Spiritual, Religious, or Adventure?

by Teresa Blythe

Originally published on November 25, 2015 on Patheos
Re-printed with permission from the author

When a pilgrim begins the 800 kilometer trek along the legendary Camino de Santiago, they are asked to announce the purpose of their walk. Their choices are spiritual, religious or adventure. Which is a beautiful question to ask in spiritual direction since we are all on this pilgrimage called life.

What is the nature of your life’s path? Spiritual, religious or adventure?

I began sitting with that question after reading Sonia Choquette’s new memoir Walking Home about the healing she experienced walking the Camino de Santiago last year. Choquette is a well-known spiritual intuitive and teacher and author of many books on tapping into your intuition. She hit a low point in her life. Her marriage was falling apart; her brother died; and shortly after that her father died, too. The voice of one of her spirit guides clearly told her to walk the Camino (even though she barely had a clue what that involved.) Still, she heeded the voice, packed her bags and set out to walk the entire distance across northern Spain.

She named the purpose of her pilgrimage spiritual (P.61). Which is what I would call my own “camino” (Spanish for walk) in life. (Note: I haven’t walked the Camino de Santiago but the idea of doing it is growing on me!)

Spiritual Pilgrimage

The spiritual pilgrimage is about healing. One walks to be free of burdens, to forgive others and themselves, and to allow the silence and discipline of walking toward a goal to heal life’s hurts and draw you closer to the source of life.

People who see their life path as spiritual are seeking connection with a power greater than themselves. This spiritual seeking may involve a religious tradition, or it may not.

Religious Pilgrimage

For centuries, religious people have been walking pilgrimages in devotion to God. Some see the difficult walk as penance. Others do it because they believe it is what God is asking of them and they wish to be obedient. Muslims are instructed to travel to Mecca in pilgrimage at least once in their life provided they are healthy enough and can afford the trip.

People who see their life path as religious are seeking to show allegiance and devotion to God through adherence to a particular religious doctrine and participation in a particular set of religious practices. These practices are intensely spiritual but they grow out of a religious tradition.

The Adventure

Many people travel the Camino de Santiago for fun, companionship and excitement. Choquette shares stories of people running along the Camino, groups hauling a wagon full of gourmet food, people riding bikes or horses along the way. For most every pilgrim, the Camino is an adventure at times—you cross the Pyrenees, stop in villages along the way and meet people from all over the world. But people who choose to experience the Camino as an adventure are usually not placing an expectation that the walk will be offering them any spiritual or religious insights.

People who see their life path as adventure may also be simply not placing expectations on their path. I’ve worked with many people in spiritual direction who are content to see what life has to offer rather than hoping for miracles, healing or other spiritual experiences.

No Judgment

There is an attitude among pilgrims that everyone walks their own Camino. It doesn’t matter what your intention is—spiritual, religious or adventure. It will be whatever it needs to be. You may start out for spiritual purposes and end up having an adventure. Or spiritual folks may find themselves more appreciative of religion as they walk the steps that thousands of pilgrims over thousands of years have walked. Adventure seekers may be gifted with a spiritual insight. As the man who fitted Choquette for hiking boots emphasized, “It’s your camino.” (P.43)

Do it All

Ideally, our life’s journey is a combination of purposes. At some times in our life it may be religious, at other times spiritual and at others an adventure. Or maybe it’s all three at once. After reading Walking Home, I am using the lens of Choquette’s experience to see the whole of my life as a camino. Perhaps not as dramatic as an 800 kilometer walk across Spain, but satisfying in its own way.

Spiritual, religious or adventure? It’s worth pondering along the way.

(For more on the Camino, I highly recommend Sonia Choquette’s Walking Home. Shirley MacLaine also wrote The Camino about her experience; Paulo Coelho wroteThe Pilgrimage; and  Martin Sheen created the film The Way. Others have written of their experiences in blogs and books as well. Enjoy!)

If you are interested in learning more about spiritual direction or entering spiritual direction with me, please contact me at teresa@teresablythe.net  or visit teresablythe.net.  Also visit my website for the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.

Photo credit: amateur photography by michel / Foter.com / CC BY

Living Under the Threat of Violence

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons
Designated Conference Minister, Southwest Conference UCC

Preached February 21, 2016 at Church of the Beatitudes, Phoenix, Arizona

Birds go to the most incredible extremes to ensure the lives of their chicks.

A Mistle Thrush had built her nest in the end of a rain gutter. “The nest was tucked away from the weather in the shade of the roof,” said amateur wildlife photographer Dennis Bright. With the rain, “It was only a matter of seconds before the [gutter] flooded, and water cascaded over the sides.”

Desperate to protect her young, the mother Mistle Thrush puffed herself up to twice her size and sat in the drainpipe to stop the tide of rain water swamping the nest. She was so occupied with her task that her mate was left to feed her and their young.

“She had to come up with a solution so she puffed herself up so she was twice the size of her mate and used her body as a cork to stop the water,” said Bright.”It was absolutely amazing.”

Hester Phillips, from the RSPB, said she had never seen such a situation. “We’ve heard of them nesting in some unusual sites before, namely on the top of traffic lights, but we’ve certainly not come across anything like this before.

“Birds can be amazingly hardy creatures,” said Phillips, “their endurance is incredible – especially when protecting their young.”

Jesus described himself as a hen gathering her brood under her wings. Jesus – source of belonging, bringer of love, creator of creator of community.

But his allusion to the blood-bathed image of a fox among the chickens is his description of a violent world’s response to his mission. Thus the friendly Pharisees’ warning for Jesus to flee in the face of Herod’s royal rage.

But Jesus would have none of it.

[Jesus seems to] shrugs his shoulders [and intensify his gaze] when he says, “You go tell that fox from me that I’m going right on doing what I’m doing, casting out demons and healing the sick, and I’ll still be doing the same tomorrow, and the next until I finish my work, by which time we’ll be in Jerusalem.”

No fleeing. No hiding. No being intimidated. No pursuit of his own privilege thus pretending it’s not happening.

Jesus’ vision and mission remains resolute in the threat of escalating violence. Casting out demons: the vision of a world freed from the powers of oppression and exploitation. Healing the sick: restoring to wholeness ones whose bodies were broken, whose souls were scarred, whose place in their community was confiscated. “Jesus is going to do what he’s come to do, and he’s not going to be bullied [or scarred] out of it, no matter how big and [how] real the threat.”

With all the flare of LaWanda Page’s portrayal of Aunt Esther on TV’s sitcom Sanford & Son, Jesus says to the henchmen of hate:

“Besides, it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets,
abuser of the messengers of God!
How often I’ve longed to gather your children,
gather your children like a hen,
Her brood safe under her wings—
but you refused and turned away!
And now it’s too late: You won’t see me again
until the day you say,
‘Blessed is she
who comes in
the name of God.’ ”

As the Keresan Pueblo story goes, Qi-yo Ke-pe was the most powerful medicine person in the world. She lived far to the west. When the daughter of the chief in the village of Kush Kut-ret fell ill, none of the medicine men could heal her. So the chief sent his bravest warrior to bring Qi-yo Ke-pe to his daughter’s bedside. When she arrived she asked for water and bathed the girl. The medicine men laughed. “If all our songs and incantations didn’t work, ordinary water could not possibly have any effect,” they said. But after four days of this bathing ritual, the girl was restored to health and beauty as if she had never been ill. The grateful chief commissioned his bravest warrior to escort the powerful Qi-yo Ke-pe back to her home, but the jealous medicine men followed them at a distance. After the brave warrior had departed her company, the medicine men came to Qi-yo Ke-pe’s home. She invited them in and offered them a meal and rest. They refused. “We have come to kill you,” they said to Qi-yo Ke-pe. “In four days we will return. Then you and your family will die.” Four days later the medicine men returned and were as good as their word. From then on there was grief. Many times when people fell ill there was no one on earth to heal them. Qi-yo Ke-pe was gone. The medicine men had killed her.

Luke is clear that Jesus knew he, too, would fall victim to the violence. Not by Herod’s hand, but Jesus would indeed die. For not everyone is able to understand and accept Jesus’ offer of liberation and healing. And with his killing came consequences of his killers’ own choosing.

Still, Jesus expresses a commitment to his vision and mission with all of the conviction and groundedness of the Poet who penned Psalm 27:

Your light leads me to safety, LORD;
I’ve got nothing to fear.
You shelter me like a fortress, LORD;
I’m afraid of no one!

Vicious thugs can close in like sharks,
ready to eat me alive;
but savage violence is no match for you;
they’ll fall flat on their faces.

They could give my name to a death squad
and I’d still be at peace;
their armies could lay siege to my house,
but I’d still feel safe with you.

Only one thing I ask of you, LORD,
the one thing that really matters:
let me live out the whole of my life
right here in your presence;
let me lose myself in your beauty,
and abandon myself to prayer.

Let me hide here in safety with you,
when trouble gets too much;
You are as secure as a bomb shelter,
a protected place to rest and recover.

You have lifted me beyond the reach
of those who wanted to tear me down,
so I am here to express my thanks,
to offer you whatever I can give;
to sing your praises till I raise the roof,
to put on a concert in your honour.

Don’t ever stop being generous, LORD;
hear me and answer me when I call for help!

My heart tells me to search for you.
Please don’t stay hidden from me.
My desire is to know you, face to face.

Don’t slam the door on me in anger;
Help me again and I’ll go on serving you.
Don’t give up on me now,
don’t turn your back on me;
You alone can save me, God!

Even if my own parents kicked me out,
you’d still be there for me, LORD.

Give me clear directions, LORD;
keep me on the right track
so I don’t stumble into the path of my enemies.

Don’t let them get their claws into me.
With every breath they fill the air
with false allegations and violent threats.

I know I can rely on you, LORD,
I’ll see your goodness win out
and live to tell about it.

I wait patiently for you, LORD;
I’ll hang in there and keep my chin up;
I’ll sit tight, and trust in you!

Beloved, the world is still a violent place. Before preaching this sermon I woke to the news that a gunman had committed a string of random murders in Kalamazoo, Michigan leaving 7 dead including an 8-year old and a 14-year old.

One need not live in ISIS controlled territories to experience religious violence. One need only to have been on the campus of Independence High School last Monday. After the tragic murder/suicide of 15 year-olds May Kieu and Dorothy Dutiel, Christian extremists spewed homophobic hate over megaphones at grieving students returning to classes. One need only to be a woman reading the Bible and realizing that “there are only 93 women who speak in the Bible, 49 of whom are named. These women speak a total of 14,056 words collectively — roughly 1.1 percent of the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks 191 words; Mary Magdalene gets 61; Sarah, 141 (Freeman, Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter).7

“Communities of love and belonging are beautiful yet rare; necessary, yet elusive; desired, yet seem always met with stipulations. You know what I mean, right? Communities of love and belonging are those places and spaces of gathered folks that give you life, that nourish your soul, that remind you of who you truly are. Because there is no love and belonging when there is no regard and respect. There is no love and belonging when you are overlooked and dismissed. There is no love and belonging when you are told you don’t measure up, don’t meet expectations, or that you are not enough.”

How do we as Christians live in such a violent world?

We live as Jesus in the world! You and I, us together, we are the Body of Christ, the living Jesus in the world.

There are ones around us who point to the Church’s shrinking influence, who cite our words and our actions as too political, who call for us to run away, to hide under cover of private religion or in the safety of siloed spirituality and thus escape the wrath of powerful and powerfully offended ones. Let us have none of that! We are Jesus in the world!!

This world – this violent world – needs a Jesus – a living body of Christ on the earth – who risks our very lives to gather under God’s outstretched wings vulnerable ones, poor ones, rejected ones, and lonely ones, hungry and thirsty ones, threatened ones, blamed ones, guilty ones, and ones with no other place to belong.

Will you be that Jesus? The Jesus – the Body of Christ in the world – unwaveringly committed to liberating oppressed and exploited ones by risking the tasks of healing broken ones. And doing so from such a place of deep peace built on the bedrock of justice that you cannot help but share a song with her brood as they gather in safety and community:

Under His Wing

Under your wings I am safely abiding;
Though the night deepens and violence is wild,
Still I can trust you,
I know you will keep me;
You have redeemed me,
and I am your child.

Under your wings, under your wings,
Who from your love can sever?
Under your wings my soul shall abide,
Safely abide forever.

A Candle Gone Out and Our Time to Shine

by Kenneth McIntosh

I awake this morning feeling sad. Not because of a dream that I had, or worries about the day; nor because of anything that I am cognitively aware of. My subconscious mind has an amazing awareness of the date—February the 23rd.

Grieve it tells me.

This is the anniversary of my father’s death.

Recognizing this day’s significance, the latest episode of Downton Abbey comes to mind. To non-fans, Downton Abbey is an Edwardian soap opera; but to devotees, the Crawley family and their servants are like family. Last Sunday lady Mary Crawley viciously betrayed her sister Edith by gossiping to Edith’s suitor and thus ruining Edith’s hopes for marriage. Later in the same show, Mary is about to be wedded and Edith shows up unexpectedly for the celebration. Explaining this seemingly impossible act of forgiveness, Edith tells Mary “In the end, you’re my sister, and one day, only we will remember Sybil (their deceased sister) Or Mama or Papa … Or Granny or Carson or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last, our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.”

Shared memories of our loved ones are immensely valuable for surviving family members. The generation of my parents’ friends has entirely passed away, and my children barely knew them. So my surviving extended family and our older children are now the only people who can talk about my father and mother with vivid recollections.

There’s a passage in the Old Testament that is probably no one’s favorite Bible verse: “There is no eternal memory of the wise any more than the foolish, because everyone is forgotten before long” (Ecclesiastes 2:16, CEB). It’s hardly inspiring, but profoundly true. To those of us who knew him, my father was extraordinary; a scientist and a polymath, he helped Heparin—an essential medicine—to become more easily available. He built his own sailboat, and radio, and camera, and airplane. And yet, less than a decade after his death, only a handful of people think or talk about him. Ecclesiastes nailed it, everyone is forgotten before long.

This thinking at first appears only negative, but its truth can be redeemed. Skylight publishes a great little book by Rabbi Rami Shapiro titled Ecclesiastes: Annotated & Explained. In this book, Rabbi Shapiro discusses the Hebrew word yitron, “usually translated as ‘profit’ in the sense of something being left over after all is said and done.” He then shares this illustration, “what profit, in the sense of something left over, is there in burning a candle in the dark? None if we expect that something of value remains when the candle burns down and the flame sputters out. But this doesn’t mean there was no value when the candle was aflame. While nothing has permanent profit, many things can profit us in the moment.”

We immediately recognize the truth of this as regards literal candles; we ignite tea-lite or votive candles which provide a lovely sense of atmosphere and we never think “this is a lousy candle, because it will only burn for a finite amount of time.” No, we appreciate the candle while it is lit. The worth of a candle is not in its durability, but in its ability to illumine while lit.

Is the same not true of our lives, and the lives of our loved ones? As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us “It is not how long you live, but how well you do it.” Even if I created an immense marble edifice for my father’s ashes, that structure would decay over time and its meaning would be forgotten. My father’s memories will vaporize after my generation of the family passes—but that’s not a tragedy. It’s the only way this world exists; unless your name is Elvis, everyone is forgotten before long. What does ‘profit’ us is to live fully whilst alive, to be recklessly engaged in this moment’s enactment of God’s justice and peace. A good candle glows while lit, and if the tapers of our lives are healthy we will strive to be illumined and to illuminate.

Problems come when we become focused on longevity, on out-lasting our time to burn. We can expend crazy amounts of effort trying to memorialize the dead and even crazier energies attempting to gain some sort of personal immortality. Yet these misguided efforts detract from our burning brightly in the now.

Churches face the same exact problem, the temptation to focus on longevity rather than illumination. I serve as Church Growth Coordinator for the Southwest Conference, and when congregations contact me they are usually wishing to talk about survival. Conversations boil down to “How do we make our church last longer?” The more valuable question for churches is: How much light can we shine in the now? Without too much thought of the morrow, churches need to ask: whose lives can we bless and transform as who we are, where we are, in the present moment?

Ironically, churches that put their energies into blessing others in the present moment tend to be more attractive churches—and the paradoxical result of shining brighter in the now is a possible renewal of the church, an unexpected second life. Could the same thing, perhaps, be said for individual souls? The book that follows Ecclesiastes in canonical order, The Song of Songs, tells us “love is as strong as death…Its darts are…divine flame!” (Song of Songs 8:6, CEB). That great Christian novelist and apologist C.S. Lewis, in his novel The Great Divorce, puts these words into the sainted mouth of his mentor George McDonald, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country (heaven) but none will rise again until it has been buried.” My father spoke little of spiritual matters, but he did once tell me, late in his life, that he expected to continue existing after death on another dimensional plane, and that he expected to be re-united with his wife, who would be on the same dimensional apogee.

So today I remember my father’s candle, after it has gone out. I reaffirm my intention to burn brightly in my time. And if the things that our Scriptures and traditions point to are true, then the love we light now may blaze on into an unforeseeable eternity.

Happy (early) Earth Day 2016

by Donald Fausel

bird in hand

Just a reminder that Earth Day for 2016 will be celebrated during the week of April 17 to April 22. Many of us can remember April 22, 1970 when the first Earth Day was celebrated. It was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and was inspired by the antiwar protests of the late 1960s.  Earth Day was originally aimed at creating a mass environmental movement.  It began as a “national teach-in on the environment” and was held on April 22 to maximize the number of students that could be reached on university campuses. By raising public awareness of air and water pollution, Nelson hoped to bring environmental causes into the attention of the legislators. The first Earth Day had close to 20 million participating. Future Earth Day celebrations were global.

If you want to bring some nostalgia into your life, here’s a five minute video narrated by Tom Brokaw titled A Quick History of Earth Day and an Interview by Hugh Downs with Senator Gaylord Nelson and Several other Activists .

When I look back at 1970, I wish I could say that I was one of the activists who followed Senator Nelson’s foresight. As far as the environment was concerned I was more focused in learning about the sciences of ecology and cosmology as a way of thinking about the world.  I spent time reading books and articles by Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and other ecologists. Two books that I still pick up frequently which you might be interested in are: Living by Surprise: A Christian Response to the Ecological Crisis by Rev. Woody Bartlett who has served as a director of community ministries for the Episcopal Diocese in Atlanta, with an emphasis on poverty and environmental issues. As the book’s cover reads “This book lays out four Dynamics of creation that can help humankind reconnect with its origins.”

The second book edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, is a collection of 20 essays. The book was given a strong review by Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. He wrote, “It’s hard to imagine a wiser group of humans than the authors represented here, all of them both thinkers and do-ers in the greatest battle humans have ever faced.” If you go on Vaughan-Lee’s website you can see his article on Pope Francis’ Encylical: Hearing the Cry of the Earth . It was originally first published on Huffpost Religion.

To steal Bill McKibben’s phrase above, at that time in my life as far as the environment was concerned, I was more of a thinker than a do-er.  My interests were more academic than insurgent. My activism was focused more on Welfare Rights, Civil Rights, Mobilization for Youth, the Vietnam War, and other social justice issues.  Besides making a modest donation to the Sierra Club or The Friends Committee on National Legislation, I didn’t get involved personally in the environmental movement until I became a resident at the Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix.

Three years ago, another resident, Gerald Roseberry and I co-founded the Elders for a Sustainable Future. Our mission is:  a solution-based effort to: 1) involve elders as stakeholders for future generations, and Mother Earth;  2) take action through education and advocacy; 3) contribute to reducing global climate warming, and supporting sustainable solutions. We meet twice a month to discuss climate change issues from fracking to divesting from fossil fuels and depositing our money in “Green investments”.

We also participate in rallies at legislators’ offices to challenge their positions on environment issues or at the Arizona Corporation Commission when Arizona Public Service (APS) was trying to raise prices on customers who were already using solar energy. At that rally we carried signs that read, “The Lord Giveth and APS Taketh away.” That was our way of letting them know that they didn’t have the ownership of the sun.

Many of the members of the Elders for a Sustainable Future are on a committee of residents that is planning for the 2016 Earth Day at the Beatitudes Campus.  I’d like to share with you some of the material that we’re considering might be helpful for your celebration of Earth Day.

This first reference, God’s Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States was an effort in 2005 by a group of American theologians, convened by the National Council of Churches USA to negate what they called a “false gospel”. They called on Christians to confront the seriousness of environmental disgrace and take concrete steps to prevent abuse of Mother Earth. The letter lists a series of norms to guide Christian involvement, including “…justice, sustainability, generosity, frugality, solidarity and compassion.” The letter to Church and Society ends with a Call to Action, for “…healing the earth and providing a just and sustainable society.” They end with a prayer, “In Christ’s name and for Christ’s glory, we call out with broken yet hopeful hearts:  join us in restoring God’s Earth-the greatest healing work an moral assignment of our times.”  I say Amen to that! Although the letter was published eleven years ago, I believe its message still needs to be heard and followed today. 

Thoughts and Actions for Earth Day 2016

Here’s a three minute speech on Earth Day, 2015, Every Day is Earth Day by Rev. Sally Bingham, President and Founder of Interfaith Power and Light followed by two minutes of videos of what climate changes is doing to God’s Earth.

How about a toe-tapping Love Song to the Earth by Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow and More Call for Action on Climate Change.

Your children or grandchildren might like this four minute cartoon type song, I AM the EARTH , and so do I.

I’ve saved this for last! 12 TED TALKS to Watch this Earth Day. That’s right 12 TED TALKS for Earth Day! And they have some heavy hitters doing the talking and they don’t talk more than 27:44 minutes or less.

James Hansen’s topic is Why I Must Speak Out about Climate Change.  As far back as 1988 he “…saw it as his moral imperative to speak out about the rapid changing plane he saw in his work.”  I read his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity back in 2010 when it was first published. Robert Kennedy Jr. called him, “…the Paul Revere to the tyranny of climate chaos-a modern-day hero who has braved criticism and censure and put his career and fortune at stake to issue the call to arms against the apocalyptic forces of ignorance and greed.” I second Kennedy’s accurate description of James Hansen.

Coincidently, I will hear Hansen’s lecture on February 25 at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. His topic is, “Climate Change and Energy: How Can Justice Be Achieved for Young People and Nature?”

Last but not least is a TED TALK by Al Gore, titled New Thinking on the Climate Crisis . You remember Al Gore, he was the former vice president who wrote and starred in the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He opens the documentary by greeting the audience by saying, “I am Al Gore; I used to be the next President of the United States.” In this TED TALK presentation he shows “…that the impact of climate change may be even worse than scientists had predicted.”

I hope you can use some of this information in your celebration of Earth Day 2016.   Shalom.

Life Led From an Inner Space

I love spending time watching videos when I am supposed to be doing something productive as much as the next person. It is rare that a video comes along and really speaks to the issue of life led from an inner space; life lived for the passion that will not go away or necessarily make sense to others. Yet the video at the end of this article speaks to this in a way I could never do with words alone.

Why is this inner life, this passion, so important? It’s because we live in a time where the external circumstances scream so loud we can hardly hear or believe this still small and mighty voice. It’s an individual with a notion to do or be a certain way in the world, or an organization, like a church, being called to move into the unknown and mysterious in a world that is telling them the sky is falling and church is dead.

This voice is deep and compelling. ​This inner drive that we sense is the voice of the Divine calling us to the bigness of life. Even if we follow that voice, the external voices will dictate what success looks like. Such as more people in the pews, a business that makes $1,000,000, etc. Yet the success is in the just showing up whether the outcome is seen or not. The success is trusting this beautiful small voice and living from that place regardless of what it looks like or even if it makes sense. That also means not controlling what God will do with it. This woman plays her cello in the middle of nowhere to no one but herself, yet I can’t help wondering how the beauty of that music affects the trees, rocks, and life around her. Or how that sound might travel to someone’s ears and cause a major shift in their lives. She isn’t doing it for those reasons, yet even on her hike up the mountain, her single act has a community effect. In fact just my knowing she is doing this encourages me in my journey. She doesn’t even know who I am. Following that voice, no matter how scary, crazy or inconsistent it may seem, allows the power of God to move in ways it might not have before.

For myself, Pathways of Grace was born of listening to the still small voice and following where the voice has led me. It hasn’t been easy at times and like this woman climbing the mountain with the cello on her back there was plenty of time to wonder and decide to keep going. Not for the sake of the end of the trail, but for the sake of the inner spark that draws me closer to God.

Everyone has that spark. As we journey in Lent, learning what it means to walk with Jesus, we are learning to listen, acknowledge, and trust that voice. We get to practice living from that space and not the external voices that try to define and lead us. Whether that spark is to spend more time in prayer, start a business, or let go of a building in favor of community, the “what” is not as important as the willingness to act.

May this video inspire you to follow Christ this Lent from that space deep within yourself.

Andante‘There’s not a ticket stub, there’s just a memory.’Andante (a musical term meaning ‘at walking pace’) follows the cellist Ruth Boden as she climbs 10,000 feet to a peak in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains for a deeply personal, yet breathtakingly public solo performance. An Aeon Video editor’s pick: http://ow.ly/XXE9r

Posted by Aeon on Saturday, February 6, 2016

Here’s the thing…

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Are you ready for the thing?

The thing is for every living being on this earth, there is risk and there is beauty.

The thing is for every person who harms someone, there are a ridiculous amount of people who do not.

The thing is that we are constantly recovering from something because that is the nature of living. Our bodies, our families, our friendships, our world are adjusting and healing in ways we could not imagine.

The thing is if we turn toward and walk through the dark nights of the soul, we are fostering an internal and external world that is truly healing.

The thing is if you are recovering from trauma the best thing to do comes from Anne Lamott: “Go only as fast as the slowest part of you.”

The thing is, we heal, we love well and fully.

The thing is we step into the stream of life and it gradually, ever so slowly returns us to the present moment and opens us to life in ways we cannot fathom.

The thing is… Life takes a lifetime and we have so much life ahead. The best is yet to come. I know that and honor that in you.

The thing is love.

Musings on Spiritual Health

by Kelly Kahlstrom

“To heal, a person must first be a person”

As some of you know, in my Monday through Friday 8-5 life I am a nurse case manager for one of the state Medicaid programs. I work with women who have high risk pregnancies. These risk factors can be physical, like diabetes or high blood pressure; it can be emotional like anxiety/depression or other mood disorders; or social, like being homeless. Bella* is typical of many of the women with whom I have the privilege to speak. She is a 22-year old who is 3 months pregnant with her second child. Her oldest child, Rocky, is 15 months old. Bella’s pre-pregnancy weight was 215 and she was just diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Her mother is her primary support both emotionally and financially while she stays home to care for her son. Bella and the father of the baby are not getting along since the news of this second, unplanned pregnancy. She has a history of anxiety but has never sought treatment for this. She has had one year of college and eventually would like to go back to school but her first pregnancy interrupted her studies.  Historically my conversations with her would center on her diabetes and how it affects her pregnancy. I would offer behavioral health support and most of the time the offer would be declined by saying “I can manage it on my own; I just need to stay positive”. And I would leave it at that.

Recently however there has been a push within Medicaid to “integrate” disciplines so we do a better job of addressing more domains of health, noting that physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, and social health are all interrelated. Statistically, patterns have emerged which indicate that symptoms in one domain usually cascade through the other domains in fairly predictable ways. For instance, if one has a food addiction like Belle, it can be predicted that one might also suffer from physical limitations such as obesity and diabetes. Prescription drug use from back or joint pain is likely. Often there is a history of untreated anxiety/depression or other mood disorders and maintaining close relationships with others can be difficult. As you can see, an illness in one domain affects all domains of health. Illness is a spiritual event.

Now if we visualize the domains of health on a horizontal axis, as a snapshot in time, it is also helpful to remember that health throughout a person’s lifetime lies on the vertical axis. There is good reason to believe that two-thirds of us experienced at least one traumatic event in childhood. We now know that the more trauma a child has experienced, the greater the change to the neurobiology of the brain. This affects the body’s ability to process and recover from stress, especially chronic, unpredictable, toxic stress. Chronic exposure to this type of inflammation correlates significantly with auto-immune diseases, mood disorders, as well as substance use in adulthood decades after the initial exposure. So, with Belle, like many of the women I talk to, it is best to assume a history of trauma rather than not. This information radically broadens the conversation. The starting point may indeed be in the physical domain but, as rapport is established, the conversation can move across to other domains or backward to previous experiences and how these experiences might affect present and future health. It is here that I learned she was ridiculed as a child for her weight and she witnessed her older brother die of a heroin overdose. Often interpreted in childhood as a defect in their character, these types of experiences contribute to an ongoing angst in adulthood, pushed from thought by “being positive”, belied by reaching for the 8th cookie on the plate.

Which brings me to my real area of interest…spiritual health, and alas, it is the one domain of health I cannot talk openly about at work so I’ll muse about it here instead. Spiritual health is the point of origin, in my humble opinion, of both the horizontal dimensions of health and the vertical history of “how your biography becomes your biology”.

What exactly is Spiritual Health? Spiritual health is something that we all have a sense of but it is not always easy to articulate. I am drawn to Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s quote “To heal, a person must first be a person”.  Could it perhaps be said then that spiritual malaise looks like a forgetting of what it means to be human?  Without a protracted discussion with the philosophers amongst us, I would argue that one aspect of personhood is the need to make sense of the experiences in our lives. As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us, “religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live.” When we have forgotten who we are, what we are put on earth to do, and are unable to live up to our identified values, we have experiences but often miss the meaning of these experiences in our lives. Experiences without meaning leave us feeling empty, anxious, apathetic, conflicted, hurried or harried, self-absorbed or feeling we have something to prove. These disembodied feelings can originate from events that have occurred on either axis.

So if spiritual malaise is a forgetting of who we are, either from not recognizing that each domain of health affects the others, or by not understanding how events from childhood shape our adult health, what is the prescription? How do we recover the meaning by which we are able to re-interpret our experiences? “To heal, a person must first be a person” and awaken (again) to their own identity.  I offer these as possibilities but this hardly represents an exhaustive list.

  • A remembrance can happen through engaging in activities of quietude such as meditation, prayer, visualization, stretching, yoga, dream work, labyrinths, and mandalas.
  • A remembrance can happen through a flash of insight while engaged in the profane or mundane tasks of our lives.
  • A remembrance can happen when we take our faith seriously and actively work to deepen our spiritual life.
  • A remembrance can happen through the development of strong social ties to a community that makes room for questions about identity, purpose and ethics.
  • A remembrance can happen through consciously seeking ways to exercise each domain of health every day, i.e., eating well, participating in the spiritual practice of your choice, reaching out to a friend, or volunteering with an organization.  
  • A remembrance can happen when we work with professionals like spiritual directors and counselors who help us recognize and name the patterns of our experience.

Spiritual health opens up space to fully claim our humanity in the moments when we are awake. It allows us to be more fully in relationship with God or the Divine. It allows us to feel grounded in our purpose, to live with a sense of wonder and joy, to befriend death, to be a global citizen, and to practice forgiveness, compassion, and unconditional love. Not too shabby, huh?

I would argue that Bella is not unique to the population I work with. Her story, while uniquely hers, has elements that ring true for many of us. In fact, she is our colleague, our neighbor, our fellow congregants, and committee members. Perhaps even ourselves.

To heal a person must first be a person. Blessings on your journey!

* Names have been changed.

Restacking the Stones: one prophet’s lessons for revitalization

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons, Designated Conference Minister

Preached February 14, 2016 at Congregational Church of the Valley, Scottsdale, AZ

“On the tenth of Tevet, 425 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar [King of Babylon] began the siege of Jerusalem.

“Thirty months later, in the month of Tammuz, after a long siege during which hunger and epidemics ravaged the city, the city walls were breached.

“On the seventh day of Av, the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Nebuzaradan, began the destruction of Jerusalem. The walls of the city were torn down, and the royal palace and other structures in the city were set on fire.

“On the ninth day of Av, toward evening, the Holy Temple was set on fire and destroyed. The fire burned for 24 hours.

[Jewish] “Sages taught: When the first Holy Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. They ascended the roof and declared: “Master of the World! Since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to You.” They then threw the keys toward Heaven. A hand emerged and received them, and the priests threw themselves into the fire (Talmud, Ta’anit 29b).

Everything of gold and silver that still remained was carried off as loot by the Babylonian soldiers. All the beautiful works of art with which King Solomon had once decorated and ornamented the holy edifice … [t]he holy vessels of the Temple that could be found… The high priest Seraiah and many other high officials and priests were executed. … Many thousands of the people that had escaped the sword were taken prisoner and led into captivity in Babylon, where some of their best had already preceded them. Only the poorest of the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to stay on to plant the vineyards and work in the fields.

“Jeremiah, [who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem], also promised that the Jewish people would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.”

Today’s reading from Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13 is the beginning of that story.

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild

God works in and through people not like me.

I notice first in today’s text that God speaks to people of different political and religious and ethnic and cultural heritages than the ones described in Scripture as Israel. God’s speaking isn’t limited to me, or people like me, or my religion, or my country, or my friends.

God has a long history of transforming people once enemies into friends. God has a long history of speaking through people and nations that appear on the list of ‘not God’s people,’ people we may have placed on the list of ‘not friends’ or even ‘enemies.’ God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, in circumstances apart from the expected!

Ezra 2:59ff tells the story of a group of people who wanted to go with the Jews to Jerusalem – people whose spirit God had stirred for the endeavor – but who could not prove that they were Jewish. These people, too, became part of the most important resource in accomplishing God’s tasks: people. Think of it, the all-powerful God who spoke into being the universe, the earth and everything in her, repeatedly chooses to work through people to accomplish the divine will rather than to speak it into being. And God was willing that any person who responded to the Spirit’s stirring should be included in the work of rebuilding the Temple.

What a powerful lesson for us in today’s world! In this time of hate and discrimination disguised as religious freedom, in this time of anti-Muslim vitriol, God’s speaking isn’t limited to us – to Christians, to evangelical Christians, to Americans.

In Ezra’s day, God proved that God is not limited to the religion or the followers of the religion revealed in the Judeo-Christian sacred texts. What would have happened if Ezra had taken the position that God could only speak through him, or people like him, or people of his cultural, religious, or national heritage? God’s activity in the world to bring us Jesus, divine activity that we celebrate this Advent season would have been halted in its tracks!

Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.

In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, …10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord,

In the second year, not the first, not immediately. Later. After a time for adjustment. Lesson #2: Essentials need tending to immediately. Everything else can wait awhile. Sacrifices burned on the altar from the very beginning; in fact, sacrifices by ones who remained in Jerusalem probably never stopped. But the extras, like maintaining the building that was the Temple itself, could wait. 70 years it waited. And 2 more years it waited. Finally, after folks had established themselves in the new land, the new culture, the new religion, in their homes with their families, then they began work on the structure that was the Temple.

The first thing the returned exiles [did was] rebuild their own lives. They [did] not go straight to the task at hand. This is significant because it implies that God is interested in re-establishing people’s homes before God’s own temple. The priority is not to focus on the bricks and mortar of our faith, but in the re-establishing of right relationships with each other. [Families and the] community come first.

There is always a debate in doing mission work as to whether to fix people’s relationships with each other, with the land, with health or with justice before doing any work reconnecting people with God and faith. This story of Ezra seems to suggest that grounding ourselves in good relationships with each other comes before whatever the task at hand might be.[1]

The future isn’t supposed to be like the past.

The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be. Most of the people who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians had long died. Their children had children. And those children had children. While some of the exiles returning had seen Jerusalem in its last days, the majority of the people returning with Ezra were one or two-generations-removed from the Jerusalem and the Temple they were hoping to rebuild. Most of them had never lived in Jerusalem or sacrificed at the Temple or even seen the house of God they were commissioned to rebuild! It had been 70 years!! In terms of the Exodus story, that’s twice as long as it took the generation whom Moses led out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.

In that 70 years, without access to the Temple or the Altar, the Israelites had become the Jews. New traditions that weren’t in their Bible had developed. New theology and interpretations of Scripture had arisen. Judaism had been conceived. Of course the future was going to be different.

But that didn’t stop some people from grieving a past they couldn’t recreate instead of celebrating the future that they had the chance to birth.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites…with cymbals, …11 and they sang responsively, “For [God] is good, for [God’s] steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

Ones who were grieving their inability to return to the past forgot that rebuilding is never about returning things to exactly the way they were. Rebuilding is about being sure the best of how it was shapes how it will be. And in our text the author says the ability to make that distinction is what separates ‘old people’ from ones who remain ‘young at heart’ forever.

The Jews in Ezra’s day were called to determine what it meant to live into a new future that God was actively creating in their midst. But what that future would look like was only beginning to emerge when the exiles returned, and with mixed results. The former glory of God’s presence and of the temple was lacking in this new iteration of the temple according to some. The new temple, moreover, was to be under the patronage of a foreign ruler (Cyrus), not an autochthonous ruler like Solomon or David. And finally, whereas Solomon’s temple was built while his kingdom was militarily strong (2 Chronicles 1:14-17), the new altar was established while this small band of Jews was still under threat (Ezra 3:3). The future, indeed, would not be the past. What gives continuity to the past, present, and future, however, is the faithfulness of God.

To be vital, to be faithful to the person and work of God, Ezra and the exiles had to see themselves and the events in their lives as God at work in their midst for their day.

Rebuilding is resource-intensive.

Rebuilding is a resource-demanding endeavor. Vv. 2-3 list people as the most important of those resources; v. 4 reminds us that rebuilding takes money and goods. Cyrus’s decree is honest about the investment rebuilding requires:

and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

…everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar …All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

Churches evolve over time. People who are a church mature and die, and join as new members and move away. Children grow up. Pastors leave and pastors arrive. With those events, the ways in which a congregation relates to one another and relates to God evolve too. And every so often a decree comes forth, a door open for a church, in a big way, to be reconsidered, revalued, repurposed, reorganized, revitalized, re-resourced, rebuilt, and yes, sometimes even reposed. Every so often God stirs spirits for a new work. People are called to make choices about how they will, or if they will, participate in the make-over. Choices need to be made with intention and with prayerful discernment about what parts of the past and its traditions are so important they will be carried into the new future, and what parts of the past are ready to be laid to rest in order to realize that new future.  The question, then, is if and how you will be a resource for what God is actively doing among you.

God is at work in people not like me, in nations, cultures, and religions not our own, and in circumstances apart from the expected!

Essentials need immediate tending; everything else can wait awhile.

The future cannot be like the past; it’s not supposed to be.

Rebuilding is a resource-demanding; it takes everything all of us bring to the table.

How are these lessons from Ezra playing out in your life? In the life of your church? How can these lessons empower us to do new ministry that leads people to life-transforming experiences?  Will you be a contributor or a complication to the rebuilding effort? Amen.


[1] Spill the Beans. Issue 17, p. 23



Is Christianity an Albatross?

by Amos Smith

I have heard my peers talk about how Christianity is antiquated. In one video I saw, an author referred to Christianity as an albatross. In other words, it seems to be out-of-step, problematic, and unwieldy. Maybe it has had a great role in history. But how will it fit into the twenty-first century?

When I hear such rumblings, I think of one of my favorite quotations from the Swiss Psychologist, Carl Jung:

“This is not to say that Christianity is finished. I am, on the contrary, convinced that it is not Christianity, but our conception and interpretation of it that has become antiquated in the face of the present world situation. The Christian symbol is a living thing that carries in itself the seeds of further development. It can go on developing; it only depends on us, whether we can make up our minds to meditate again, and more thoroughly, on the Christian premise.” -Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

I think Jung is correct. Christianity is unfinished and it is up to each generation to make it accessible and relevant to our times. Each generation has the responsibility to take this tradition and make it their own. It is true that this is a big challenge given the questions raised by science, the technological age, interfaith dialogue, and environmental degradation.

Yet, Christianity speaks to our highest human endowments, which include intuition and faith. Christianity’s profound premise to that:

  1. God is real
  2. In the fullness of time, out of love for us, God came to us in Jesus to show us the exquisite paths of justice and inclusive compassion.
  3. Each of us is of profound worth to God and we each have a part to play. Our choices matter.

When these truths sink in, individuals and communities experience greater dignity, self-worth, meaning, and purpose.

Serenity and Happiness

by Don Fausel

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

This well-known prayer expresses some guiding principles for our living a happy life here and forever, as the last four lines of the prayer proposes. Although there has been some controversy about whether the theologian-philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who perhaps was the greatest political-philosophy of the 20th century, was the original author of the prayer, those concerns have been settled. It’s not because it was adopted by the worldwide Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs, but by years of disciplined research. If you’re interested in learning more about how the controversy was solved, I suggest reading a four page article by Fred R. Shapiro titled Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer.

I was aware of The Serenity Prayer from several friends who were going to Twelve Step Programs, but It was sometime in the late 1970s that I really took the prayer seriously. To my surprise, one of my stepsons who was in his early teens became addicted to drugs. First he was abusing alcohol, then marijuana, and he soon “hit bottom” as they say in addiction programs.  It was at that point when my stepson started his recovery in AA that I started to go to Codependents Anonymous a “…fellowship of relatives and friends of the addict and is composed of non-professionals, self-supporting, self-help groups.” From that point on, The Serenity Prayer became one of my everyday prayers.

Like all 12 Step Program meetings, they either start or end with the Serenity Prayer, and sometimes the group leader or one of members would “breakdown” each word of the first part of the prayer. In preparing this blog, I looked through some of my dusty files and found a handout written by hand that I vaguely remembered. I have no idea who wrote it, so I can’t provide the author’s name. It would have been one person’s interpretation of the prayer, and not necessarily something everyone agreed with, but the group would acknowledge the individual’s thoughtfulness. The meetings are about sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences. Here’s the example:

GOD—By saying this word I am admitting the existence of a Higher Power; a being greater then I.

GRANT—With the repeating of this second word I am admitting that his Higher Power is an authority who can bestow and give.

ME—I am asking something for myself. The Bible states that if I ask, I shall be given. It is not wrong to ask for betterment of myself for the improvement of my character, people around me will be happier.

THE SERENITY—I am asking for calmness, composure, and peace in life which will enable me to think straight and govern myself properly.

TO ACCEPT—I am resigning myself to conditions as they are right now.

THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE—I am accepting my lot in life as it is. Until I have the courage to change any part of my life, I must accept it and not accept it grudgingly.

COURAGE—I am asking for conditions to be different.

TO CHANGE—I am asking for help to make the right decisions. Everything is not perfect in my life. I must continue to face reality and constantly work towards continued growth and progress.

WISDOM—I am asking for the ability to form sound judgments in any and all matters.

TO KNOW—not just to guess or hope.

THE DIFFERENCE—I want to see things differently in my life so there can be some distinction. I need to sense a definite value in love over selfishness.

If you want to learn more about Codependence, here is a website titled A How To  Guide to Recover from Codependency it starts off by giving the three C’s of recovery:  

You didn’t Cause your loved one’s addiction.
You can’t Control it.
You can’t Cure it. (Believe me; I learned that the hard way.)

Guidelines for Finding Happiness and Serenity

Here are just a few suggestions for connecting Serenity with Happiness. The first one is the The Spiritual Serenity Series: 7 Steps to Inner Peace and Happiness . This is an eight-page article by Jared Akers. He breaks the process into seven steps:   1. Awareness  2. Acceptance  3. Identification  4. Self-Searching  5. Confession  6. Action  7. Maintenance. What I liked about Akers’s approach is that he has gone through all of the seven steps himself, and passes it on to anyone who thinks it’s might be helpful.

Perhaps you’ve read this article. It was the feature article and on the cover of Time Magazine in July 08, 2013.  The title was The Pursuit of Happiness and the sub-title, Why Americans are Wired to Be Happy—and What That’s Doing to Us.  If you only read what’s on the cover of the magazine, it’s worth checking it out.

Here’s one of my favorite TED TALKS on the future of our nation’s happiness:  The title of Nic Marks’ TALK is The Happy Planet Index. As the blurb reads, “Nic Marks gathers evidence about what makes us happy, and uses it to promote policy that puts the well-being of people and the planet first. He is the founder of the Centre for Well-Being at the UK think tank New Economics Foundation (NEF).” His premise is that rather than having our Gross National Product measure everything, accept what makes life worthwhile: happiness.