brought back memories of my time living in Washington DC and eating pupusas with friends after church. Most mornings I woke to the sounds of birds chirping much like what I hear when I wake up here in New Haven. We saw familiar chain restaurants, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Wendys, and others. The smell of fire where weeds were being burned in the countryside reminded me of the smell of campfires as a kid. When our senses our overloaded, the new is connected to the old, this is the way that our brains work. An immersion is an overwhelming experience but our brain protects us by reminding us that it is not all as new and jarring as it might first seem. 

Three days of feeling overwhelmed by sensory overload is what prepared me to stop and recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel where Oscar Romero was killed. I had been searching for God in El Salvador. In our first two days of the immersion, we participated in two Catholic worship services entirely in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish and I struggled to connect with God during those worship services where I didn’t understand the prayers, I didn’t understand the songs, and I certainly didn’t understand the sermons! But those worship services weren’t meant for me. I was only an observer and just because I couldn’t  feel God’s presence does not mean that God was not there. God was certainly present in those worship services, in the people, and throughout El Salvador.

The scripture we heard this morning calls our attention to this sense of God’s presence. Here in our lived experiences, even when we might not initially recognize it: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” The letter writer in 1 John is reminding the reader of the tangible lived experiences they have had as followers of Jesus Christ. They have experienced the word made manifest through their senses, they heard, saw, and touched. A little bit of background about 1 John might help us understand the context of this passage. 1 John is an epistle written in such a similar style and with a similar vocabulary to the Gospel of John, that it leads biblical scholars to conclude that it was likely written by someone in the Johannine school, a follower of the writer of the Gospel of John. In ancient times, a letter was written to convey important information. Often the cost of visiting in person was very expensive. So it was more economical to send a letter. This particular letter was written because of a schism in the Christian community. In the church, letters were written to clarify and weigh in on debated topics. This background is important to recognize what is being emphasized. 1 John is reminding the reader of the importance of their fellowship as Christians and how they came to join this fellowship. They joined in fellowship because of what they experienced with their senses, “that which they heard, saw and touched.”

When I struggled to feel God’s immediate presence in El Salvador, it took a moment of reflection on what I had heard, seen, and touched. The reading that I had done to prepare for this immersion in El Salvador changed the way that I experienced everything. I was so much more aware of the history and the theology. There were many details that I might not have noticed if it wasn’t for the preparation that I had done. In particular, learning about Oscar Romero. The reading from 1 John says, “we saw it, and testify to it.” Romero, like Martin Luther King, Jr., saw that his life was under threat. But he testified anyway. He continued to preach the gospel even though he had foreseen that it would cost him his life. 

The final story I will share this morning from El Salvador is a new theology that I learned. This is the theology of cohetes. Cohetes is the Spanish word for rockets or firecrackers. We participated in a novena prayer walk with a rural Catholic community. A novena is 9 days of prayer leading up to celebrating a saint’s feast day. During this novena prayer walk, we joined about thirty local community members walking along about two miles of dusty half-paved road. The group was singing songs and saying prayers along the way. All of a sudden a firecracker when off and I almost jumped out of my skin. By the end of the novena prayer walk, around 12 fireworks had been shot off and we had learned about the theology of cohetes. This is a theology of place. When you shoot off a firecracker, you do so from the ground. You light it and it shoots up towards the sky. The crack sound catches your attention and you look up towards the sky. In a religious sense, by looking upward we might draw our attention towards the heavens, towards a sense of the mystery and our awareness of God’s presence. Shooting off the firecrackers not only draws our attention, but the attention of those around us. That particular community used the firecrackers as a way to evangelize, to show others what they were doing and invite them in. I was drawn to the theology of cohetes because so often my own faith experience is orderly, inside, and quiet. The firecrackers led me to wonder about ways that I can testify in a similar way?

Not everyone can go on an immersion trip. But each of us can reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and we testify to in our lived experience as Christians. Do you need a firecracker to shake up your faith life? Or maybe you are the one who is lighting the firecracker to call attention to those around you?

Let us each continually reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and what we have looked upon and touched with our hands, in order that we might testify to it. Amen.

November 2018 Contemplative Prayer

I am currently a ministerial intern at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut. A group gathers for Contemplative Prayer once a month. A majority of the November meeting was spent in reflection on many life updates for those who attended. Two different types of prayers were discussed and I thought they might be helpful to write about here. 

During worship on the Sunday previous to Contemplative Prayer, Rev. Susan Murtha had shared a message with the children on prayer. Rev. Susan taught the congregation a five finger prayer inspired by Pope Francis. I created an image to accompany her instructions for this blog post.

I also shared with the group a similar five finger prayer to be used as a daily examen, a type of prayer developed by St. Ignatius. You can view a brochure produced by the Jesuit Institute of London explaining the five finger examen in more detail here.

Our session concluded with a Lectio Divina reading and contemplation of Wendell Berry poem, The Peace of Wild Things. I love using this poem in prayer. I hope that you find inspiration in the words.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, from On Being. 
https://onbeing.org/blog/wendell-berry-the-peace-of-wild-things/

October 2018 Contemplative Prayer

Spring Glen Church offers Contemplative Prayer one night a month. Below is the agenda from the October gathering. Led by Laura Kisthardt, YDS Pastoral Intern, and Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, Sabbatical Coverage Associate Pastor. I (Laura) have added links and notes for anyone who would like to use this agenda for individual or group use.

  1. Begin in silence (10 minutes)
  2. Leaf Meditation (5 minutes individual reflection, 10 minutes of sharing)

We used fallen leaves gathered from outside for an object meditation. You could use a leaf, a shell, a rock or any other natural object. Spend 5 to 10 minutes with the object. Observe it and turn it around in your hand. What do you notice about the object? What strikes you? Does it remind you of anything? Consider the objects role in creation.

3. Ignatian Examen

I guided the group through a modified version of the Ignatian Examen used each Sunday in my home church of Cleveland Park Congregational UCC. You can find a version of the examen to use on your own here: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray

4. Loving Kindness Meditation

There are many variations of Metta, or loving kindness, meditations. This is one that I selected to use this day. If you are using it for personal prayer, sometimes it can be helpful to record yourself reading it slowly on your phone or computer and then use the recording for meditation to allow yourself to be fully present and not be reading.

https://blog.buddhagroove.com/the-buddhist-metta-lovingkindness-prayer/

5. Breath Prayer with music

Return your focus to your breath. I find it helpful to use 3 part breathing. Imagine filling your lungs from the very bottom, middle and then top. Hold that for one count before exhaling the air out in three parts: top, middle, bottom. That type of breath is not necessary though if you find it to be a distraction. If you would like to use a mantra in addition to the focus on your breath, I suggest something simple, either two or four words to be used on the inhale and exhale. Inhale: “Peace” and Exhale: “Love”. Or Inhale: “Holy God” Exhale: “Show Mercy”.

We listened to four songs from this album (one of my favorite to listen to during prayer):

https://karenrugg.bandcamp.com/album/cathedral-canyon-native-american-flute-meditations

6. Lectio Divina Psalm 46

You will slowly read the passage three times. The first time, let the words wash over you. The second time, start to become aware of words or phrases that stand out to you. The third time select one word or phrase where God is speaking to you right now. After the third reading, spend 5 minutes in silent prayer reflecting on that word or phrase.

7. Closing Prayer

July 2018 Book Recap

July was a fun month of reading! I read 7 books this month. Some of the books pictured in this stack represent others because I already returned them to the library.

IMG_20180801_221726_648

It had been a while since my last graphic novel. So July started with The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. It was a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about the author’s family and immigrating from Vietnam. I knew next to nothing about Vietnam before or after the war. Bui does a great job of drawing connections between her childhood, her aspirations as a new mother, and the life her mother and father lived before she was born. The Best We Could Do has a contemplative quality to it and many of the illustrations encourage you to linger and consider their impact.

My next two July reads were the second and third books of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. I thought the middle book (China Rich Girlfriend) in the trilogy was better than the conclusion (Rich People Problems). But overall an interesting story that I enjoyed reading! I am looking forward to seeing the movie coming out soon. If you are looking for a late summer pool read, I recommend starting with Crazy Rich Asians, the first book in the trilogy.

After finishing the trilogy I took a little bit of time to decide what my next read would be. At the beginning of the summer I had made a list for myself of books that I wanted to read this summer. I considered a few from the list, but I ended up ordering A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It was all over bookstagram last summer and it has a very memorable man crying on the cover. I had been thinking about reading it for over a year! It was just the kind of epic 800+ page novel that I needed to dive into. A Little Life is a book that will linger in my mind for a very long time. I fell in love with the four friends (Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude) and their journey, struggles and celebrations, through adulthood. Earlier in the summer I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and the characters in A Little Life reminded me a lot of Cyril Avery in different ways.

Maybe my next two reads were dissapointments because the shadow left by A Little Life was so big… I really wanted to like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Books about books are usually my favorite. I didn’t feel strong connections to Montag or any of the main characters in Fahrenheit 451. I wanted to see more from Clarisse and some of the other minor characters. I followed Bradbury with a new book that has been getting a lot of publicity, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Educated fell flat for me. Similar to Fahrenheit 451, I struggled to connect with any of the individuals. The abuse that Westover faced by her family was terrible, but I was concerned by the lack of analysis she gave to the actions of others. I would have liked to have seen a conclusion that looked back and more clearly articulated the abuses she suffered, rather than leaving it implied, especially related to the risky situations her father put her and her siblings in while working in the junk yard.

Finally, I was happy to end the month with a book that surpassed my expectations. I had my eye on The Power by Naomi Alderman since it was a Book of the Month club pick in October 2017. I purchased a used copy at the Book Barn in Niantic in May. It probably would have sat on myself unread for a while if it wasn’t for Kate McGuire. She told me that her book club in DC was going to read it. I decided to make it my next read in so that we could discuss it when I visited DC. As I said before, The Power pleasantly surprised me! I knew a little bit of the premise before reading, but the execution of the plot was incredible. I loved the themes that Alderman tackled and the way she handled them: patriarchy, human nature, religion, etc. If you like Sci-fi or dystopian fiction, I highly recommend The Power, especially if you like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu TV show.

I have one more month of summer “break” before the fall semester starts. Hopefully I can squeeze in a few more fun reads before it’s back to theology, exegesis, etc!

Poor People’s Campaign

The following message was included in a Moderator’s Memo sent to Cleveland Park Congregational Church on March 1, 2018:

Pastor Ellen and congregation member Laura Kisthardt (who is a student at Yale Divinity School and also our UCC delegate) recently attended a gathering for the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The purpose of this movement is to unite people to work toward a just, sustainable, and participatory society. It draws on the history, vision, and unfinished work of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Laura sent me a write up of her impressions of the event, and I am including a condensed version here:

On Monday, February 18th, I joined Pastor Ellen at Shiloh Baptist Church for the Poor People’s Campaign Mass Meeting in Washington, DC. I knew right away that it was going to be a special evening because of the wonderful music that was playing before the program even began. After the announcements, the real fun began of singing! The worship music was led by Yara Allen from Repairers of the Breach. The spirit and energy in the room was incredible. Hundreds of people singing and clapping together. We continued singing for about thirty minutes with many songs including “Go tell the President/ We shall not be moved/ Go tell the President/ We shall not be moved/ Just like a tree planted by the water/ We shall not be moved.”

Transitioning from the singing to the speakers, Terrence Mayo reminded us of the realities faced by many poor people in DC and the 7,473 homeless people who were counted in 2017. Rev. Dr. Barber spoke to the room on live video chat. He began by explaining why we need a moral movement in this country. Rev. Dr. Barber gave many poignant reasons. One that especially struck me was when he said, “When you can buy unleaded gas, but can’t buy unleaded water – we need a moral movement!” Rev. Graylan Hagler introduced five individuals directly impacted by poverty in various ways. Each testimony was powerful and real.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis gave the closing remarks. She reflected back on King’s original Poor People’s Campaign and drew connections to the current campaign. She shared that the current state of our country is an emergency and we need to be willing to do whatever it takes to fix it. It was energizing to see such a large room full of people ready to take action.

If you are interested in learning more about the Poor People’s Campaign or getting involved, please check out the following website: www.poorpeoplescampaign.org.

2017 Reading Challenge

In 2017 I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge and finished 53 books.

I had never done a reading challenge before. I started actively using Goodreads in the second half of 2016. I had seen others post about their progress on 2016 challenges and thought it would be a fun way to push myself to see how much I could read.

At the time that I started the challenge I was still working full time in Alexandria, VA and commuting from Petworth in Washington, DC. I took the metro to work, which gave me at least an hour and a half of uninterrupted reading time each day. Some days, thanks to metro delays, I had up to 3 hours of reading time!

I read 38 books before the beginning of July when I left my full time job and took a month long summer vacation. I started grad school full time in August and my reading for fun slowed immensely. Luckily I managed to finish 3 books during Thanksgiving break and 3 during Christmas break!

My best reading month was January when I finished 13 books. According to my reading challenge, my worst reading months were September and October when I didn’t finish any books. In reality, I was constantly reading for grad school, but I didn’t read the full text of any book.

My first suggestion to anyone who wants to read more: always carry a book with you. I tend to prefer physical books, but I always have at least one book downloaded on the Kindle app on my phone. I only read two books electronically in 2017. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout I read on my Kindle and Only Child by Rhiannon Navin was an electronic advance reader copy I received through Book of the Month that I read on my laptop.

I listened to one full audiobook in 2017, Hillbilly Elegy. When my parents helped me move from DC to New Haven, CT, we listened to it in the car. I have downloaded some other audio books from the library, but the jury is still undecided on whether audiobooks are my cup of tea.

I read 6 graphic novels and 1 book of poetry. I discovered a passion for graphic novels thanks to this reading challenge. Shout out to DC Public Library for their impressive collection of graphic novels. I hope to continue reading the Paper Girls series and would also like to finish the March series.

My second suggestion to anyone who wants to read more is to read what you enjoy. If I am 100 pages into a book, don’t like the characters and am not invested in the plot, I have no problems with putting it down. I know that I enjoy primarily fiction, 35 books I read this year were fiction. I enjoy family dramas, historical fiction, and science fiction.

I recognize that part of my ability to finish so many books in 2017 is that I am a fast reader. But I also actively chose to spend time reading. This meant I didn’t spend much time listening to podcasts or NPR. I also didn’t go to the movies more than 5 or 6 times all year. I enjoy reading and decided to prioritize it for this year.

My reading challenge for 2018 will be very different than 2017. In 2018, my challenge will be 12 books. I enjoyed seeing the quantity of books that I could finish in 2017, but I’d like to step outside my comfort zone in 2018. I want to work through some classics and I also want to read more of the Bible. Maybe I’ll even catch up on a few episodes of This American Life?

Happy reading!

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

First a bit of a backstory, I commute 45 minutes each way to work on the metro. I love to read and almost always carry at least one book with me. When I’m enjoying a book, in particular novels, I can usually finish them in a day or two. Thus I read A LOT of books. I often talk with friends and family trading book recommendations, but sometimes I’ve read so many books in the previous month they all start to blur together. Therefore my goal is to write at least a short book review for each book I read, which I can refer back to later when recommending future books!

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinStoriedLifeofAJFikry

This book arrived to me via my mother. I’m not sure how she received it or was recommended it. I finished it in early November 2015.

Honestly I didn’t know what to expect at first while reading this book. I was completely surprised by the package that shows up at A.J.’s store! I won’t ruin the surprise for other readers. The relationships throughout the book felt very real to me and I enjoyed the twists and turns in the plot.

One of my favorite characters in the book was Lambiase. I really enjoyed his perspective and his book club he started with fellow police officers. I also recently referenced the book club A.J. started with the women of the island where they read all the books about “wives.” For someone who reads a lot, I thought it was very funny!

I created a new genre in my mental library because of this novel, books about books. I decided that I love books about books, two other examples that I have read are: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour bookstore and People of the Book. One that is on my to read list: The Little Paris Bookshop. The author of Fikry compiled a list of the literary references within the book, viewable here.

TL;DR: Great book, definitely worth a read, especially if you like book stores!

100 Miles… According to MapMyRun

Yesterday I reached 100 miles in my training for the Tobacco Trail 11.28.15RunMarathon, well… according to MapMyRun. In reality,  I hit 100 miles a few weeks ago but I don’t always load up the tracking apps for my runs. However, this seems like a fitting time to recap my training thus far and hopefully jumpstart future blogging on my training for my first marathon.

How did I get here? All the way back in April I sent my dad a link for a Disney Marathon. I always told myself that if I ever did a marathon it would be a Disney marathon. In April when I got an email from Disney that registration for their marathon was opening the next day, I forwarded the email to my dad and said, “I’ve been thinking about a goal of doing a marathon within the next year. Would you want to do this race with me? Sign up is tomorrow. And it usually sells out instantly. I know it’s short notice, but I think it would be really fun!” (Yep thanks to Google, I searched and found the exact email I sent to him back in April!). Well my dad, being the bargain hunter that he is, sent back a short message in reply… “How about we do this race instead… http://www.tobaccoroadmarathon.com/.”

Yep,  just a link to the race. I had heard of the Tobacco Road Marathon because my dad and brother ran it for the first time in March 2015. They had both completed several marathons previously and said it was an enjoyable race. According to the tagline on the race website, “Fast, Flat, and Fun!” which sounded pretty similar to their recap of the race. Being the optimist that I am, I replied back to my dad, “Okay that sounds good.” 30 minutes later I received an email confirmation with my race registration. Yes, my dad instantly registered us both for the race. In order to secure the lowest rate of course! Thus concludes the story of me signing up to run my first marathon.

RWBArmy10MilerNow fast forward another 6 months or so. I’ve been training for this race now for the past three months. I’ve trained for several half marathons, but I’m currently on the horizon of running the farthest I’ve ever run! So far my training has been going very well and it has been a great opportunity to see new parts of DC and other cities that I’ve been in during my training.

I am excited to see what the next 14 weeks have in store and where my training will bring me. If you want to follow along with my training logs, please subscribe to my blog along the right hand side. Do you have marathon training tips? Please comment below to share them with me!

National Running Day

Today is National Running Day!

I wasn’t aware of this event, but I am happy to celebrate it now. Many of my friends know about my interests in fitness and that I’m currently training for the Nation’s Tri. But talking with my friends about National Running Day was a great way to spark a new conversation about health and fitness. first half marathon

I will never forget how I felt nearly four years when I started running with the Living Person group at John Carroll University. Running was something I really struggled with during high school. I was the goalie for my school field hockey team and I always dreaded the one time per season that we had to run timed 2 miles. Before high school, I was never interested in running even short distances and could not imagine running a half marathon. All of that changed when I became a part of an inspirational and motivational community, the Living Person. Being friends with Jurell and Craig, the leaders of the Living Person group, allowed me to challenge myself.

My first personal challenge was to run a 5k, the Footprints for Fatima race at John Carroll during Homecoming weekend 2011. I enjoyed that race and decided to take on a bigger challenge, the Peace Race, a 10K in Youngstown, Ohio later that fall. I remember just before Christmas break that semester Jurell and Craig talking about how they were going to try and run their first half marathon in the spring. I thought to myself, jeez I’ve done all these other things I didn’t think I could do. Maybe I can do that too! Sure enough I followed my training plan and March 2012 I ran my first half marathon with my best friend Sarah Castellano by my side every step of the way.

Finishing my first half marathon was a turning point in my health and fitness. I realized that if I put my mind to a goal then I could achieve it – even if it seemed out of reach at first. Incredibly, all of this confidence stemmed from the simple act of running! triathlon finishers

It’s important for me to reflect back on where my fitness journey has brought me over the years, especially now that I’m gearing up for some much bigger personal fitness goals. The Nation’s Tri on September 13th will be a race of many firsts for me: my first Olympic distance triathlon, my first open water swim race, and my first road bike race. Along the way I’m hoping to continue to blog about my training, especially tri-specific training.

My other big personal fitness challenge coming up is still about 9 months away. A few weeks ago after talking with my dad and a lot of personal reflection, I decided to sign up for my first marathon! Next March I’ll be running the Tobacco Trail Marathon in Cary, North Carolina. This race was recently recognized by Runner’s World as one of the 10 best new marathons. My dad and my brother ran the marathon together this year. And next year I will be out there running it with my dad by my side!

I truly believe no matter how big or small your fitness goals seem, if you set up a plan for yourself, have a good support system, national running dayand put in the work, then anyone can achieve their goals. I never dreamed I would run a half marathon before I could barely run a mile. Truthfully some days I still have a hard time running a mile! Personal fitness is something that is continually being improved and is different for everyone. So today for National Running Day, I encourage you just to go out there and RUN!

P.S. if you’re interested in taking a bigger leap and signing up for a triathlon, join me at the Nation’s Tri September 13th. There is a one day sale today in celebration of National Running Day, no code needed!