Inspiration, Uncategorized

“Love has come again, like wheat arising green.” A reflection for Easter

wheat crop sprouting“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

The great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark”

This is the truth of the resurrection story we hear today, the story of Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, the women who come to the tomb. Throughout the gospel of Mark, the friends and followers of Jesus have a hard time catching on to who he is. And now, after his execution as a criminal, we can imagine that the men, filled with fear for their lives, are in hiding, and the women – the faithful women – are coming forward to do their duty as good Jews to care for his body.

This is not the Gospel of Luke with its heavenly beings, or the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus appears and speaks, or the Gospel of John with its triumphant language and body that is properly prepared placed in a new tomb, thanks to Joseph of Arimathea. This is Mark. It’s a far simpler story. Three women and a young man, sometimes called a gardener, and a stone that is rolled away.

It’s stark depiction of Easter morning, where Jesus is nowhere to be found.

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

I would argue that this is, because it is so stark and so bleak, the most powerful depiction of the resurrection. In it we see Mary and the women plunged into the very familiar, very human reality of death. This is our reality; this is our experience. We are bereft. We are fearful.

Writer Tim Phillips notes that the worst thing about death in all its forms may be that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.

“Addiction” he says, “robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs us of the energy to imagine [some kind of wholeness]. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that might put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive deaths hold on us.”  I have had experiences of this. Perhaps you have too.

But we also have the capacity to awaken our imaginations, to trust and believe just as the women at the tomb did as the young man told them, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

Easter is our invitation, as the poet Wendell Berry says, to “practice resurrection.”  Practicing resurrection is learning to walk in the darkest night. Practicing resurrection is believing that in the midst of it all, wrapped in mystery, is a life-giving grace that exceeds anything we can imagine. Practicing resurrection is affirming that God is with us; that the very creation, in its cycles of death and new birth, pulses with resurrection power.

And that we, too, beloved of God, the sisters and brothers of the Jesus who trusted, have resurrection power, as well.

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

We know how this story plays out. The Gospel says that the women didn’t say anything, but it appears that someone eventually broke down and shared what had happened with the others. (Probably the woman who was the oldest, over-responsible sister in her family!)  And we also know that somehow, starting on this Easter morning, the darkness of their grief was transformed, and the people knew that Jesus lived for them.

And with their recognition that he lived, (and what that looked like is a mystery of our faith), the first disciples, men and women once crushed by grief and huddled in fear, broke free – resurrected – and welcomed the new creation that Jesus had unleashed; the disciples of Jesus made one in the breaking of the bread,  God’s beloved community, right now, right here, on earth as it is in heaven.

In every age humankind has been given reasons to stop trusting this, to not believe as the words of the ancient prayer affirms, that “death could not contain him.” We have chosen to be fearful. To hate. To judge. To be cynical. To embrace resignation and apathy.

On Easter, the Jesus that the tomb could not contain, our resurrected Christ, invites us to reject all that and embrace the life that he offers, long ago on an Easter morning, now again this day and every day. Life abundant. Unsurpassed love. The freedom of the Children of God.

Every time two or more of us gather, or act in his name, he is with us. Where compassion is, he is there, where love is, he is there. Where the fight for those who are the least takes place, he is there.

“He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to the State Capitol; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to your school; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to your place of work; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to every place you enter; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

And when we see him, he will be our reminder of who we are. He will be our sign to break our silence and unleash our love. To be like the three faithful women at the tomb, to tell others who have not seen what we have seen. To proclaim that in a world where things die, there is also resurrection.

“Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat arising green!”


Being Light and Seeing Light: A Winter Solstice Reflection

Effigy solstice
Each year, our neighbor Dave constructs an effigy to represent the darkness. Then, on the Winter Solstice, he burns it in a bonfire (of truly epic scope!). Many ancient cultures tended fires through the night to keep the darkness at bay.

Thursday, December 21, 2017   

Tonight is the Winter Solstice – the moment that the Northern hemisphere is tilted farthest from the sun, producing the longest night of the year. It’s not surprising that many festivals of light – Advent, Hannukah, Kwanzaa – are celebrated at the time of year in which we are plunged into the deepest darkness.

Some kids are afraid of the dark, but from the time I was a little girl, I have loved it. I loved pulling my blankets over my head and fussing around with them until the polyester fibers started emitting little sparks. I loved walking the road of Camp Glen Spey, electricity-less in the Delaware Water Gap, staring at the breadth and beauty of the night sky. I loved those rare occasions when we could plead my father into lighting the living room fireplace, and we’d turn out the lights and watch the flames. And I really, really loved power outages. Candles everywhere!

Maybe I was so entranced by the darkness because of my Celtic roots. Multiple Irish myths and celebrations honor the darkness that the winter Solstice brings. One practice was to light a good fire, sweep the house, unbar the door, and place the white, red or green coinneal mor na Nollag, the Christmas candle, on the table to welcome the stranger. In my grandmother Sullivan’s county, Limerick, the doors of houses were left open, and every cottage window featured a lit white candle. Children were walked up into the hills outside the village to wonder at the beauty of the fire twinkling in every home.

Recently, a friend from college commented to me that we’re living in dark times. He was very down, very frustrated. I noted to him that I think the Dark Ages and the Black Plaque had our times beat, but he wasn’t so sure. I was struck by the depth of his resignation and frustration. And I’ve been noticing that regardless of wherever people are on the spectrum of social, political and religious belief, there seems to be a dark anxiety afoot. What do we do?

In the Christian tradition in which I’m grounded, we proclaim the words of the Prophet Isaiah as we prepare ourselves to welcome the birth of Jesus at Christmas: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The light of our Advent wreaths builds with each passing week, reminding us that the one we proclaim the “light of the world” comes among us once again. The practices and prayers of this season invite us to be people of light – in our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods and schools.

But this path is not exclusive to the Christian community. The Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist traditions all speak of Divine light and our connection to it.  There is a story told about the death of Buddha. His distraught disciples asked him, “Blessed One: Who will be our teacher now?”  The Buddha’s last words were, “Be your own light.”   The holy Quran speaks of human hearts that are “clear like a shining lamp.” The Hindu Rig Vedas remind believers that, “The human body is the temple of God. One who kindles the light of awareness within gets true light.”

As we gather holly, yew and evergreens into our home, as we welcome the darkest day of the year, we might consider embracing ancient practices that pierce the darkness and make it not a source of fright but a source of wonder. What if we lit a fire in the hearth or the wick of a candle, a gesture of warmth and welcome to those who need our embrace? What if we took a moment as our Minnesota nights get chillier and clearer, to marvel at the night sky, and the vast universe that surrounds us, only visible because the sun has dipped beyond our horizon? What if we embraced some of the silence and peace that darkness often brings, either by opening ourselves to the stillness or by spending time alongside someone we care about, candles lighting our dinner or our livingroom? What if we spent time with the spiritual teachings of our own traditions, learning more about how they call us to light?

Tonight, the white coinneal mor na Nollag will grace the front window of the Vanni home. It will remind me in this longest night that we each can be light for, and see light in, one another.


Be Watchful! Stay Awake!

In my social justice work, I’ve noticed people using a word in a way that wasn’t part of my vocabulary. Some communities refer to people who seem to actually “get” the challenge that’s present and the action that needs to be taken as “woke.” As in, that person is “woke”; he/she realizes what’s happening; what really matters in this moment; the action that needs to be taken.

I’m working to be more woke in the weeks ahead. For me, a woman of way too many words, that means shutting up and listening, particularly when my dominant culture mind wants to take over and share my “point of view,” something I’ve come to see as, sadly, most often simply a lifetime of programming that privileges my perspective. A perspective that’s too often blindly derived from my race, education, cultures, and social location.

It’s not that having a point of view is bad. It’s just that I’ve come to believe that it often doesn’t forward the action. It can even set it back.

The readings for the first week of Advent, which starts this Sunday with a new liturgical year, exhort us to “stay awake.” On the surface, that challenge doesn’t seem so hard. Digging deeper, it is daunting. It can challenge us to interrogate the places where we are still drowsy, sleeping, and even snoring. This past year brought powerful exposure of racism, sexism, and more. Am I nodding off now, because I’ve heard it before, or because I am overwhelmed? Am I inclined to snooze through this one, a victim of privilege and compassion fatigue? These and other questions push me.

My answer to them is “yes.” You will have your own answer, of course. But I commit, as this holy season begins, to stay awake and watch. And to work to stay woke, come what will.

“Jesus said to his disciples:
‘Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!‘”


“Love your neighbor…” Says just about everybody.


Almost every religion and ethical system on this beautiful shared planet of ours has love for one’s neighbor as a centerpiece. 

The great sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel, was approached by a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. The man explained that he would accept Judaism only if the Rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he, the convert, stood on one foot.  After pausing to think, the humble Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and study it!”

A student of the law came to Jesus, and asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

A Bedouin came to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, and grabbing the stirrup of the camel said: “O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, replied: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them. Now let the stirrup go!”

The great Sanskrit epic, the Hindu Mahabharata teaches, “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.“  And the Buddha, not surprisingly, says very simply: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”

Our teachings remind us that our religious laws mean nothing if they are not anchored in human kindness, in goodness.  Our teachings call literally billions of us, the entire human family, into a spirit of love, a spirit of acceptance, a spirit of care for each other.

At it’s very best, that’s what we celebrate in this national holiday of Thanksgiving. We’ll gather this week with family and friends to express our gratitude for each other and our lives. We’ll use many languages and be grounded in many different religious traditions.  Our tables will groan with turkey and pumpkin pie, biryani and custard trifle, cranberry apple kugel, sweet potato marshmallow casserole,  sabaayad and, at my house, Irish soda bread.

This fellowship and abundance reminds us that while we honor our differences, we also embrace commonly held visions.  It can call us into action, inviting us to continue the complicated and rich journey of becoming more loving, more embracing neighbors. It offers each of us a moment to commit ourselves to seeing those in our midst who still feel frightened or threatened or unwelcome.

When we embrace this day as a mutual recommitment to love and neighborliness, we not only move ourselves forward, but actively contribute in redeeming a holiday that is, tragically, a source of great pain for our indigenous people.

And so with deepest respect for the Lakota people, who lived on this portion of land long before many of our people arrived, I offer this prayer from their tradition as part of our call to gratitude and acceptance this Thanksgiving.

Mitakuye Oyasin, All are Related

“You are all my relations, my relatives, without whom I would not live. We are in the circle of life together, co-existing, co-dependent, co-creating our destiny. One, not more important than the other. One nation evolving from the other and yet each dependent upon the one above and the one below. All of us a part of the Great Mystery.  Thank you for this Life.”

May their prayer be ours.

Trish Sullivan Vanni

Interfaith Circle Annual Celebration of Thanksgiving, November  2017



Who’s My Neighbor?

This Sunday (which happens to be the day that the U.S. will commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation) we’ll hear Jesus challenged, yet again, by the Pharisees. “What’s the greatest commandment?” they ask. He responds echoing the words of the great Rabbi Hillel: There are two great commandments. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.*

This week, someone tweeted a photo of a banner that appeared to be hanging on the pedestrian footbridge in Eden Prairie’s Miller Park. It was a demand that immigration be stopped, and it proclaimed Identity Evropa as its source. This white supremacist group is making inroads in Minnesota, including protesting at our state capitol.

As the granddaughter of immigrants, I am agog at the free reign that these haters now feel. They are emboldened by a national discourse that coarsens more with each passing day, and by political rhetoric that barely veils hate of the “other.” There is no hesitation now to spout these ugly messages publicly.  Reminds me of a story my Grandma Sullivan told about the landladies who turned her away as she looked for an apartment in the Bronx, my uncle Charlie and my father in tow in their baby carriage. “No dirty Irish,” they said as they slammed the door in her face.

Jesus reminds us this week that our Christian faith is not private. It’s about a public demonstration of who we are as his followers. It engages others, and is seen and affirmed only in the light of the love we show them.

When I was kid in Hackensack, NJ we regularly sang, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I could probably still play it on the guitar.  That’s my prayer this week. That’s the theme that I hope will underpin my actions in the days ahead as I work to reassure my immigrant and refugee friends and neighbors that they are wanted, that they matter, that they are cherished by my household and by the vast majority of people — people of genuine good will — in our City of Eden Prairie.

One of the verses of that old familiar song said, “And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.” We are closer than ever to restoration of Christian unity as we celebrate the anniversary of Martin Luther O.S.A.’s brave posting of 95 theses that opposed the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of indulgences. My hope is that we can join as one voice now to oppose the abuses we see in our churches and all across our nation — including the demonizing of those who came here by choice, not birth. Let’s make sure that we can be seen as Christians not only for our love of God but our deep commitment to love our neighbors as ourselves. “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.”


*Hillel was asked to recite the Torah while only standing on one foot. Loosely paraphrased, he responded, “Love God with all your mind, your heart, and your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is commentary.”


The Soda Bread Wars

I come from a very ethnic Irish American family. A few years ago, I posted the recipe for soda bread that my grandmother, Hanorah Hayes Sullivan, taught me as a youngster. It is the one that they made in her village, Murroe, in Limerick. (She was a servant girl in the house of the Lord who once owned Glenstal Abbey, but that’s a story for another telling.)

The Hanley cousins, descended from my grandmother Margaret Doherty of Longford and John Hanley of Cavan, immediately flew into competitive action. I include my cousin Brian’s narrative for your amusement. Grandma Hanley would give a blank stare at “turbinado” but Brian, who is upright and honest as well as smart and handsome, admits such.

In the interest of familial peace and in rememberance of two very faithful, loving grandmothers, I offer both on my patron’s day. St. Patrick evangelized the Irish and is said to have driven out the snakes. May you, today, find a moment in which you can share your faith, and may the current serpents of doubt and fear be driven far from your table as you celebrate this feast!

Grandma Sullivan’s Irish Soda Bread

Start by turning on the oven and heating until really hot, around 425˚.

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Mix all these dry ingredients together.

1 stick very soft butter

With your hands, cut the butter into the flour until it is very fine and “mealy” feeling.

2 cups raisins

Add the raisins and mix in. (Aunt Mae Keane’s family also puts in caraway seeds but Sullivans reject this practice roundly. Your call.)

3/4 quart buttermilk

Pour in buttermilk. You then want to mix this up until it is a moist but not saturated dough – sticky, but not mushy. Yikes. How do I explain this? Then, take the wet dough and put it on a pile of flour on the counter. Turn it a bit without major kneading, just to shape it into a round loaf and get a smooth exterior.

Put it in a cast iron skillet. (This is pretty essential; it mimics the bottom of a hearth, and also helps the bread keep its form.) Take a knife and cut a + across the center, about a quarter inch deep. Put it in the hot oven, and let it begin baking. It will rise and get very light brown. Then, lower the oven to 350˚. Bake until golden brown and a knife comes out fairly clean. A cooked looking crumb on the knife is okay, but o’gloop is not. By the way, o’gloop is the gaelic word for sticky mess, just so you know. 😉

Grandma Hanley’s Recipe
“So here is the real deal, despite what you may see out and about on the Internets. This is the best Soda Bread from here to the Emerald Isle!!!4 Cups Flour
1 Cup Sugar
4 Tsp Baking Powder
1 Tsp Baking Soda
1 Tsp Salt
4 oz Butter (Softened)
1 Egg
1 cup Golden Raisins
8 oz Sour Cream
1.5 Cups Buttermilk
Combine all ingredients, mix by hand (I am serious).Place dough in a buttered cast iron skillet.

Sprinkle some sugar (We use Turbanado) on the top to really make the crust happen (The addition of sugar to the top is a generational “add-on”. Not that we can improve Grandma’s masterpiece, but it is a nice crunchy addition).


Irish Blessing for St. Patrick’s Day

Beannacht / Blessing
by John O’DonahueOn the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.


Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Every Lent, I think of this amazing poem by Wendell Berry. It seems even more relevant given the times in which we live. Enjoy!

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

~Wendell Berry

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky, in 1934. The author of more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Wendell Berry has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1962), the Vachel Lindsay Prize from Poetry (1962), a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1965), a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for writing (1971), the Emily Clark Balch Prize from The Virginia Quarterly Review (1974), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award (1987), a Lannan Foundation Award for Non-Fiction (1989), Membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers (1991), the Ingersoll Foundation’s T. S. Eliot Award (1994), the John Hay Award (1997), the Lyndhurst Prize (1997), and the Aitken-Taylor Award for Poetry from The Sewanee Review (1998). His books include the novel Hannah Coulter (2004), the essay collections Citizenship Papers (2005) and The Way of Ignorance (2006), and Given: Poems (2005), all available from Counterpoint. Berry’s latest works include The Mad Farmer Poems (2008) and Whitefoot (2009), which features illustrations by Davis Te Selle.



White Privilege: Let’s Talk

The United Church of Christ curriculum, “White Privilege: Let’s talk. A Resource for Transformational Dialogue” is now available as an online curriculum at The Center for Progressive Renewal. It includes an online discussion board and access to a webinar series from June 2016  featuring authors of the curriculum, John Dorhauer, Traci Blackmon, DaVita McAllister, Stephen G. Ray, Jr. and John Paddock in conversation with CPR Founder and Director, Cameron Trimble.

The cost? “Pay What You Wish!” Talk about commiment. If you have any additional questions, please email Thomas Kleczka, Director of Online Learning for CPR at or go to the web page.


Lent inspiration from Fr. Ed Foley

Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A

by Fr. Ed Foley, Capuchin. 

At this stage of the season
at this stage of the liturgy
it is an exercise in the obvious
to announce that it is Lent …

If we don’t know that
from the music,
the vestments,
the sung Kyrie …
and all the other liturgical signals,
then announcing it in the sermon seems a touch futile.

Knowing that it is Lent,
and understanding the meaning of Lent, however,
are not coterminous.

As illustrated by the decidedly untrue story
of the brilliant magician performing on a cruise ship:

Unfortunately every time he did a trick
the captain’s parrot would yell
“It’s a trick, he’s a phony, that’s not magic”

One evening during a storm while magician was performing,
the ship sank,
the parrot and magician ended up in the same lifeboat.
For several days they just glared at each other
without speaking.

Finally on day three the parrot piped up, and said
“Ok, I give up, what did you do with the ship?”

Having an experience does not always mean that we understand it.
Likewise. experiencing Lent does not ensure
an authentic, even Christian grasp of the season.

And of course innumerable interpretations of Lent abound.

Read the rest of this inspiring, thought-generating homily at the Pray Tell blog.