Monthly Archives: February 2012

Time Out

Why do we think that we are so important that life won’t go on without us at the helm?  Or maybe it’s just me.  It happens every academic quarter.  I intend to take time to care for myself, to go on retreat, to find space for deeper reflection, but the calendar fills up quickly.  Someone asks for a meeting – I see the day is clear so I put it on the schedule.  Students come up with an idea to visit a museum and I fill in another previously free day.  The opportunity to attend a training workshop arises – and yes, what had been an empty calendar is now completely full.  On the surface it looks good.  I’m getting work done and make needed connections with people.  But it’s not long before this gets out of hand.  My days have little time during which I can reflect as I go from task to task.

Right now I’m tired.  My body and head are weary.  Yet I want to do more, especially connect with people and develop sustainable ministries.  Will a full calendar really make that happen?   I fear having blank spaces.  If one activity doesn’t work out, then I have something to fall back on the next day.  A worship time may not draw many students one week, but a Bible study might, or a dinner, or a field trip.  Eventually it’s numbers that I’m looking at instead of relationships with people. With such a frenetic pace, it’s difficult to engage more deeply in any of the activities.

As I hurry between scheduled events in this full calendar, God is more of a talisman – something that I look to to encourage me in my rush.  Instead, I would rather that he be the grid and the cells of the calendar – providing the very essence of life in a marvelous world of creation.  The end result may not efficient or well planned, but it would be more real and relating.  In such a structure I can step back, wait, talk to students about their lives, encourage them in their callings, and allow God to work.  This is much different than rushing to build a structured week of activities that I hope will attract students.  Though out of the deeper conversations a structure may come.  As it does it will be done within a community instead of the need of one person to be in control.

It is time to allow for this space in my calendar.  To rest and live between events.  To leave one weekend a month unplanned, to not schedule activities back-to-back, to make time to think and plan.  Trusting not so much in my ability to schedule, but in God’s very real presence in the stories that are between the events and the divine appointments throughout a day.

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Categories: Campus Ministry, Journey Living | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cracks in the Abbey

It’s a cold February Sunday evening, I’ve finished my work, wrapped myself in a thick blanket, and have the television turned on.  I’m ready to be immersed in a story – Downton Abbey.  Somehow I had missed this series’ arrival on these shores.  Yet, it didn’t take long to catch up and for the last seven weeks I’ve been engaged in the lives of Mary and Matthew, Sybil, Mr. Bates and Anna, Daisy, and others.  The microcosm of this English abbey and its interaction with the wider world has provided an escape from weekly routines.  In such a ‘home’ and village, how could there be anything but fantastic stories?  It’s not another bar down the street, a house in the suburbs, or a city apartment.  Yet, something in these shows has me reflecting on my own life as well – beyond a desire for fine clothes, lavish surroundings, and an adoring suitor.

At one level it’s great fun to think of myself entering the story as one of the ladies of the manor – growing up in a world of privilege with plenty of time just to sit on a bench under a tree and read.  Yes, I would enjoy a slower paced life and the safe structures of a well-defined society with apparently no real worries.  However, at the same time, the many constraints and expectations would eventually drive me crazy.  What’s wrong with attending a political rally or seeking out my own mate?  Why must I dress for dinner and be kind to the guest who is obviously using the family?  The stress of keeping up appearances is all too apparent in most of the characters as cracks in their individual and intertwined stories emerge.

These cracks grew larger as the season finale brought several characters to moments when the stories they had been bravely trying to author, fall apart.  After the war the macro-predictability of Edwardian England is gone, as well as the micro-predictability of one’s role as a servant or even an earl.  What they had expected out of life is often no longer possible.  This can be frightening or merely irritating to someone intent on keeping the comforts of past decades.  However, it can contain also the seeds of freedom.  After creating self-made prisons in order to bear responsibility for mistakes, several characters take the risk of speaking about their offenses.  Intimations of their prisons draw family members and friends to draw out these confessions.  Fearing rejection, they are surprised when their errors don’t condemn them to a life of judgement.  Instead, their honesty provides a new path for a life not previously imagined.  In the aftermath of war, more importance is put on living in an honest mess, than a perfect lie.

I can’t wait to enter this world again on Sunday evenings.  In the mean time I’ll be pondering some questions and looking at the cracks in my own story: What lies am I using to protect myself and others?  What structures in my life and work are useless and even counter-productive?  What new worlds might courageous honesty open?  And, of course, how can I find that adoring suitor with a fantastic accent?

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Ideas in Place

Sitting at a desk in front of a blank computer screen or piece of paper – that is the image of the writer beginning to work.  Ready to dump creativity onto a blank canvas.  But how often does that really happen?  Yes, writers need to develop a discipline to sit down and write.  I’m doing that at the moment.  But sometimes this needs to take place away from our normal environment in order to engage new creativity muscles.

Many years ago, in what seems another life, I had the opportunity to spend a day at an unusual idea generating site – the Eureka! Ranch.  Before arriving, I thought we would be in yet another office space, walls lined with newsprint ready for a day of brainstorming.  However, when we drove into the parking lot it was immediately apparent that this place would be different.  We were not entering an office complex, but parking in front of an actual ranch house – complete with full-length front porch.  Once inside the doors color, sound, and images were everywhere. Our facilitators used a multitude of games, pictures, and conversations to help to generate ideas beyond those that we already held.  It was not only about getting down what’s inside, but providing an environment that nurtures more.

As writers we’re not creating the next great toy or tool or program that needs to fit in with the marketing expectations of the public.  Writing is a solitary activity, except for times of feedback from friends and editors.  Yet, we too are creating a product that will have an audience.  We are looking for new ideas that will connect with other people while still being true to our individual strengths and interests.  What external stimuli help you to make these connections?  For me it’s often a place – especially places that put me in other stories.

When I wrote my comprehensive exams for a masters degree in English I left the campus of Xavier University.  In ten minutes I was in Cincinnati’s Eden Park sitting on the lawn with bluebooks and pen in hand.  Being able to look up and see the sun and gaze at the gardens was so different than sitting at a formica desk under fluorescent lights.  I don’t know if I wrote anything more insightful in this place, but my spirit sure was different.  I didn’t freeze up when I encountered a difficult question and I felt that I was in the midst of serious play – even during a timed exam.

Later, while working on ideas for papers during my doctoral studies and finally a dissertation, I again went outside – on walks, to museums, and even across the country.  At times I would just sit at home in front of the computer, willing ideas to come.  I would also force myself to write and put words on the page – often very uninspired.  But when I allowed myself to go out, something would snap inside and I would picture a new way of putting together the ideas.  At some point in the process I would have to sit and compose, edit, and rewrite, and rewrite.  However, mixing up the places where I did these things made a difference.

Where do you need to go to create?  To the park down the street, the desk in the midst of bulging library shelves, or even overseas.  Places between your current life and the one you envision.  Places where you walk in, take a large breath, and relax.

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Accidental Disciple-maker

“Make disciples of all nations” is the overarching mission that Jesus has given to his followers.  As a campus minister this is one of my core goals, but it’s not happening.

These past years in campus ministry I’ve been frustrated at not having started up a lasting and sustainable small group in which students are growing in discipleship.  Student leaders have seemed non-existent.  And discipling students? Forget about it.  I pictured myself meeting with students and having intense conversations about the Bible and spiritual disciplines. I set up meetings over coffee, start asking questions about their lives, and never get to connecting their stories with the Bible or their faith journeys.  I tell myself that I’m not an expert in discipleship and really haven’t done the greatest job in my own life.  So, I’ve been holding back from going deeper until I have a foundation of a full discipleship curriculum.  Then, I reason, I can make disciples.

At one of these coffee conversations, a student and I were talking about the need many graduate students have for support during their grad school careers – especially as their individual research and writing begins.  She described how developing an original proposal, conducting the research, and then writing it up is daunting.  Somewhere during this conversation I suggested starting a support group.  I didn’t know what it would look like, but both of us thought it was doable and needed.

Over the past year we’ve continued to meet to discuss our vision for the group and her journey through qualifying exams.  In these conversations, I don’t feel that I’m forcing an  agenda or need to spout out a list of spiritual disciplines.  Instead, we are two individual followers of Christ listening to one another and dreaming up ways to reach out on campus – be it through a writing group.  Writing is the center of this group – from how to begin the process to receiving comments from fellow students.  We will write and support – and include prayer.

Reflecting on these conversations it hit me – this is discipleship.  It happened without my planning for it.  It’s walking with another in their faith journey – encouraging and challenging at times.  It’s also developing a group that is based on the interests of students.  Where I can help is bringing in some questions that help students think about faith in relation to their lives, specifically their research.  It doesn’t have to be a loaded curriculum of the ten must-have discipleship practices.  Instead it meets individual students in their stories.

This is a conversation I would like to repeat.  Spending time listening to students’ dreams, their stories, and finding ways together to grow in faith and reach out on campus.  When I come with an agenda, it seems forced and rarely turns out.  But when I question and listen, God does work.  Now to open my eyes to more of these divine accidents.

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Pilgrimage: A Journey to a Story

Moors of Haworth

A journey to a story – this definition of pilgrimage deeply resonated with me when I first encountered it in the book The Life you Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. Stories are powerful elements of our world.  When connected to places these stories can take on new dimensions.  In fact they can lead to the transformation that often accompanies pilgrimage as a person seeks to entwine themselves in a story that relates to some of their deepest ideas of self.  Walking the paths of story is a powerful way to learn more about specific pieces of literature –  it opens a person up to learn from literature, not just about it.  Let me take you back to one of my first.

On a cloudy afternoon in July of 1993, I boarded a bus in York, England, to complete a solitary, five-hour journey that had begun in London the day before.  I was a bit nervous heading out on my own, away from my study abroad group for an entire weekend in an unknown country.  The bus schedules I used to plan this trip were unclear and I did not know if I would make all the necessary connections.  Still, I went.

Two hours later, the bus stopped at the foot of a hill that led to Haworth, the village where Emily, Charlotte, and Ann Brontë had lived.  After touring the Brontë Parsonage, I turned at last toward the moors, the land that had drawn me to England in the first place.  The sky was clear and the sun shone along the paths through the wild expanses of purple heather. I couldn’t believe I was actually here.  Along the way I alternately scanned the horizon to grasp its breadth and bent down to touch the heather.  Then, without warning, clouds gathered and the land’s shadows were the guides along the same paths that now evoked a more solemn mood.  My walking slowed to match. Through changing weather conditions the landscape appeared as a vast, and at times turbulent, sea of green, blue, and gray.

Such continual transformation echoes the changing passions that move the characters through Wuthering Heights.  At that point I more deeply understood Emily Brontë’s description of young Catherine Linton that compares her to the land in which “shadows and sunshine [flit] over it, in rapid succession” (202).  The land, and associated weather patterns, evoked a more intense emotion than I had gained by reading the book alone.  Brontë provided a visible image of the depth of passion, particularly melancholy, that was encroaching on young Catherine’s life.  This passion was not only an internal trait, but also a composition of her interaction with the environment and other characters.

Although I could not explain it at that time, this novel had moved from being an object created primarily within the imagination of the author or reader, to being a living transaction among a place, author, and me. From that moment on I’ve been exploring pilgrimage, particularly those associated with literature, and am continually amazed at the transformations that arise at unexpected moments and in unexpected places.

Categories: Literary Pilgrimages | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Story of a Pilgrim

I have been on a journey through life, punctuated by intense sojourns to places of significant stories.  These moments put faith and life into relief, helping me to grasp that which is often hidden deeply within.  Over the past twenty years I have spent time exploring how faith weaves into life, through involvement in a small Lutheran church, participation with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as well as through job stints as an economic analyst, strategic planner at a zoo’s education department, site director of an AmeriCorps program, and now a campus minister.  Each of these opportunities helped me to see through different perspectives how the Word of God infiltrates the world today.  During this same time I was also exploring another type of journey, that of literary pilgrimage – a journey to a place of literary significance.  These interactions of place, literature, and pilgrim provided additional insight into literature, as well as provided a journey into faith – whether the site was Walden Pond; Assisi, Italy; or Haworth, England.

Now I’m taking these works beyond my comfortable confines and sharing them with others.  Through posting words on this blog, engaging with students in campus ministry, and talking with people throughout the community, I want to learn more about this practice of sacred journey.  What stories do we carry with us?  How do specific places and journeys change our lives?  How is it possible to redeem pilgrimage – walk those paths of stories that can help us see our stories more clearly within God’s larger narrative?

At least once a week I plan to share observations of journeys I’ve taken, thoughts of pilgrimage, adventures in daily life, reflections on readings, integrating pilgrimage into ministry, and much more.  However, this isn’t only a place for me to wax eloquent, but a place to create a community of pilgrims sharing our journeys together and learning from one another.  A place to share stories as a way to create and cultivate culture.  I hope you are ready to take up your walking staff.

Categories: Literary Pilgrimages | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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