Updated: Oct 2
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 10th of Fifth Month, 2020
Speaker: Nikki Holland
Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10
18 Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? To what can I compare it? 19 It’s like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches.”
20 Again he said, “To what can I compare God’s kingdom? 21 It’s like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole.”
Glimpses of Joy
Good morning! It’s so amazing for me that I can be here with you today. I’m sad I am not in the same building as you all. But I’m really grateful that we can be “together” through Zoom! My family has really appreciated being able to connect with you all each week, while we’ve been locked down in Belize.
It was hard to decide on a topic for the message today. There’s a lot going on right now in the world and in my life. Today is Mother’s Day—should I talk about that? I graduated yesterday—I could talk about What I Learned in Seminary. I am a missionary that you all support and I work with people you love—should I talk about what’s happening in Belize right now? There’s a global pandemic—I could talk about that—some sort of encouragement? We are all constantly in crisis, and we ALWAYS need encouragement. Or I could talk about what is always my favorite topic, which is the Kingdom of God. In the end, it ended up being a combination of all these current events and also a very, very old topic that arose for me: community.
In one of my classes this semester, we explored the question of what the church is in these times that we are living in. I found that my answer is that Christian church is a community of people who seek healing through Christ—so we can connect ever more fully with God, each other, ourselves, and the earth, and so we can live in love, justice, peace and joy. In other words, I think the purpose of the Church is to realize the Kingdom of God on this Earth. I think that’s what all Jesus’s preaching was about, and I think we really should listen to him.
I went on in that class to explore the purpose of missions. And I discovered that missions is basically the same thing as church. It’s simply the expansion of our community to include people from all over the world—seeing how people everywhere are realizing the Kingdom of God. Or maybe it’s not even the expansion of the actual community—as Quakers, we believe that the Spirit of God is already working everywhere in the world. Maybe it’s simply the expansion of our understanding of the breadth of community of God.
Either way, it seems to me that God is all about community. Jesus is all about community. From what I can tell, the church and missions are all about community.
I need to stop here for a minute and assure you that I love working here in Belize. I completely love the people I work with and the community here. We have a lot of fun together and there is literally nowhere else I’d rather be—you can tell because we’re in a global crisis and I’m still here. Many good things happen, and I write about them in my newsletters and on Facebook. But right now I am going to tell you about one of my hardest moments since I arrived here. That wasn’t my intention, of course, when I agreed to bring a message here today. But as I prayed and considered, it became clear to me that this is the story I need to share with you today.
I started this last semester of seminary with a lot of pain. In the last week of Christmas break, I listened to stories of abuse that two of my students had experienced; I brought a member of staff and a student to the police to make a report about death threats the student had received; I was asked to intervene with three students who were bullying a fourth; a coworker lashed out at me; a student confessed that they’d made “bad decisions” over Christmas break but wouldn’t elaborate on what those decisions were.
On Saturday, while I was still in bed trying to recover a little bit from the week, I received news that meant that we had to cancel our local fundraising event that was only two weeks away—the owner of our venue had been murdered.
February was a hard month for all of us. I was sick for the entire month. The kids at our school were bullying each other to a degree we had not anticipated—they were even attempting to bully some of the staff. We had serious questions about the students’ abilities to pass the test at the end of the year, especially with teaching time so frequently interrupted by behavioral issues. Etc. Suffice it to say—morale was low.
Fortunately, I was in Supervised Ministry at ESR, and a big part of that class is about supporting each other in our ministries. One day, one of my classmates, Dan Mudd, made a comment about how, as Christians, we are called to “find the joy” in life, no matter what the circumstances. That made a big impact on me. In other words, it made me breakdown in tears. How do I find the joy when people are cruel to my students and they, in turn, are cruel to each other? How do I find joy when our parties are canceled because of murder? How do I find joy when my own sons are experiencing trouble with THEIR classmates because they don’t have a shared understanding of what it means to be a boy? How do I find joy when I am weighed down with terrible fatigue every day because of an illness that just would not go away? Where is the joy?
Because I shared my sorrow in this community, and because they are compassionate and generous people, they were able to minister to me. They surrounded me (through Zoom and later email and Facebook) with love and prayers and encouragement and virtual hugs. And I renewed my determination to find the joy, and I shared this with my community at Belize Friends. We all agreed. We needed to find some joy.
So this is the end of February. The whispers and rumors about COVID19 were just starting to ramp up. A work team from Wilmington College was sending emails—could they still come? Would their college let them come? Would we let them come? Thanks be to God in Heaven, they did come, and wow, were they a boost to our morale. Oscar, our pastor, said that it was the one time in the year that other people ministered to him. Our kids and the kids from Wilmington made friendships that they are still maintaining through social media. Among the many blessings that this team gave to me was the way their after-school program brought together all my favorite people in Belize—my own children, the kids from BFS and the kids from BFC—I walked from room to room and in every room, I saw people that I love having fun and connecting with each other. I cried some more that week, but this time it was with happy tears.
And the team brought their own sorrows, too. One of their leaders had a major medical incident. While they were with us, they were learning about their employers and schools at home were responding to the novel coronavirus. Our community at Belize Friends (and beyond!) was able to care for them as they experienced pain and sorrow and concern, too—we prayed for them, loved them, went to the hospital with them and simply sat with them. In their willingness to be open about their vulnerabilities as we were open with ours, our two groups, Wilmington College and Belize Friends, were able to experience deeply mutual community that was meaningful and life giving for all of us.
After the Wilmington team left, we went straight into responding to the pandemic, and that was a crazy week. But our team came together gorgeously to imagine creative solutions to problems that were changing by the hour, and within days we had developed and implemented a plan for how to participate in caring for our community’s educational, physical, spiritual, and mental needs. We set up a phone network to stay connected throughout the school closure. We printed paper work packets. We set up a food assistance program. We made a plan for pastoral care. It was amazing to see. And I can’t help but wonder if we could have been able to come together with quite that much creativity and energy if it hadn’t been for the Wilmington Team. Just by coming to be with us, sharing with us their love and energy and their own troubles, too, they ministered to us and to our community in ways I’m not sure they meant to.
February doldrums. An Intention to find joy. The hurricane of energy from Wilmington. The crisis of COVID19 and the associated closures. Where was the joy? It was in all of it. There is joy in the fact that our students have the safety and courage to talk about trauma they experience. There is joy in the fact that our school is constantly striving to be a place that is safe for everybody and that we will work ourselves to the bone to try to make it so—and our students know it. There is joy in simply knowing that there is joy to find. There is joy in the way people can minister to each other and receive ministry when we live in mutual community. There is joy in maintaining connection across distances. There is joy in being able to be with you now, not just this Sunday as we’d planned, but for the past month of Sundays.
This world is bent and it is broken and everywhere, everywhere, if you look hard enough with enough determination, we can find joy. Not silver linings and not a “bright side”—a deep, gritty joy that radiates out of every situation as soon as there is the tiniest movement towards healing.
I believe that this kind of joy is a sign of the Kingdom of God. My kids and I have a sort of catechism. I ask a question and they answer, and we do it in a sort of chant. Eventually their answers condense to one word—my kids really like one-word answers, even though they’re not teenagers yet. So I’ll say something like “That’s the plan, but what do plans do?” and they say “Change!” Like that. So one of our most important catechism questions is this: “We might get hurt, but what are people made to do?” And they say, “Heal!”
One of the Greek words for healing is sōzō, and this word shows up ALLLL the time in the New Testament. 110 times. Anywhere that we read the words “heal” or “made well”—that’s probably sōzō. But this is also the word behind most instances of “save” and “salvation.” So I think that the kind of “salvation” that the New Testament talks about is a salvation of healing.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe the church is community of healing and connection and living into the Kingdom of God. I think we need healing to be able to connect in healthy relationship. And I also think we need healthy relationship to be able to heal.
And I think it is through this healing and community that we become able to live at peace—with love—in joy. And I think the really wonderful thing—the Good News of Jesus Christ—is that we do not have to wait to experience this kind of community. We can live in the Kingdom of God right here, right now, in whatever situation we’re in—just by looking for the joy—choosing love—receiving the healing.
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