Communion and My Transgender Experience

by Joe Nutini

A note from the Southwest Conference: This is edgier than our usual posts. It graphically describes an authentic spiritual experience. If that’s not for you, we will see you next time. But didn’t want you to be caught off guard.

 

I knelt down on the red wooden kneeler before the priest. His well adorned robe flowed gently over the railing separating us. He held the body of Christ in his hands. This was a sacred duty. We were to be subservient to the lord who had reportedly sacrificed himself for us. I did not share this story. For me, even as a young teen, the Eucharist was much more than that. I knelt because the cells of my body knew that there was something special, something mystical about the transubstantiation that took place in the communion ceremony. I did not kneel for the priest, I knelt for the mystic Christ who transcended all boundaries.

When the Eucharist touched my tongue, I often had an almost erotic experience. His body, his miracle touching me physically…this was something tangible. I could eat the in-between space that the risen Christ occupied. I felt it in my cells just as I felt my most recent first orgasm. I often experienced signs and visions that I now understand to be communications with the spirit world. When I took communion I did not feel so alien in my body. For a moment, though my gender and physicality did not fit quite right, I was able to overcome this painful conundrum.

Now here we are many years later. I started transitioning about 13 years ago. In that time I have become much more interfaith in my spirituality. I believe in variety of things, many of which could be termed new age.  I practice Buddhism as a way of life. Today I see most religions and spiritual practices as being a part of a large interconnected web. We are experiencing this web in both this world and in the metaphysical plane. My transgender experience has allowed me to see this more clearly and to feel it viscerally. There are no borders or barriers between this world and the next. Just like there are none when it comes to gender. There is only fluidity and change…there is only sacred and mystical blending, bonding, separating, transmuting and impermanence.

Thought I look much more like a man outwardly, I still consider myself a transman.  I am more on the masculine side of the spectrum. Yet, like my experience of Jesus in the Eucharist, I move through the fluidity of gender. There is a flow in my body. An existing in two spaces simultaneously.

There is a certain dharma to my transgender existence. I do not know what it means to be a cisgender man because I was not born one. That is my experience of being a transman. It certainly isn’t everyone’s experience. But for me, the lesson is to be able to occupy a space with which I resonate, even if it does not fit the boxes that society has created. In the 13 years that I have engaged in physical transition, I have not once said I was a man trapped in a woman’s body. I never had that story. I don’t feel a need to have the story to justify the physical changes I’ve made. It is simply what needed to be done. When the time came I knew and felt that it was right. This is a spiritual practice of trusting one’s own intuition and internal guidance system.

I often think back to the days when I was young and practicing Catholicism. The same catholic church that later threatened to excommunicate me if I came out as queer, provided the mystical experiences I needed to fully grow into myself as a transgender person. My body, like Christ’s risen body, occupies a mystical space. It is a physical manifestation of what Buddhists call impermanence. I think we all exist in this state. A state of in-between. A state of a body, a person, a mind, a heart and a soul in flux. I believe transgender people are here to be visible manifestations of this concept. I also believe we are here to help cisgender people move away from the rigidity of gender roles and into a more relaxed way of being.

Tips for Interacting with Newer Humans, in Your Congregation and in Their Natural Habitats

by Karen Richter

My feminism became much more real when my daughter was born. She’s a native Georgian (with the double name to prove it), born where dressing and grooming your girl child is an expensive and full-time hobby. I was known for being a somewhat relaxed parent (maybe even a slacker), so I got this helpful advice from a friend,

“Oh for gosh sakes, don’t bring her to church with her diaper showing.”

There are, you see, cute, preferably monogrammed, little lace bloomers that one purchases to cover diapers when Baby Girl is wearing a dress.

Gigantic bows and lacy bloomers are not part of family culture in Arizona, for the most part. But it still seems that folks don’t always know how to interact with children in respectful, non-gendered ways. And we so want to make children and families feel welcome in our faith communities! Here are some things to try with young humans in your congregation.

  1. Recognize that children have moods just like adults. I have been in faith communities where the children’s behavior is seen as a direct reflection of the parents’ character. It was not fun. Accept that children don’t always welcome interaction with adults they don’t know well. Smile, and move on. It may be that we can learn something from kids who don’t hide their cranky moods, even at church. They are being real – you can do it too.
  2. Physical touch needs consent. When you see a child upset or sad, ask, “Would a hug or a back pat help?” For happy kiddos, you can say, “Are we fist-bumping today?” This can feel a little awkward at first. Practice… and know that you are doing a small part of changing our culture around consent and body autonomy! Plus it’s good for Safe Church culture. New families and parents visiting for the first time may be wary of adults who seem overly familiar with their children. When safe adults model consent, it makes unhealthy adult behaviors more obviously out-of-the-ordinary and protects all children.
  3. Strive for gender-neutrality. OMGoodness this can be hard! I’ve observed that adults most often make comments to little girls on their appearance and comments about ANYTHING ELSE to little boys! Discipline your reactions; respond mindfully and intentionally. Here are some conversation starters you might try…
    • How are you today? (It’s a classic!)
    • Is there something you’re looking forward to this week?
    • I saw a bunny/lizard/fast car on my way to church this morning! Did you see anything cool?
    • We are singing ‘Blahblahblah’ this morning… it’s my favorite! Do you have a favorite church song?
    • Replace “Boys and Girls” as your default way of addressing a group of children! Try Young Ones, Friends, Beloveds, Children of God… Be creative and find what feels natural for you.
  4. Learn kids’ names and help them learn yours. It feels good to be known by name. Decide how you would prefer to be called by children: Mrs. Smith or Ms. Sally… Mr. Johnson or Bill. Parents may feel uncomfortable with family titles like Grandpa Joe.

Are you cringing, thinking about that sweet kid just the other week whose sparkly shoes and hairbow you complimented? Or are you annoyed… seeing my suggestions as political correctness run amok? I recognize that our culture doesn’t encourage open-minded open-hearted ways of communicating with young humans. It’s a place where we can grow and learn – because there’s never a time in which children don’t deserve our best efforts. We must find ways of talking with one another – at all ages – that are true to the values of inclusion, respect, and inherent human dignity.

Let’s keep talking!

The Antidote

by Abigail Conley

“You two are the reason Amazon is working on drones,” he says, laughing. His wife and I nod in agreement. For the most part, we’ve given up scouring stores and instead scour the Internet. She sticks to Amazon Prime. I prefer PrimeNow, but use it only when I have free credits. I do have a budget after all. I keep a few PrimePantry credits on hand. Occasionally, I’ll opt into slower shipping for the digital download credit. My love of free stuff and my desire to have things right away are often at odds.

I’m an old millennial who has no interest in SnapChat. I do summon Uber and Lyft if I need a ride, though. My food is ordered on GrubHub, available in Phoenix before Seamless was. Postmates is the backup plan if I want something else. The cat’s food and litter are delivered courtesy of Chewy. At work, I often give up on trying to use the landline and pick up my cellphone instead.

The world, it seems, is literally at my fingertips. For the most part, I no longer run to Target for something; a few clicks mean it shows up at my doorstep in a couple hours or a couple days. Scheduling flights, hotels, just about anything, is just as easy. Many baby boomers marvel at this world. “We need…” they’ll say in a church meeting. “It’ll be here on Wednesday,” is my response. I catch myself being frustrated if something isn’t available for digital download or will take longer than two days to arrive.

Once, I remember a conversation with a baby boomer pastor, as I complained about ordering something. “You have to pay for resources like that,” she said. The fight I wasn’t willing to have, “But it should be available for instant download. I can’t wait a week for it.” In that case, it was true; a week later would be too late.

I readily confess that Christian faith means playing the long game. I have no idea what that means in the world I live in. I mean, I no longer have the patience for commercials, much less the glacial turns of history. This year, as the Revised Common Lectionary follows Matthew, I’ve been especially aware of Matthew’s obsession with quoting prophets. He appeals to something ancient to prove the validity of the experience of Christ.

“Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,/And they will call him, ‘Emmanuel.’” Matthew 1:23 & Isaiah 7:14

“You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,/because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.” Matthew 2 & Micah 5:2

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew 2:15& Hosea 1:1

The list goes on and on, throughout Matthew, as the Gospel writer calls forth ancient voices to cry out with the people in his world, “See what God is doing!”

Not quite two thousand years later, I have people reading Matthew, shouting, “If this is the promise, why hasn’t God done it yet?” My initial tendency is to join their anger. Why is there still so much pain? Why is there still so much violence? Why? Why? Why? The response that comes from somewhere beyond me is, “It’s coming.”

I feel the weariness of waiting some Sunday mornings, when I head to worship for what seems like one in countless times. The truth is, I probably haven’t even hit two thousand worship services, yet. The truth is, the people I encounter in that place create an organism—dare I say the Body of Christ?—that is both timeless and formed at a single moment in time.

In the best, Spirit-breathed moments, I wonder if this thing called Church is the antidote I don’t know I need. Like most medicine, it’s not always pleasant.

Still, it is Church that bids me to ask for a ride from a friend, not summon a stranger who is part of the 1099, no benefits economy. It is Church that bids me to come, to eat, with people, not from a take-out container in front of the TV. The young adults who care for my cat when I’m out of town are from Church, too. It is Church that has taught me to pick up the phone, not just send a text; tone is not so nearly misconstrued over the phone. It is Church that calls me into a way of being that is so different from what I would choose on my own.

It is Church, this antidote, that also says, “Wait! Listen!” and calls out anew even in the midst of ancient voices.

And so, I lay down my phone, and hope.

Prayers for Annual Meeting

by Karen Richter

Good day, SWC friends! It’s Annual Meeting time! Like many of you, I am full-up with travel plans, budgets and resolutions, to-do lists, and tiny bottles of hair products. Instead of the “usual” blog article for this first Monday of May, I’d like to share with you my prayers for our gathering in Albuquerque.

Spirit of Life; Spirit of Love – we ask that you cover our Annual Meeting with good gifts:

  • That a spirit of prayer mark all parts of our time together.
  • That volunteers for the hosting congregations have a good experience and feel appreciated.
  • That delegates and guests are welcomed with hospitality.
  • That all persons speaking in the plenary sessions and workshops feel heard and valued.
  • That relationships with one another and with You are renewed, deepened or begun afresh.
  • That we might more fully cherish our covenants with one another.
  • That each person present listens gracefully to the voices around them, especially when there’s disagreement.
  • That we grasp opportunities for celebration and connection.
  • That our inaugural anti-racism training goes smoothly and that lay and clergy participants and participant/facilitators are energized and inspired to further reflection and to work in counter-oppression movements.
  • That travel is a safe and enriching time for those who are coming to Albuquerque by car or plane.
  • That each person attending leaves with a sense of renewal and centeredness around their calling in the United Church of Christ’s setting in the Southwest Conference.
  • That we each travel home safely with energy to work alongside God and our brothers and sisters to further our mission and vision in the world!

Spirit whose name is mercy, hear our prayer! Amen.

Christ on the Cushion

by Joe Nutini

When I was a child, my parents sent me to Catholic schools. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I received a wonderful, college preparatory education that did indeed prepare me to go to college. I loved college.  I also loved Christ. Like seriously. I was in love with Christ. From the time, I was quite young, I felt the energy of Christ deep within my heart. It was instantaneous. It didn’t require any understanding of doctrine, bible etc. It was just there.

I became a social worker. My education and the love that was in my heart because of knowing the energy of Christ (and perhaps even angels and other “heavenly” beings) led me to that path. Buddhism increased my awareness of Christ. It brought me back to Christ’s energy and love. It also brought me back to myself, to my own heart and to forgiveness.

That’s where I am right now. To get there, though, was quite the journey. The curse of being in the Catholic school, was that as I got older, conservative and literalist doctrine began to enter my soul as a poison. I will add this caveat before I continue. I understand that for some people, conservative and literalist doctrine and biblical interpretation is what “Saves” them. That wasn’t my experience. Though I respect that it is for some.

When I was quite young, I also remembered feeling like I should have been born a boy. I literally thought that my body would look like my fathers and not my mothers. Somewhere in early childhood, I also learned not to say that I felt like a boy. I just knew it was a “Sin” per the powers that be. Just like I knew that two men kissing was supposed to be “sinful”. I kept it to myself. A secret. Mom and Dad told me I was a girl, so I decided to be one.

As time went on, I became a pro at religion class. I always had an A in that class. I was fascinated by it because I had intrinsically known spirit since the time I was young. I wanted people to explain things to me. I wanted to try to understand what was happening. Sometimes, I would argue or debate with the teacher. I didn’t believe all the stories. I didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were the only humans and they populated the earth. I didn’t necessarily believe that Jesus had to die on a cross. It just didn’t really fit for me. And so, I wanted to learn more. To see what I was missing.

I received confirmation when I “came of age” as a teenager. I believed in Christ and what I felt was a certain spirituality to the universe. I also didn’t want to go to hell, if I’m being honest. Back then I wasn’t sure if there was a hell or not but the adults kept saying there was. I wanted to do the right thing by this energy that was with me through all the troubles that I felt. I wanted to make Christ happy. I did what the church told me to do. It was a beautiful ceremony and we had a party.

At this time, I also became aware of my queer (at that time we said bisexual) feelings. I had been in puberty early and it felt like torture. I didn’t understand why my body was betraying my spirit and mind. I kept it to myself. I prayed for these feelings to go away. It was a sin. The more I did this, the further and further away Christ felt. That energy, that love, that guiding force in my life started to slip away. In hindsight, I realized I had been betraying myself. When I was 13-14, I didn’t know better.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I wrote a feature edition of our school paper on LGBTQ youth. The religion teachers let us give a survey out on sexuality and gender identity. Right before we were going to print, I was called to the “brothers’” offices. They basically said that, “this issue doesn’t exist here.” They meant that there were no LGBTQ people. I told them that wasn’t true. That I was bisexual. IT just fell out of my mouth. It was the most freeing thing in the world. I felt my heart fill with that energy and love again, for a moment. I was told that I was confused, wrong and that if I engaged in “homosexual acts” I could be excommunicated from the church.

It felt like poison. Every fiber of my being rejected their words. I decided to no longer be Catholic.

In college, I began reading about every religion and spiritual belief that I could find. That included new age spirituality and Buddhism. I wanted to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that the God they taught me about in school was the same God who created me. Absolutely not. I figured that maybe I was wrong. That there was no Christ energy or holy spirit. So, I studied, I attended various religious and spiritual services and I began meditation.

During those years, I was a mess until I began transitioning. Even after coming out as queer, I still felt so distant from that love I had known as a child and young teen. It felt miles away. Something that was unattainable. When I came out, it felt slightly closer. When I transitioned, my life changed. I meditated and chanted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I attended healing arts school where this was solidified. I was invited into some native American spaces to learn their teachings.

Yet something was still missing. I could feel that I was in touch with the love of the universe again. And yet, that Christ energy was missing. It felt like an emptiness. So, I began exploring Christianity once more. I spoke with literalists who debated with me, stating that I didn’t understand the scripture or bible. So, I studied it with them, pointing out linguistic differences from my studies in college, debating meaning and syntax. I hung out with Unity and Unitarian Universalists who helped me understand and heal from some of my experiences. I met people from the United Church of Christ who explained their understanding of Christ. I met liberation theologians who, like the UUs and UCC folks, made the most sense to me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

And then I found Shambhala Buddhism. I read the book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa, the person who brought this form of Buddhism to the US. He was literally saying everything that I had thought and felt for many years. I viewed a talk about “Jesus as Bodhisattva”, a concept that I had read about before but didn’t quite understand as well before.

So, I decided to take Shambhala classes. I distinctly remember sitting in the first class. We meditated for hours. I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was I who had been blocking myself from fully feeling the world. I had internalized these poisonous messages that I had heard for a good portion of my life.

I breathed in, when I breathed out, I found Christ again. It was a distinct feeling, so hard to describe. Like putting the last piece into a puzzle and being on fire at the same time. The intensity of it lasted for a moment then dissipated. A chunk of the poison left me and in its place, was this gentle love. A love that came from both within me and outside of me.

Today, I continue to work on undoing these teachings that kept me so far away from this Universal love, the love of Christ, and the love or Buddha nature within. I personally believe these are also complexly intertwined and simultaneously always available to me. I still learning, debating, meditating, praying and learning. I often wonder if these things happened for a reason…a journey to build empathy, love and relationship with others.

The Story of the Ashes

by Abigail Conley

I confess, I’m struggling with the idea of Lent this year. It’s likely the onslaught of news right now, from deportations to Jewish cemeteries desecrated. My early morning ritual of reading the news is no longer a pleasant way to wake up. If I’m completely honest, though, that’s why I need the ashes.

On Ash Wednesday, if I’m preaching, I tell the story of the ashes. Fresh palm leaves, dried palm leaves, and ashes are placed in a box. Kids are invited to come stand at the front so they can see, too.

It’s a terrible story and it’s a beautiful story, this story of the ashes. I’m sure you know it: the leaves were once green and beautiful, used to welcome the future king. We used them on Palm Sunday, shouting out, “Hosanna!” By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, the leaves are faded, dry, brittle, and long past the time to be thrown out. In fact, one year, the landscapers did throw mine out before they could be burnt. Assuming the palms survive the landscapers, they are, indeed, burned just as trash is (or used to be). We put trash on our bodies to remind us of our mortality, and as a sign of repentance.

Yeah, the story I tell in worship is a bit more elaborate, but you get the gist. I reread what I use in worship to tell the Story of the Palms. The story’s simplicity and profundity get me every time. This year, though, a few lines that I wrote several years ago now hit especially hard: “But, God told Joel, as bad as this all is, it’s not too late. Come back to me—repent, is usually what we say. Repent, God says; you can always come back to me.”

It’s God’s truth, not mine. It’s God’s truth, “You can always come back.”

The hope in that truth remains deeper than any other I carry; it’s a truth we don’t experience in human relationships. I could sing a country song about “when you leave that way you can never go back,” but that would reveal more about my misused brain space than anything else. I do remember a children’s sermon by a lay leader in the church I was serving at the time. She took a hammer, some nails, and a piece of lumber. She talked about the things we do to hurt each other. With each thing she named, she hammered a nail into the wood.

Then, she talked about forgiveness, and pulled the nails out one by one. Of course, the holes were still there. Of course, even with forgiveness, the scars are still there.

Some days, I am so aware of the scars. Some of them I caused. Some of them I didn’t. All of them might end up a little more tender, a little less healed, than I thought they were.

There are scars from the break-up with the person I later ended up marrying. There are scars from the girl who commented on the size of my butt in high school. There are scars from the man who hit on me while his wife and baby were sleeping in a nearby room. There are scars from neglecting to give a woman food as she sat in my office crying about her poverty; I had forgotten there were bags of food for the food bank just outside the door.

How long could we sit and name our scars?

No matter how well adjusted we become, no matter how many hours of therapy we participate in, the scars remain. Maybe, in our human relationships, we have a few places we can always return to, but they’re not the same. Often, they’re not as good as we remember. It’s a lot like sleeping in your childhood bedroom when visiting over Christmas; the return isn’t as sweet as you hoped. In our broken humanity, we can never fully reclaim what we lost.

A deep hope remains: God gets it right. The tenderness of the scars disappears. The pain caused by what was broken dissipates. This forgiveness is deeper reaching, more thorough than we ever experience from each other.

That is the story of the palms: our lives are caught up in God, from beginning to end. And we can always return to God—no exceptions.

Helpful or Not?

by Karen Richter

I’ve been mulling over the words sacred and secular lately. Just yesterday a member of my congregation described themselves as “a pretty secular person.” I’m sure I blinked, eyes wide because I have zero poker face skills. How could this person – no matter what theology or philosophy – who I have experienced as chock-full of passion and integrity, be secular? And now that I think about it, how could a person whose faith compels them to act in ways contrary to justice, compassion, and peace be sacred?

What do these words even mean? Is the distinction helpful any longer, if it ever was?

In high school choir, we sang sacred music.  Just a side note, because surely you were wondering, my favorite piece was John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth.

We also sang secular music. Here’s one I remember that you probably recall as well.

Why is a song about connection and longing and common humanity labeled secular just because God isn’t mentioned? And surely, if we thought about it, we could think of religious songs that are so soaked in nationalism, exclusivism, and fear that the word God sours in our mouths as we sing.

I’m always suspicious about either/or choices, and the sacred or secular choice is no different. Questions worth asking always have more than two potential answers!

In this holiday season, we so often get pulled into irrelevant discussions about what is appropriate as part of our Christmas celebration and what isn’t. Mistletoe and holly, yule logs, decorated trees, candles… these treasured traditions all originated in pagan winter celebrations. Contemporary questions abound as well… Santa during church events? Starbucks cups? Church on Christmas day?  How do we choose what to affirm and what to discard? What goes and what stays?

It all stays. It all belongs. If incarnation means anything at all, it means that the false dichotomy of sacred and secular is revealed as illusion, forever broken down, shattered completely, and re-formed as part of a blessed whole.

You belong too! Merry Christmas and peace in 2017!

The Three Most Revolutionary Words in the Gospel

by Amos Smith

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. -Galatians 3:28

This verse from Galatians is what made the early church profound – what made it spread like wildfire. In the highly stratified society of Jesus’ time no one could believe that different classes, genders, and ethnicities sung, prayed, and broke bread together. This was unheard of.

In Jesus’ time “acceptable company” was defined very narrowly. For example, it was taboo for a Rabbi to associate with women, Samaritans, or ritually unclean people, among others.

The early church drop-kicked all the purity codes. They learned this audacious behavior from Jesus who “touched the leper” (Matthew 8:3). In my estimation, those are the three most revolutionary words of the Gospel. In Jesus’ time no one ever looked at a leper, much less considered touching one. When lepers came around most people ran, and some pelted them with stones. So for Jesus to “touch the leper” was radical.

Contemporary Christian author Brian Zhand writes “Jesus was trying to lead humanity into the deep truth that there is no ‘them,’ there is only us.”

Most people would say, “Okay I can accept this statement, but there are obvious exceptions, like lepers.” Jesus shattered this exceptionalism of the liberal Jews of his time when he fearlessly touched the loathsome leper. The liberal Jews wanted to minimize factions and to broaden boundary lines of acceptability. Yet, the leper blew away all categories and was out of bounds.

When we experience factions, superiority complexes, power struggles, purity codes, and sibling rivalries, we are mired in the human condition, otherwise known as original sin. If, on the other hand, we stretch the comfort zone and reach out to people on the margins of society, as Jesus did in his time, we edge toward the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, as envisioned by Jesus, stretched comfort zones, even to the point of touching the untouchable.

Someone might have a valid claim to superiority because of nationality, IQ, class, et cetera. Yet, from the perspective of the Gospel, any advantage we may have, should be used to serve the less fortunate. We may possess legitimate authority and power. Yet, according to Jesus, that power is best utilized in service to our neighbors. In other words, the best leaders are servant leaders (Matthew 20:25-28).

The grace the early Christians experienced in their own lives through the radically inclusive love of Jesus they extended to others, not just to their own clan, class, or religious group. The early Christians saw the beauty and God-given worth of each and every person. This made the early Christians extraordinary.

Discrimination against minorities is becoming more common in the United States today. Whenever a minority is discriminated against in America, even a leper, we are called to resist in Jesus’ name.

Discernment as a Visioning Tool

by Teresa Blythe

Many churches and faith based organizations do good work in the present but have difficulty catching a vision for the next chapter in life, be that the next three months or the next three years. Change takes them by surprise, the congregation or group’s anxiety ratchets up, and fear about the future begins to drive decision-making. It feels like a crisis, but is actually an opportunity to rediscover the spiritual practice of discernment.

What Usually Happens

When the crisis-of-change hits, the church or organization sometimes rushes to hire a business consultant for strategic planning only to find the business approach doesn’t quite fit for a group that is—at its core—a faithful gathering of volunteers who want and need to know how to participate in what God is already doing in their midst.

Communities of faith don’t work like businesses, and rarely even work like traditional non-profits.

For visioning in faith communities, I recommend a spiritual director experienced in communal discernment — a guided process involving a group making decisions as one body rather than a group of individuals with strongly held opinions about the future. Faith communities have a lot of experience with the latter! It’s the usual mode for their boards–everyone puts their ideas on the table, pushes for their solutions and then votes so that “winner takes all.”

 What is Discernment?

Time-honored principles of discernment help us catch God’s vision. We’re talking about a vision broad enough to allow the community to be agile and move through change with relative ease while also being clear enough to be helpful.

Simply put, discernment is faithful choices. It always centers around a question facing your organization or church. Usually, it is something like, “Where is God leading us in the coming days?”

For that you need a process:

  • Steeped in prayer and contemplative reflection.
  • One that considers as much data and information about your history, your present condition and the gifts within your organization,
  • Weighs the pros and cons,
  • Listens to the deep desires and intuition of the group, and
  • Honors the mystical notion of “call” – What do we, at our deepest core as an organization, believe God is inviting us to be or do? The Spirit uses prayer and discernment to ignite the vision.

 Process Matters

The discernment process is ideally designed to help you unearth what God is up to in your corner of the world because you want your vision to be in alignment with God’s activity. If you are not clear about what alignment feels like, look at how much energy your organization has for the work it is now doing. If energy is flagging, you probably are not in alignment with what God is already doing and you need some time and reflection on how to recalibrate.

To be honest, this work will be more ambiguous than the standard business practice of strategic planning.

Visioning through discernment involves living with the mystery of not knowing what the outcome will be. A willingness to be surprised at where the community goes as it discerns together is imperative.

Although discernment involves mystery, it is also grounded and concrete, designed to move you through to a conclusion. It is neither “woo-woo” magic nor is it a road to pinpointing, with certainty, the “perfect will of God.” It’s simply your work—it’s how you get to know God better by praying, listening to the still small voice within, listening to others’ experiences and questions and paying attention to intuition.

One of the beauties of this process is that when you gather your visioning group, you will have tasks that everyone can relate to in one way or another. Your artists and prayer warriors will be delighted with the amount of time spent intentionally connecting with God. Your engineers, accountants and business-minded people will feel comfortable with the practical aspects. You will have gathered many different types of intelligence and will have used a variety of spiritual and practical tools to reach unity.

Why bring in an outsider?

Anyone can initiate visioning through discernment, however a spiritual director trained in discernment would make an excellent guide. Spiritual directors have studied discernment processes and worked with people and groups in discernment over time.

Spiritual directors stay out of the way of your work. We have no agenda other than to guide you through the process. When stuck, we encourage you. When sidetracked, we redirect. There may be times in the process where you feel “in the weeds” and nowhere near a vision. The spiritual director’s job is to trust and know that God is faithful. You will get there!

Once you feel unity around a vision, you will develop a short statement that can serve as a guidepost for all the projects, programs and efforts you keep; those you release; and any activity you consider in the future. An example comes from the gospels. “We are fishers of people” would be the disciples’ vision statement and “We follow Jesus” would be their mission.

Much like that example, an image may accompany the short vision statement (a net of fish!). This statement and image becomes a benchmark for all you do as you go forward. You have the tools to determine if proposed programs really fit with the vision, asking, “Are we being faithful to the vision here?” (“Is this what fishers of people do?”)

Your vision statement and image are the groundwork for determining your mission statement–what you do in the world right now–and for any longer statements you may create about your life together, things like organizational profiles, search and call documents, and marketing materials.

 Long term benefits

Visioning through discernment has benefits even after the process is complete.

Participating in the process helps individuals learn how to use discernment in their daily lives. They will likely find their relationship with God deepens as a result of doing this communal spiritual work.

The faith community learns what it is like to transform business into an opportunity to live out the faith more intentionally. Once an organization learns how to look at an important question from many different angles and spends time with it in ways they may not have considered before, there is no more “business as usual.”

Discernment will be the only way you will want to work from that point on.

 Learn more about it

To learn more about visioning through discernment, a process I use with organizations, contact me at teresa@teresablythe.net. In fact, if you are interested in any aspect of spiritual direction, I’d like to help.

Visit www.teresablythe.net or the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction for more information.

Advent in Iraq: An Experience in the Unfiltered Wonder of God

by Owen Chandler

Beloved Saguaro Christian Church,

Greetings! I pray that these words find you well. I continue to lift you in prayer each day, trusting that the power of God’s love, which keeps us connected, rests peacefully within you. For the most part, I am fine. Mercifully, the days pass quickly as we begin the preparations to hand off this mission soon. It turns out that being deployed during the holidays is unideal. Who knew?!? The Army made it look so quaint on the brochure.

Luckily, the mail keeps a steady traffic of support coming into our offices. I wanted to express my gratitude for the two enormous boxes of goodies and the Advent Wreath. It was a huge hit. The irony is that we have all worked so hard to lose weight and get into shape on this deployment. Many of us are risking gaining that weight back eating our holiday feelings with all the stuff coming in the mail. I have started working out twice a day so that I can eat the good stuff with no guilt. There is no way I am going to pass on Christmas cookies.

The Advent Wreath is beautiful. Most of the people who come to our chapel program are part of religious traditions that don’t utilize this worship practice. I must have had twenty questions about it the first week. After so many conversations, I didn’t know what they would think of it. They love it, however. We run stripped-down and simplified services in Iraq, but when I introduce some traditional elements, I have been surprised by how welcomed the practices were. It will be interesting to see if any of these soldiers try to introduce an Advent Wreath into their churches back home.

I will miss the sanctuary of Saguaro CC this Christmas. It is my favorite time of year to worship with you. I tried to recreate some of that ambiance here, but I literally blew up the Christmas tree. It was a pre-lit tree and I forgot to check the wattage requirements. You would have thought that I learned my lesson with the coffee pot from back in June. There are so many things I wish they had taught me in Seminary. I have now added basic electrician skills to that list.

I pray that these next weeks are a true blessing. It is peculiar to lead soldiers during these days as they are conducting the operations of war. There is not a lot of gloss here. This is definitely not a Hallmark setting. In some ways, it has led me to consider Advent anew, free from the presents, parties, and general consumer saturation of the holiday. In the sparseness of this place, I find myself preaching the following theme: Advent is an experience in the unfiltered wonder of God. Within that journey, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace, for out of the brokenness of the world’s despondence the promise of God’s peace is born. It is not the jolliest of sermon series, but there is part of me that thinks it is probably closer to the truth of that historical reality many years ago. Don’t feel too sorry for my chapel goers; I make it up to them by singing Christmas songs instead of Advent songs. It is a little trick I picked up from [our music staff,] Keith Koster and Jeff Myrmo!

I hope to write you one more letter before I leave. If I am not able to do so, then I say with all my heart: Merry Christmas.

Peace,

Owen Chandler

Owen Chandler