The Spiritual Discipline of Noticing

One of my friends has started posting his intriguing photos of repeated archways and spiraling staircases at the university where he works. They are always close and unusual angles. They make me question how far over he was leaning when he took the photos and how many times we walk by the quotidian, oblivious, not because of lack of vision, but simply from lack of practice.

With the beauty of autumn has come micro shots of varying fungi and bug’s eye views of petals and changing leaves all across my social media pages. I have loved every one.

While grand, panoramic scenes are beautiful in photographs, there is something to be gleaned from all these close up views and tiny noticings. They provide the visual illustration our imaginations may require to shift from what large lessons God may have for us in our life to accepting the small, simple joy and goodness in our day.

This leaf may not change the trajectory of my life, but it may be sufficient for me to refocus and begin to see the tiny ways God wants to heal me, to speak to me, and through me.

In other words, in a world where we might be quick to blame social media for the FOMO or for breeding attitudes of one-upmanship, I have been gifted the reminder through your fall leaf photos and family pumpkin patch visits and fungi foraging, that God is always here, present with us, and his beauty, although terrific, is also tiny and mundane, and oh so near us.

As my guys were growing up, most of our home school weeks involved at least weekly outings to nature trails. Some of these would be planned events with specific agendas: dissecting owl pellets at an ornithology center, bird watching, tree identification, nature doodling,etc. Mostly, however, they were devoid of any real purpose other than being outside together. These visits and hikes have trained our minds to listen for our surroundings, to look for the unexpected. These nature trail walks have provided the backdrops to impromptu conversations, to empty space as margin for our thoughts and relationships. I pray they have been part of our spiritual training to notice and see things we may not have otherwise.

Theologian and Milligan University professor Philip Kenneson explains in his book Practicing Ecclesial Patience: Patient Practice Makes Perfect that he encourages all his students to take Vertebrate Field Biology.

“Bird Watching? What could possibly be so important about bird watching?

This: it trains you to pay exquisite attention to something that has always been right in front of you.

You discover the subtle differences between kinds of warblers, thrushes, and sparrows. You find out that they all have names and uniques songs. All of a sudden, you begin to see, really see, these birds all the time. And you begin to hear their songs, their amazing music, not because they weren’t there to see or hear before, but because you had never really paid attention before… It opens up a whole new world, and the new world it opens is not just about birds. Because once you learn how to pay attention to the glory of birds, birds that have always been there, you begin to wonder what else you’ve been missing, what else you haven’t been paying attention to.” p. 11

What is it we are called to notice? Of course nature and the changing seasons around us, but also our feelings, both positive and negative, both uplifting and anxiety-inducing. We ask God to train us to notice the feelings in others, to notice our own desires and how God may want to use those desires in his mission for the world. We may notice obstacles and wonder why they bother us so much. We may notice opportunities opening for us and startle that they both excite us and unnerve us. We may learn to pay attention to scripture more closely and ask better questions of the text.

Bird watching and fungi photos may help facilitate these spiritual disciplines.

So, how do I begin to allow God to train me to see more clearly, to pay attention to the movings and breathings of the Spirit within me? It takes practice and reflection and it may take a community of believers, whether an organized group, or one or two faithful friends, to help us lean in to the gentle promptings of how God longs for us to see the world.

While reading a Gospel passage, we might ask –

*Where is God in this story?

*What does this passage tell me about God?

*Is Jesus responding the way I would respond in this situation? How is he different?

*What seems to be motivating Jesus in this passage?

*How might this passage be inviting me to transform?

“Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”

Psalm 119:18, NRSV

“Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!”

Luke 10:23, NRSV

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.””

Luke 7:13, NRSV

What is inviting you to notice more this season?

What everyday sights are prompting you closer to Jesus?

Zoom Church

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

In the last year much has been written and discussed regarding how the COVID virus and quarantines have impacted how we worship, interact, and live as the community of God. The pandemic has not been the only thing, however, that has altered the way my family worships on Sundays. Church hurt has also contributed. Because of this, our family has been worshipping with a smaller group to maintain spiritual accountability. The pandemic, nevertheless, has certainly made it more problematic in terms of meeting together. Initially, our families met in small groups in homes, then outdoors when the weather warmed up. Later, we moved inside into our living rooms, donning masks and eliminating our Eucharistic meal in favor of the simplified cracker and juice.

The group we are meeting with is a bit of a mixture, but that is the kingdom of God, right? They have been a lifeline to me, providing encouragement, strength, and a reminder that we are bound by elements that transcend this world. They have been a stabilizing force at a time when I could easily have succumbed to debilitating discouragement.

As the weather warms up, some of us may be ready to take some baby steps forward in visiting other churches. Or not. Above all, we pray for our hearts to be protected. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us toward people who will minister to us, and to prepare us to minister to others. While I am deeply grateful for the people who have held my head above water, in a spiritual sense, it is difficult to foresee how long our particular version of faith and liturgy practices will continue. For now, zoom church is a solid place holder until we can return more fully into the life together, worshipping and serving in specifically embodied ways.

In the meantime, I am left with ambiguous feelings regarding our connection-disconnection. On the positive side, we have been persistent in meeting together, keeping tabs on one another, helping one another out in ways both small and large. Although it is not ideal, maintaining a connection with like-minded people of faith, with specific people, has been a rock-solid stabilizing force these last several months. On the less positive side, Zoom is awkward. It is difficult to have meaningful dialog with a group of people virtually and simultaneously, that is, living and engaging in the ordinariness of our daily life.While the technology is a blessing, it is also a barrier. The screen often feels to be a barrier to living incarnationally. At least to me. And yet we press on.

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

Jesus promised, “…where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) Virtual church may not be our primary or permanent way of worshipping. But does the Spirit remain with us even through a Zoom link? I believe the answer, beyond any feelings or social sensibilities, is yes! He does. Zoom seems to exacerbate the spiritual and emotional distance we feel from one another. Yet, with a proper theological understanding of God’s immanence, and an emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and suffering alongside us, we can more readily accept the mutuality of Christian service and leadership. Christ’s presence is the reality we are caught up into each time we participate in the communion. Even if we drink from Dixie cups.

Communion- the bread and the wine- the Eucharist- the body and blood of Christ

Because we have taken a bit of a break from institutionalized church, we have been freer to “try things on for size,” both in our thinking and in our practices. This has allowed some of our group, who may never have been given the opportunity, to find their voice and gain experience in presenting lessons, devotionals, and homilies.

We may soon be facing decisions around whether or not to disband or how to seek out established churches, but for now we are maintaining our current format. It is our basis for spiritual healing. We pray; one family leads us in song, accompanied simply by an acoustic guitar. We read scripture. We keep a rotating volunteer schedule for someone to lead us in our thoughts for the day. Past topics have been our newness in Christ, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the use of psalms as lament, an imaginative retelling of the demon possessed pigs, and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness for the start of Lent. We participate in communion and prayer with crackers and juice. Then, we circle back around to a discussion time around the devotional or homily.

Christians throughout the ages have survived various trials and challenges in meeting together: catacombs, hiding in homes, prisons, etc. Looking broadly at this will help us retain our hope and our faith in the future as the church. Not the revoking of religious or civil liberties, nor world wars, nor plagues or persecutions have irrevocably destroyed the faith of Christians. Those of us who claim the Resurrection as the historical and theological event around which our lives orbit will not be eradicated by lesser events in human history. If we are clear about why we gather, if our theology informs the weekly practice of the Eucharist, if we pray with an acknowledgement of Christ in our midst, then our hope will not be dependent on our current location, nor will it flounder in our current circumstance.

As individuals we may falter, but God’s church as a whole will continue, and we will meet in cathedrals, sanctuaries, store fronts, living rooms, parking lots and parks, on Facebook Live and Zoom calls until he makes his glorious appearance once again. Persistently, “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)

Making Room – book quotes

“People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition… Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.”

-Christine D. Pohl in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, p. 62

The year 2020 will be long remembered. It will be known as the year of the pandemic, contentious politics and race relations, as well as the year of deepening isolation for many. Yet as believers in a God who is unconditionally faithful and perpetually active, we are confident He is using even the chaos of the year’s events toward his own good. This isn’t to say he caused the pandemic, or the social unrest, but nothing is hopeless while under his gaze. And be assured, he sees all. And cares.

I have used this year to curate carefully what I have been reading. More than any other time in my life, I am choosing books that will encourage personal growth, while allowing me to appreciate the good, true and beautiful. My most recent read is Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (1999) by Christine D. Pohl.

“Strangers without resources need more than the minimal food, clothing, and shelter that might come through institutional provision. They need friendships and opportunities to contribute their gifts to a community.” p. 92

My deep prayer is that, as followers of Jesus, we will tire of a mindset of fear and exclusion and remember Christ’s constant warm welcome to others. My prayer is that I will begin leaving marginal space for those politically different, linguistically strange, culturally other, and instead, see each person both individually unique and collectively as a Christ-before-me. What a vastly different year 2021 could be if we put others’ needs before our own! What could we create in our communities if we were grateful for the commonality of our humanness?

“Overcoming strangeness is necessary when our responses are personal and when strangers are welcomed into personal, valued places.” p. 93

Here I offer just a couple more quotes pulled from this book. I am not taking the time right now to write a review. Honestly, I don’t quite feel up to it yet. However, I do highly recommend the book for encouragement in thinking more broadly and generously particularly toward the poor, the disabled, the immigrant and refugee.

Making Room swiftly corrects the definition of hospitality taking us back to its original embodiment – a love and care for the stranger and the other. Christine Pohl, a professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, has carefully researched and interviewed Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical contemporary charities involved directly in long-term hospitality efforts. These groups are specifically working with immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and the disabled.

“…the experience of having been a stranger, or of being a vulnerable person on the margins of society, is often connected with offering hospitality. When hospitality involves more than entertaining family and friends…we often find hosts who see themselves in some way as marginal to the larger society.” pp. 104-105

Pohl gives definition to the long-cherished Christian tradition of hospitality, as well as challenges the reader to see oneself as servant, partner, co-laborer, and not merely charitable worker or minister.

“We offer hospitality within the context of knowing Jesus as both our greater host and our potential guest. The grace we experience in receiving Jesus’ welcome energizes our hospitality, while it undermines our pride and self-righteousness. The possibility of welcoming Christ as our guest strengthens our kindness and fortitude in responding to strangers.” pp. 105-106

Below is a short reading list on loving our neighbors , broadening our understanding of hospitality, snd serving others. The following books range from light, inspirational reads, to practical, community challenges, to more academic approaches on the topic.

What books might you add to the list? What is your definition of hospitality? Could intentionally practicing hospitality soften our isolated, twenty-first century hearts?

Public Discourse

For those of you who have experienced Christians as hateful, tight-fisted, paranoid, selfish, self-serving, power hungry or callous, I express regret. Here I am referring to politics and to comments on the internet. I am talking about the conversation you overheard in line to buy your coffee, and the relative at the last family event. I hope this impression has never come from me, or the people with whom I am closely connected. If it has, however, I am sorry. Please allow me time to reflect on that and to make the difficult but appropriate changes.

This is not the Christ we follow. Sometimes people professing his name miss the mark or get it wrong. Always, Jesus is better than the people who serve him. This is what we want to be able to do – look to him and model his example of love and service. I know we fail. Our full intention, however is genuinely to emulate him.

We recognize that many of you who are not Christians, or are not religious, are also striving to attain to the ideals you believe in. We know you fail at times, like we do, but we also see diverse people working together to create goodness for thriving communities. I am so grateful when this happens. Please know the hateful speech and the bitter accusations do not reflect the Christ we love.

 

Ode to the Sunday School Teacher

Unashamedly, I am still basking in the glow of my Prince Edward Island adventure. Upon returning home, I have read The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery for the first time, which incidentally, I purchased from the Site of the Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Cavendish Home. The paperback proudly bears the stamp.

And I have been re-reading The Story Girlsupposedly the author’s favorite of her novels.

Combine these readings with the fact that our church has been talking about our responsibility of reading for the sake of the community, and throw in the fact that I just completed Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith, have been planning Bible home school curriculum for this next year for my boys, and the fact that I have substituted teaching in children’s Bible classes a few times at church this summer, and it is not difficult to see why a couple of these passages spoke sweetly to me.

Montgomery, who married the Presbyterian minister Ewen MacDonald, was a theological thinker in her own right. With a knack for describing hypocrisies and frivolous loyalties to tradition and prejudices, Montgomery often snuck in satirical statements through her most upright and judgmental of characters. Remember the proudly outspoken Mrs. Rachel Lynde? In a letter to Anne in college, she writes,

“I don’t believe any but fools enter the ministry nowadays….Such candidates as they have sent us, and such stuff as they preach! Half of it ain’t true, and what’s worse, it ain’t sound doctrine. The one we have now is the worst of the lot. He mostly takes a text and preaches about something else. And he says he doesn’t believe all the heathen will be eternally lost. The idea! If they won’t all the money we’ve been giving to Foreign Missions will be clean wasted, that’s what!”

~from Anne of the Island, chapter 5 “Letters from Home”

Now contrast Anne’s enthusiasm for the young and lovely minister’s wife, Mrs. Allan.

“I never knew before that religion was such a cheerful thing. I always thought it was kind of melancholy, but Mrs. Allan isn’t, and I’d like to be a Christian if I could be one like her.”

~Anne confiding to Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, p. 172

Wouldn’t we all want this to be said of us?

So, for those of you who are teaching a Sunday school class, who open the Bible in front of young minds and share words of truth and life, you are filling more than an hour’s void.

“The social life of juvenile Carlisle centered in the day and Sunday schools. We were especially interested in our Sunday School, for we were fortunate enough to be assigned to a teacher who made our lesson so interesting that we no longer regarded Sunday School attendance as a disagreeable weekly duty, but instead looked forward to it with pleasure, and tried to carry out our teacher’s gentle precepts- at least on Mondays and Tuesdays. I am afraid the remembrance grew a little dim on the rest of the week.”

~ from The Story Girl, p. 26

You are providing a vision of what it means to be part of a kingdom of grace and love. It is a great service in which the subjects are only coincidentally small. If nothing else, you are narrating a picture of God’s appealing beauty. May your story be consistently bewitching and inviting.