A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary

August 27, 2023


These are a few stories about my time in Iona that truly helped me “not think of myself too highly.” (Romans 12)

Three weeks ago, on July 31st, I left Oban, Scotland (known as the gateway to the Hebrides) for  Iona  with my dear friend, my Anam Cara, Brigid. My earnest hope was that God would speak to me in times of solitude through the ancient landscape and sacred history of this Holy Isle. 

What I didn’t expect was that God would get my attention through stones and whiskey.

On our first night in Iona, one of the retreat leaders, Sara, suggested at dinner that we might go down to the beach behind our residence to pick up a set of stones that could be used for early morning yoga. 

As soon as dinner was over, I set out. (Stones weren’t my only discovery!) 

After enjoying some solitude on North Beach, I returned to the Green Shed, our lodging for the week. I set my stones aside and then joined the group that was gathered around the kitchen table. 

In walked, lovely Andrea  with an apron full of stones. 

“I’ve just been down to the beach and gathered these for anyone who needs them.” 

Why hadn’t I thought of that? 

I was thinking only of my own needs.  Andrea was thinking of the whole group. 

Paul, in today’s reading,  is trying to lead the community of Jesus-followers in Rome, some who were Jews and some who were Gentiles,   and us    to an expansion of  consciousness…from thinking only about “me, mine, and our tribe” to “we, ours and all of us.”

Commenting on this passage, Rev. Doug Bratt writes, “The Spirit transforms Christians from those who seek only our own interests     into people who the Spirit equips to also seek the well-being of (those)  around us. Quite simply,  the Spirit graciously transforms us from individuals into members of the community.”

Andrea embodied this lesson.

Second story. Before I left for Iona, Tom Mannle  sent an intriguing email suggesting that I was fortunate to be “a pilgrim to the great motherland of brown spirits.”  

Tom generously outlined the differences between Lowlands, Speyside, Campbelltown, Highlands, and Islay whiskeys.  Set out with this knowledge, Brigid and I would be intrepid tasters of the sacred libation!

Unfortunately the night before we planned to visit the Oban Distillery, Brigid decided to taste some local,  raw oysters… 

A few hours later, she suddenly was confined to the bathroom. I started frantically scrolling through Google to learn about shellfish poisoning. I discovered there could be days of recovery,    loss of limbs,   even death!!) … and, the CDC advised,  if out of the country,  get thee to the hospital!

I don’t remember ever witnessing more expedient, attentive, successful healthcare! Brigid was on the mend, but the distillery would have to wait. 

Our next opportunity to try the sacred libation came some days later.  The Iona Community Center was hosting a calleigh – a gathering for traditional Scottish music and dancing.  Ten of us from the retreat arrived at intermission just as a local community group was engaging in a unique fundraiser. (Maybe this is one we can try at the next SeaFair.) 

A bottle of whiskey was placed on the floor. From about fifty feet away, whomever could toss a pound coin closest to the bottle would win it. 

This was my chance!  As David could tell you, Koehlers have a deeply competitive streak.  All I needed to do was roll the coin near that bottle.  

First, I carefully studied a few townspeople – as young as five and perhaps as old as 85 – take their turns.     I gathered my muster,  went to the line… wound up… and voila!  I was the closest! The whiskey gods were with me!

My new friends cheered!  I was going to be the heroine!  For the next 10 minutes or so, we watched with bated breath, as I remained in first place… When would this contest ever end?  I would win the bottle and share it with the other retreatants.  This would be a glorious first taste of whiskey in Scotland… I felt so excited!

And, then, up to the starting line came a tall, athletic looking Scotsman – about the same age as me.  With intense focus and energy, he sent his coin sailing. It ricocheted off the front of the stage and also landed   quite near the bottle.  The judges came out and measured the distance from the bottle of my coin, then his.  Charlie was just barely the winner.  My friends patted me on the back… good effort.  But, no whiskey for us… 

Or so I thought.  

Charlie collected his bottle, aptly named “Jura” or “Journey” and then walked to the bar area.  He asked the bartender if she could provide glasses for a “wee dram” for everyone there.  Everyone (of a certain age, that is.) She did.

Not only that, Charlie walked through the community center serving every person himself, beginning with our group of retreatants, the only people at the calleigh who were not local – strangers (as Rev. Elizabeth talked about last week), who were part of him that he had not yet had the chance to meet. 

Charlie did something I never even thought of doing. He served not only his community, he served all of us. I will not forget him. (I wish I had taken a picture of him!)

I can see St. Paul smiling with us.  Charlie embodied the kind of transformed thinking and actions that Paul asks of us – thinking and action that leads to what New Testament professor David McCabe calls “communally oriented enrichment.”

When Paul writes that we are “to present (our) bodies as a living sacrifice,” what he means, scholar Frank Crouch suggests,  is that we are called “to stay aware   each day   that our body is the primary location in which we actually express our heart, soul, strength, and mind.   If we want to know our inner most motives and values, (Crouch advises,) we can look at what we do   each day   in our bodies.   Every day in all the places we go, all the things we do, and all the decisions …we make, we are presenting our bodies.”

At the calleigh, Charlie presented his body as a servant of all. 

The transformation from “I”   to “we”   and from “us and them”   to “all of us”   is the existential spiritual challenge we face as individuals,  a community, and wider society.  How  often politics in this country  shrink to a contemptuous vision of “us vs. themism.”

At this moment in history, the transformation of consciousness we need must include not only other people,   but the whole of the creation.   It’s not enough to think about whether or not our collective actions are beneficial to humanity.  Without a healthy ecosystem, a healthy earth home, human life as we know it is in peril. 

John Philip Newell, former Warden (leader) of the Iona Abbey, emphasizes “Not only do we need a new way of seeing, but we also need to forge a new way of living.  We must usher in a radical rebirth of our relationship with the earth and its creatures if we are to thrive.” 

Paul grounds his spiritual perspective in what he names “the mercies of God.”  The good news is that the transformation we need is not something that can be accomplished by a sheer act of will.  Our God meets us and accepts us wherever we are. Our God gives us community – gives us each other – so that we can keep learning and growing and walking in the ways of generous, merciful love together.  We experience God’s mercy through each other.   God’s mercy, God’s love, is bigger than our own limited vision. Together, sharing our stones, our whiskey,and all of our gifts, we help one another live into the mercy of God. Amen.