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O Little Town of Omaha

“I do not know what will become of me and I do not care much.… I wish I were fifteen years old again. I believe I might become a stunning man: but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now.” -Phillips Brooks, after being fired from his job as a teacher

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” -Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem

Brooks sat atop a horse, behind him lay Jerusalem; before him, the flickering lights of Bethlehem; and surrounding him was the field where smelly shepherds had been serenaded by celestial creatures thousands of years ago, announcing the birth of a newborn who would change the course of history. It was Christmas Eve, 1865 and he was about to participate in the Christmas worship service in the church of the nativity in Bethlehem, a high honor for a young pastor. Brooks was overcome with awe as he took it all in. Was this sight any different than it had been thousands of years ago on the night the shepherds made their way to the animal feed trough that held a newborn? Was it any different than the night Joseph and Mary had arrived, weary from their journey, tired, sore, and burdened by the Roman occupation and oppression? Was Joseph’s mind filled with the same self doubt and questioning?

A few years ago, I stood in that same spot, looking out over that same vision of the little town of Bethlehem and I understood how Brooks was inspired with the words “how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” I too, asked those questions: did Mary and Joseph have any idea what was happening with their lives? What they would do? Where they would go?

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Accounts vary on what Brooks was thinking. Some say he was burned out on ministry and the sight of Bethlehem not only inspired the poem he wrote but also a renewal within him. Perhaps. Some accounts just say he was enjoying the view. Again, perhaps. I like to think he was doing his own soul searching, as any pastor will do. As any human will do, no matter how much you love your job or your ministry, we all find ourselves questioning “Did I make the right choice? Is it worth it? Am I actually making a difference in the world?”

We are on the cusp of a new year, a time often filled with reminiscing and soul searching. What did the last year hold? What will the new year bring? How will I make a change to be a better person? To grow and develop personally? To advance my career? My ministry? My relationships? We each become Joseph, Mary, Phillips Brooks, standing in a field in Israel saying “What am I doing? Where am I going?”

I’ve often wondered what Mary and Joseph did following the birth of Jesus. We know that they were from Nazareth but had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. They were forced to flee to Egypt to escape maniacal threats from Herod. When they came back to the country did they return to Nazareth to family and neighbors? To familiarity and routine? Or did they try to make a fresh start where they would not be shamed for having a baby out of wedlock? What would they need most as they started their lives together? What did they want for this new baby?

I’ve thought a lot about this aspect of the birth narrative this Christmas especially as I find myself in that place of soul searching, of asking “Where can I go for a fresh start?” I’ve already talked about the joys and challenges of my year, so I won’t retell all that here. But I will tell you that much of my year was characterized by a general sense of anxiety. I resigned from my position as pastor, and after a few months of relief, I began to get restless. It was time to move on, find a new career, find a new place in the world. I had moved in with my sister in Omaha, a temporary home as I got back on my feet. And now it was time to move on. Just as Joseph may have been asking “Is Bethlehem a good place to settle and raise a family? Or should we head back to Nazareth?” I was asking “Is Omaha a good place to settle and put down roots? Or is there another place to go?” I desperately wanted a reason to stay or a reason to go. There were a few times when I almost had it, but it didn’t work out.

Phillips Brooks moved on from that field, back to his church in Boston, a position that was obviously suited to him. Three years later, inspired by that Christmas in the shepherds’ field, he wrote a simple children’s song for a Christmas Sunday School program that has captured the hearts of millions and is still sung today at Christmas time.

I don’t know if Omaha is the place for me. I don’t know what the year ahead holds. I didn’t find a career that gave me a reason to stay or go. I didn’t find a boyfriend to give me a reason to stay or go. But I’m tired of limbo, so I made my own decision. A couple weeks before Christmas I signed a rental lease for a house in Omaha. I will stay. For now.

Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child, Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild; Where charity stands watching And faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, And Christmas comes once more.

-Phillips Brooks, omitted 3rd verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem

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Grapes and Raisins

There’s a tradition in Spain, some Latin American countries, and Hispanic communities that involves eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Day, one for each stroke of the midnight bell.  It is meant to welcome the new year by ensuring prosperity and warding off evil. I’ve done this many years when celebrating New Year’s with my sister and her family. Her in-laws were the ones who introduced us to this tradition. And this year was no different, since I was living with my sister. We prepared ahead by purchasing 2 bags of grapes, which we thought would be more than enough. As midnight approached, we washed the grapes and started counting them out, passing out the handfuls to the gathered family members. When we got to the end of the bag, there were just 2 people left who needed grapes: my sister and I. And there were not enough grapes left for both of us to have 12, so we improvised. We opened the cupboards and pulled out a box of raisins. Raisins are grapes after all. So at the stroke of midnight, to welcome the new year, I ate 6 grapes and 6 raisins.

Ten and a half months have passed since that day, and what a wild and unpredictable year it has been, for all of us. A reality TV star has defied all expectations and been nominated as the next president of the United States. The Chicago Cubs, the lovable losing Major League Baseball team has also defied expectations by winning the World Series, ending a 108 year drought. Innocent lives were taken in Orlando, Dallas, Nice, France, Brussels, and many other locations of terrorist attacks around the world. An armed militia took control of a government building in Oregon. Pokemon Go launched, encouraging nerds everywhere to get moving and catch ‘em all. We lost David Bowie, Prince, Alan Young, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, and Leonard Cohen. A gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo was shot, a gator in a Florida resort killed a young child. Britain voted to leave the European Union. Hurricane Matthew terrorized the East coast. Ebola and Zika outbreaks began. And ALS announced a breakthrough in research thanks to money raised by the viral ice bucket challenge.

And there’s still another month and a half to go this year.

Personally, it has also been a challenging year for me. I’ve begun to name the incidents: Major Disappointment of 2016 Number 1, Major Disappointment of 2016 Number 2, and so on. From my dating life, to personal finances, to career, and even vacation plans, it feels like no part of my life has gone untouched. In fact, I’m up to 6. Hmmm, at the beginning of this year I ate 6 raisins. Coincidence? Well, probably, but a silly superstition gives me something to blame. This year I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be eating my 12 grapes and someone else can supplement with raisins.

But I can’t tell you about the disappointment of my year without celebrating the accomplishments and pleasant events. I got back into running and completed a half marathon this year. Before this year the longest I had ever run was 4 miles. But, now I can say that I have run 13.1 miles. I began work at a new job, one that has been enjoyable most of the time and also allows me the freedom to crochet and knit while sitting at my desk. While at this job I’ve had the opportunity to make many new and fulfilling friendships. I attended the Gay Christian Network conference in Houston, opening my eyes and heart to the struggles of many brothers and sisters in Christ. I joined a book club that introduced me to many books I would not have otherwise read, while also providing a unique place for me to question, grieve, and heal. I celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of my parents, a beautiful picture of lasting love and commitment, both to God and to each other.

The truth is every year has its good and bad events, its victories and challenges. For every person. Sometimes we forget this because the disappointments are easier to spot and can sometimes feel like they are taking over. I’ve made it a point to consciously remind myself of the blessings during these last couple months of the year, and I still get bogged down with the disappointments.

As Thanksgiving approaches and my Facebook feed is filled with declarations of gratitude, I am reminded “In everything, give thanks” (1Thessalonians 5:18) and “always giving thanks for all things” (Ephesians 5:20). We are told to “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2). But…how? I mean, I know how important it is to thank God for my blessings. It’s great to remember who provides the good things in life. The grapes are easy to spot. But the trials are a little harder to be thankful for. The shriveled, dried up raisins are not pleasant to look at.

But the next verse in James says “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (v. 3). Peter shares a similar message in his letter, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). I can be thankful for the trials of this year, Major Disappointments 1-6, because each one was a test of faith. The easy-to-spot blessings of the past year were great, but the not-so-easy-to-spot blessings were even more vital to my growth.

So maybe I asked a guy out and it didn’t go the way I wanted. What’s more important is that I swallowed my fear and anxiety and asked someone out. For the first time in my life. And the second time in my life. So an unexpected expense drained my savings account. What’s important is that God provided even then. Even as I had been saving for a “fresh start” God reminded me that a new beginning isn’t about money, but about my heart. So I didn’t get my dream job. What’s important is that I know I have options and someday I will make a career move that will allow me to use my skills and training in ministry. And until that day, I serve God right where I’m at, whether that means preaching for a friend who’s out of town, or engaging in a discussion about faith with a co-worker.

I can be thankful in all things. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about everything that happened. Doesn’t necessarily mean I’m thankful for every thing, but I can be thankful in everything, knowing that it is the trial that produces perseverance and refines my faith.

Because raisins are grapes after all.

What about you? Do you find it hard to be thankful in all things?

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A Sermon in Shoes: the Activist Pathway

This post is part of a series exploring different ways to connect with God.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” -Dr. Suess

I am pro-life. I have been since…wait for it…birth. I grew up standing in “life chains”–once a year church members line the streets holding signs that proclaimed “Abortion kills children” and “Abortion stops a beating heart.” I had one of those “Smile, your mom chose life” t-shirts and wore it proudly. I marched in parades for political candidates who promised they were “pro-life.” I was told that pro-life meant you loved babies and who doesn’t love babies? I was told that pro-choice meant you wanted to kill babies and who wants to kill babies? It was a simple black-and-white issue. Until I became an adult.

My childhood was filled with a lot of activism and politics mixed with faith. Voting was a sacred privilege and only the vilest sinner would refuse to use that right. My faith was supposed to inform my voting habits, my political choices, and what issues I used my voice to speak out for. It was all very convincing until I started seeing the bigger picture, I started understanding the nuances that make political and theological issues far from black-and-white. Take for example the “pro-life” issue. As a child it was painted as pro-choice equals pro-death. Now that I’m an adult, I understand that pro-choice means just that, pro- CHOICE. Not death, but allowing women autonomy over their own bodies. I’ve begun to understand that abortion rates are impacted by so many more factors that whether or not a candidate says “I don’t support abortion.” Pro-life to me doesn’t mean outlawing a medical practice, but instead working to create a world and a culture that values life in all its stages, from the unborn, to the poor, the immigrant, the gay, the minority, the refugee, the elderly, and even the criminal.

Marching in a parade to support our candidate--me and my best friend before either of us were old enough to vote. Or know better.

Marching in a parade to support our candidate–me and my best friend before either of us were old enough to vote. Or know better.

I don’t like to speak up too quickly or too loudly about it though. When I realized that as a child blind nationalism and party alliance had been skewed by some people to force large numbers of Christians to vote certain ways to support certain issues, I was leery of swinging too far in the opposite direction. I had heard too often (and still hear frequently) “How can a real Christian support _______?” I want to be careful before I allow my faith and my political views to mingle. But does that mean they never should? Should my voting for government leaders be completely separate from my faith?

And this is when I encountered the Activist pathway.

What is it?

The Activist pathway means loving God through confrontation. I means using your voice to advocate for social change, whether that means here at home or halfway across the world. It means speaking out against injustice and calling for fellow Christians to join you in making positive changes.

Although there are sincere people of faith on both sides of some issues, the difference between supporting a political view and activism for change is that activism is based on sincere faith and a desire to bring justice for the oppressed.

Notable examples

The Bible is filled with people who refused to be silent in the face of injustice and called for social change, from the prophets who boldly proclaimed the sin of the people and cried out for repentance to the Apostle Paul who spoke out boldly in his letters to the churches about what changes they needed to make.

This also includes prominent abolitionists and civil rights activists such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., Angelina and Sarah Grimke–who fought for social change based on deep religious convictions.

I would also add names such as Justin Lee, Mathew Vines, Broderick Greer, Rachel Held Evans, and many others who are fighting for full inclusion of LGBTQ members in the church.

Actions and Reflections

As I said in the beginning, I am pro-life. I no longer define that as anti-abortion, but I do still feel strongly about creating a culture that values life, so when I was invited by a friend to a public hearing on the death penalty, I decided to attend, since I had some understanding of the death penalty, but not a lot. I wanted to understand it better, so I could make my voice heard. In Nebraska the death penalty had been repealed by the legislature in 2015. Citizens who felt strongly about keeping the death penalty circulated petitions to bring the issue to the ballot for the voters to decide. The public hearing was an opportunity for citizens who represented both sides of the issue to articulate their reasons why we should or should not have a death penalty in our state. It was interesting that people on both sides wanted to talk about their faith. They both claimed that their faith in God informed their decision on the issue. They also both claimed a stance of “pro-life” as a reason to both support and oppose the death penalty. Once more I was reminded to keep a humility about my position. I am firmly convinced that the death penalty is cruel, inhumane, unnecessary, racist, abusive, waste of taxpayer money, and above all, not pro-life. I understand that some of my brothers and sisters in Christ disagree with me, so I want to be respectful of them and their faith. Yet, I cannot allow the fact that there are those who disagree to keep me from speaking out on a pro-life issue.

My friend making the case for why we don't need the death penalty in Nebraska.

My friend making the case for why we don’t need the death penalty in Nebraska.

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I got a nifty sticker to state my position: vote to Retain the repeal of the death penalty.

 

Understanding activism as a pathway of worship was an entirely new concept for me. I’ve understood advocacy and activism based on faith, but I had not really thought about it as an act of faith and worship before. Again, I appreciated a new understanding of worship, but I don’t think this one is my main pathway of worship.

Those who find they are closest to God when fighting for social justice may have the activist pathway of worship.

How about you? Do you find yourself closer to God when you are fighting for positive change?

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Hands and Feet: the Caregiver Pathway

This post is part of a series exploring different ways to connect with God.

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. -Mother Teresa

Full tummy. Fresh diaper. Clean clothes. Happy baby. Relieved mommy.

I lifted adorable Declan from the changing table and handed him off to another caregiver who proceeded to strap him into his car seat while I kept an eye on Declan’s brothers. We were spending the day with the 6 month old triplets following a surgery that rendered their mother unable to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds–including two of her sons. I had been asked by her pastor if I would be willing to step up and provide care in time of need and I am so glad that I did. What was an inconvenience in some ways was also very rewarding. In agreeing to help, I know that I was a blessing to the mother in need, but I also knew that I would be the recipient of blessings through this act. Because being the hands and feet of Jesus sometimes means a morning of baby snuggles.

What is it?

The Caregiver pathway is loving God through loving others. It means helping other people and showing love in practical ways. It could be volunteering to help a mother after surgery, or helping an organization that provides feeding services or other programs. It could be helping someone battling substance abuse, fixing someone’s car or home, volunteer babysitting, donating time at a shelter, or helping a friend through a personal crisis. Acts of love small and great go a long way in following the Bible’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Practical acts of love are at the heart of our mission and message as Christians and it makes sense that one of the pathways to intimacy with God is an emphasis on this kind of selfless giving. The Bible is filled with directives for giving to the poor, caring for those in need, and loving our brothers and sisters. John says “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17). James says that “pure and faultless religion” is to look after widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27). The city of Sodom is condemned in Scripture as the most wicked city, having been destroyed by God through fire for their wickedness. And what was their crime? “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and the needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

Caregiving involves demonstrating the love of God in practical ways and becomes a way that we can show others the transformative power of God, and not just preach about it. Like the old Sunday School song, our life becomes a “sermon in shoes.”

Caregiving also becomes a prophetic message calling other Christians to be less selfish and care more for the needs of others. In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a parable about the sheep and the goats. The King separates the sheep from the goats and gives this message to the sheep:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (vv. 34-36)

The sheep ask “When did we do all this?” “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The goats are condemned for their failure to feed, clothe, visit, and be hospitable to the King. They also ask “When did we see you in need and not help?” “Whatever you did not to do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did not do for me.” A sobering reminder that what we do for others here and now has an eternal impact.

Notable examples

Mordecai is cited by Thomas as an excellent example of a caregiver in the Bible. Mordecai was the Jew living in Babylon during the time of exile who took in his young cousin Hadassah and raised her as his own after the deaths of her parents. We know her as Esther, the queen whose quick thinking saved the lives of all the Jews living in Babylon when the king had nearly been tricked into annihilating them. Mordecai demonstrates caregiving in his raising of Esther, as well as his protection of the king–he was able to save the king’s life through exposing a plot against his life. And even to the end of the book when the plot against the Jews is thwarted by Esther’s courage and Mordecai’s creative solution (allowing the Jews to protect themselves, which kept anyone from trying to harm them), his response is to institute a day of celebration of God and not of himself.

Children still celebrate the saving of the Jews with a special holiday called Purim. Kids dress in costume and re-tell the story of brave Esther and the caregiver Mordecai.

Children still celebrate the saving of the Jews with a special holiday called Purim. Kids dress in costume and re-tell the story of brave Esther and the caregiver Mordecai.

Mother Teresa is the first example of caregiving that came to my mind. She knew early on that she wanted to give her life to God and the care of others and she found that on the streets of Calcutta caring for the least of these–lepers who were shunned and abandoned by most of society. Mother Teresa was once asked why she didn’t take advantage of her popularity. She could have been successful. “God didn’t call me to be successful; he called me to be faithful.”

Actions and Reflections

Through the years I have had quite a lot of experience with caregiving. I have spent my life in a denomination that was formed on the streets of London, helping those in need in practical ways. The founder famously said “Nobody gets a blessing if they have cold feet and nobody ever got saved while they had toothache.” Caring for physical needs has gone hand in hand with ministering to spiritual needs for as long as I can remember. I am familiar with feeding lines, with handing out gifts for parents to give their children for Christmas. I have been on the scene after a disaster strikes, feeding the people who have lost their houses and giving vouchers to buy the necessities for rebuilding their lives. I have walked the halls of countless nursing homes, bringing a little cheer to residents who are often forgotten. I have served, volunteered, cared for children, adults, grateful and ungrateful people alike. I have always considered that my love for others was an outgrowth of my love for God, but for the first time I considered that my love of others was an intricate part of my love for God. In loving others I wasn’t just responding in gratitude for what God has done for me, I was seeking a new level of intimacy in his presence by participating with the divine in love for others.

Besides caring for babies, I also was given the opportunity to care for a friend many miles away who was hurting by chipping in with a group of friends to buy her a thinking-of-you-love-you-and-sorry-you’re-going-through-a-hard-time gift. I can’t say that the way I cared for others changed through this experience. But I did sense a new awareness of my relationship with God through a new perspective of how our relationship touches others. That, in itself, is a good reason to continue. I think I can say that the caregiver pathway has affected my relationship with God, but is not my main pathway to intimacy with him.

How about you? Do you find yourself closer to God when you are serving others?

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A Still Small Voice: the Ascetic Pathway

This post is part of a series exploring different ways to connect with God.

Walk before God in simplicity, and not in subtleties of the mind. Simplicity brings faith; but subtle and intricate speculations bring conceit; and conceit brings withdrawal from God. –St. Isaac the Syrian

I took a deep breath and plunged into the water, goggles snug against my face, arms moving rhythmically as I swam to the opposite end of the pool. Surrounded by the smell of chlorine, the sound of the water lapping against my body, the calm blue of the bottom of the pool, and guided by the strict black lane lines; I allowed the frustration of the day to melt away as I felt my heart begin to tune to God again. This is my place of solitude and austerity. This is where I have discovered the ascetic path to worship God. This is where I find my heart and mind can finally quiet down. Focusing on the strokes and the breathing creates a gentle rhythm where God begins to speak to me.

What is it

The Ascetic pathway is finding connection with God through solitude, austerity, and strictness.

Solitude Time alone is essential for the ascetic pathway. It’s your time to disconnect from the distractions of the world, the expectations of others, and instead allow God to speak to you as you. Some ascetics practice a life of solitude through monasticism or living as a hermit. But you can find solitude within your life by blocking out a time and place to be alone. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime of solitude. You can arrive at the office before anyone else, you can use your morning commute as your alone time, or, like me, you can jump in the pool and spend some time alone. Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, found solitude by pulling her apron over her head.

Austerity Next you have to block out distractions in order to focus on God. Unlike the sensate who is connected to God through multiple sensory interactions, the ascetic reduces sensory input in order to reduce distraction from prayer. This may mean seeking out silence or simplicity of surroundings.

Strictness Ascetics focus on their connection to God by living lives of discipline and order. They may follow certain rules, not out of legalism, but “because they want to reserve a major portion of their lives for their passionate pursuit of God” (Sacred Pathways, p. 114). This can come in the form of disciplines, rule following, fasting, simplicity and living with less.

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Notable examples

John the Baptist, though often remembered for his harsh preaching, was an ascetic. He found his calling while in the desert alone with God. His life is a reminder to us that the ascetic pathway doesn’t mean we stay in the wilderness. He was closest to God in the desert, but he was obedient to go into the city when God called him. Susanna Wesley, mother of famous missionaries and church hisory figues John and Charles Wesley was an ascetic who found her closest connection with God when she was alone. As the mother of ten children she didn’t get much alone time, often left by her husband to raise the children and manage the house on her own. She found her solace under her apron. Her children knew that when her apron was draped over her head they needed to leave her alone. Elijah’s experience of finding God in the still, small voice during his exile in the wilderness is another example of the ascetic pathway. As a prophet, Elijah was familiar with large and obvious displays of God’s power, such as the showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. But in his season of depression, believing he was the only follower of God left, God spoke to him on the mountain, not in loud noises or impressive displays of power, but in the quiet that comes from being alone.

Actions and reflections

For my experience with this pathway I tried a few different things. First, I tried to implement the strictness of asceticism by giving myself a few rules to follow for a week: a bedtime (to not be wasting my evening hours) and abstaining from dessert (to give myself something to fast from). Both proved to be difficult to stick with for a week, but were actually good for me. I also carved out a few different times to be alone with God–not easy as I was living with 9 other people at the time. Evenings were out as that was when everyone was awake and active, so I spent some of my mornings quietly contemplating. This was not the best as quiet stillness in the mornings tended to make me sleepy. I did at that time discover the solitude of the swimming pool, which I have found to be a great place to spend with God.

I did enjoy the ascetic pathway and I’m glad I discovered that my time swimming can be a time of connecting with God. I plan to continue this practice. However, I don’t think this is my main spiritual pathway.

What do you think? Have you ever tried to be alone and silent with God? How did it go?

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Here is the Church Here is the Steeple: the Traditionalist Pathway

This post is part of a series exploring different ways to connect with God.

Peace be with you. And also with you.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college I decided to join a Summer Mission Team sponsored by my church. I was appointed to a team that traveled around a few central states to lead Vacation Bible Schools. In eight weeks I traveled with my team of  six girls to six different cities. We led VBS’s of varying sizes, had water carnivals, led worship services and devotions, preached, sang, served in emergency disaster services, and spent a lot of time crammed into a van. But there was one thing that stayed consistent every day of that long and tiring summer: my daily devotions. Every morning I began my day by reading a chapter in the New Testament, and every evening I ended by reading Psalm 27.

I haven’t always been consistent with daily Bible reading, but that that one summer, it was the one thing that grounded me and kept me from going completely crazy. Every day the words of that same Psalm reminded me “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” When I was discouraged or frustrated with the ministry, the work, or even my teammates, I was reminded to “wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

The traditions of worship can be a comforting peace in the midst of the turmoil of life.

What is it

The traditionalist pathway is loving God through ritual, symbol, and sacrifice.

Rituals are part of a liturgical pattern. They can be as broad as the Lenten and Advent seasons that mark the church calendar reminding us to prepare for the celebration of the birth and death and resurrection of Christ. They can be as specific as the tradition of praying before a meal. They include daily Bible reading and prayer, reading a specific passage daily, reciting memorized prayers. Some denominations use rituals as part of their worship service, from the processional entrance of the clergy, to the echoed prayers, to the chanting, kneeling, and praying.

Symbols are representations used to remind us of important spiritual truths. “Symbols have nothing to do with saving us, but they have everything to do with realizing the effect of that salvation on our everyday lives” (Sacred Pathways, p. 94). Common Christian symbols include the Bible, a cross, a fish, a dove, an anchor, baptism, and communion. My denomination has it’s own set of symbols including a flag. You might adopt a personal symbol such as a ring or a tattoo that constantly reminds you of God’s presence in your life.

Sacrifice keeps our expressions of worship rooted in reality. Common examples of sacrifice include tithing and fasting. It is a way of reminding us that what we have is only a gift from God

Notable Examples

Moses and Aaron are examples of traditional worshipers as they follow the sacrifice and worship codes given by God in the priestly duties and building the tabernacle as a place of worship.

Actions and Reflections

The traditional pathway was simple to plan, as traditional worship and personal quiet time was what I had been most accustomed to. I decided to read a Psalm every morning and evening for a week as well as read a Scripture passage and a devotional every day. I also decided to bring back the tradition of praying before all my meals.

What I observed from this experience was that the old traditions of my youth were comforting like an old quilt or the shawl we used to steal from my mother when she left it on a chair. There are a lot of calm memories attached to that old shawl. The other thing I noticed was that the old traditions were easily dropped and forgotten. The evening psalm lasted almost the entire week. The morning psalm lasted a few days along with the daily Scripture and devotion. The meal prayers were forgotten almost immediately.

There is a lot I like about the comforting pattern of traditional worship. But I did not like the dependence on keeping those patterns. Again, a worship pathway where I found some connection to God, but not my main one.

How about you? Do you enjoy the patterns of traditional worship?

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Taste and See…and Hear and Smell and Touch: the Sensate Pathway

This post is part of a series exploring different ways to connect with God.

There is something within each of us that is awed by the presence of beauty. I believe it’s a flashing glimpse of our desire for the transcendence of heaven. –Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas

I picked up my guitar, dormant for more than a year, forgotten in the back of my closet, broken string, out of tune, almost unfamiliar to my fingers. I carefully fixed the broken string, tuned the instrument, and felt the strings bite into the tips of my fingers as they felt their way through the familiar chords. I pulled the sheaf of worship choruses out of the case, and very slowly made my way through them, strumming and singing. Then something happened.

I was transported.

I.

Was.

TRANSPORTED.

I was transported to a tiny camp, barely a half acre of land in rural Nebraska, to a campfire on the last night of camp where the distinct odor of a rural Nebraska farm combined with the smoke from the flames as we held hands through 15 verses of Kumbaya.

I was transported to a college gymnasium-turned-chapel 3 times a week, filled with students with arms raised, earnestly singing “Give us clean hands, give us pure hearts.”

I was transported to a cathedral in Israel, artwork and candles covering every wall, floor, and ceiling, air heavy with the smoke of incense and candles and the breath of countless pilgrims.

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Candles and art at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Israel

I was transported to a living room in South Dakota, where the coffee was strong, the hugs were tight, and the conversation about faith ran deep.

That moment of worship brought back the sights, sounds, scents, flavors, and touch of a thousand moments of worship. I was transported to the very throne room of God.

What is it

The Sensate pathway is loving God through the senses. It means participating in worship not just by hearing and thinking, but also by seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting.

Worship through sound can include music. Worship through smell can include incense, scents attached to memories such as the campfire smell I mentioned before. Worship through touch can include tactile reminders of lessons, such as a stone you may carry in your pocket to remind you of Jesus the rock of salvation, or the touch of the guitar strings or other instruments. Worship through sight can include art. Worship through taste can include the elements of communion, the elements of a Passover seder (sweet and bitter flavors are purposefully chosen and consumed to remind the worshiper of the sweetness of God and the bitterness of slavery).

Worship through the senses can bring a profound appreciation of beauty which arouses humility, as you begin to understand your own limitation for creating great art, then it brings dignity when you understand the level of greatness you actually can create, and finally the beauty of art can produce a different worldview, “The unworthy sinks, the true and the good emerge and grow” (Sacred Pathways, p. 64). And finally, an encounter with beauty brings you back to the real world–but as a changed person.

Notable Examples

Ezekiel, through his prophetic writings, uses vivid imagery, incorporating multiple sensations in his depiction of the presence of God leaving and later returning to the temple. He feels a wind, he sees a flash of lightning surrounded by brilliant light, fantastic creatures, and a magnificent and stunning throne of saphire (Ezekiel 1:4, 5-14, 26-27). He hears the sound of wings like the roar of rushing waters and a soud rumbling (1:24; 3:12-13). He is then asked to eat a scroll that tastes sweet (3:1-3).

Another sensate is Henri Nouwen, a priest and author, who was moved and inspired by the sight of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal, “It’s beautiful, more than beautiful…I can’t tell you what I feel as I look at it, but it touches me deeply.”

Actions and Reflections

To experience the sensate pathway I carved out a couple worship experiences that incorporated the senses. I lit some incense, pulled out my guitar, and sang some simple worship choruses, combining smell, sound, and the feel of the guitar strings under my finger. Another time I put some worship music in my earbuds and began to draw, combining sight and sound.

This was an incredibly moving spiritual pathway for me, and possibly the main way that I connect with God. It was amazing to engage more than one sense, more than one part of my brain, as I worshiped.

I plan to keep my guitar in a more accessible place so I can play it more often. I also plan to continue with my drawing–both the guitar and the art I don’t think of as a skill I would necessarily share with the world yet (I suppose I would be better at both if I practiced) but both have been useful in my spiritual life and emotional life.

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The Whole Earth is Filled with His Glory: Naturalist Pathway

This post is part of a series exploring different ways to connect with God.

Creation is nothing less than a sanctuary, a holy place that invites you to prayer. –Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas

I lay on the grass, staring into the night sky, endless stars above me, insects buzzing around me, and in awe I began to sing “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed,” I built up to the chorus, singing at the top of my lungs “then sings my SOUUUUL, my Saviour, God to Thee, how great Thou ARRRRT, How GREEEAAT Thou art.”

I couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. Growing up without TV and air conditioning meant that even this homebody-bookworm spent a lot of summer nights outside, laying in the grass, sitting on the porch, climbing trees, and occasionally walking around the neighborhood. I have many fond memories of connecting with God through His creation. Every summer, as soon as I was old enough, I spent a week or more at camp. Until I was old enough to spend my entire summer working at camp. There were many, many nights of staring up into the sky as I contemplated the Divine presence. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or two. There’s something about the endless expanse of the universe that makes you feel both small and great, you begin to hold inside you the paradox of being only a speck in the hugeness of God’s reality, yet the greatness of knowing you are part of that reality. David, a naturalist in his connection to God, expressed this in his psalm,

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

-Psalm 8:3-4

What is it

The Naturalist pathway is simply loving God outdoors.

The Naturalist pathway really is the best place to start my search for intimacy with God. It was the first pathway in the book, and perhaps the first pathway I used as a child to connect with God. Nature is one of the most obvious places to look for God, a source of natural revelation, as the theologians put it. Nature showcases God’s creativity, diversity, and power.

To connect with God this way, first believe, remember we are approaching God through His creation, not worshipping him as creation. Next perceive, keep your eyes and ears open as you allow God to speak to you through what you observe. Then receive, be open to God’s voice by laying aside your own agenda.

Notable examples

King David worshipped God through creation. As a shepherd he was familiar with the outdoors, and much of the imagery of nature shows up in his psalms. Jesus set aside time to pray outside, in the garden, on the lake, in the wilderness. And from church history, St. Francis of Assisi was well known for his time spent outdoors, the patron saint of animals and the environment. He was said to have preached to the birds and his feast day is still traditionally honored by special pet blessing services. I’ve never had my pets blessed, which might explain the dog’s behavior.

St. Francis preaching to the birds. They look like a captive audience.

St. Francis preaching to the birds. They look like a captive audience.

Actions and Reflections

As I have so often connected with God through nature in the past, you would think this would be an easy assignment, but I found it more challenging than I anticipated. Losing that childlike wonder of creation wasn’t because I had lost any respect for creation. On the contrary, the more I’ve learned about the earth, the more in awe I am of the God who designed it. No, losing that wonder at creation had more to do with getting busy and forgetting to stop and just sit outside. So this week I made a conscious effort to spend more time outside, taking my work breaks outside, going on my runs outside, without music in my ears to insulate me from the world, and even taking the dog’s in a few walks outside. June is the perfect month to get outside, it’s finally warmed up, but hasn’t reached the unbearable summer heat yet.

So I found a chunk of time and decided to find a lake in the area and to go watch the sunset. Have you ever had that moment where you get ready for God to speak, andheart nothing? Ok, I’ve got my Bible, my notebook, a lake, and a sunset; now you can talk, God. Ok, anytime. I’m just here waiting.

I didn’t get that lightning bolt of a worship experience. Not every connection to God has to be emotional or super meaningful or write-a-poem-about-it moment. I did enjoy my time outdoors this week. I feel like this is one way I connect with God, but not the main way.

After this experience, I want to continue taking advantage of opportunities to be outside. Spending my work breaks outside and walking the dogs were welcome breaths of fresh air (literally and psychologically). I also want to continue running without music when I’m outside. It’s not only safer because you can hear what’s going on around you, but it helps you focus more on the run. I would like to be more intentional about my thoughts as I run, as this is a good time to pray, and all around to develop running as a spiritual practice.

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Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Spiritual Walk

A few weeks ago I wrote about abandoning my daily devotions and the guilt that had come with that action in the past. I talked about finding a new way to connect with God and promised that as I explored these new pathways, guided by a book on the topic, I would share my journey with you.

Recently my pastor preached on prayer in Matthew 7 where Jesus promises that “everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” God promises that he will be found by those who seek. What a reassuring and timely message! Just when I am embarking on a quest to find intimacy with God, my pastor preaches on seeking and finding. I can only assume he has been reading my blog (It may also have something to do with the fact that he uses a preaching calendar and the Holy Spirit is speaking to me on Sundays).

With that reassurance, I was eager for my book to arrive, and it did arrive last week.

The book is Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas. By the time I finished the first chapter, I knew I had found the right book. “Many Christians have found the traditional quiet time to be somewhat helpful in starting up a life of devotion but rather restrictive and inadequate to build an ongoing, life-giving relationship with God.” But going deeper with God doesn’t mean following a set prescription. We are all different, God rejoices in our diversity and rejoices in the diversity of our worship, “Good spiritual directors understand that different people have different spiritual temperaments, that what feeds one doesn’t feed all. Giving the same spiritual prescription to every struggling Christian is no less irresponsible than a doctor prescribing penicillin to combat every illness.”

Thomas gives 9 spiritual pathways which I will explore one by one. As I said in my earlier blog–feel free to take this journey with me. My goal is to do about three a month so that this series is wrapped up at the end of summer. I am going to follow the order he uses in the book. I will describe the sacred pathway, give examples of people in the Bible and Church history who have used this pathway, tell what specific actions I took, and reflect on how it did or did not affect my spiritual walk.

Naturalist: Loving God outdoors

Sensate: Loving God with the senses

Traditionalist: Loving God through ritual and symbol

Ascetic: Loving God in solitude and simplicity

Activist: Loving God through confrontation

Caregiver: Loving God by loving others

Enthusiast: Loving God with mystery and celebration

Contemplative: Loving God through adoration

Intellectual: Loving God with the mind

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Confessions of a Daily Devotions Dropout

Can I be honest with you? Like really honest? I don’t do daily devotions. I’m not even sure when I last read my Bible for more than 2 consecutive days.

Whew.

Except for revealing my super secret crush, that’s the biggest confession I have in me (and good luck trying to get that one out of me).

I don’t do daily devotions. I don’t carve out my 15-20 minutes daily to read my Bible and pray. I don’t start each morning with Our Daily Bread or end each evening with a Sweet Hour of Prayer. And, according to the evangelical culture I was raised in, that’s a pretty big transgression.

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this: a daily quiet time with God is the single most important way to stay connected to God, It keeps us close to him, it keeps us in God’s Word, reminds us of his love and grace and promises, points out the sin in our life. When we spend time daily with God, it creates a habit of turning to him rather than our own strength. You remember that object lesson from youth group with the sponge? Whatever we fill our lives with will come out when we get squeezed. None of this is new to me. I’ve heard about the vital importance of daily devotions all my life. In my family we even had daily family devotions. Daily Bible reading and prayer are important to spiritual life. If you want to be a light, you have to be connected to the power source, right?

So why haven’t I been doing my daily devotions? There could be a few answers to that. I could say I’ve been kept busy with my 2 jobs, but that’s really a cop out. I know I could carve out time (right after that daily gym time I also seem to be skipping out on). I could say I’m angry with God, and that may have some truth to it, but it’s not the reason. I’ve often found anger with God in the past has pushed me deeper into my daily quiet time. I could say my daily devotions just lost their appeal and have fallen by the wayside of life. Again, there is some truth to that, but it’s not the reason. There is such a vast variety of devotional books, journals, and apps, that I could easily find something that peaks my interest.

The truth is, I’ve been burned out on daily devotions. It’s such a “requirement” for the Christian, and when I resigned from my position as pastor, I also resigned from being the “professional Christian.” When I laid down that mantle, when the eyes of a congregation were no longer on me, I took a deep breath, stopped trying to do what makes a good Christian and took time to just be. I sat in the pew at church, instead of standing behind the pulpit. I listened to the sermon instead of delivering it. I sang the worship songs instead of planning them. And I picked up my Bible when I wanted to, not when I had to.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love my Bible. Some of my greatest seasons of spiritual growth have been during a season of regular Bible reading. And I’ve had my share of daily devotions. I’ve followed devotional books, everything from My Utmost For His Highest to Jesus Freaks. I’ve read the Bible in 90 days (incidentally, I’ve never been able to do the One Year Bible reading), I’ve done an inductive Bible study where I gleaned some gems from in-depth study, I’ve even done Bible reading and devotional plans through the Bible app on my phone.

It’s not that I didn’t like doing my daily devotions. Staying consistent with those devotions has always been a struggle for me. I can start a new plan and do well for a week, a month, even several months. But inevitably, I forget to do it one day, don’t have time the next, don’t feel like it the next, and before you know it I’m choosing between grumbling as I open my Bible or just leaving it on the shelf and trying to squelch that gnawing guilt.

When I laid down my Bible and devotional books at my resignation, I finally laid down the legalistic guilt that had plagued me for so long.

How can something meant to be life giving be so draining?

While I said earlier that some of my greatest times of spiritual growth have been during seasons of Bible reading, I can also say some of my greatest times of spiritual growth have been during seasons where I have not read my Bible or prayed regularly–not the least of which is the past year of post-pastoring. I know there’s a huge value in daily devotions, but is it possible we as the church have overstated that value? Can God connect with us without this daily quiet time?

So, it has been a year since I was a consistent daily devotee. I don’t feel guilty about that. But I have come to a point of desiring more intimacy with God. I feel like I’m closer to God than ever before, yet at the same time, I can’t quite touch him. I can hear him speaking, but I can’t quite make out the words.

All my life, this craving for intimacy has been directly connected with daily devotions. You want to be close to God? Have daily devotions. You want to hear the voice of God? Read your Bible every day. You want to develop a more intimate prayer life? Have a daily quiet time.

And that’s what I’m burned out on.

I crave intimacy with God, but I cringe at the idea of picking up that legalistic guilt. I know what will happen–I’ll read for a week, feel wonderful, get behind, feel guilty, stop altogether, feel guiltier. It’s time for a new approach to Bible reading, prayer, and time with God. So, I have approached none other than my internet tribe with this question: How do you cultivate intimacy with God?

My friends were generous with their answers: out in nature, with family, exercising, reading. They were also gracious with my struggle, noting that I am not the only one who suffers from daily devotion burnout.

A few of my friends directed me to the book Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas. In it he outlines 9 pathways to intimacy with God because not everyone finds intimacy in the same way.

I have purchased the book and when it arrives (I know, why don’t I have a Kindle so I can just download these things? I’m just old fashioned I guess) I will go through the pathways one at a time and blog about my experiences. I know this will be a very personal journey of God-discovery and self discovery, but I want to invite you to follow along with me as I make this journey. Feel free to read the book along with me.

What do you think? Have you ever struggled with daily devotions? How do you connect with God?