One Big Idea

(reprinted with permission from a Facebook post by Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World)

Ten years ago, in Christianity for the Rest of Us, I shared a vision of institutional church renewed by vibrant spirituality. That vision emerged from three sources: 1) my own experience, 2) dreaming of a different sort of church, and 3) solid research.

Community renewed by vibrant spirituality. That’s the dream. That’s the big idea. An old idea. But an idea that needs new life today when institutions and communities are struggling and can’t find their way.

It is really pretty simple. Christianity for the Rest of Us was about spirituality embodied in practices — ten beautiful practices of faith. Communities that found new heart by choosing to do good.

People’s History of Christianity was about the same thing — the life of institutions being renewed through vibrant spirituality — this time, it was about the life-giving power of those practices throughout history as the real “thread” of faith, a living tradition. The heartbeat of Christianity at its best.

Christianity After Religion argued that the future depends on us getting this right — that spiritual experience and touching the holy is not only a path to renewing the church but is part of a larger story about the renewing of our culture — an awakening.

And Grounded opens the door to spiritual experience,”storied” by religious traditions, as a path to full humanity and renewal of the earth.

That’s it. One big idea: the whole point is experiencing the power of the sacred, of trusting and following the Spirit as it moves toward love of God and neighbor. Of eyes open, awake to love and joy, hearts “strangely warmed.” And if we do this, we can get across the dangerous chasm of our times and find ourselves on the other side of a bridge — the side where there is more love for the earth, more love for each other, a kind of community that can be accepting and peaceable. We can set a bigger table for the future. It is real.

One idea.

One idea that has called my heart since I was a child. One idea shared in speech and story. But not my idea. It is OUR idea. For so many thousands and thousands and thousands of us know this idea in our bones, we’ve ached for it, prayed for it, worked for it. One idea of justice and grace and goodness in a renewed way in transformed community.

And we can measure our progress. Not by attendance, but by measuring the spread of the conversation, by tracking things like spiritual depth, gratitude, awareness of awe and wonder, and our understandings of meaning and purpose of our lives (for instance, Pew “measures” these things in polling). We can figure out if we are successful by framing the questions differently, by looking for alternative forms of “success” and transformation. We can do this — there are ways of introducing these ideas into communities and congregations and discerning the changes in people’s lives.

And it is lovely. It is a way full of stories, laughter, unexpected surprises, everyday heroes, tragic mistakes — it is like living the play we are writing — everyday enacting grace in the world’s theater. It is magic. It is the greatest drama, comedy, farce, thriller, ballad, and romance ever.

And it is hope. Hope, hope, hope.

Do NOT give up. The current ugliness is because the greater vision beckons, the new possibilities are closer than ever. A more hospitable world, a more just humanity. It isn’t about fixing the church. It is about renewing our life together — and our life with the planet — by experiencing God with us.

Cherish

by Karen MacDonald

One of my spiritual practices (the one I manage to engage in regularly) is to take a moment five times a day, stop what I’m doing, and breathe a prayer aligned with the time of day, opening my attention to Spirit.  So in the morning when I get out of bed, I stop the indoor morning chores that I usually step right into (Tucker the cat’s insistent yammering for food, sometimes at 4:30 a.m., is hard to ignore), and step outside.  Whatever my wake-up mood (if it is indeed 4:30 a.m. by Tucker’s alarm clock, the mood is likely surly), being outside in the waking day lightens my heart.  The sky shows hints of dawn, a curve-billed thrasher whistles a loud good-morning, the air is fresh.

This morning during my patio prayer, I realized anew….I’m in love with Earth and All My Relations.  The sky, the sprawling mesquite tree in our front yard, the Santa Catalina Mountains in our north view, the hummingbirds that sip from our feeder by day and the bats that make a sugary mess of our feeder by night, the amazing ants that doggedly build their colonies, the coyotes that occasionally skirt my path during morning neighborhood runs—everything is beautiful, a living show of Life.  All of these are my relations in this web of life.  (Well, mosquitoes are perhaps my least favorite cousins in this Life family.)

Everything and Earth itself are living beings, and we’re all related by virtue of the Spirit of Life that permeates all.  (As well as by virtue of the elements formed in and shared by stars of which we’re formed—we are indeed made of stardust)  All of it is beautiful and vibrant, and I love it.  Creation fills my soul, moves my heart, inspires my mind, embraces my body.  The word that comes up most often in my morning prayer as I greet the morning outside is

Cherish. 

A way we can cherish creation is by “Standing with Saguaros.”   A creative collaboration between Borderlands Theater and Saguaro National Park in Tucson, its purpose is to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service this year.  Act 1 of the project invited people to find out: “If you stood with a saguaro cactus for an hour, what would you discover?”  Some discoveries of saguaro-standers: “It gives you a whole feeling.”  “I felt gratitude.”  “I kept thinking of [the cactus] as my friend.”

(The other two acts of Standing with Saguaros:

Act 2—“The Saguaro Minute” podcast on KXCI Community Radio @ 91.3 FM, kxci.org;

Act 3—Dance/theater performances in Saguaro National Park, November 2016)

If we paid rapt attention to all the beings around us—cacti, ants, sky, birds, mountains, coyotes, people—

What would we discover?

How would our spirits be touched?

Where might the Spirit of Life be revealed?

What would we do differently?

How might we be moved to respect, to protect,

to cherish?

What’s Your Ikigai?

by Don Fausel

It’s never been easy to be a human being! We have always had to wrestle with strong and painful fears. Now if we face ourselves honestly, or if we merely eavesdrop on the secret murmurings of our heart, isn’t this what we discover—that one of our basic fears, the fear beneath many fears is the dread of being nothing, of having no real importance, no lasting worth, no purpose in life.

It is precisely to this fear of being nobody, having no worth, that our Judeo-Christian-Humanitarian ethic reminds us that our basic value is not something we achieve in competition with everyone else, but something we gratefully accept along with everyone else. We need not become important, we are important. We need not become somebody, we are somebody. No matter what others may say or think about us, or do to us, we are somebody.

As we grow older and become less able to function physically or mentally as we did in our younger years, we need to remind ourselves, that we are still somebody, with the same dignity and worth, with the same God-given inalienable rights. Sometimes when we’re not able to do a lot of the things we used to do, when our body is failing us and our short term memory is not as good as our long term memory, it’s hard for us to accept the fact that we are somebody worthwhile. That’s why it’s particularly important for us Elders to periodically ask ourselves, what is my purpose in life?

Several years ago I discovered a Japanese word that captures the importance of having a positive attitude and purpose in our life. The word is Ikigai, (pronounced ee-ki-guy) the Japanese word used to describe why I get up in the morning, what my sense of purpose is. I love the word Ikigai! I like saying it! I like writing it! Ikigai, Ikigai! I think it was the beginning of my interest in happiness. I realized if you don’t have an Ikigai, you’re not going to be happy. But more about that in another blog.

I was even more impressed with the origin of the word and its application for us elders. Researchers have identified what they call Blue Zones. These are areas throughout the world with a high percentage of centenarians; places where people enjoy remarkably long full lives. Their lives are not only longer but physically and mentally, they are more active than elders in other areas of the world. National Geographic’s Dan Buettner has traveled the globe to uncover the best strategies for longevity found in these Blue Zones. One of those areas is the Japanese island of Okinawa. It was there that he discovered that one of the characteristics for a long healthy life was having an Ikigai. To a resident of Okinawa, Ikigai can be anything from tending their vegetable garden, taking care of great grandchildren, to walking and exercising every day. Whatever it is that motivated them to remain involved, they give credit to their Ikigai. After years of research Dan Buettner concludes:

One of the biggest revolutions in thought in our time is the changing of emphasis from physical health to mental health in connection to longevity. The effects of negative stress and ‘inflammation’ are cited more and more frequently as the cause of early death and lowered quality of life. One of the most important methods for counteracting that is Ikigai, a sense of purpose. … Ikigai is something that brings joy and contentment. It fills a person with resolve and a sense of satisfaction in what they are doing. Most of all, it brings happiness.”

Here’s a TED TALK by Dan Buettner titled Okinawa, Ikigai, and the Secrets of Longevity . As usual, one TED TALK is worth pages of my words.

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to one of my all time heroes, who exemplifies what it means to have an Ikigai. She was known as Granny D. If you don’t remember her, she was a social activist,  whose real name was Doris Haddock, from Dublin, New Hampshire. In 1999, at the age of ninety, Granny D. walked 3,200 miles across America to raise awareness about a campaign for political finance reform. She walked ten miles a day for 14 months. She is widely credited for galvanizing the public support that helped pass the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act in 2002.

In 2003 at the age of 94, she drove around the country on a 22,000 mile voter registration effort targeting working women and minorities. She cut her tour short to challenge the incumbent New Hampshire senator, Judd Gregg, in the 2004 election. Her grassroots campaign earned her 34% of the vote. In her later years she published a book entitled, You’re Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell. She died peacefully in her home six weeks after she turned 100 in 2010. Former president Jimmy Carter described her as “…a true patriot, and our nation has been blessed by her remarkable life. Her story will inspire people of all ages for generations to come.”

I’m not suggesting that we all need to follow in Granny D’s footsteps, by walking 3,200 miles for a righteous cause, or running for the Senate. But we can all be motivated by the spirit she modeled by following her Ikigai, and in our own way, seriously consider identifying our own Ikigai. We need to know and follow our values, passions and talents–and to share them by example on a regular basis. It might be by living our lives, with our physical and mental restrictions, as a legacy for our grandchildren or great grandchildren, or showing compassion for those in need, who are less fortunate than we are. Whatever we choose to do, it’s our Ikigai. So what is it that gives your life a sense of worth? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Since I retired, my major Ikigai for the past five years or so has been writing. To paraphrase the French philosopher, Descartes, “I write, therefore I am!” What’s your Ikigai?

Returning to the Well: Why Pastors Need the Nurture of Supervision

by Amanda Petersen and Teresa Blythe

Pastors are some of the bravest people we know. As spiritual directors we have the privilege of walking alongside these brave men and women.

In a time when people are in fear of shrinking numbers and budgets, pastors burn with a desire to sit in the fear and preach the Gospel. With fears high, they are often rewarded by being stoned by the crowd.

Pastors are some of the most isolated people. The system is set up for a work week of 50+ hours, where the people you spend the most time with are not and never can be your confidantes. They work in situations where admitting feelings of failure, doubt and challenge in front of a colleague sometimes doesn’t feel safe.

Pastors often put their own faith time on hold for the sake of someone else’s. There is nothing more satisfying that watch a life change because of the grace of God. Yet, churches frequently want a CEO to run the facilities and programs who is on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

Pastors are the most passionate people we know. Despite the odds there is this crazy sense that sharing God’s love and message is not optional no matter the circumstances. They will walk through any mine field for the sake of Christ , God’s people, and this inner call.

As the church is changing so also is the expectation that this is a journey the pastor does alone. It’s not enough to gather with other overworked pastors and complain about the issues. One quickly discovers doing that actually leads to more isolation.

It’s time for a new paradigm in which pastors come together to be honest about the extreme challenges and the amazing blessings of a job where the focus is on where God is alive and at work. It’s time for a safe place for pastors to share struggles and celebrations where the focus is on the God journey.

This safe place is called supervision, a reflection process led by experienced facilitators who help the pastors build community and have a safe, confidential place to process the movement of the Spirit through a variety of work and home-related circumstances.

We call this “Returning to the Well: Reflecting Spiritually on Pastoral Experiences,” because scripturally the well is the place where the brave and passionate return to the Source to refresh and remember why they left the well in the first place.

We are inviting all the clergy in the Southwest Conference to consider allowing us to help them “return to the well.”

As experienced spiritual directors and supervisors, Revs. Amanda Petersen and Teresa Blythe offer monthly group meetings in central Phoenix for this supportive environment. We also offer individual sessions of 30 minutes per month by phone or Skype for anyone attending these Phoenix groups or for anyone living outside the Phoenix area who wants this assistance on an individual basis.

It is important to note that Returning to the Well is not therapy. It’s not the typical support group. It’s a contemplative blend of spiritual direction and guided introspection, led by two UCC specialized ministers who have years of experience caring for pastors. Our first cohort found it enormously helpful and life-giving.

We have openings for 2 to 4 pastors for our next session Monday, February 1, 10:00 am – 11:30 am at Pathways of Grace Spiritual Life Center located at 1500 E. Bethany Home Road Suite 101, Phoenix, AZ 85014. Call 602-315-5723 to register.

Cost is $40 per month if paid monthly or $105 for 3 months (a 3 month commitment is recommended).

We plan to have the Phoenix group meet every first Monday of the month, same time and place.

For individual phone sessions, contact Amanda Petersen at 602-315-5723 to Teresa Blythe 480-886-3828.

In order to be sustained, Clergy need constant Living Water. Let’s all work to make sure the well doesn’t run dry.

Amanda Petersen is a UCC minister specializing in spiritual direction and supervision. She is Founder and Director of Pathways of Grace in Phoenix.

Teresa Blythe is also a UCC minister specializing in spiritual direction and discernment. She is Founder and Director of the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction at First UCC Phoenix.

The “Is-ness” of Healing

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Before you read this, may I ask you to do something? It may be an odd request, may even prevent you from reading this now since you may not be in a space where it would be a good idea to play something on YouTube. It may even be something you choose not to do, but I will ask anyway.

Will you please play this video? Will you then close your eyes and sit with what you hear? Listen as many times as the mood strikes you. It’s good stuff.

Then come on back:

John Denver “All This Joy”

 

Welcome back…

When I was about 8 years old I remember hating nighttime. There are a variety of reasons for this that increased my sense of vulnerability at night, probably things that would resonate within you as well. My little 8 year old self thought frequently, “Why do we all go to sleep at the same time? Shouldn’t someone be keeping watch?” We are at our most vulnerable when sleeping, completely unaware. We really should have planned this out better as a human race, right?

Going to sleep while everyone else is asleep has a certain strange agreement of trust. We’re pretty much saying, “Hey, I am going to just close my eyes for the night and make myself as vulnerable as can be. I am pretty sure we all are going to wake up on the other side of this day.” When life events, though, challenge that level of trust and belief, sleep becomes harder to come by because vulnerability is harder to come by.

I’ve shared with you before that I am in recovery from drugs and alcohol. As many with that history, I tend to be pain avoidant. It is hard to sit with pain, physical and emotional, palpable and overwhelming. I don’t like it. I actually hate it. I despise it. It frustrates and confounds me that it’s in the mix of life.

That avoidance of pain versus the turning to face it is really the challenge we are faced with most regularly.. Each time we turn to face the reality of the present circumstances or moment, we are being co-creators with Spirit and participants in the flow of life. I forget this a lot. Like all the time. I forget this because pain hurts. You likely do the same because pain hurts. We certainly do this as a community because pain hurts.

I write a lot of subtext to my daily experiences. I make meaning in ways that allow me to understand the world around me. I can act as though that subtext is true, but really, it’s just my thoughts trying to make the world more palatable and less dangerous. Often the subtext that I create separates me from the world around me, separates me from you. Separates you from me. I’m pretty tired of that, aren’t you?

Here are some myths about pain that I’d like for us to consider getting rid of:

-If I feel the loss, the grief, the sadness, it will break me. Forever.
-If I start to feel I will feel this way always. Forever.
-If I leave it alone and not look at any of it, time will just make it go away.
-If I spend time honoring those feelings, I am self indulgent and need to change.
-If I drink this, take this pill, watch this video, it will numb me out and I will not have to worry about it anymore.
-I should compare my pain to what others have to walk through and then shame myself for feeling bad because they have it worse than me.

There is an ebb and flow to pain and healing. It looks like this:
It gets better.
Then it gets worse.
Then it gets better.
Oh great, now it got bad again.
Hey! Guys! Look! It got better again!
Ok it’s getting worse again.
Yay! It’s better…
And the bad days start to neutralize and the wound starts to heal.

There is more space between the times it gets better and when it gets bad again. We are constantly reaching for equilibrium. And, if we let it, it comes. Eventually.

The only way it comes, though, is through a turning to rather than a turning away.

I am not an expert on grief and loss, but I certainly have experienced it. I am not an expert on brokenness, but I can check that box too. I am not an expert on isolation and turning away. Wait, I kinda am. I’m kinda a gold medal contender for that one. Who else would like to join me on the podium?

Your life, my life, our loved ones lives, will experience pain, injury, brokenness. It just is. Your life, my life, our loved ones lives, will experience healing. It just is. My dear friends, this is the work in living. This is the work in relationship. This is the work of the ministry of reconciliation. This is the work of our communities of faith.

Healing comes when we turn to what is.

And that, my friends, is the stuff of life.

It just simply is.

Be a Good Parent. Be Selfish.

by Karen Richter

Parent friends, can we talk? It’s rough out there, right? Parents get a lot of conflicting messages about how to be the best we can for our kids. Tough but compassionate. Attachment and yet independence. Respecting their agency but retaining authority. Let them make choices… but not too many. Say no and mean it, but stay positive. Be available for your children, but take care of your primary partnership.

And yet we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I’m convinced that parenting is a fantastic spiritual discipline. When I was a kid, I daydreamed about being a nun. Since I was born and raised in the South and never met a single Catholic person until college, this was never a likely scenario… But I think it had something to do with selflessness and dedication – the idea of spending your life doing something worth doing. And maybe it was a juvenile fantasy about Maria from The Sound of Music – that’s a possibility too. But what is parenting, if not dedicating your life’s energy, and sometimes the last cinnamon bagel, to something worth your best efforts?

Be a good parent. Be selfish. by Karen Richter - Southwest Conference blog
Good for babies…and my most faithful prayer discipline ever!

We parent to make our children good human beings and along the way, we become pretty good too.

At the same time, I see a lot of parenting anxiety. I see parents putting their children’s wants and needs ahead of their own – not out of dedication but out of fear. It starts as soon as the stick turns pink, with nutrition and playing music and avoiding stress. About the time my first child was born, new brain development research began to be available to popular audiences. The importance of second language acquisition, “windows” of prime learning, speech development, and stimulating learning environments for babies… I was convinced that any moment that wasn’t full of stimulation was a waste!

Now I see it more with afterschool activities, music lessons, tutoring, drama, and sports. Our families are stressed out. And it’s hard: hard to say no to the opportunity to play with a competitive traveling volleyball team; hard to step away from the pressure to perform; hard to insist on time for your child to just BE.

Be a good parent. Be selfish. by Karen Richter - Southwest Conference blog
Does this look familiar at all?

So start with you. Be selfish. Be a role model for selfishness. Take care of your own spiritual self. Find something that feeds your own soul.

I see families… good loving wonderful families… who are involved in a faith community for their children’s sake. Goodness knows, that’s not a bad thing, but those parents need to hear this loving and gentle instruction: you too are a child of God. Find something spiritual for you.

You.

You are unique and unrepeatable.

You – the universe becoming self-aware.

You, sent by the Spirit to the world to learn and grow all your life long.

You are a gift to the world, so take care of that good gift!

And Merry Christmas to all.

Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be

by Teresa Blythe

Lots of congregations sing “Lord of the Dance” on Sunday mornings, but really, what would most of them do if someone lost their inhibitions, took the song literally and began to “dance, dance,” right there in worship?

It is so rare to see a real outburst of spontaneous celebration of God’s Spirit in most established (especially white) churches that when it occurs we generally go in one of two directions. If we are inspired by it, we then want to control it ending up with predictable liturgical dancers—eyes and arms lifted toward heaven (in case we don’t understand that they are glorifying God)–or acceptable movement such as a little swaying and clapping. If we are embarrassed by it, we avert our eyes, ignore it and hope it goes away.

We could instead embrace it. Understand that we do not “have” bodies, we “are” bodies and sometimes those bodies want to move or otherwise express themselves in worship. We could, as they say, let the children, young adults and those with nothing to lose lead us toward a more embodied worship experience.

Embrace that Swing

Several years ago I had the privilege of working part-time at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson—one of the few multicultural progressive churches in Arizona. On this particular Sunday, children’s time had just ended, but, as was the custom at Southside, the children were not yet dismissed to their respective church school classrooms because the choir had not yet sung. With the children sitting on the flagstone floor of the Native American-style kiva sanctuary, the choir sang a rousing gospel rendition of the old favorite, “Love Lifted Me.”

In the middle of the song, with not a shred of inhibition, a six-year old girl leaps to her feet and starts free-form dancing. Now we’re all familiar with the one or two children in the church who enjoy making a scene during children’s time. But this little girl wasn’t in it for the attention. The motivation appeared to be pure adoration and praise. Most of the adults in the congregation were smiling—some had tears in their eyes—at the freedom the girl felt to “dance, dance, wherever she may be.”

When the song ended, the pastor, John Fife, stood to say, “That’s the difference between children and adults. She was inspired, so she got up and began dancing. Many of us were inspired as well, but we just sat there and let her dance all by herself!” Since then, when people at Southside feel so moved by the choir, they stand up and move.

That 6-year old dancer has a prophetic message for the larger church. On a base level, we have to understand how music moves the body and soul. I’m talking about music with full-bodied rhythm—and let’s be honest, most people just don’t feel like dancing to the pipe organ. Yes, saying that can start up a “worship war” in your congregation, but it doesn’t change the truth of the matter.

What this girl demonstrated was that if our churches want to be welcoming and attractive to people younger than your average church member, we had better be alive and ready for anything to happen in inspired worship.

(Which is why it thrilled me this past Sunday at First Congregational UCC Phoenix to turn around during a high-energy gospel song and see one of the young adults who was running the media center in the back moving and dancing to the music the way God intended! I only wish everyone there had turned around to see how much fun he was having at church.)

Embrace the Awkward Illustration

Sometimes spontaneity is thrust upon us by those who have long ago lost the usual societal inhibitions. I once visited a Presbyterian church in Albuquerque as a wild-haired, scruffy older man in a heavy coat had a burden to share in worship. Rising during announcement time, he proceeded to the pulpit to confess to a number of “sins of the flesh.” The young pastor appeared to know this man, and was not exactly surprised at the pop-up confession but was at a loss for what to do. So, he let the man speak.

As fate would have it, the sermon that morning—from the lectionary—was the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus saying that the one who “beat his breast” saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” was justified. What a brilliant sermon illustration! Unplanned and awkward, yes. But, frankly a bright spot in the liturgy.

Was this celebrated as a happy coincidence? Or even a Godly moment? Hardly. No mention is made of the event after the man is escorted away from the pulpit, because his interjection is seen as an embarrassing disturbance.

We’ll need to shed this self-consciousness and a desire to control if we want God’s spirit to blow around in worship. If something bizarre but meaningful happens in worship, let’s make the most of it. It sure beats the Easter Sunday I spent at a mainline church in the Bay area where I counted at least three people in their twenties fast asleep during the sermon.

Let’s embrace the crazy outburst as important data for discerning when and where God’s Spirit is moving within the congregation. How can we follow it more closely? How can we stay open to those times when worship goes slightly awry, seeing what those moments have to teach us? Savor them, in all their ickiness, and you’ll soon become more comfortable with the unusual, the ecstatic, the surprising.

Honoring the Body

Church leaders could start to honor the body in worship by incorporating call-and-response music, drums, incense and a variety of simple prayer postures. Make worship a feast of all five senses, not just the ear and eyes. Instead of bringing on the approved liturgical dancer why not go into the community and hire a professional contemporary dancer to do an original dance illustrating the theme of worship that day? Lift our eyes from the bulletin by posting what we need for worship on a screen or even an old-fashioned poster board up front. Leave us on the edge of our seats by writing sermons with cliff-hanger endings, like the serial dramas on TV do each week. Ask us to yell out “Amen” to your sermon when we feel it. And then entice us with God’s word so that we want to.

Making room for the spontaneous will not be easy for people set in their ways. It requires an attitude of hospitality that says whatever is done in authentic response to the Word or the Spirit is OK with us.

It requires being brave enough to admit that if our music, preaching and prayer aren’t filled with enough of God’s Spirit to move people in some pretty significant ways, we’re in trouble and need to plead for God’s mercy. Remember, boring people in worship is a sin.

The good news is that the Lord of the Dance is the one who saves us.

Looking for Cairns Together

by Tyler Connoley

Almost twelve years ago, I moved from the Midwest to the Southwest. I had just finished a Master of Arts in Religion, and was starting a new adventure in a new place with my spouse of three years. I knew I would need a companion on the journey, who could help me discern my next steps. So I sought out a Spiritual Director.

Little did I know I was beginning a relationship that would last years. My Spiritual Director, Teresa Blythe, walked with me in those first few months in New Mexico as I found myself floundering in what I had thought was a vocational calling to full-time writing. (It turns out that’s a bad fit for an extrovert.) A few years later, she helped me listen for God’s voice when I began to feel a call to ordained ministry, and was with me throughout my Master of Divinity. She followed me into a long dark night of the soul, when a horrific church split rocked my theological foundations, and she helped me piece together a new theology that worked for me. Now, she’s walking with me as I move from the desert I love to a (yet unknown) calling in another part of the world.

In each of these steps on my journey, I found myself in need of some clarity. Having someone there who was trained to listen with me to the Spirit of Wisdom helped me find the path I should follow. It was as if I were walking in the desert, on a road marked only by cairns. When I lost the path, and needed to find the next cairn, I had someone there to help me in the search. I probably could have found the cairns on my own, but having a Spiritual Director helped me find them more-quickly.

Having an ongoing, years-long, relationship with a Spiritual Director also held other benefits I hadn’t expected. I remember one particularly hard December, when I was feeling quite “agnosticy” (my word for those times when I find myself bereft of God, and wandering in unbelief). Teresa, who had been meeting with me for several years by that point, gently pointed out that this was my third agnosticy December in a row. “Let’s explore why December might be a dry spiritual time for you,” she said. In the conversation that followed, I discovered that the busy-ness of the Holiday Season often leads me to set aside spiritual practices that feed me. So, it makes sense that I feel spiritually lost when I’m “too busy” for spiritual things. Now, I’m more careful in November and December — and I’m easier on myself when I’m feeling agnosticy.

If you’re a lay leader, an ordained minister, or any person who cares about your spiritual journey, I’d recommend finding a Spiritual Director who can walk with you. This relationship is so important that I schedule the next year’s worth of sessions every December, putting them on the calendar so I know they’ll be there when I need them. You can find a Spiritual Director who suits your personality and beliefs at Spiritual Directors International.

Whatever your journey, may you always have companions to help you find the next cairn pointing the way to the future.

Pastors Cover the Who, What and Why; Spiritual Directors cover the How

by Teresa Blythe

As the last great generalists in our increasingly niche economy, pastors do a lot and they do it well. They preach the good news; advocate for a more just society; cast a vision for their congregation; and encourage Christians to live and work in community.

Pastors cover the “who, what and why” of the Christian faith. But where it breaks down for so many in the pews is the “how.” People want to know what it means in this 21st century world to be a Jesus follower. People want to know how to pray in their daily lives and how to apply their faith to complicated and important situations they face.

How do I do what the pastor is talking about?

The question of “how do I live out this faith I’m hearing about at church?” is the terrain of the trained and experienced spiritual director. Which is why I am encouraging church leaders—pastors, Christian educators, council moderators, church musicians and worship planners—to warm up to a local spiritual director for support, encouragement and help with discernment. Church leaders and spiritual directors can work together to fill in gaps between theology and practice.

Sermons only go so far

I remember once hearing a beautiful sermon in a progressive church about the importance of being in close, personal relationship with Jesus. (Yes the preacher defied the convention of the day by actually talking about getting to know Jesus personally). It was inspiring but she failed to address how this relationship is built. But she’s not the only one guilty. I recall as a child in a conservative Christian church that the only “how” we were given was one prayer we needed to pray to be close to Jesus.

How does a thinking person in the 21st century get to know a spiritual figure from the first century? Spiritual directors will tell you it’s by finding inner stillness within yourself (meditation), spending time in a prayer practice that fits for your personality, dialoguing with Jesus (or another spiritual figure) in your journal, putting yourself imaginatively in a scripture setting, walking a labyrinth, spending time in nature, paying attention to your dreams, figuring out who Jesus is for you, and …..well the list goes on and on. It’s different for every person because we are all made so differently.

Bridging the Gap

Some churches understand this gap between what is taught and what is practiced. They are the ones who have incorporated spiritual formation training for adult members so that this bridge can be built in community. If this is something your church would like to explore, a spiritual director would be the perfect consultant, educator or assistant to get a program going.

There are times, also, that individuals need private and confidential assistance. Pastors know who these people are because they come to their offices frequently for counseling. When the questions are of a spiritual nature or hover around practical theology, a referral to spiritual direction can be helpful. While most spiritual directors are fee-based, churches can usually work out arrangements where people who cannot pay may still receive at least a few sessions of spiritual direction.

Getting down to business

So find a spiritual director in your area and start the conversation! How can we help our people find the spiritual practice that will sustain them beyond Sunday worship? How can we assist our members in discerning where God is leading them in their everyday lives? How can we become more in touch with the movement of the Spirit within this congregation?

Let’s make sure we give the “how” of faithful living as much energy as the who, what and why.

Contact information

To find a spiritual director in the Southwest Conference of the UCC, check out this webpage. There are listings of spiritual directors at the website for Spiritual Directors International. For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, please check out my website and the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.

Teresa Blythe is the founder of the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction at First UCC in Phoenix. She is a longtime spiritual director for individuals, groups and organizations and is Director of the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson. Teresa is author of the book 50 Ways to Pray and the Patheos blog Spiritual Direction 101

The Vector of the Spirit

by Karen Richter

Vector: (mathematics) a quantity possessing both magnitude and direction.
Source: Dictionary.com

Faith communities can be very unpredictable places.  Take a look around your own spiritual home to see it with fresh eyes.

At the church I call home, we are often proud of the fast pace of happenings on our campus and their diversity.  Sometimes we even go so far as to say, “You just never know what’s going on around here!” or “We don’t have ‘regular Sundays’ here!”  And in a sense, these expressions are correct:  it’s sometimes a busy, wacky place to be.

But in another, deeper way, what goes on here and at other faith communities is entirely expected.  The Spirit of Life is at work.  And while the Spirit is unpredictable, her vector is always the same.  The Spirit moves in the direction of wholeness, peace, justice, grace, and love.  Where the wind of Spirit rises and blows is always a surprise to us.  The example during my own lifetime is clear:  I never would have predicted 20 years ago that marriage equality would begin to sweep the country.  The speed at which hearts and minds (and laws!) changed was a joy to observe.  The where and the how fast both surprised me.*

“The wind blows all around us as if it has a will of its own; we feel and hear it, but we do not understand where it has come from or where it will end up.  Life in the Spirit is as if it were the wind of God.”  John 3: 8 from The Voice New Testament

wind of the spirit - kr

We can imagine a weather map of the United States (pardon me for being ameri-centric, it’s the geography I know best). Imagine a wind that always blows from east to west. Sometimes a gentle breeze stirs on the Carolina coast from Wilmington to Charlotte around the issue of climate change and creation care and marine conservation. Sometimes a gale stirs the Great Plains from Des Moines to Lincoln around worker rights. Another day, a warm gust rises in El Paso and heads toward Phoenix, with energy and passion for humane immigration. Winds converge and create storms and new patterns. These winds can be different, but they blow always in the same direction: toward greater wholeness, peace, justice, grace and love.

So what do we do? How can we participate?

We care. Thankfully there are some true constants in a life of faith. Love God; Love one another; love ourselves. Everyday acts of kindness, service, and self-care stretch us and keep our hearts soft. So, when the wind around us begins to blow, our excitement can become greater than our fear.

We prepare. We ready ourselves for the new work that awaits us, with practices of silence and contemplation. We gather around ourselves others who are also preparing to join in and invest in relationships. We get some tools and supplies ready. Depending on the kind of wind we observe, we might need a kite or maybe a sail; prayer flags or perhaps flower seeds.

kites for spirit - kr

We watch. We study the horizon, looking for signs that God is at work. We become like spiritual meteorological Minutemen, ready to act at a moment’s notice when conditions change.

We harness. We join the Spirit at work, as our gifts indicate. The work gives us joy and purpose.

Unpredictable? Sometimes. But the holy vector is constant.

*Of course the pace has seemed slow to others, particularly those who were involved in this ministry of change. In some ways, this point of view reflects my own privilege and isn’t meant to denigrate or minimalize the hard work done by many.

Karen Richter is Director of Spiritual Formation at Shadow Rock UCC.  She has worked previously in a variety of educational and nonprofit settings.  Her interests include peaceful parenting, theology in pop culture, and adult/adolescent faith formation.  She is also active in Shadow Rock’s sanctuary ministry and Whole Life Center.  Karen lives in Anthem, Arizona with her husband, children, and tiny dog.

You may contact Karen at karen@shadowrockucc.org