Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Spirituality of Retreat

One of the things you will learn about me is my love for spiritual formation. I believe God’s people are called to a growing, experiential relationship with Jesus that shapes us over time into the image of Christ for the sake of others. Being a Christian is more than assent to a set of beliefs and it’s more than doing good things. It’s ultimately about the heart, about being changed “from one degree of glory to another” as Paul said it. One of the most wonderful gifts God has given us for inner change is the gift of retreat.

I didn't know the terminology for it, but this longing began when I was a youth and was active at summer camp at Sumatanga. I grew up going to junior high, mid high, and senior high summer camps as well as spiritual life weekends throughout the year. I loved my church and youth group, but “getting away” became refreshing rhythm. It was one of the early ways I found my soul was continually shaped by grace. In later years, spiritual formation experiences such as Music and Arts Week, Emmaus, and the Academy for Spiritual Formation allowed me the space to continue to become.

I have found that as my life has unfolded as a huge adventure, full of joys as well as sorrows, full of great challenges and overwhelming obstacles as well as spiritual “highs,” I keep coming back to the need to get away to find peace and perspective, if only for brief periods built into my day punctuated by occasional retreats and covenant group getaways. Jesus certainly did it. I hope you will too.

It’s not a vacation. It’s a vocation.

Pictured is a trail to a small hermitage cabin I love near Gethsemane in Kentucky

Monday, July 25, 2011

My First Spiritual Awakening

This summer, I've been introducing myself to my new congregation in the weekly newsletter. Last week, I began sharing about my spiritual journey. I thought this might be helpful to share portions of these articles on my blog as well.

I grew up in a pastor’s home and sometimes being a “preacher’s kid” was difficult emotionally. The other kids teased me and I didn’t always like that. I did the things that kids do growing up, and I’m not proud of all of them. But at the same time, I had this ever-present sense that God loved me. Only later did I know that this was what I’d call the experience of prevenient grace. There was never a moment when I didn’t know God loved me. Even when I felt miserable.

I have already shared with you an experience but I would like to say more about it this week. When I was ten years old, my daddy was leading a youth retreat for our church at Camp Lee in Anniston, Alabama. He was the pastor, so I got to go because I was his kid (I was not old enough for youth group yet). I remember getting to sit in the laps of the teenage girls. But most of all, I remember that these youth talked about their relationship with God in their own language. It did more than impress me … it touched me.

I asked my dad toward the end of the retreat if I could say something at the closing service. Without asking what I wanted to say, he called on me during our Vespers the next day. I remember it like it was yesterday. I said, “All my life I’ve been going to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, and I’ve learned the stories of Jesus. But this weekend, I have realized that Jesus is more than just a story book character. He’s real. And I want everybody to know that I am going to serve him with my whole life.”

Little did I know at the time I would become a preacher. I’m glad God didn’t reveal that to me yet … I might have run the other way! It has been a great adventure.

Pictured is the prayer trail at my former church with one of the "stations of the cross" in the distance

Friday, July 15, 2011

Leading Song at SoulFeast

I had a wonderful experience leading worship music at SoulFeast. Lake Junaluska Assembly is such a holy and beautiful place anway, but to be with others who have a longing such as mine for a sense of the mystery, the holiness, and gracious presence of Christ is wonderful.

There is something that is difficult to describe about leading singing for those who are truly longing for God. When I sit at the piano and take the microphone, it does not feel like performance. It feels like intense prayer, which I have practiced and shared and invited others to join.

I remember what Augustine famously said, "one who sings prays twice." Sometimes I am brought to tears by the extraordinary opportunity to lead others in worship, whether in song or in Word and table. All the things that divide us melt away for a moment and we find our rootedness in God. Our hearts are inflamed with passion for the needs of the world when we remind ourselves that life is not about us but about God.

Poets and artists and musicians help us to collect and articulate our soul's deepest urgings. The most profound experiences of prayer and worship start happening when we come to a place where we discover that at the very end of our natural ability to articulate our longing for God, the Spirit intercedes for us in groans and sighs, in sounds and sights, too deep for words.

I am grateful to the Upper Room for the invitation. I am so proud of Jeremy who played the flute beautifully. And am glad to have shared the experience of being here with Sandy. I am honored to work with such incredible musicians as Jeff, John, and Ebbert. I am delighted to have spent a variety of moments and meals with soul friends.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Office "Anchored" in Worship

In a recent post, I reflected on the central symbols of the beautiful windows in my new study. Today I offer some musings about having an office that is "built into" the original sanctuary. I know that for some, this is a simple utilitarian decision about good use of space. But it means something more to me. I work and enjoy people every day in space that was, and is, holy ground.

I remember a story from our ancient spiritual heritage about a well-known "anchorite" named Julian of Norwich. Anchorites were those whose cell (or living area) was built into a sanctuary and enclosed. They were quite literally "anchored" to their sanctuaries, unlike hermits, who went into the wilderness. Pictured is the hatch remaining from an anchorite's cell through which they would receive communion as well as food and water, speak to visitors seeking counsel, and hear church services.

Anchorites were highly regarded for their wisdom and holiness. Julian never left her cell and saw the world through a simple crack in the wall so she could pray over the city.

What does it mean to me that my office is built into a sanctuary space? I love our offices because they are a hub of activity. I'm an extrovert so I love the buzz of people and faces and stories and fun. But all this joyful activity is built upon holy ground. I hope and pray I always have a sense that all that we do in our fellowship and work and play together is holy and full of God.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Diversity in the UMC over Alabama's New Immigration Law

Faithful Christians in Alabama differ in their political opinions. One of the things I love about being Methodist is that diversity is appreciated. I encourage each congregation I serve to practice their personal faith in their political life and to take responsibility to vote, but always recognize that we will have healthy disagreements. Accepting and valuing our God-given diversity is part of the essential nature of being in Christian community.

The recent immigration law in Alabama has been controversial. Our bishop and some of our pastors heavily involved in evangelism and missionary efforts drafted an open letter. The article presenting it calls this law an embarrassment to our state that does not reflect the spirit of hospitality in our churches and calls it the meanest immigration law in the nation. An interesting online debate followed that reflects our diversity, and I encourage interested readers to check out the Open Letter with Responses.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about immigration and certainly don't claim to know all the answers. But I am definitely uneasy about aspects of the law regarding "association". My understanding is that efforts to exempt the ministries of the church were unsuccessful. If it is truly considered illegal to welcome one of God's children into my home or church or give them a ride in the car, my compelling call to serve the gospel of Christ will outweigh my respect for human law. I also fear that this may inevitably lead to racial profiling, and my compassion comes in part from awareness that my own ancestors were aliens in this foreign land, coming to seek opportunity.

I do not have a proposed solution for larger issues related to immigration, but I do hope our legislature will reconsider this law and at least refine it.