You Are Wrong

by Amanda Petersen

I have been noticing a lot of pain recently around being right. Contemplating this I am reminded of an idea that I was introduced to a while back: I am wrong…a lot. I thought the moon was made of cheese when I was 3; I was wrong. I thought the Berlin Wall would be up forever; I was wrong. I believed I was to be a professor of Old Testament studies; I was wrong. And there are some things I believe to my core today that I will look back on and say, yep, I was wrong. Something amazing happens when I allow myself to be wrong. My life loosens up. I have to lean into God more. I’m willing to risk because the goal is no longer about getting it right. Instead, it’s about being willing to be open to the next thing. Being wrong is no longer a failure, it is an opportunity.

Letting go of certainty is uncomfortable, scary, and painful. Being wrong is also very painful and yet, when I practice uncertainty and am willing to be wrong, I find the Divine shows up, relationships are healed, new opportunities appear, and life gets bigger. I have heard the struggle of many “How could I have missed this?” Or “how could I have been so wrong?” And there can be a stuck-ness in this because of the assumption that being wrong is a personal failing, as opposed to asking the questions to work toward growth and self-examination.

I’m not saying one should throw certainty out the window. No one would be able to function without some certainties. It’s more a practice of holding certainty lightly. I find this practice leads to gratitude. I know the sun rises every morning and as certain as I am, I also know that I could be wrong, which makes me grateful it does!

This week, reflect on how much room is there for God to move while practicing getting comfortable with all the wrongness in life. Or practicing calling Mystery into those places of your ‘rightness’ and see what you notice.

Want to talk about it? Come to Dinner and Conversation on Friday.

Skateboarding As Prayer, Meditation

by Greg Gonzales

My skateboard started to wobble, the axles twitching right and left on a whim all their own. I was still rolling forward at speed downhill, but the board got so squirrely I had to jump off and land in a run to catch my fall — and failed, miserably. As my right foot hit the ground, the force and speed shot the foot backward and sent my shoe flying off behind me. Then I tried to catch myself with my left foot, with identical results. I managed to plant my feet two more times, sock-bare, in a half-second period before I fell to my hands and knees, sliding five or so feet across the asphalt. At least, the locations and lengths of dangling flesh would have suggested so.

Because of experiences like that, skateboarding has become my favorite way to pray, to learn and connect. As a pantheist, I believe God and the universe are one in the same, and that by being alive in the universe, we’re part of God, experiencing itself, suffering and pain included. So my prayer is one of participation, of celebration as a participant of the divine whole. Plus, skateboarding comes with a lot of harsh-learned lessons I won’t soon forget.

Zen Master Dogen pointed out in his metaphysics that all things are Buddha-nature, or impermanent. The living and inanimate are all expressions of this nature, one of impermanence and change. Mountains and bodies of water transform over time, eroding and flooding and widening or shrinking with the earth and weather. The wood shavings and dust that grind off the tail of my board when I pop it, and it drags briefly across grains of rough concrete, are a testament to Buddha-nature in my daily life. Though it retains a familiar feel under my feet, my skateboard is never the same from one second to the next. The scars and scabs on my body speak the same truth. All things change, and my skateboard reminds me I can’t escape that. We have to let go.

Part of skateboarding is letting go and pushing forward through chaos. Falling hurts like hell, but no one masters 4-foot airs and McTwists their first try. A single trick might take six hours to land the first time, or several sessions of six hours over the course of several months. To get a new trick, I have to figure out each individual mechanic, each moving part, and put them together in physical harmony, while working through exhaustion, frustration, bruises, and soreness. At the same time, I have to learn how to fall efficiently so I can get up faster and hurt myself less. I let go of my safety and of my usual conscious mind to focus on a single moment, and that’s where the prayer is.

A skateboard trick and a Buddhist meditation have more in common than someone might think, certainly in terms of focus. Walking meditation in Buddhism is a meditation of action, one in which the method involves observing the world directly, in the midst of bustling daily life. The meditator feels how the foot gives in to the shape of a stone below it, the motion of the leg as it swings, how the arch of the foot grips the stone from heel to toe, and how the bones and tendons move together to transfer weight to propel the body forward. The meditator becomes aware of each movement, each tendon pull, how each moment gives in to the next without skipping a beat. Now imagine the mechanics of an ollie: The skater is crouched, body curled up like a spring, waiting to release its energy; one foot has toes pressed on the edge of the tail, and the other foot sits near the middle of the board, weight also on the toes. Once the trick begins, the skater transfers force from the hip, through tendons in the thigh to those in the calf and ankle, then the foot and toes — at the same time lifting the opposite foot up, to push the tail into the ground and pop the nose of the board into the air. The raised foot then slides across the griptape on top of the board to meet the nose, while the leg of the lower foot is brought upward; as the front foot meets the nose and the back foot jumps from the ground, the entire board is brought to level in mid-air, along with the skater’s body. This simple jump-see-saw motion gives me a chance to watch myself fly, to break mental boundaries, to observe my body in alien motion, to connect with the physical beyond basic experience. Both the walking meditation and ollie tell us about the infinite complexity contained in each and every moment, so long as we pay attention, and this paragraph hardly touches the long list of details to notice.

Skateboarding turns pure-function and visual environments into artistic ones by repurposing objects. Where most people see a curb painted red and thinks not to park there, a skateboarder sees a red curb and thinks about the slickness of that particular paint, and how easy it is to grind across it. Some people might see a tree trunk that’s split and grown into separate trunks, forking off, and give it a quick half-thought before their knowledge of the tree fades. Skateboarders see that tree, and then wonder if they can jump between the trunks; they check to see if there’s enough room behind the tree to get speed, enough space to land on the other side, and if there’s a good angle nearby for a filmer to capture the trick. In skateboarding, a “nice-looking” corporate plaza or a wash behind Fry’s becomes a place to jump, stomp, flip, scoop, and generally dance — on ledges, rails, steps and stairs, embankments, hubbas, gaps, planters… skateboarding adds to these dead objects a layer of life, a second layer of meaning and possibility in mundane, cold, boring places.

The latest discoveries in quantum theory suggest particles behave differently when we observe them. If that’s true, then each and every particle within every object interacts with us on fundamental levels. Even though I’m not quite sure what that entails, exactly — I’m no physicist — it seems to make for good evidence that all things are inextricably connected. As we interact with our environment, our environment interacts with us, and we get to participate as individual parts of it.

With that in mind, we could say just about any activity can be prayer, so long as it’s an intentional attempt to communicate with a divine realm or power or being or presence — our prayer just depends on what or who or where we think the divine is. If it’s right in front of us, then interacting with our immediate world in any way could be effective. Skateboarding is my way, or my dance, to celebrate that interaction. Some people bow their heads and utter a thank you, some chant, some offer animal sacrifice. I skate.

Love and Politics

by Amanda Petersen

Love has many different definitions and ways of looking at it.  As I look at some of these definitions of love one consistent appears.  Love is about expanding.  Expanding compassion, expanding perspective, expanding One’s heart, expanding circumstances, expanding vulnerability, expanding risk, expanding complication etc. etc.  In order to love there is some invitation to expand.

It is taking a world possibly built on safety, security, and knowing, and being thrown into the unpredictable, vulnerable, and stretching space.  This is the case whether one loves themselves, a puppy, partner, God, or a total stranger.  And this may be the challenge of why so many would rather not love.  Love is messy and it takes the person into uncharted territory.  How can one do something they don’t even understand or know about?

The conversation of love comes up a lot at Pathways of Grace.  The most consistent way it is brought up is in regards to the current political climate.  Some wonderful hard questions are coming up.  “How do I stand up for what I feel is important and right without making those who disagree ‘the Other’?”  In other words “How do I love?”  It also comes out in others ways.  “How do I stay with my faith community and stay consistent with where I believe God is taking me?”  “How do I take care of myself when it will disappoint those around me?”  “How do I get started with a relationship with the Divine?”  All of those questions hold a piece of “How do I Love?”

As a spiritual director, I have no answer for the questions other than keep showing up and lets listen to your inner wisdom together.  The energy of love I have observed isn’t in the answers but in the willingness to expand into the unknown of Love.  Somewhere in the willingness to show up to love, God’s love mixes in and does something amazing and beyond whatever the individual could dream up.  The Universe’s love mixes with the desire to love and something beautiful comes out. Love may not be about answers but the willingness to explore.

Right now I am seeing the need to come together and wrestle with the messiness of love.  To be open and allow the something bigger of God to mix in and open our hearts to expand in ways we never imagined.  A place of unpredictability, vulnerability, stretching and Divine Love.  If you are looking for ways to expand in love this week try coming to Dinner and Conversation on Friday or Quiet Places with Sandy Kenger on Sunday.  If you are looking to have a place for someone to hold space as you show up to Love we have amazing spiritual directors and other practitioners.  Pathways of Grace is committed to providing a safe place to practice and explore what it means to be a loving presence in the world.

This week look at your own “Love” life.  Spend time showing appreciation for those who gave you the space to learn to love and expand.  Take the time to connect with the Source of All Love with a heart of gratitude that the expansion of Love is endless.

Please share your thoughts on how you love.

Okay, but why?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks 

I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.

After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.

The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.

This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:

Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.

Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?

NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.

PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?

NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.

Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.

NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.

PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?

NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.

PD: What? Why?

NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.

PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?

Our session ended again.

We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.

I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.

After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.

Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.

I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.

I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…

All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.

I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.

There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.

If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.

It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.

The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.

2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.

I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.

It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!

Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.

The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.

One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.

I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.

What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.

What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship?  What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?

Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.

We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.

Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.

A Life of Response

by Amanda Petersen

I recently saw a brief video about a woman who, through a set of movements, opened a theater for dance in the middle of a desert town of less than 100 people. Often no one would come, so she would just dance in the empty theater. Eventually she painted in an audience and the place is beautiful. (the video is at the end of this blog). As I watched I felt a kinship with this woman. Her life was one of a response to Life.

As I get ready to celebrate 10 years of Pathways of Grace, the celebration is more of a gratitude for a life of response to God. When I began, I literally sold much of what I had, including my car, and downsized to a life that would hopefully be supported by this sense of creating a safe place for people to listen and share deeply to their own responding to the Divine. At that time, I called this Creative Journey 3.  Many of you remember calling my cozy home the “hermitage of heretics”: a place you could voice your ideas, doubts, and responses to Infinite Mystery in ways you couldn’t elsewhere.

As the years have passed, the groups and my spiritual direction/coaching practice has grown and we have this beautiful space. The fun part is that others who are responding to God are showing up and sharing their dances. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to dance with others and watch the new energy of the Spirit create something that none of us fully knows how it will end up. This celebration is a time to highlight some of the new people sharing their gifts. I look forward to your meeting them!

With this Energy comes new and deeper releasing into the movement of Infinite Mystery. As I watch this unfold, I realize Pathways of Grace, rather than “building” something, is a about responding to Love. What is created out of that is co-created rather than master-planned. This celebration, we will be sharing some of the new movements that we will be practicing.

Through the years there are times when the group doesn’t materialize, yet I dance anyway. The audience becomes the great cloud of witnesses and the Presence of Love. I will continue to dance as a response of gratitude for the gift of creating a space to dance authentically. Thank you all for joining me on this amazing journey. Ultimately, this celebration is a time of gratitude for each of you being willing to respond to Love’s call to dance.

Here is the video:

5 Bad Theologies You Might Be Living Out

by Karen Richter

I taught a class a couple of years ago called Everyday Theology.

The main idea for the class was that we are always living out our theology. With every little decision, we are revealing what we value and the concepts we believe to be true. The most interesting part of the class was talking about and revealing some concepts that are not based in reality – what I am calling here ‘Bad Theologies.’

Of course, I’m using the word theology to mean something both bigger and more mundane that the academic discipline of study about God. By theology, I mean those often invisible ideas and assumptions that permeate our thinking about what is real, how we know what we know, and how we are must live. I hope you’ll get a feel for what I mean by exploring this Buzzfeed-style Top 5 list.

1. Cheap Karma

Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about Cheap Grace… in my own parlance, this is a way of misunderstanding God’s grace that ends up meaning that everything is just okie dokie. Cheap karma is similar in that it takes a religious concept that has value and turns it into a greeting card.

Cheap Karma is that idea that good things happen to people who do good things. The corollary is more dangerous – that bad things happen to people who do bad things.

Occasionally, it works (maybe just often enough to reinforce our cognitive prejudices): you are cut off in traffic by a person driving dangerously and a mile later you see them pulled over by the highway patrol. “Ha! Karma!” you think. But the idea that you do good things for a reward is really awful.

Plus, there are lots of people suffering in the world that surely don’t deserve it. Karma of course is a Hindu belief that the universe works in logical, cause-and-effect ways over many years and many, many lifetimes. Cheap karma is just a “what comes around, goes around” falsehood.

I lost my phone last summer at SeaWorld with my Girl Scout troop. My co-leader (a lovely non-traditionally spiritual person) suggested that we might think positively, sending good vibes to the universe that would bring my phone back to me. I explained that my philosophy is more akin to “it is what it is” and our spirituality consists of our response to life as it is. We had our different responses to the minor crisis of my lost phone. Maybe chance; maybe my friend’s good vibes… but a kind person shipped my phone to me the next week. So it’s possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about regarding Cheap Karma.

2. American Exceptionalism

I won’t say too much about this one, except that if you think the USA is somehow a shining city on a hill on a mission from God… you need to pay closer attention. My first exposure to this Bad Theology was in high school when an evangelical youth pastor explained to me that America is now God’s Chosen People. Even at that tender age, I could smell something.

Because it’s an election year, we’ll see this particular theology left, right, and center – so to speak.

3. Transactional Salvation

This one is a biggie.  The crux of the idea is that God requires something specific from us in order to escape the fires of hell.

For some evangelicals and fundamentalists, it’s the Sinner’s Prayer or ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’ or a personal relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior.  For Catholics, the requirements are more subtle and more complex.  But any kind of thinking that involves I do/choose/perform/pray/vote/act a certain way to get heaven/blessings/grace from God is a nonstarter for me.

Sometimes at Shadow Rock we call it “gettin’ your ticket punched” or Fire Insurance.  Two huge problems with this particular Bad Theology:  1) it totally discounts and misunderstands the nature of Ultimate Reality or in traditional language, God’s grace and 2) after folks get their ticket punched (or pray the magic prayer or whatever), they tend to stop growing and learning.

4.  Redemptive Violence

The Myth of Redemptive Violence might be THE Bad Theology.  It’s everywhere.  The premise is that violence is useful, even NECESSARY, for problem-solving.  For the background and history of redemptive violence, see Walter Wink.  For an on-the-ground feel for it, check out Batman, Rango (it’s particularly obvious in this movie), or any superhero movie or any children’s cartoon ever.  “Good guys” use violence to defeat the “bad guys.”  But if both sides are using the same violent methods, who can tell the difference?  That’s why it’s so useful to get an intuitive grasp of this through fictional settings.  It’s less jarring than looking at the newspaper, where the same exact thing is happening.  I’ll start with two problems with this Bad Theology as well:  1) it keeps us from looking at more peaceful and creative ways to change bad things and 2) if we make good things happen through causing pain, it makes us more likely to assume that God does the same thing..

5.  Certainty

Human beings, in my estimation, are most likely to go off the rails when we think we have it all figured out.  When we imagine that the universe works in a certain way through certain rules that we can grasp with our gigantic frontal lobes, we are foolish.  Things change.  Perspectives can be radically dissimilar.  There is so much we don’t know.  Yet at the same time, humans are meaning-making, meaning-grasping, meaning-creating creatures.  THIS IS WHAT WE DO.  We make rules, draw conclusions, see patterns.  So it’s possible that I’m being too harsh on the species.

Religion and faith and spirituality are the sources for much good in the world… when they are grounded in reality.  This Top 5 is just a start. Where do you see people – even yourself – living out Bad Theology?

Primal Spirituality

by Karen Richter

I just read something in Spiritual Directors International’s journal about ‘primal spirituality.’ Not the spirituality of ancient humans, but the first spirituality: that way of approaching life that sets us off on a path of growth and contemplation.

When I look at my own life and think about where it all started, several memories and experiences come to mind:

  • As a teenager, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and becoming committed to nonviolence.
  • As a college student, coming to terms with the suffering of my 3 year old cousin with brain cancer and the terrible lie that says people get what they deserve.
  • In young adulthood, considering the death of my grandparents and realizing that being healed is different from being cured.
  • During my 30s, realizing that the way I prayed had changed to reflect a different kind of vision for God.

These and many others were formative experiences, along with the slow growth pattern of living in the community of marriage and parenthood. But there’s a particular experience that is on my mind today, which was the primal experience for growing the spirituality of my life now.

I had a miscarriage after my second child. As these events go, it was early, uncomplicated, and ordinary. I healed quickly and moved on.

About 10 months later, I found myself staring at a positive pregnancy test again. I was understandably more reticent about sharing my news, a bit more circumspect about making plans and assumptions about the outcome. At around the 5 week mark, I began experiencing signs of miscarriage again. My doctor’s advice was just to wait it out until an ultrasound at 8 weeks could tell us more.

And that three weeks was simultaneously incredibly difficult and unexpectedly rewarding. Rather than assume the best or the worst, I took an in-the-moment approach to the waiting. This was my mantra during those days:

  • I am pregnant today and I am grateful.
  • No matter what happens tomorrow or the next day, week, or month, I am pregnant today and I am glad for that.
  • No outcome will change the gratitude I feel today.

My joy at the birth of my daughter later that year was all the much greater because of my gratitude practice.

Today, about 11 years later, I have more sophisticated words for this kind of approach to life. I might tell you about my spiritual life… how it’s important to me to live my life as if it were as a gift. I might explain that I have a comprehensive view about life, how good things and bad things happen but life itself is capital G “Good”.  I can talk with you about process theology and religious maturity all day long. Yet is comes down to a primal spirituality:

  • I am alive today and I am grateful.
  • Someday my experience on the earth will end and there’s no way to know what happens next, but today I am alive and thankful.

Meditation:

The days of a human life are like grass: they bloom like a wildflower; but when the wind blows through it, it’s gone; even the ground where it stood doesn’t remember it.* Yes, we are just as fleeting as a flowering weed but we bloom beautifully in our time. Amen.

*Psalm 103.15-16

Does our Extravagant Welcome Speak to the Soul?

by Kenneth McIntosh

Last Sunday a visitor at our church mentioned her frustration in another congregation, her feeling that “I’m not growing deeper with God.” I wonder how many people in our churches share that sense of need? There’s much talk about the missing millennial generation (18-29 year olds) in our churches. Indeed, a 2013 Barna survey titled “Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials” confirms that more than 50% of persons in that demographic have dropped out of church. But the study goes deeper than that, placing these leavers into three categories, and the biggest category of church dropouts is what the Barna survey calls “Nomads.” “This group is comprised of 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background who walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians. “ So they consider themselves Christ-followers but aren’t finding what they desire in church.

I wonder if the problem for these “Nomads,” at least to some extent, might be our failure to advertise or facilitate ways to genuinely experience and grow deeper in God? When the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Ephesus in the first century, his greatest desire for them was “that the God of our savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator” (Ephesians 1:17, The Inclusive Bible). The same need may be truer today. Amos Smith, pastor of Church of the Painted Hills UCC in Tucson says “People in our time think scientifically, we need practical verification that something is true or not. If I don’t experience something in my nervous system, there’s a lack of verification.” Smith then refers to the positive example of psychologist Karl Jung who was asked by an interviewer if he believed in God? Jung replied, in a modest voice, “I don’t believe, I know.” Such faith, grounded not in rote propositions but in experiential reality, may be the deepest need for Christians in a Post-modern age.

Could it be that the political polarization of society has pushed both Conservative and Progressive faith communities to emphasize things other than experiencing God? I expect this is true more in terms of public perception than of actual congregational life—but what the public perceives has significant impact on churches. Conservative churches, associated with the political right, can be characterized as rule-focused. They offer the do’s and don’ts of morality, based on hyper-literal Bible interpretations, as the focus of spiritual life. But by the same measure, Progressive churches may so emphasize justice and peace that they can also reduce the Christian life to saying and doing the right things.

I sometimes wonder, as we offer extravagant welcome, what are welcoming people to? One person seeking a church—a lesbian who is politically involved in liberal causes—told me “I visited several UCC churches in my area, but they only offered confirmation of my social and political beliefs. I need a church where they’ll help me deepen my relationship with God.”

A decade ago Richard Peace and David Schoen, two of the most prominent UCC thinkers on spiritual formation and evangelism respectively, wrote an article titled “Listening for the Still Speaking God: Contemplative Evangelism” (you can Google it and read the pdf online). In that article they emphasize the importance of “classic spiritual formation … birthed in silence, shaped by the spiritual disciplines, and guided by a knowledgeable spiritual director.”

I am glad to say that we have all of that in the Southwest Conference. There are SWC churches where the pastors and lay people are pursuing contemplative prayer and integrating spirituality into their everyday lives. We also have Teresa Blythe with the Heysechia school and Amanda Peterson with Pathways of Grace both offering venues for seekers in the Southwest to grow deeper in contemplative and experiential faith.

But do we emphasize such opportunities for spiritual experience when we invite people to our faith communities? Schoen and Peace, in the aforementioned article, draw a picture of “Contemplative Evangelism.” They write, “What if prayer were the central component of evangelism? By this I mean, what if the very desire to reach out to others was born in the fire of contemplative prayer where the presence of God was so palpable that one could not help but want to share this reality with others?” Imagine a faith community where the message “Whoever you are, you are welcome” is followed with, “We will explore spiritual practices together with you, experiencing the healing presence of God.” Peace and Schoen further explain, “This would be evangelism out of the silence rather than via the loud proclamation. It would be evangelism of companionship—as both evangelist and seeker reach out to God. It would be evangelism of the retreat and the small group conversation, rather than evangelism of the large meeting and forceful challenge. It would be evangelism of spiritual direction (in which the voice of God is sought) rather than evangelism of the witnessing monologue.”

Church of the Painted Hills offers a practical example of such “Contemplative Evangelism” with their Friday Centering Prayer gatherings. They advertise via flyers at local Yoga studios, and half the people who attend their gatherings are unaffiliated with the church. They come driven by a desire to experience God.

Theologian Karl Rahner said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or will not exist at all.” In a time of declining church attendance, perhaps we should more openly advertise that our faith communities offer ancient and effective spiritual practices, trails inviting those who wish to walk on such mystical paths.

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.

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.