Calling outside of the church takes a different kind of spiritual discipline to keep up than calling within the church.
It's a discipline they don't teach you in seminary: being both pastor and lay person in the church at the same time as deeply growing spiritual being. Or is that even possible?
When I was the pastor, my job description included preaching every Sunday (except the four Sunday got off a year). I had to come up with 2,400+ words to say about God, faith and our life by Sunday morning. No exceptions. It was a built in discipline to think critically and theologically about scripture and community life.
At first, this task both delighted and overwhelmed me. My seasoned colleagues said, "It will get easier. Don't you worry." And it did. Once I got in the rhythm it was harder to take a week off. Not only could I come up with a sermon every week, but it became the place where I worked out my own spiritual musings. My own theological and Biblical wrestlings came forth from within my sermons (even if my congregation didn't know it).
Now, as my calling has taken me outside of the church, I no longer do this. I preach once a month to every six weeks supply preaching for pastor friends out-of-town or filling in on an interim basis in smaller congregations without a pastor.
So where is my theological struggle worked out today?
If I want to keep learning, if I want to keep growing, then I have to keep my mind engaged. With our travel schedule, I've had to find my spiritual life outside just attending just ONE church.
And it takes discipline.
It takes discipline like initiating reading a book on spiritual practice with a friend and discussing it together though no one tells you to do so.
It takes discipline like engaging your preaching friend's sermon prep process, even if you will not be asked to speak on the passage.
It takes discipline like seeking out people of faith that challenge you-- even if you have to make a journey several states over to visit them.
It is so much harder to do outside the church (when one community isn't at your disposal), but it doesn't mean it is impossible. And it doesn't mean that rich spirituality has to be found in a box checked, "Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I am a member of this small group at this church." It can be found as opportunities present themselves to embody church in daily life.
I've been reading Addie Zimerman's new book, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over (it's an amazing must read for any of you who grew up in evangelical land as I did).
One of the phrases that has stuck with me so far from this book is something that Addie's husband, Andrew says about church.
The two of them were "shopping" for a new church as a young married couple and kept hitting walls of frustration with the traditional church model which to them felt over packaged, inauthentic and all about awkward conversations around coffee pots in the corners of Sunday School rooms.
Addie keeps trying to find the perfect church while Andrew wasn't so wrapped up in the structure kept telling Addie his motto: "But we are The Church." Or in other words, church is not something we go to but something we experience every time 2 or 3 are gathered in Christ's name. (The two eventually joined a house church).
It takes discipline to remember that church is not noun but a verb. And that as we set out on this path to follow Jesus, there is not just one way to live out our faith.
We might spent our whole lives figuring it out and then realizing we were wrong and figuring it out again.
We might do it within the membership roles of a congregation. Or we might not. Jesus still loves us the same.
Often times in the church, we think of spiritual disciplines as a practice which we can qualify as holy action. Practices like praying, reading scripture, doing works of charity and the like are often the prescriptions for spiritual growth.
But Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Altar in the World (which we at Washington Plaza along with our friends at Martin Luther King Christian will be studying together this fall), speaks of how we find God in the most ordinary of circumstances. Altars she writes can be anywhere we encounter the holy. It's a discipline for all of us to simply pay attention.
This week, while on travel in Kenya and Malawi, I have a new altar to add to my list and that is international travel.
As many of you know who have traveled throughout the developing world, nothing ever moves as fast as it does in the United States or even Europe. Not that it is bad (I happen to like the change) but it is simply different.
Bags get lost easily on flights.
Traffic jams on narrow roads make getting from one place to another a chore.
You look for something you need and can't find it.
Water that was once warm becomes stone cold.
The electricity goes out for no apparent reason.
And it is just life.
In these circumstances as a non native you have a choice. You can get angry. You can grow in misery of why things aren't the way you wish they were.
Or you can go with the flow. You can embrace the moment. And you can accept the challenge as a spiritual discipline.
What might God be saying to me about who is ultimately in control?
What might be learned about enjoying the company for the journey instead of being so consumed in reaching the destination?
What might I really need instead of just want for my personal comfort?
I am having fun this week in these out of the norm circumstances, hoping that if I embrace them I might just learn more about myself and God's ways of being with us in the process.
Lent is already half-way over and is anyone dragging like me? The days of self-reflection and self-discipline seem like too much at junctures like today when I'm ready to throw in the towel and just say, "What's the point?"
I haven't been able to keep a Lenten discipline for several years now, but I'm hoping this year will be different. Not just for the sake of saying I've kept it, but because I know it is good for me. Really good in fact.
For the past couple Lents, I've pledged to start something new like adding more exercise into my life, and have found myself failing miserably. While the guilt of not doing what I said seemed to nag deeply in me, nothing changed. I've not be a great example maker in the practice of being self-focused during this 40 day (or 46 day if you count the Sundays) period of preparation of Easter.
But, feeling some new gusto this year, I opted to go back to the traditional "give something up" practice for Lent again. As I thought of what I might choose to do, I tried to be more intentional than in the past. What impulsive habit could I give up? What could I withhold that might actually make me think about the larger purpose of Lent altogether?
I chose to give up Diet Coke.
Seems simple enough, of course. Almost comparable to the popular "I'm giving up chocolate" for Lent idea. But, for me, it's not.
Giving up Diet Coke, as a non-coffee drinker, is helping me understand how dependant I was on caffeine to get through the day. Giving up Diet Coke is helping me make more intentional choices altogether with my eating. Giving up Diet Coke, I know is making my kidneys happy with me as my water consumption has hit a life-time high since Lent began. Today I am really craving soda I'm tired of drinking water ALL the time. I really can't wait for Lent to be over. I'm ready for the "normal" patterns of life and enjoyment to return.
But for those of us on this Lenten journey together as a people of faith, we're not to the finish line yet. Palm Sunday is still more two weeks away. Now is the time when the "joy" of the discipline really kicks in. What might this season be seekign to teach us?
Of course, living in Lent is greater than drinking or not drinking soda, giving up chocolate or fasting on Fridays-- it is about Jesus and spending this set a part time growing closer to him. I always tell my congregation who about this time start asking for "more joyful music" or "less depressing scriptures" that we must stay the course if we want the joy of Easter to be ours.
For this reason, I appreciate the wisdom of this word from the current pope-- though I may disagree with him on many social issues-- I hear such grace in this description of the season:
"Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life... Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters." - Pope Benedict XVI
So, as we all keep living Lent-- even if we've already fallen off the discipline wagon and are preparing to get back on-- let seek truth with the time of Lent we have left. Truth about ourselves and ultimately truth then about God. I know it will all be worth it soon enough!
Last week, while I was at the Collegeville Insitute, I got a lot of questions about my blog. Some of my colleagues there had them, but mostly to post sermons, but no one (unless I am mistaken) had a blog for the purpose of sharing personal stories, reflections or their hopes or dreams for the vocation. Suddenly, I was the blog expert on campus. Jaws dropped in awe when I said I wrote for Preacher on the Plaza a couple of times a week (how do you have that kind of time? How do you have that kind of discipline?).
Though I've been at this online publishing medium since 2006 in one form or another, I feel my practice is quite ordinary and am by no means an expert. However, not to take anything for granted, I thought it might be useful to other inspiring bloggers out there to answer some of the questions I spent some time pondering with others last week.
Why do you blog?
I blog because I enjoy writing and having other people read my work inspires me to write better and more often. It is as simple as that.
Spiritually, for me, though, the blog serves an even more personal purpose: it slows me down. If I have to sit down and write about an event or experience, I am going to think about it much more clearly and if I just zoom on through to what is next. Blogging is a way to have Sabbath like moments in my days. To the benefit of everyone around me, in writing, I might find gems in a situation I previously judged harshly or ignored. Writing regularly on this site exists as a grace of holy reflection that I wouldn't have if I was just writing in sermons, newsletter columns or even journaling alone at home. Blogging makes me accountable.
What is the purpose of blogging?
For me, as a pastor of an urban congregation with some members that I only see on Sundays, blogging is a way for us to stay connected. My congregation, through the blog, gets to hear more about the particular thoughts on my mind about the church's growing edges, the larger world and sometimes my life. It is a relationship building tool at its heart.
Even more so, often folks who are thinking of visiting Washington Plaza, read my blog first (no pressure of course) and figure out more of our leanings as a congregation and whether or not they'd fit in here.
But, there is another audience that I hope to reach through the site and that is other pastors. There's something strange about the vocation of ministry-- the ups and downs, the unusual experiences, the long hours, etc. that is it good to know that you aren't alone. I hope my writing connects with them too to either give an idea of something we've tried in congregational life here that did or didn't work, a book or text I found interesting or a conference or workshop I've found that they might want to explore too.
When do I blog?
Whenever I have time and an idea that I think I can write at least 500 or 600 words on, I post. Often my best ideas come when I am putting my head down on my pillow at night. It's annoying because I don't really want to get up and write then, but I seek to store them away in some chunk of unoccupied space of my brain and explore the topic as soon as I can.
Sometime I blog at home on my couch or in my favorite sermon writing chair. Sometimes I blog at church at my desk or on the couch where I meet with parishioners. Sometimes I blog when I'm out-of-town when I'm in a place with a WI-FI connection. Truly, the beauty of the web is that you can blog anywhere! I have found that during times away, such as my Israel adventure in January, blogging is even more useful because the people you love don't feel so far away.
If I am thinking of blogging, what advice would you give?
Beginning a blog is a commitment. You are only as good as your last post. So, if blogging is something you want to try ask yourself: "Do I have the personal discipline to keep this up?" If you are a sporadic writer or you are the type of person who regularly starts and stops new things, maybe blogging is not for you.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't write-- for there are other forums that could be perfect for your style, feature articles from time to time, for example-- but that you just shouldn't blog. There is nothing that makes me as sad to find a blog that is well-written and interesting only to find that it is rarely updated. In the online world of constant movement, you have to keep up or move out.
Get a theme and stick with it. Decide what you are going to write about and stay on that course. I'm not a great example of this because I seem to write about all sorts of things . . . But, I'm told that if you want larger amounts of web traffic and regular readers, pick one thing you want to write about and stick with it. For example, do you want to share about your experimenting with recipes? Do you want to detail your trips as a traveling journalist? Do you want to give advice to other writers? Do you want to share about what it means to parent a child with an eating disorder? It's best not to go from sharing your favorite recipe one day to a dramatic story about the death of your parent the next. You audience will be confused. Be specific and write regularly!
And, make friends who also blog. The details of how to post, where to plug-in pictures, how to change fonts, etc are often things you have to learn on your own, but it is always good to have friends who care about what you do too. It has been great to ask folks, like those on my blogroll, questions about how to make my page look more attractive and who are willing to share what they have learned about the practice as we go through it together.
What is the danger of blogging?
There's a record of your words that can and will be used against you from time-to-time. Blogging is one of the most vulnerable things I do in my ministry. But, I try to not let the fear hold me back.
I could sit around and worry all the time about how what I say this year will come back to bite me in twenty days or twenty years or more (because nothing on the internet is really ever gone), but I honestly try not to think about it. In my faith tradition, I cling to an understanding of my imperfections. I will make mistakes. I will not live up to my potential. I will make people mad with me. I will cause hurt from time to time. Yet, the larger goal remains: using any tools this day and age as given me to share the goodness of life as I've experienced in my Creator and connecting all of God's children with the love of God I've known through the church.
So, I'll keep blogging. How about you?
Any other questions? I'd love to keep sharing ideas.