By Anita Peebles
As the sun set over the picturesque Sister Grove Farm outside Van Alstyne, Texas, our small group fell into a reverent silence. We took some pictures but then lingered outside, watching the fiery orange, coral, red and pink fade into the horizon. We smiled, to ourselves and then at our clergy and chaplain colleagues, gently experiencing the awesome sight together.
The restful sunset was a fitting beginning for the CAIRN retreat entitled “Embodying Healing.” Led by Kyndall Rae Rothaus, founder and director of Nevertheless She Preached, a small group of clergy gathered in that sacred pause after Epiphany to re-center ourselves. The group of clergy included Alliance staff, affiliate chaplains, D. Min students, and congregational pastors, as well as some ecumenical friends from UMC and PCUSA traditions. Kyndall led us with grace and care through sessions entitled “The Rending,” “the Binding,” “the Nesting” and “the Resting,” each word illustrating a part of journeying towards healing. Of course, healing is complex and nonlinear, different for each of us, requiring getting up close and personal with grief, rage, anxiety, doubt and many more emotions. But in that sacred space, with some spiritual friends, we created a container together, a container that was strong yet flexible enough to contain what we needed to hold in our short retreat together.
Kyndall encouraged us to bring our whole selves, a task that can be challenging for groups of people who are meeting for the first time. But we really showed up, for ourselves and to be present to each other, open to the movements of the Spirit among us. For me, I was so emotionally depleted after my first Advent and Christmas season as a solo pastor that it seemed like all I could do was show up as my real self—tired and messy and yearning for some heart-healing and energy-restoration and call-regeneration. Even now, two weeks after the retreat, I am left with deep gratitude for the sacred container that was the gathered community in that space.
As Kyndall led us in our aptly-named sessions, we journeyed through some stages of healing. When asked what has grieved us, as individuals as well as clergy, we held space as we named the profound grief of the COVID-19 pandemic; the racist killings of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color; the rampant gun violence in the USA; congregational losses and hardships; the many -isms that plague us and that we seek to break away from; assaults on the rights of LGBTQIA+ siblings; professional setbacks; family life transitions and more. We considered tenderly with each other artistic representations of the rending that happens before new beginnings can break through. We learned about St. Kevin, a mystic who accidentally created a home for a family of birds in the palm of his hand, and considered what remnants can be shaped into a nest that can be a holding space for healing. Kyndall’s graceful expert facilitation included a children’s book, time spent conversing with trees, tearing fabric, and literally crafting a nest space together—or perhaps, more appropriately, a cairn: a place to remember, a landmark, a container for stories. One participant remarked that perhaps we are cairns for each other, landmarks who help re-member us and remind us of our call to serve the Holy, each in our separate ways.
I have to acknowledge the beautiful space we shared, as well. The location of Sister Grove Farm, stewarded by Rodney and Sarah Macias, is itself a practice of embodying healing. Rodney and Sarah utilize regenerative agriculture principles as they raise cattle, sheep, goats and chickens on their acreage near the Sister Grove creek. But the farmland is not the only regenerative focus for Rodney and Sarah: they extend hospitality to community groups, as well as our small group of Alliance clergy, for spiritual retreats in comfortable and sustainable housing. Sister Grove felt like an oasis, a place of affirmation and celebration, a place for sabbath, in the midst of dry North Texas.
On the last morning together, before we returned to our homes across the country, we visited the labyrinth next to the cow pasture. As we gingerly followed the winding labyrinth paths, I noticed that there were some…remnants…of the bovine neighbors. Rodney confirmed afterward that the cows had just been roaming over the labyrinth. I was delighted by this information, thinking that “Cow Pies in the Labyrinth” was definitely preachable. But as I thought about it more, in the car on the way to Dallas, and in the plane on the way back to Seattle, it was wonderfully and profoundly appropriate that the cows also walked the labyrinth. From the glorious sunset of our first night to the tree conversations to the meals shared and fabric torn and stories knitting our hearts together, every aspect of our CAIRN retreat was a reminder that we humans are not alone. Our human community, our community of Creation, and our cosmic communion with the Sacred—all these were represented with the cows who also walked their labyrinthine way. The circle of life, the cycle of the church year, the continuous growing and rending and learning and healing and birthing and dying—all these are embodied in each of us, at that retreat and also reading this, wherever you are. May 2023 be a year of finding your cairns and embodying your healing as you live into your unique call to participate in God’s beloved kin-dom.
Anita Peebles (she/her) serves as pastor of Seattle First Baptist Church (ABC-Evergreen Region) in Seattle, WA. Anita was ordained in an Alliance-affiliate church, Glendale Baptist in Nashville, Tenn. and currently serves on the Nominating Committee for the Alliance Board. Anita shares sermons and blogs about ministry with children and youth at revanitapeebles.com.