Theology of the Nursery

by Karen Richter

This blog is dedicated to all church nursery staff and volunteers! You too are loved!

Where is faith birthed?

What early experiences correlate to a lifetime of prayer and service?

What opportunities are we overlooking or missing or failing to maximize for congregational vitality?

These are the questions that occupy me, especially on my commute to and from Shadow Rock UCC. As a parent and as a church staffer in the area of faith formation, these are crucial inquiries.

A couple of years ago, we were struggling with a mid-week after-school program. So many families couldn’t commit to regular attendance, and adult volunteers available 4 pm to 6 pm on a Wednesday were hard to find. For a time, we had a low-key program with several activity centers that required minimal adult direction. Different and often more cynical questions were asked: are social and play-oriented activities worth investing in? what kinds of experiences do kids need in the midst of the school week? where’s the proper balance between relationship-building and content for children’s faith programming?

In the end, we discontinued the program, but the period of questioning bore fruit for me. A vision for what children must experience in their spiritual community emerged: Church is where people love me.

I’ll say it again: Church is where people love me.

Church is where I am LOVED.

These wacky people really care about me!

When my teenage son was a wee Cub Scout, he got a little note from a church member congratulating him on a successful scout food drive. Under her signed name, she wrote (one of the church people you probably don’t really know). When I asked him about it, he said, “Of course I know who that is. She says hello to me every week.”

All of the life of faith, all service and care of people and creation, and all growth in faith, understanding and spirituality – the whole of what we do! – hang on this kind of experience. There will be time later to learn Psalm 23 and the Beatitudes, time for skits about Jesus calling the fishermen, even time for wrestling with Romans chapter 8.

But it starts in the nursery. The warm safety of the place, the gentle hands of nursery workers and volunteers, the opportunity to make connections and first friendships… for babies and toddlers, it’s their first Sunday learning.

So this week, show some appreciation and gratitude to those people who make this wonderment happen. Hug a nursery person. They might be a little sticky (or worse!), but it’s worth it.

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?

United Church…of Christ

by Tyler Connoley

I’m sure you’ve had this happen. Someone asks what church you belong to, and you tell them you go to Such-and-So United Church of Christ. They respond, “Church of Christ. Is that the one that doesn’t have instruments?” Then you try to explain that the United Church of Christ is different. We’re progressive and inclusive. You begin telling them about the history of the UCC, how we we trace ourselves to the Congregationalists, and the Evangelical and Reform, etc. Their eyes glaze over, and they say, “Oh look, there’s Mary, I’ve been meaning to talk to her.”

Ron Buford taught me a trick that made it so this never happens to me anymore. He said to say, “United Church” then pause and say, “of Christ.” Ron has a passion for the UCC and our uniqueness, and he said this way of saying our name emphasizes that uniqueness. (It’s also because of Ron’s influence that our current UCC logo has those two phrases stacked in different fonts.)

As I’ve learned to say United Church . . . of Christ, it’s helped me to think more deeply about our identity in the UCC. We are a united church, and we are of Christ. Both of those things are important to our identity.

As a non-credal church, we value our theological diversity. We embrace gay Christians and Christians who think gay relationships are a sin. We allow for many different ideas about the divinity of Jesus. Even our identity as a Just Peace Church is rooted in our commitment to be a United Church. When General Synod was asked to declare the UCC a pacifist denomination in the 1970s, they commissioned a study. At the end of that study, the General Synod decided that our diversity required us to acknowledge multiple theologies around responses to war. We committed ourselves to working for Peace with Justice, and allowed individual members to decide what was right and wrong for them.

Some people have difficulty with our identity as a United Church. I had a seminary colleague who was troubled by being part of a denomination that ordained clergy to serve as military chaplains. This person ended up becoming Quaker, valuing theological purity on issues of war over the UCC’s diversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are also “of Christ.” We celebrate lots of different ways of being Christian, but we still unite in a desire to follow Jesus. Rather than emphasize a diversity of religions, as the Unitarian Universalists do, we have chosen to stand within one particular tradition.

One of my heroes, Huston Smith, is an expert in world religions, but continues to identify as a Christian. To those who like to dabble in lots of different faith traditions, he says, “If you want to find water, stand in one place and dig as deep as you can.” That’s what being UCC is for me. I certainly find wisdom in other religions, and value my interfaith partners. However, I’ve chosen to stand in one place and dig as deep as I can, rather than dig shallow holes in several different religions.

When people ask me what the United Church of Christ is, I don’t say we’re the most-progressive Christian denomination — even though we’ve certainly led the way, on issues from ordaining women to civil rights. Instead, I tell people we’re the most-inclusive Christian denomination. We are as inclusive as one can possibly be, while still holding onto the Christian tradition. We are the United Church . . . of Christ.

The Force is with us

by Ken McIntosh

This year, the world is celebrating a very special season, in a very special way. Evidence of the unique meaning of this time is a phrase that we hear repeated, in some cases daily.

“May the Force be with you!”

It really is very appropriate for this season, when many of the world’s religions celebrate the battle between the dark side and the light…the winter solstice could perhaps be regarded as one epic lightsaber duel… the annual return of the Jedi. For Christ-followers, it is the time of the year when we choose to celebrate the Force coming to live among us.

John’s Gospel begins with a word of enormous importance…a somewhat mysterious word…and that word is… ‘the Word.’ “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s some ‘Word!’

Oceans of ink have been poured out trying to explain and understand ‘the Word.’ In Greek the word is ‘Logos.’ It has survived and transmuted into our language today whenever we speak of a brand ‘logo.’ The Word ‘Logos’ was used outside of the Bible—used a lot, in fact, for centuries. It had meaning for Jews, Greeks and Romans. And it was still somewhat mysterious.

Jews associated the Divine Logos with the Hebrew word ‘Amar,’ = “to speak, to utter”…as in Genesis 1, “In the Beginning… God spoke, saying let there be…and there was…and it was good.” The first words of John’s Gospel echoes Genesis, “In the Beginning was the Word…”

The Greeks also spoke much of the Word. The Logos was the ordering principle, or the cosmic pattern, that underlay all things. Heraclitus spoke of the Word as the rational and divine intelligence that controlled the universe. In fact, for the Greeks the Word was what made the universe the UNIverse (as opposed to a disordered omni-verse); the Word was the single unifying factor shared by a vast number of diverse phenomenon in the cosmos.

I am sure that if ancient sages could speak to us at the end of 2015 they would readily affirm—“In the beginning was the Force!” Remember Obi Wan’s first description of the force, from the original 1977 Star Wars? “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power… It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” That sounds an awful lot like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus!

So the thinkers and mystics of the ancient world knew the Word the same way that people now know the Force. They could protest, like Han Solo protests in the first movie “There’s no mystical energy field controls my destiny!” Or give benedictions like a Jedi “May the Force be with you!”

But there are things they could not know about the Word…not until “the Word became flesh and made his home among us.”

They could not know that the Word would look at humanity through eyes filled with compassion.

They could not know that the Word would challenge a lynch mob telling them “Whoever is without sin, let them cast the first stone,” and then assure a shamed woman, “Neither do I condemn you.”

They could not know that the Word would weep, shedding tears at the death of a friend.

They could not know that the Word would shed tears again, thinking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and say to the women of Palestine “I have longed to gather you, like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings.”

They could not possibly imagine that the Word would rasp out a phrase, over and over, from the cross, “Abba, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” “Abba, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Force was strong in that One.

Christians have gotten their theology backward, over the centuries. They have sometimes proclaimed “Jesus is like God…Jesus does what God does.” But in fact it’s the reverse. In fact, “God is like Jesus…God does what Jesus does.”

Yes, the Force was in Jesus of Nazareth… and the Force is with us still. Not just a fact of history, but a reality today.

We can feel the Force within us, and…the Force is still speaking.

And that’s Good News for 2016, because the power of the Dark Side still entices us.

In 2016 we need to heed well the words of that ancient prophet of the Word, Master Yoda. Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Fear-talk abounds: be afraid of terrorism, be afraid of refugees, be afraid of people with darker skin, be afraid of people who follow other religions, be afraid of your neighbor, be afraid of the future…be afraid, leading to anger, leading to hate, leading to suffering.”

Jesus still speaks, saying “In this world you will have many troubles, but do not give in to fear, for I have overcome the world!”

God is love.

The Force is love.

Be strong in the Force, and may the Force be with you.


Trapped in a Single Story

by Tyler Connoley

In July of 2009, Chimamanda Adichie gave a Ted Talk in which she talked about the danger of the Single Story. The talk recounts the ways in which we trap groups of people by only telling one story about them. “The single story creates stereotypes,” she said, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

The same is true for the metaphors we use about God. When we only say that God is our Father, and forget that God is our Mother, we trap people in the Single Story. That trap can be damaging for someone who has difficulty connecting with father figures. The same goes for any metaphor that becomes the only metaphor we use for something that is beyond our understanding.

I learned this lesson most-profoundly from a hospice patient I met when I was a chaplain. This woman, who I’ll call Hope, was a devout Christian who was certain that God would welcome her when she died — and yet she was terrified of dying. As I visited Hope over the course of weeks, I couldn’t figure out why she was so afraid, until one day when she opened up to me about the one and only time she had left Grant County. She and her husband had gone to Phoenix to visit his family, and within twenty-four hours of arriving, she had begged him to take her home. “I hate traveling,” she said. “I’ve never left Grant County again.”

As I pondered why she needed to tell me this story now, I finally realized what was making her so afraid. This was a woman who loved life and laughter and exploring ideas, so her family, her friends, and the hospice staff were trying to help ease her fears by talking about the “amazing journey” she would soon be going on. But she was thinking, “I hate traveling.” All she could think about was that trip to Phoenix.

So, we began to talk about “going home.” I invited her to share stories about her mother and father, whom she loved and looked forward to seeing. We talked about her sister, who had died the year before. They loved to cook and eat together, and we imagined the banquet God would prepare for her on her arrival. Hope’s family and friends agreed to use this metaphor when they talked to her, as well. And soon, she was not afraid, but looking forward to her home-going.

I return to Chimamanda Adichie, and her observation about stereotypes. The Single Story is a trap that can be damaging. The problem is not that our metaphors for the Divine and the Beyond are untrue, it is that they are incomplete. We need multiple stories, so each of us can find our place in the stories of God’s people, so the child of a single mother can know his God loves him like his mom, and so Hope can know she’s going home.

The Un-evolving Relationship between Evolution, American Christians, and Climate Change

by Ryan Gear

Last week marked 156 years since Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. Had Darwin lived an incredibly long life, he would be able to see that a high percentage of Christians in 2015 still have trouble with his theory that species evolve over time.

Not only that, he would see that Catholics and Protestants have trouble with the science affirming some human element in climate change. According to a study by Arbuckle and Konisky, a belief in biblical literalism, the same belief behind the denial of evolution, also correlates with a denial of climate change.

While world leaders convene this week in Paris for the COP21 conference on climate change, could it be that the biblically influenced denial of science is actually what is slowing our country’s progress on mitigating climate change? If so, perhaps the place to begin is with a treatment of the Bible’s relationship with the theory of evolution.

Conservative Christian groups like the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans believe that the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Bible’s teaching of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 (Roman Catholics and mainline Christians see evolution as compatible with Christian faith). The groups who reject evolution do so because the Genesis creation accounts appear to have God creating the heavens and the earth in six 24-hour days.

Even those who hold to a more literal reading of the Bible have proposed that Genesis 1:1 leaves room for a gap of unknown time, making it possible to reconcile evolution with a literal reading of the Bible. This is not the only way of reconciling faith and science. In a post I wrote for the religion blog Onfaith entitled 10 Things Evangelicals Aren’t Supposed to Say, I cited evidence that there are actually two creation accounts in Genesis chapters 1-2.

This evidence, however, is unconvincing to a significant percentage of American Christians. The Pew Research Center found that:

Only a minority of Americans fully accept evolution through natural selection. About two-thirds (65%) of U.S. adults say humans have evolved over time, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey on science and society. But only a little more than half of that group (35%) expresses the belief that humans and other living things evolved solely due to natural processes. About a quarter (24%) of U.S. adults say that evolution was guided by a supreme being. The same survey found that 31% of Americans reject evolution entirely, saying that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

As to the role of religion, a full 64% of American white evangelicals reject the evidence accepted by 98% of American scientists, that humans and other species evolved. According to the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans who reject evolution has remained relatively unchanged since 1982.

Evangelical Christian and scientist Francis Collins believes that it doesn’t have to be this way. As head of the Human Genome Project, Collins argues that DNA essentially proves the theory of evolution to be true, and that evolution does not have to be a threat to any religious person’s faith. As a believer in theistic evolution, Collins writes:

But I have no difficulty putting that together with what I believe as a Christian because I believe that God had a plan to create creatures with whom he could have fellowship, in whom he could inspire [the] moral law, in whom he could infuse the soul, and who he would give free will as a gift for us to make decisions about our own behavior, a gift which we oftentimes utilize to do the wrong thing.

I believe God used the mechanism of evolution to achieve that goal. And while that may seem to us who are limited by this axis of time as a very long, drawn-out process, it wasn’t long and drawn-out to God. And it wasn’t random to God.

Even though secular scientists may not agree with his explanation, Christians can. It is a better alternative to denying evidence-based science and human discovery, altogether. More importantly, due to the correlation between biblical literalism and climate change denial, it just might save our planet.


Bad Theology, Good Riddance

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I have loads of bad theology. It’s rotten. It reeks. It’s spoiled. It’s bad. I came by it honestly, though. I wasn’t rooting around in another person’s garden to get it. I lived amongst it and couldn’t even tell that it was so rotten. I don’t think it would behoove us for me to display it here as though I am posting my lunch on Instagram. I think it would help to just say, “There is a lot of rotten stuff here and it needs to be cleared out for some new life.”

Back in 2008, I spent a week at Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, Arizona. I like to call it DHOP and borrow the tagline, “Come hungry, leave happy”. I chose to enter into silence for that whole week with not really any agenda besides an openness to God. I brought some books along, primarily Marcus Borg and Shelby Spong. Their words merged within me, creating space for questions I had long stopped asking. I prayed a great deal that week. I hiked, even getting on top of a huge rock that was next to impossible to get down from easily. This is  indicative of how I have lived much of my life, actually, setting out for a stroll and encountering unexpected “adventure”.

Borg and Spong (who I lovingly blended into the word Bong for that week) made room for me to think, talk and explore who Jesus was to me. I had spent the seven years before unpacking who Jesus wasn’t and I really hadn’t done much more than that since. I thought the church that I came from, for all intents and purposes, owned Jesus. I thought they were right that I was unacceptable. I thought they had the ability to determine insiders and outsiders. I didn’t consciously think these thoughts, mind you, but I lived my life as if they were true.

Now, here I was, in silence, no external voices to tell me if I was right, wrong, or crazy. The last three days I only had silence as my companion. I even refrained from reading more of Bong (it’s growing on you, isn’t it?). I was aware of an aching, deep void that was left in the dissolution of friendships from the church I once adored. The aching deep void that God could not be accessed by me anymore. Here’s the beauty, though. It is in voids that God speaks and creates. It was in that void that I began to ask questions and seek Jesus once more.

Let me be clear that I do not have anything profound to say about who Jesus is after this soul searching. I don’t really think we need to have yet another voice on the topic entering into the “Nah-ah” and “Uh-huh” debate that gets played out all the time. This isn’t actually about the theology that I ended up embracing. This is more about the unexpected grace I experienced when I became willing.

Over the last three days of my time at DHOP, I cried a lot. I wrote letters to people I love and who love me. I wrote letters, too, to the people I loved who rejected me in the name of God. I held space for the really hard stuff and found that as I did, it started lifting. It wasn’t a tangled mess of anxiety, sadness and anger anymore. It was becoming just an experience that I had, not the only experience I ever had which is what it had felt like before. As this clearing happened, I was able to access love, goodness, forgiveness, kindness again. I prayed for the people who had rejected me and  I actually, finally, meant it.

The last evening I was there, I sat on the front porch with my eyes closed, just enjoying the sound of the birds, the gentle breeze, the freedom from city noise. As I sat there, I heard someone gasp. I opened my eyes and not even a foot away from me was a beautiful, perfect deer. The woman who gasped was on the sidewalk about three feet away. Neither of us moved. The deer did not look at all frightened. She gazed back at me gently. I began to cry without realizing it, just silent tears pouring down my face. She moved on from us and went back toward the desert area. I looked at the stranger, made friend by a powerful moment we had just shared, and all she said to me was, “Wow!”

I have found that once I am willing to relinquish the places within that are causing decay and pain internally, there is not much else I need to do except be present with my God and present with creation all around me. When I am experiencing openness of heart, generosity of spirit, kindness of thought things just happen. I become the deer, I become the stranger, I become the silent one in waiting. It feels as though I am bearing witness to my own life in these moments rather than being the agent that controls and launches them.

I have been struggling again with parts of theology that are life-snuffing versus life giving. It comes in an ebb and flow for me, this realization of theology that hurts. A dear friend of mine shared his own experience with recognizing a bad theology he had that was impacting his choices daily. I relate to that, the underlying moral imperative that is neither moral nor imperative. In the spirit of willingness, I get to work on clearing the bad theology out. For me, this means honesty in prayer, honesty in writing and honesty in talking. This work is not easy, there are reasons some may never attempt it. For me, though, it just hurts too much not to work on clearing it out.

Here’s what I do know to be true and it is the driving force behind the hard work of excavation: All it really takes is willingness. That’s really it. A recognition that it hurts and a willingness to simply just let it go. Because you see, dear one, there’s just something about willingness that grace can’t get enough of.

Your Hyphens

by Karen Richter

I am a woman-wife-mother-introvert.

multiple religious belonging - intersectionality
Whooo are you?

I am a democrat-progressive-child advocate.

I am a Christian-universalist-meditator-educator.

We all have many layers of our identity, different roles emphasized at different times or in different settings.

Later today at Shadow Rock UCC, people interested in the idea of people identifying with more than one religious tradition will be gathering.  Some will be folks who themselves identify as Christian-Buddhist or church-attending Jew or Muslim-Christian or Sikh-Wiccan.  Other participants will be religious leaders who want to prepare their faith communities to better meet people of faith who claim a variety of backgrounds.  Some – like me – will be curious and eager, coming with questions and assumptions about what this might mean to the future of faith.

Yesterday, I saw a video online about a Palestinian woman who is striving to be an active participant in the struggle for Palestinian identity and liberation as a woman.  Activists often call this ‘intersectionality.’ I found this definition (thanks Google!) of intersectionality quickly, but I didn’t really need it.  It’s one of those things that you know when you see it.

Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination by examining the complex multiple facets of identity of an individual such as race, gender, class, sex and age.

My best understanding of intersectionality is that society often appears to ask people to choose and prioritize from among their identities.  Are you advocating for families or union workers?  Are you representing African-Americans or women?  Intersectionality pushes back against this phenomenon, instead recognizing that people crave space to be their whole selves… bringing every bit of their identities and experiences to bear on issues and decisions.

So, why are we even a little bit surprised when this idea of wholeness and recognition and valuing unique experiences breaks into religious communities?  Maybe a Christian-Hindu should surprise and challenge us no more than a Native American feminist.  Don’t we want churches to be places where people can be their whole selves and be welcomed?  Don’t we want more genuine people in the world?

These kinds of developments remind me that as a species we are still growing, maturing, evolving.  It’s exasperating!  And it makes me hopeful for the future.

The gathering begins at lunch today.  Join the conversation.

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