I had a great time last weekend with the folks at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. For their all-church retreat they chose the theme The Improvising God: A New Theology for an Imperfect World.
For many people, the struggle to understand God’s presence and work in the midst of suffering is THE sticking point for faith. For some people, they’re led to dismiss the idea of God altogether. Others grab onto notions about God’s plan and purpose. I find the latter rather unsatisfying, not to mention problematic to the idea of God as love: it requires us to believe that God would bring about God’s purposes by employing all manner of terror against the people God claims to care for. As David Bentley Hart wrote after the devastating tsunami several years ago, “It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.”
I’m still working on a nuanced middle. As a follower of Jesus who finds truth in the stories of scripture, I see God’s nature as one of self-limitation. Jesus wasn’t just a piece of God, or God in disguise: Christ was fully God, which means it is fully God’s nature to limit God’s power and sovereignty. That’s what I see in the gospel story again and again.
What God does is work improvisationally with us to say “Yes, and” in a way that moves us in the direction of the best wholeness possible for all. And how can we participate in that Yes-Anding?
I like to mix things up in my retreats and workshops. Lots of interaction, video, and music along with straight-up “lecture.” We watched clips of people performing improv comedy, a speech by Stephen Colbert, and even a scene from The West Wing.
But the piece that really grabbed people was this TED talk by artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. In it he talks about how a nerve injury destroyed his ability to make the kind of pointillist art he felt so drawn to. Instead a doctor advised him to receive that limitation as a gift, to embrace the shake… which led him to find gorgeous (and FUN) new ways of doing art:
Hansen is describing the fundamental task of improv… and of life: to take what is offered and build on it in a way that brings about the best Yes for all concerned. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
During the retreat I leaned a good bit on Brené Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, that talks about how we come back from failure–how failure becomes a source of our power instead of something we need to run from. For the Trinity group, Embrace the Shake became a kind of shorthand for that process.
When have you had to embrace the shake? I’d love to hear about it.
This past weekend I was in Myrtle Beach with the good folks from First Presbyterian, Sumter for their annual congregational retreat. They were a fun, lively group of folks who got it.
As I often do with groups, I shared the ten principles of the Sabbath Manifesto (things like light candles, drink wine, avoid technology) and asked people to get in groups and offer additional principles. They wrote these on post-it notes and we put them on a flip chart.
I find the list inspiring and joy-filled. Some are activities; some are states of mind.
Which ones resonate with you?
Remembering God is a focus for our day intentionally
Involve the world outside the family
Find your quiet place to pray and meditate
Cup of coffee
Stay attentive to your family and children
Celebrate life–past, present, future
Avoid negativity–push F9 to “refresh” and renew
Incorporate the church family in Sabbath practice (covered dish) alternate classes as servers
Finding joy in the day
Take better case of ourselves; as a result we take care of others
Place priority on our personal relationships… church, personal, familial
Turn off TV
Read Bible and other spiritual material
Keep spiritual journal
Identify what restores you. Be conscious of it and realize it is a gift from God and to God
We’ve been playing with the “journey” theme at Tiny Church this year, with a Journey to Jerusalem during Lent—people kept track of miles they walked, biked, ran, etc., then we plotted plotting them on a map in the fellowship hall. We are now continuing that journey for the remainder of the year, which you can read about at the end of this post.
Two Sundays ago we had a mini-retreat after church called Journey in the Spirit. I’ve read about neighborhood prayer walks, in which folks walk around a neighborhood and “pray with their feet”—being attentive to the needs, struggles and beauty in their own community and prayerfully considering how to respond. We can get so insulated going from home to work to church, etc., so getting us out of our cars and journeying on foot helps us see things differently. I heard of one church that did this and discovered a number of homes of elderly folks that needed minor repairs, yardwork, etc. So they became the church that does that.
We are not quite ready for this kind of prayer walk, but we took a step in that direction (pun intended) through this retreat. Here’s what we did—it was very simple, but meaningful I think.
After church we headed over to a church member’s house. Our hosts had prepared lunch for us in the slow cooker, but we opted to have snacks and eat later.
We began with a theme of questions. I had printed up simple questions on slips of paper and each person drew one and answered it. Easy things like “what profession other than yours would you like to attempt?” (Yes, that’s from Inside the Actors’ Studio.) Then I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s bit on “living the questions” and asked them to identify a question they were pondering right now. We did not share these aloud, although you could do that, depending on time and the group.
Then I talked a little bit about the idea of pilgrimage, and how when we go on a pilgrimage we often bring questions and discernment with us. I spoke about the Iona pilgrimage, in which people walk around the island and stop at various Celtic sites. I set the stage for the prayer walk by encouraging people to be open, to “notice what you notice and see what you see,” as a friend of mine likes to say. I didn’t suggest they complete the walk in silence but asked them to be sensitive to the other people they were with—some folks might have something heavy or deep on their hearts and not feel like being chatty.
Then we had our prayer walk. We started all together with an opening; I used many of the prayers in the pilgrimage section of the Iona Worship Book. During the walk I would go slowly to each stopping place, pause, and wait for others to arrive at their own pace. Then we had a short reflection, silence, or prayer, depending on the place. (Side note: Caroline and another fourth-grade girl came with us. This is a great intergenerational activity. The trail we took was not strenuous, so folks 80 and above came along. If you were to do this as part of a larger retreat, you’d want to plan something for people to do who aren’t able to walk.)
The church members’ house is right next to a park, and I had gone over there a few days before to walk the trail. Rather than come in with a pre-set idea of what I wanted to do, I let the trail guide me into the various stations. Here are a few:
1. The beginning of the trail was a threshold space. I talked about some of the threshold spaces in the Bible (e.g. the people in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land) and asked them to consider times they had started something new—to consider the feelings that came up in that experience, what they learned, etc.
2. There was a footbridge over a small creek. When we paused there I remarked on the fact that someone had to come along and build this bridge for us. I asked them to think about the people who had come before us, who had prepared a place for us. We offered up these names verbally as a practice of gratitude.
3. A decomposing log inspired us to consider the things in our lives that needed to pass away in order to make space for something new.
4. The path diverged into two paths—one went further into the woods and the other led out to the main road. I asked them to consider times they had chosen the harder path, and what that experience had taught them.
5. There was no specific destination, but our furthest point was a small creek, where I shared images of baptism, living water, etc. (Caroline and her friend put their hands into the water at this point—others were invited to do so!)
6. We completed the prayer walk on the road, which left the woods and went through the neighborhood. I reminded them of the walk to Emmaus, in which two friends journeyed together and Jesus came alongside them. I invited them to walk two-by-two and again, “notice what you notice,” and sense the presence of Christ with them.
When we got back to the house, we had lunch. Following lunch I read people Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way, a beautiful picture book which tells the story of seven generations of an African-American family, through slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and to the present. The image of quilting appears throughout the book, most notably in the beginning when slaves used quilt designs to share coded messages about safe houses along the Underground Railroad.
The mini-retreat was from 12:30-3, and unfortunately we were running out of time at this point. I had printed up simple quilt square patterns like these:
I was going to have people choose one and write, draw or cut out images to fill their quilt piece to represent their own journey—their own Show Way—or whatever they felt led to do with it. Instead I had people choose one and take it with them as “homework,” or at least a reminder of the patterns and designs that make up their own life in the Spirit.
Then we closed with communion. The communion liturgy leaned heavily on images of journey, the wandering Israelites, Jesus’ pilgrimage to the cross, etc.
And that was it! Very simple, but a lovely afternoon.
We have a practice at Tiny Church of “blessing the backpacks” at the end of each summer. Children and youth bring their backpacks to church and we have a short ritual (usually a responsive reading) in which we send them into the coming school year. We pray for their teachers and their parents; we pray for their friends, their bus drivers, their cafeteria helpers; and we pray that the children would learn and grow into the people God has created them to be.
Sometimes we add on a “blessing of the tools.” People bring in various tools they use in their jobs, hobbies and volunteer work, and we say a prayer for them too. We get everything from iPads to gardening gloves.
The idea is that Christian vocation is not limited to those things we traditionally think of as “religious.” We bring our whole selves to our work, and are called to live our faith through the way we treat clients, co-workers, bosses, shareholders, and the earth’s resources.
Both of these ideas have come from friends and colleagues. (Remember, I like to imitate and innovate.) Now that I’m doing a lot of workshops on Sabbath-keeping, I’ve adapted the blessing of the tools to focus specifically on cell phones. There’s always a bit of ambivalence about cell phones at retreats. As a speaker I don’t forbid their use; in fact, I like it when people tweet while I’m speaking. Such activities can pull us deeper into the experience. But it can also pull us away from the moment. My hope is that a cell phone ritual helps people be intentional about the use of technology during a retreat.
I’ve used some variation of this at the beginning of Sabbath workshops and retreats. It’s a way of acknowledging the many roles we play and the constant pull to be connected, to be relevant and useful. That impulse to connect can lead to many life-giving things. And it can also leave us scattered and overwhelmed.
First, I have people trade phones with someone they’re sitting next to. I have them cup the person’s phone in their hands, and I say something like this:
We hold in our hands these tools of connection.
They ring and we answer; they buzz and we respond.
For some of us, this is our tether… our calendar… our means of expressing ourselves… our means of reaching out, being heard, caring and being cared for, and exploring our world. We have more information at our fingertips, more data on demand, than any generation in the history of the world. That is a weighty thing.
Sometimes these possibilities excite us. Sometimes these connections bring light and joy to our lives.
But sometimes they feel like a burden. There is always another article we could read, always another website to peruse, another message to respond to, another person we might call.
We pray for the person whose phone we hold. We pray for the many roles they play, their connections to parishioners, to family, friends and loved ones. We pray for their responsibilities, their ministry. We pray for the heaviness and the lightness of those relationships and responsibilities.
We pray a silent blessing for this fellow traveler. O God you hear our prayer, Amen.
In one particular retreat, I had asked people to bring things from home that helped them create restful, Sabbath spaces in their lives. People brought photo albums, knitting, books, cooking tools, and so forth. After talking about them with one another we had piled them in the middle of the table. So at that retreat I closed the cell phone ritual by saying:
Before you give the phone back to its owner, hold it in your hands once more and look again at the centerpiece on your table. This is the tension in which we live, this is the push and pull of our lives, oscillating between work and play, toil and rest, connection and solitude. We pray for ourselves and each person at this gathering, that they would navigate that push and pull in ever more faithful ways, always remembering the command to love God, love neighbor, and love ourselves.
A chair just for you! (You can move it indoors. Chicago is cold in January.)
Some words for everyone, but written especially for the Presbyterian teaching elders, pastors and church professionals in the Chicago area…
It was the week before Christmas. There were details to attend to: Who will read scripture on Christmas Eve? Do we have enough little paper tutus for the candles? There were additional pastoral duties: the visit to the woman in the Alzheimers care facility to bring her communion. The check-in with the folks whose son died just a few months ago, to see how they were doing amid all the holly-jolliness.
And then of course, there was Newtown. I suspect untold numbers of pastors scrapped their sermons that week in favor of Saturday Night Specials, fumbling in the midnight hour for the right words of lament and hope to offer in worship the next day, illumined by the candle of joy. Joy, of all things.
In the midst of all that, I was grateful to have several kind friends check in with me: “How ya holding up?” they asked. “I’ve been thinking about you. What are you doing to take care of yourself? This has got to be a heavy, busy time of year.”
(Luminous too. But still.)
I feel fortunate and humbled to have friends such as these. What’s significant about these particular friends is that every single one of them is someone outside of pastoral ministry, outside of the church, outside of religion altogether.
You’ve probably read articles about the rise of the “nones,” people who claim no religious tradition. It was my friends the “nones” who asked about my well-being, who doggedly inquired about my mental health, who provided pastoral care for the pastor.
We forget sometimes, down there in the trenches of ministry, how tough it can be. We’re capable church professionals, after all. We love what we do. It’s a joy and a privilege, this calling. But sometimes we need people to help us take a step back and breathe. We need that perspective.
I hope that you have some “nones” in your life… or maybe just friends who can help you take a step back and say, “Whoa. You’re dealing with a lot. Go gently, now.” We will do that for each other in just a few weeks at the Presbytery of Chicago clergy retreat. The topic is Sabbath; the agenda is Sabbath.
At this retreat, we will explore the rich and complex biblical, historical and theological underpinnings of the practice of Sabbath. We will reflect on the incredible challenge of keeping Sabbath in our modern world. And we will explore strategies and tools for introducing and supporting regular Sabbath-keeping, not only in our own lives but in the congregations and institutions we serve.
Are you a teaching elder? I look forward to meeting you on January 27. Are you a clerk of session, ruling elder or other church leader reading this? Forward this post to your pastor and encourage him or her to come.