Posts Tagged With: community

Pilgrims Along the Way

IMG_4070While I’m redecorating my home as a pilgrimage way station, I find myself in a comfortable and familiar role – leading the planning and execution of a project at my own pace and in my own way. For now a lot of this work, especially the design, has been a solo endeavor with some great co-laborers to bring the larger projects to fruition.

As the bookcases are filled with books, I sit in this space and imagine the people who will fill the chairs and sofas. I want friends and family to gather for meals, conversations, and creative endeavors. I see much laughter and inspiration as dreams come to fruition in this place. It’s an idealized picture without any problems.

Yet, I know that if real relationships are to flourish, there will be difficult times. Conflicts that erupt in small group meetings over biblical interpretation or understanding of the world. Meals that don’t turn out. People that don’t show up. Misunderstandings over family priorities. Opening my house means opening my life and being vulnerable. With this realization, slowly the ideal pictures fade and fear takes over. In this fear I could easily sink into my safe solitariness and defend it by claiming the need to restore my energy as an introvert.

In journeys of pilgrimage, people come together in places of vulnerability. As we seek to get closer to the deep story that is drawing us on a life journey, the false ones must be stripped away if we are to go any further. Just as Aslan tore the dragon skin from Eustace Scrub in C. S. Lewis’ novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we must allow God and the community around us to remove that which is keeping us from a full life.

Now that I’m in the midst of creating a new space, I wonder how to develop not only an environment that is welcoming, but also a character that is open to stripping away the comfortable fear and the pride that keep people at a distance? I won’t be able to control the individuals who enter this place as I do the redecoration – not unless I want to destroy relationships. Though I may not always be comfortable with it, I know that other travelers are an essential part of the journey – and not only in pilgrimage, but also in the life of a Christian. From the beginning, God knew it was not good that Adam was alone. Furthermore, as part of God’s new covenant, we are even called the Body of Christ, together.

51hOom4ewOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In this time of redesigning not only my basement, but also my life, I’ve stumbled upon the second novel by Sharon Garlough Brown, Two Steps Forward: A Story of Persevering in Hope. The continuation of the story started in Sensible Shoes finds four women, Meg, Hannah, Mara, and Charissa, moving through the crises in their lives as they seek to be more attentive to God through spiritual disciplines and in community. Practicing these disciplines isn’t a secret key to resolve all their family, career, and relationship issues. Neither are these disciplines easy or the community in which they find themselves always comforting.

Yet, in the midst of the messiness of their lives, I felt each woman’s struggle to hold on to hope – not hope in the world, but in Christ. This hope allows each of them to loosen the grip on the false stories in which they have been living. In broken lives, with humble postures, and through faithful community with God and one another, their lives are reborn in the midst of struggle. This is the type of life I long for myself and others to know.

In this story I see possibilities for community. Images of real people practicing prayer, stepping forward in pain, and caring for one another. In short, they are sharing life together.

It’s soon time to think about making invitations to the first group of fellow pilgrims to this way station. What will we do? How will we gather? I want to fill this space with more than a picture-perfect version of community. Maybe we could even begin with this novel as we find a new way together.

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Putting Life in a Spreadsheet

Rows. Columns.  Cells.  It’s all so neat and organized.  What’s not to like about a spreadsheet?

A few weeks ago the writing group I’m in challenged me to submit my writing life to a spreadsheet.  This practice would be a means to prioritize all the projects I want to do and which are greatly outpacing my can-do’s.  For a long time I’ve rejected setting priorities and choosing among all the good opportunities and ideas before me.  But as the list has grown, I’ve only succeeded in being overwhelmed, not in getting anything done.

My first response to this ever growing list has been to break down projects into tasks – manageable activities to accomplish in a given day that will direct me to the eventual end product.  A seemingly sensible way to respond.  However, I’m finding that I see these tasks as void of the meaning of the project as a whole.  Afraid that I may get too enamored and lose myself in the work – or be lost focusing too much on the end product – I create a utilitarian list of work and lose the heart and enjoyment.

In this place of frustration, I submitted my life to a sheet.  Each row was a project and each column was a pro or con response.  In each cell, the intersection of the project and the possible responses, I made a check or left it blank.  Tallying up the pros and cons, there are clear patterns.  I would like to say that now all my scheduling problems are objectively solved.  They aren’t.  But a larger picture of what and why I’m doing started to emerge again.  It is definitely subjective, but at least it reveals the subjectivity driving my decisions instead of hiding it behind a mushrooming task list.

It became quite clear that I most enjoy engaging with content – travel, reading, study, pilgrimage.  These are life-giving practices that I often set on the back burner until everything else is done.  This is the stuff in which I can get lost.  Yet this is the heart of why I want to write and teach – to share what has encouraged me and help others discover their better stories.  In my current mode of working, I fail to see how this is part of my current life and how to incorporate it in the future – whether in my life or that of others.

It’s time to write and teach out of these interests instead of trying to take on someone else’s methods.  For example, instead of looking around at what others are doing in campus ministry and attempting to copy methods that ‘succeed’ or that I think others expect, I could more fully incorporate ideas of story and pilgrimage.  I could also do some exploring on UC’s campus in the areas of literature and travel to discover ways to be a part of this world on campus.  Now to find a pilgrimage/study adventure with others.

Community is important to me as well, whether it’s built through the internet or in local groups.  It probably needs to be both.  Though this is scary as I think about stepping out.  I’m so used to being cautious, hiding behind limits posed from external and internal sources, making excuses for not being involved, and then fading away as I return to safe havens.  But there is much more to true community.  I want to go honestly into these groups, no pretension or hiding, but with a joy of living as the image of God that I and others carry.

Editing this darn book on literary pilgrimage is close behind building community.  Why is it so painful?  Why do I continue to put it off?  It’s in a place of limbo.  I don’t really know what it wants to be, yet haven’t really done research to see where it’s going. There is so much of me within it I am fearful that it/I will be rejected.  But I’m also afraid that it will die away.  It is almost a decade since I went on the adventures.  Oh, I just need to take time to dive into it again.  Maybe I need to integrate the pilgrimage of publishing within the other pilgrimage work.

This is not the end of the spreadsheet – the neatness of the rows and cells still call me.  Ironically, the stark gridlines have emphasized that something was missing from all this prioritizing – the heart, enjoyment, and life of work.  It’s not that these haven’t existed in the work that’s on my list, it’s primarily that I’ve forgotten them under the weight of planning to finish projects.

Heart.  Joy.  Life.  Who wouldn’t want to jump into work where these are found?

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Don’t Let Your Heart Be Troubled

Moments of this campus ministry journey include intense times of planning and executing activities during which I must be ‘on’ for five or more hours – talking with students, leading discussions, giving tours of the house, helping volunteers.  All this while also seeing how I might help students connect with God’s story.  During these times it’s easy to focus on food and games, trying to keeping everyone happy.  Or, to think about how the event is not living up to my expectations.

At 6:30pm this past Tuesday I was discouraged because there was not a line outside of the door ready for our annual international meal.  Some students were inside, but many of these were returning from last year.  The rush of new students didn’t appear.  I was reluctant to begin and almost wanted to apologize.  I had people bring all this food for what?

Then a handful of new students walked in – we prayed and headed to the kitchen to fill our plates.  Several times throughout the evening students came in the front door.  There may not have been a long line to start, but it turns out that these small forays worked better.  I was able to focus on each group for awhile instead of being overwhelmed with a large mass of students at once.  Hmm . . . maybe my expectations needed some rearranging?

Once I was more comfortable with the number of people, I started to be concerned when I realized that I hadn’t really prepared anything to catalyze community.  We had good food and people, but how would individuals connect?  I tried to keep the conversation going in the dining room.  However, the energy that comes when people start building a community didn’t seem to happen.  Fearful that people would start getting up to leave, I started to panic.  I couldn’t force them to stay and interact.

But there might be something that would help.  So, when people started moving to the front room I pulled out Jenga, the block stacking game.  I didn’t know if it would work, but slowly people gathered, started coming together, and laughing.  Don’t get me wrong – we didn’t end up with life-long friends talking about the deep mysteries of God that evening.  Yet, a sense of community started and hopefully several of these students will continue on their journeys us in the coming weeks.

Both of these moments were reminders of not letting my heart be troubled – John 14:1, 27 – in the liminal moments of this ministry.  Not an easy thing to do, but these words of Jesus to his disciples could be my mantra during the coming year.  Also, as I look to build community within the group I need to remember that it won’t just happen.  On this journey, there will be moments during which I’ll need to facilitate interaction and not just expect it.  God even had his ways – a burning bush, a ladder with angels, questions.

Could get interesting . . .

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Broken Sabbaths

I don’t know about you, but I have many broken sabbaths under my belt.  I hear about people taking Sunday, or perhaps another day of the week, to rest, spend time with family, and open themselves to God.  A part of me longs for such a day.  However, work intrudes, especially church work – meetings, reports, activities.  Then, by the time the day has ended I look back and wonder what just happened.  Rushing from one activity to another I become lost, unhinged.  Once the evening hits I’m weary, definitely not eager for the work week to begin.  Reflecting on this manic days, several common threads occur to me.

  • My work and I are indispensable.  I must be part of all these activities or things will fall apart.  If I’m not at a meeting, who knows what will happen?  In a similar vein, I have a sense that  I must get all the work on my calendar finished in order for other people’s activities to proceed.  Sometimes this is true. However, the list never really shortens no matter how much I work on Sundays.
  • Poor planning.  Empty days rarely remain such on my calendar.  If someone comes and offers an opportunity, I rarely say no.  With the calendar full of events, I don’t leave time for the care needed for the most important projects and relationships in my life.  To address this problem, Sunday often becomes a day of cleaning up loose ends.  Yet, when I get to Monday, even if I’m a bit ahead with my list, I’m so exhausted that I find it difficult to work effectively.
  • I can live without it.  Doing is more important than being.  Even though I may not voice it, a deep part of me believes that those people who need to take a sabbath are weak.  I, on the other hand, don’t need to rest from work.  So, I come home from church, where I spend time meeting with people, planning activities, and putting chairs in order, and jump into a project.  A nap might be sandwiched in between, but I am proud of the work that is calling me.

Ultimately fear underlies all these other issues. What will I do?  The emptiness of the day scares me.  I should be doing something productive.  Something of worth.  Not wasting time.  It’s easier to set myself up to work on the next project, than to meet this emptiness.  Even relating to people gets dicey.  Meetings and such are well-defined, but just hanging out . . .  What will happen?

Looking at just a few of my reasons for not keeping the Sabbath, it’s clear that it’s not the Sabbath that’s broken.  I am the one slipping into faulty reasoning and comfortable ruts.  In the midst of all this rushing, on the Sabbath and other days, I have a growing sense that I am losing something even more important than getting work accomplished.  The community around me is slowly eroding.

My first response is that I just don’t have time to keep up relationships.  However, Judith Shulevitz in her book, The Sabbath World, contends that the Sabbath actually creates space for community.  This practice allows for the time needed to draw people into relationships.  Without the need to rush around to work and other obligations, people come together – for meals, games, being.  Sounds plausible.  It also speaks to a deep need within my soul.

So, as a first step in keeping the sabbath I will be sitting down with this book.  Anyone want to join in?

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The Writing Life – Solitary or Communal?

What a solitary journey the writing life can be.  We create alone.  Only we as individuals can put pen to paper or fingers to keys to share the ideas that are in our minds.  We need time away from everything and everyone to reach the deep waters of creativity within.  Consider the image of a writer with well-worn clothes and crumpled paper at his feet, furiously working in an empty garret.  Or, within the walls of a beach house on an island looking out at the sea, typing away on the novel that has been welling up within her for years.

But do we have to be alone?  When working on individual projects it is necessary to spend time apart from others – sometimes many hours.  However, that does not mean that we are by ourselves.  We are surrounded by many who have gone before us – authors, teachers, family, or friends.  They are part of the community that has shaped and continues to shape us.  I can’t sit down to write without feeling a sense of the joy of reading.  That little girl who loved to hear her mother read books before bed is grown, but the comfort of those stories and of the people who shared them with me continues.

Walden Pond

In addition, as I write I am in the worlds of Jane Eyre and Heidi, Walden Pond and the Bible.  Books have and continue to be an essential part of my being.  I am drawn to the words and to the characters.  Sometimes I remember the plots and settings as if I had lived them.  I can return to them intentionally.  Along with their works, authors’ lives influence me as I learn about their inspirations, practices, and trials.  They are all part of this creative community.

Then there are those who are actively part of my writing today: teachers, writing groups, readers of blogs.  We sharpen each other’s art as we see how ideas play among a group.  To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to engage with such a community.  It’s safe to keep writing for myself and only dream about sending it into the world.  However, I’m more and more aware that writing is not only about putting words on a page in solitude.  It is also about engaging others with those words – and engaging with the words of others. The small writing group I’m involved with keeps me honest, provides thoughtful encouragement, and keeps me writing.  Through this blog I’m learning that there may be even more who are part of this community and who can hone this work.

Ultimately, that lone artist image isn’t so ideal or even true.  Writing and other creative endeavors do not need to be solitary practices. Why should they be?  The ultimate creator – God – created the earth in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and continues to even involve his ultimate creation, humanity, in this project.

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New Stories Emerge from a Store’s Closing

Borders, the bookstore, closed.  It’s been nearly a year, but I still remember the punch to my stomach I felt when I first heard the news.  What will we do with all these stores closing?  Is this indeed the beginning of the end of the corner bookstore?  I had these end times thoughts in mind, but also the loss of convenience and the effect on the local area.  Where will I have a place to explore when I’m in need of a book?  What else could possibly would move into this space?  Yet, the stories found in this space were not coming to an end.

With the closing came the sale.  At first I was reluctant to go.  It was as if I was profiting from another’s loss.  But I got over that quickly.  On the first day of the sale, I was there.  The close out signs were new and the shelves were still full and well kept.  This was only the first foray.  A week later the prices were a bit lower and I had more money in my checking account.  Again I went through the shelves.  This time they were a little messier.  People had been going through them.  I was intent on buying.  So I looked for books I had always wanted to read or have copies of – Alice in Wonderland, Paradise Lost, The Jungle, The Aeneid.  Modern novels and ancient philosophy.  Soon my arms were laden with books.  Like a kid in a candy store, I let myself go.

Two weeks later, I passed the store again and noticed yet another markdown – 30-60%.  It was time to return.  This time the books had been picked over and not always returned to their proper places.  What had been empty shelves were now filled with other items the liquidator needed to sell – slippers, blankets, and many stuffed animals.  I noticed one sign that read purchase at least 8 books would get you another 15% off.  Well, that was that.  I would find eight books.  Over to the literature section, the religion, and history.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Plato’s Republic.  All for the taking.  I saw several books I had put off buying before, but at 40% off, who could resist.  Not I.

My boundaries were down.  It was time to consider filling life with more stories.  It felt good to hold these books.  I couldn’t wait to dig into them when it was time.  Just having a stash on my bookcase gave me a feeling of wealth.   I was nearly salivating with eagerness to crack open these books – not purchased because they are for work, but because I’ve wanted to read them.  The books I bought were soon sitting on my shelves.  Merely paper.  But when I read them, when others read and we talked, they would come to life.  The space between the covers is ripe for potential, though they seemed rather dead on the shelves of a closeout store.

Even as I was getting excited about the opportunities these books held out for me, I wondered what would happen with this space.  No longer did it have even a pretension of being a third-place, a place in which community may form.  It had become solely a place where people were consuming books, not taking time to really look at them.  I longed for a place to create and cultivate – building on the ideas in the books.  To mull over these written thoughts and talk with others.

It’s been less than a year later and last night I was again in that building, this time with a book group.  For the past four months we’ve been meeting at the new bookstore in town – Joseph-Beth Booksellers.  One month a close friend, Jana Riess, joined us to talk about her book Flunking Sainthood, a month later a graduate student from the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Department gave us greater insight into the life at Pompeii, and last night we pondered the often unheard history of the Native Americans after reading Dee Brown’s, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  What had been a potential loss, has turned into a new opportunity to draw people to read and create places that will invite in others.  Now I’m not wondering about an empty space, but about the new stories that are generating from its re-created midst.

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Study Bibles

“Study Bibles are ruining community.”  I recently heard this statement at a conference on narrative and the gospel.   I may not like a lot of the study Bibles out there, but ruining community?  Really?

It used to be that people would read the Bible and seek to understand how it related to their lives through their interactions within a Christian community.  Pastors and other teachers would lay the foundations of how to understand God’s Word and friends and family would share stories of God working in their lives.  This was an interactive, living approach to God’s Word.  However, with study Bibles available for everyone from women to firefighters to environmentalists, an individual can select one that will speak just to her, get the answers, and then be on her way.  There is no need to engage with others in our faith walk.  The answers are neatly laid out for us.

This seems like an efficient way to learn.  It is also a lot safer for my ego.  If I’m not living up to the expectations I read in God’s Word, only I need to know about it.  It’s also much easier to twist the Bible to mean what I want if I’m not reading it with other people who are aware of my weaknesses.  But as we rely primarily on distant experts and stop sharing our stories with one another there is a loss of real community in our churches.  We become a group of individuals finding our own way to live out the faith and trying to convince others that we are doing well.

So what might be a response to this focus on individual faith – whether prompted by study Bibles or a multitude of other reasons?

  • Where do we find places to dig more deeply into our lives and connect with others?
  • Places where we can learn from one another as we see how God is working?
  • Places where it’s okay to tell about the mess in our lives, as well as the joys?
  • Places where questions and failings are welcome, and forgiveness is ready?
  • Places where we can be affirmed that we are living in God’s grace and encouraged to go out and live more fully into the story where we are called?

I find that such moments occur not within programmed structures or alone in study, but in the throes of life.  Sometimes it’s around meals or over coffee.  It can also happen in a writing group,  at a ball park, or among whispered voices in a chapel  These are places where we can open God’s Word as we are with others, connecting our stories with God’s.  Such building and living in community is definitely not efficient nor focused on knowing the right answer, but it is biblical.  It’s also quite freeing.

Maybe it’s time to promote a new type of study Bible.  The added “helps” in this Bible would change depending on the group involved because they would be developed out of Christians living in the midst of one another’s stories as they center their lives on God’s Living Word – Jesus Christ.

Categories: God's Story, Journey Living | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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