The Pilgrim’s Journey

Lately I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about the spiritual maturation process in the second half of life (SHOL). Underneath the discussion lies a fundamental question: why make the effort?

If you’ve walked with the Lord for a while, your spiritual journey has a rhythm. Like the basketball player who unconsciously dribbles down the court, your habits are second-nature. Likely they include weekly attendance at a worship service, bi-weekly small group meeting, devotions, prayer, and Christian books on the nightstand. Throw in a service project, a retreat, a Christian concert or two, and the rhythm deepens like ice on a pond.

Such was my rhythm until David Benner in The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, and M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. in The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self, and Saint John of the Cross in his “The Dark Night of the Soul” poem disrupted it.

My habits were scripturally based: Jesus taught his disciples to pray, Psalm 119:11 said that knowing God’s word would prevent sin, and James admonished his readers to prove their faith through actions and words. But when calamity came, suffering struck, and disappointments mounted, like many SHOL’ers, I found my rhythm was missing a beat.

These authors and other early mystics and current contemplatives like Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, and Dallas Willard want to draw Christians into a rich relationship with God. For each of them, this came as their understanding of the riches of God’s love deepened and swelled.

Brenner concludes that the Christian’s security and significance comes from an abiding awareness that they are “someone who is deeply loved by God” (49), and sanctification is a lifelong process of “coming to know and trust God’s love” (51). Mulholland surmises that when we understand our true selves, the person God created us to be, we will find that self “clasped in God’s love” (73-74).

shutterstock_95411461The path to this deeper union with and awareness of God “passes through some pretty rough territory” even jungles, writes Mulholland. It will take one through dark forests like those Anodos travels in George MacDonald’s fairy novel, Phantastes, or on roads like Christian travels in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a process of discovering and shedding the personas we’ve created to protect ourselves (Rohr), of releasing what we have, what we can do and what others think of us (Brenner) to be free to “know and rely on the love God has for us” (I John 4:16).

The few who’ve choose this route glow with an inner peace like saints in an icon and exude calm like a sleeping infant. They have surrendered in “loving abandonment to God” and have “a hungering and thirsting for the things of God” (Mulholland).  Their lack of pretension and God-centered focus are off-putting due to their scarcity, yet magnetic. To paraphrase Calvin, these are people who know who they are because they know God, and who know God because they know themselves.

Such are the riches that await the experienced travel willing to put more miles on their treads. Worth the effort? Try it and see.

View previous posts on  second half of life challenges such as  surrender, and spiritual bucket lists.

Suggested Resources:

Benner, David G. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 2010.

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Shambhala Library. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.

Mulholland, M. Robert. The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.


What’s on Your Spiritual Bucket List?

shutterstock imagesFor the first twenty, thirty years of adulthood, life’s potential fans out to a limitless horizon. Your body still does what you tell it to do, and life’s vagaries haven’t rung your doorbell yet. The list of what you can accomplish is long, and the years ahead appear endless. Then comes middle age.

Whether you peg the start of the middle years at 40 or 50, the Over the Hill birthday party is a milestone.  About 10% of the population has a genuine crisis at this point while most spend time reflecting on where they are at in life. Has life turned out how they thought it would? (About 0% reply yes.)  What else might they want to do in the remaining years?

In common vernacular, a catalog of possibilities is known as a “bucket list”. According to Merriam Webster, the phrase was coined first in 2006 and comes from the idiomatic expression for dying–to kick the bucket. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman starred in the 2007 film, “The Bucket List”, which featured two terminally ill men who go on a trip to accomplish everything on their wish list.

With the internet, you can track your list online and see what others have placed in their buckets. List items cover the gamut:  humorous – cover someone’s car in post-in notes; serious – get a graduate degree; fun – dye your hair purple; adventuresome – climb the Matterhorn; healthy – train for a triathlon; helpful – volunteer at the children’s hospital; ambitious – write a book; dangerous – skydive; artsy – take a pottery class; educational – visit the capitols in all 50 states.

Many have found the process of thinking about the future and outlining goals invigorating. They remember things they wanted to do when younger, and crazy ideas they toyed around with but never got to.  Instead of seeing middle age as a marker for life being half over, they now see it as a doorway to an exciting second half of life.

If a bucket list for life is helpful and fun, why not a spiritual bucket list? The spiritual journey to maturity, the Christian process of sanctification, often has a similar halfway point. Richard Rohr in Falling Upward, and authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith examine the components for spiritual growth and the under-discussed spiritual challenges that come in the second half of life.

Rather than a birthday, both books point out that it’s often a period of suffering or hardship that marks the spiritual second half. After some soul searching reflection, maybe you realize God isn’t who you thought he was; the guaranteed formulas for parenting or marriage didn’t work; the programs that enriched before now seem dry and banal; and you’re on a spiritual plateau. Maybe the plateau would be comfy long-term, but thirty or forty years at this level could be boring.

What can you do to move further down the road to becoming more and more like Christ?

  • Travel –Take a spiritual pilgrimage vacation to the Holy Land, follow Paul’s missionary journey path, or visit the sites of the seven churches of Revelation in Turkey.
  • Adventure – join a short-term mission team to a majority world country, spend a week at a monastery.
  • Educational – enroll in classes at a local seminary or bible college, read academic Christian authors, listen to preachers you disagree with, study a theological tenet like baptism, map your spiritual journey.
  • Volunteer – lead worship at a nearby assisted living center, start a healing prayer ministry.
  • Serious – worship in a church with a different style, begin a new spiritual discipline, mentor someone, memorize a book of the Bible, participate in a silent retreat, delve into spiritual formation, discover your true self, work with a spiritual director.

The second half of life awaits, be intentional. What’s on your spiritual bucket list?

More thoughts on second half of life: winning through surrender and wondering if it’s worth it.


Other resources? Add them in comments.

Is the Church a Hospital, a Museum, or Both?

hospital sign“Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”  Morton Kelsey

Brennan Manning cites this familiar quotation in The Ragamuffin Gospel, where he expounds on the need for humility in order to receive the amazing grace offered by Jesus. The self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees thought they were museum ready, but Jesus provided triage to the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners who knew they weren’t and left the religious leaders to treat themselves.  Kelsey’s assertion holds in this application, but it doesn’t hold true across the board.

Kelsey likens the church to a hospital for sinners, so what exactly is a hospital? It’s a building where most who walk in the revolving doors know there is something wrong.  Whether they‘re headed to radiology, cardiac imaging or the operating room, they come with fears and hopes to those trained to help. Maybe it’s a pounding headache, a swollen leg, heart palpitations, an unexplained lump, a vehicle crash, mood swings, infertility, a broken wrist, a swollen thyroid gland, a piercing abdominal pain or double vision, but all is not as it should be.

The hardship of living in a human body prone to breakdowns and subject to aging is why hospitals exist.  Even my great-grandmother Emma who didn’t darken a hospital door until she broke her hip at age 99 spent a few days there, much to her chagrin. The slick world portrayed in Madison Avenue advertising campaigns likes to pretend the inevitable “outward wasting away” can be prevented, stopped and reversed, but a few hours in a surgical waiting room or the emergency room reveals the falsehood in those promises.

Similarly, what are museums? They are places where the most beautiful collections of humankind’s creativity and God’s creation are on view to enjoy and study. The shattered Greek vases unearthed in an archaeological dig have been glued together and sit in Plexiglas cases. The Renoir masterpiece discovered at a flea market hangs in a climate-controlled gallery. Examples of the fine medieval tapestries hang in darkened rooms to preserve the fabrics and colors.

Museums are places for items restored as best as possible to their original glory. The church can be likened Museum Signto a museum for it is there that the beauty of God’s redemptive work is on view. Not in vases safe behind glass with explanatory labels or static like insects with pins stuck through them, but in the living, breathing people seated beside us. These fellow members of Christ’s body are examples of God’s handiwork.

Kelsey’s point is well-taken.  A saint doesn’t walk into the sanctuary a saint, just as a person with a broken leg won’t wait until she can walk before entering the emergency room. Churches are for the mangled and broken, yet the restoration of God’s masterpieces also occurs. Those with broken legs are given a cast, handed crutches and started down the road to healing.  Within the church are the saints who came to the hospital for help, found healing in a person and their original glory is shining through.

Rather than an either/or situation, I see the church as a hospital with a museum within. All who enter must admit there is something wrong and they need restoration. Then they can begin the process of inner renewal and watch the slow restoration of the masterpiece beneath the grime.

Loss and Risking Again

PriscaA four pound, four-month old frisky feline from a nearby animal shelter joined our family last week. In digging out old kitty toys and setting up for her arrival, I came across an eight-year old receipt for the kitten chow stashed in a basement cupboard. Has it been eight years since Tiger’s inoperable liver cancer was detected?

I was standing in the Hallmark card section of the local Walgreens when the vet called to explain why Tiger had stopped eating and was quickly losing weight. We put him down in the spring, and that Christmas my boys and husband gave me a new cat bed and a card urging me to select a kitten or cat from the local shelter. I shopped with them for a new litter box, cat chow and canned food, and might have gone as far as to visit the shelter’s cat room, but remained cat-less.

I excused resurgent cat longings with comments like,  “They’re too much work.” “I don’t want to get tied down to a pet now that I’m an empty-nester.” “I’m too busy.” “Friends and family might not visit due to allergies or sensitivities.” “Who wants to step barefoot in slimy fur balls when you’re half awake?”

Over Christmas break from seminary last year, I nearly succumbed. Two of my friends are caretakers at the shelter and knew I was toying with the possibility of getting a cat. They repeatedly invited me to visit. I’d ask if there were kittens available; they’d give an update and talk about the recently remodeled and now-enticing cat room. I’d ask about grey tabbies, (I like my cars blue and my cats grey) and they glowingly described cuddly newcomers waiting for a home.

The tipping point came when I met Julian Allshallbewell, a sophisticated Siamese with diverging blue eyes. I met her at a Newcomers lunch at our pastor’s home. Named for Julian of Norwich, she was adopted to assist her family in their process of grieving the passing of a pet-loving family member. It was her playfulness and the talk about grieving that persuaded me the joys of cat ownership were worth pursuing again.

Two days later I was checking out cats in the shelter’s new “meet and greet” room. The cat who wouldn’t come out of the corner and the one who clawed a hole in my shirt lost their chance. It was the outgoing, talkative and cuddly kitten who liked chasing feathers on a stick that touched my heart. The next morning I signed her adoption papers.

Now Prisca slides across our floor scrunching the area rug, hops sideways with her back hunched like a Halloween cat and gets locked in the walk-in-closet by accident. She knocks over framed pictures on the dresser at 3:00 a.m. and turns on the blaring clock radio when she pads across it at 5:00 a.m. She is confused that we aren’t nocturnal and turns up her nose at anything but chicken. She’s  hilarious, naughty and lovable.

A few people told me the best way for them to grieve the loss of their pet was to get another one right away. Maybe they were right. Maybe I let the pain of loss keep me from experiencing the joys another cat could bring. Maybe I let the normal feelings of sorrow take root rather than holding them loosely and letting them fade. Maybe I didn’t know how to grieve and heal to the place of being willing to risk again. Maybe I only knew the truth that hope could be found in the midst of suffering, but not how to live it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned watching people grieve and experiencing it myself, it’s this–everybody does it differently. Some pop right back to their regular life while others have the wind knocked out of them. Some tell stories about the deceased while others can barely mention their name. Some hold on to the physical possessions of the departed as if the memories themselves were attached while others quickly release them. One time I walked and wailed outdoors during a clearing thunderstorm at the news of a friend’s death.  Then when my mom died I felt relief that her suffering had ended and didn’t have a hard cry until weeks later. Some can replace their pet a week later, some eight years later, some like my cleaning lady whose cat died ten years ago never will.

Whatever the reasons behind my cat-less years, I’m now enjoying the insatiable curiosity of  Prisca. And perhaps that’s the lesson grief teaches best. No person or pet is immortal or replaceable, but we can learn to treasure the joys of the present moment with the confidence that we will also move through the inevitable pain of loss in our unique way.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I threw the unopened, past the “sell by date” kitten chow away.


Walking in the Apostle Paul’s Footsteps in Greece

Ancient road through Philippi

Roman Road Through Philippi

For two weeks I walked on the same Roman roads where Paul walked, cruised the Aegean Sea where Paul sailed, and island-hopped to the locations I normally skim over when reading the book of Acts. For two weeks I followed the route of Paul’s second and third missionary journeys like those colored arrows found on the maps in the back of a Bible. For two weeks I joined the flow of Christian pilgrims who have traveled for two millennia to visit the locations of the earliest churches.

There’s something gleaned from visiting actual sites that printed words on a page can’t convey. I felt the same after a trip to Israel when I stood  by Abraham’s well in Beersheba and walked through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. The familiar biblical stories and people I’d accepted as historical realities became more real in the 3D version. Now there was a location, a geographical context, a culture that made them tangible in a way colored arrows could never accomplish. It takes the feel of cold marble, the smell of souvlaki, the feel of the hot Greek sun and the constantly changing sea winds to make the first century world of Paul, Lydia, Barnabas and Phoebe come alive.

My time in Greece and Ephesus helped to minimize the negative effects of the cold-shoulder the Baptist church of my youth gave to the Book of Acts. The church held to cessationist thinking which believes that the events described in Acts and the powerful moving of the Holy Spirit in the early days of the church were for the first century only. Because we rarely looked at Paul’s journeys, I have a heap of make-up learning to do and wrong impressions to change. A biggie? The locations in Greece and Turkey where Paul preached were cultural backwaters.

The excavations at Ephesus in Turkey, and Philippi and Corinth in Greece reveal extensive city centers, and with mental Hollywood-magic and a few extras I can envision these ancient bustling cities as they were in Paul’s day. These weren’t one stop sign towns on the fringes of the known world, but places of sophistication and learning filled with impressive architecture. Though the ancients didn’t have electricity or smartphones, this citizen from the twenty-first century was regularly awed by the Greco-Roman culture.

Indoor plumbing in ancient Ephesus, Turkey

Indoor plumbing in ancient Ephesus, Turkey

My grandmother in central Illinois didn’t have indoor plumbing until post-World War II while wealthy Ephesians sat on marble toilettes with a proper sewer system several thousand years ago. Spa days, icing down after an athletic performance, cold water plunges and steam rooms came to the US in the last century, but the Greeks and Romans enjoyed them centuries before.

A Chicago Bears fan would easily recognize the roots of Soldier Field’s design in the Grand Theater of Ephesus, and theater patrons would be impressed by the acoustics in the pre-microphone design of the theater in Philippi. In the agora (gathering place) in Thessaloniki, the market stalls had skylights and a ventilation system to draw in cool air. I like to think my culture and the technological advances I enjoy put my generation at the forefront, but the engineering feats of the builders of ancient civilizations prove me wrong.

The Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens is fine example of the building prowess of Greek engineers. Unlike the Willis Tower, the Empire State Building or the Shanghai Tower designed to house business offices, the Acropolis was built as a temple for the Greek goddess Athena. These temples were built in geographically prominent locations in the heart of a city or high upon a hill.The god or goddess who dwelt in each temple served as a protector of the community and often a statue of them would adorn the temple interior. These were capricious gods who must be appeased, though how to do so required trial and error. The gods required offerings, devotion, sacrifices and worship, and one could only hope they had done the right thing.

Citizens recognized the power and existence of the supernatural, but religious observance centered around public celebrations rather than personal devotion. The dichotomy between the religious life and civic life common in today’s western world didn’t exist. The roles of religion and government blended to the point that in 63 BC the Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, declared himself to be Pontifex Maximus or high priest. City-states competed to see who could give the most to their particular god’s treasury and build the largest treasury building.

People sought to understand the world through teaching of the Classical Greek philosophers Aristotle, Socrates and Plato and spent time debating new ideas in public venues. Rhetoric and oratory skills were taught and prized, as was physical beauty of men and women–and athletic prowess.

This was the world of the urban missionary extraordinaire — the Apostle Paul.

When I begin to understand his world and its similarities and dissimilarities to my own, I gain a fresh perspective on Paul’s writings and the people to whom he wrote. I can better see his boldness, his ability to contextualize the gospel message for each audience, and the deep personal connection he had with the people in the churches he visited on his journeys.

They were living, breathing human beings who walked the same stone roads I did, sat in hillside amphitheaters, and sought after the truth. They were the people at the start of a long line of believers who reached out for God and found him through the gospel message shared by Paul (Acts 17:27). And the line continues. 


I traveled with the Wheaton College Alumni travel program on a 14-day tour led by David and Elizabeth Sparks of Footsteps Ministries. They also lead tours to Israel, Turkey and Italy, and I highly recommend traveling and learning with them.



Is God looking for heroes to change the world?

supermanI used to think God wanted heroes.  Now I think he’s looking for something else.

I need more fingers and toes to count the sermons I’ve heard on the better-known heroes in the Bible.  Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Deborah, Daniel, Esther, Isaiah, Jeremiah.  Few would quibble that these men and women deserve the hero mantle, the Superman cape. They stood for truth in dark times. They exhibited faith.  They risked their lives and their reputations.  Some led an army, others a nomadic people.   Some governed a nation.  Some prophesied.   Some spoke against injustice.  

(I’m using the second definition at which defines a hero as “a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal”.)  

In the accounts of these biblical heroes, did they aim be a hero and change the world?  To get their name in Hebrews 11?  Was “hero” a status they sought?  Let’s take a look at Moses’ life.  

Moses does all he can to get out of the “be a hero and change the world” job when God offers it to him.  He asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God assures Moses he will be with him, but Moses throws out a worst-case scenario.  God solves that and gives Moses a play-by-play of what is going to happen with guaranteed success.

Still not enough for Moses.  He asks God, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me…?” God tells Moses about the secret weapons at his disposal and throws in a few special effects for good measure.  Still not enough for Moses. He uses his personal limitations–” I am slow of speech and tongue”–as an excuse; God disposes of those impediments by reassuring Moses that he will help and tell him what to say.  Still not enough for Moses who says, “Pardon your servant, Lord.  Please send someone else.” (Exodus 3:1-4:13).Is this a man intent on being a hero and changing the world for God?

I’ve been to and watched footage from large-scale Christian conferences held in sports arenas where the intent was to inspire people (often young adults) to get out there and do something to change the world.  Whether it was to evangelize all people groups, end slavery, end poverty or to be a better representative of my gender, the speakers worked hard to convince me their event’s aim was what God wanted me to do.  He wanted me to take action, make a difference, make the world a better place.  The work of the kingdom was up to me, and I needed to rise to the challenge. God needed me to make things happen.

From these talks and presentations I formulated a principle: God cared most and was most pleased by what I did for him. My spiritual life and growth could be measured by what I accomplished and the impact I was having on other people or my ability to address systemic issues.  The heroes were the ones on stage telling of their success that could be supported with facts and figures.  For years I saw their lives as the model of a godly person–a spiritual hero–for me to emulate.

faithNow I think God cares most about who I am becoming. It took a few decades and a couple of  times where physically I could do very little for God for me to change my mind about this. I found, and still find, it hard to let go of being busy for God and focus instead on my heart attitude and mindset (Philippians 2:2-6).

 It takes a major shift in thinking and orientation to move away from this false self who finds security and significance in what one has, does or how others think of us.1  Doubly hard because I thought that was the measure God was using.    

It’s easier to get hyped up about an issue and take action than it is to go through the process of self-examination and allow God to transform me.  I think it’s easier to be busy with programs and committees than it is to spend time in silence and learn to wait for the leading of God.  I think it’s easier to go for the buzz that comes with activity than to be humble and contrite in spirit (Isaiah 66:2).  I think it’s easier to try and change the world than it is to admit there are many things God needs to change in me.  I think it’s easier to be a hero than it is to be an obedient follower (1 Samuel 22).

But I am convinced God is looking for the faithful followers; the people who want to discover their true selves–who they truly are in Christ.  He’s searching the land for people on the spiritual journey for the long haul, or as Eugene Peterson has named this, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  He’s looking for the ones who will come to the end of their lives and be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

He’s not looking for people who want to be heroes, the world has enough narcissists and fame-seekers as it is.  He’s looking for those who will faithfully serve him day after day even if nobody notices or follows them on Twitter.  He’s looking for those who will persevere to the end even when that means trials, testing and suffering (James 1:3; Romans 5:3-6).

I think it’s false advertising to claim that God wants people who will change the world or that he’s wanting to unleash people on the world.  The truth is that God is looking for people who will let him change them, whether they become heroes in the process or not.  Some may become heroes like Moses and David, but more will be like Jeremiah who nobody listened to when he issued dire and  prophetic warnings for forty years.  Or one of the seventy-two whose names are unrecorded. (Luke 10:1-20). 

God is looking for the individual who will hear his call and respond in the affirmative.  The person who will believe like Abraham and whose faith will be credited to them as righteousness (Romans 4:3).

God isn’t looking for heroes; he’s looking for the faithful.

1 David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2004) 92.



Creating space for spiritual seeking and seekers – what would you recommend?

Imagine you’re sitting for the final exam in your seminary class on evangelism. One of the questions for the essay portion of the test is the following: Develop a plan for a year-round retreat center, and formulate a general outline for weekly ministry programs that target unchurched and spiritually disenfranchised young adults in the 18-29 age range. Describe the overall vision, physical facilities, location, worship format, administration, funding, teaching materials and marketing plan.

passion handsEssay from an American student:  Millennials are generally suspicious of the church and organized religion, and will be turned off by programs and centers similar to the church they grew up in. Unchurched millennials will be attracted by programs and teaching styles most similar to the surrounding culture. A state-of-the-art worship center with stadium seating, large plasma screens, a powerful sound system, video cameras (one on a boom) for live feeds and online streaming are essential. Worship bands and popular recording artists can be brought in on a weekly or weekend-only basis, and as the program develops an in-house worship team can be developed. Video screens will project lyrics and songs will change to follow current styles and trends. Center will be located near a major metropolitan center with a strong transportation hub. Ideally the retreat center will be situated on a large tract of land in a scenic location away from stores and restaurants, but not in an out-of-the-way place.

Various speakers will headline during the summer and break weeks when attendance will be highest. Center staff will teach in the low season. Each week’s theme will vary based on the speakers and their expertise. Workshops offered will fit the theme with some handled by staff and some by headliners. Saturday will culminate with a strong and explicit gospel message and altar call with an emphasis on the sinners need for redemption and salvation.

Attendees will be housed in dorm-like rooms with WiFi and multiple electrical outlets for charging phones, cameras and laptops. Rooms will be well-lit, comfortable, and as much like home as possible.  Rooms will accommodate no more than four sleepers who share a common bathroom. Meals will be hearty with popular selections such as pizza, nachos, hamburgers and burritos.

Initial funding will be supplied by a few heavy-hitters with a passion  for reaching youth with the gospel. A development specialist with strong marketing skills will utilize social media, YouTube, the internet, etc. to get the word out to various evangelical denominational leaders and organizations. Maintenance people, office personnel, kitchen staff and a general administrator will be needed from the start.

The overall vibe will be hip, relevant, cutting-edge and make Millennials feel at home and comfortable.

Taize serviceEssay from a European student building on the Taize model: Before taking any steps, the planning team will spend as many years as necessary in prayer to seek discernment and the Lord’s guidance.  In the Taize community, one of the main foci is reconciliation between denominational branches of the Christian tree, countries, and ethnic affiliations within those countries. Planners will await God’s still small voice before finalizing the vision for this center, though it is expected to follow the same general format.

Several  people will commit to living in community–most for the rest of their lives– and bear responsibility for the retreat center in all areas of management and teaching. They will live a simple, communal, monastic-style life and take a vow of celibacy. They will work in money-generating ventures such as pottery and publishing to provide funds for the center; no outside donations will be accepted or necessary. Marketing will be done through the center’s website and by word of mouth.

The center will be situated wherever God desires. Taize is in an out-of-the-spot in the Burgundy region of France served by a bus line which connects to the bullet train station. Convenience of transportation is not of great importance; though distance from cultural distractions is a must.

Conference attendees will be housed in spartan, simplistic accommodations akin to church camp cabins with communal bathrooms. Meals will be spare and simple, heavy on carbs and provide adequate nutrition. Attendees will be assigned to work crews and bear responsibility for serving the food, cleaning the grounds, bathrooms, dorm rooms and kitchen, washing dishes (only silverware will be a spoon) and doing whatever else is necessary. Some attendees will remain for a few weeks, even a year, with little remuneration and serve in a leadership capacity with administrative responsibilities.

Bells will ring for morning wake-up and chime each hour; they will ring for ten minutes before the daily worship services. Each day will begin with an hour of communal prayer, singing, Scripture reading and the Eucharist before breakfast. After eating, one of the community residents will teach a general message about Jesus and his teachings. Attendees will break into small groups they will be part of for the week and answer  questions provided during the morning Bible study time. They will lead their own discussions and continue for as long or short a time as they wish. Another hour of worship will take place before lunch.

Prayers will be sung in chant style accompanied by a pipe organ or simple keyboard. For each service, song books, the text for the chanted Psalm and the scriptural passage will be available in print format upon entering the church.  Songs will be sung in Latin, German, Spanish, French, and English to accommodate the guests for the week.  Silence will be maintained except for singing while in the church. Worshipers will sit on the floor or the concrete steps running alongside the main floor.  Prayer stools will be available for the nimble and flexible.

Afternoons will be filled with workshops, lessons in singing, and work crew assignments. Dinner and then another hour-long worship service will follow. Most of the day will be spent in worship, prayer and discussion. Community dwellers will lead the worship services which are ecumenical in nature. Eucharist will be available for Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant participants.  Teaching times will focus on Jesus and the gospel message will be implicit. No altar calls or emotional pleas for conversion will be part of the program. During all the teaching and worship times, the focus will be on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Questions and doubts will be welcomed and encouraged.


Before I spent a week there in March 2014, I was surprised to learn that more than 100,000 youth find their way to Taize each year. Most spend a week which enables them to enter into the community’s rhythm and become familiar with the songs and worship practices.  During summer and Holy Weeks, more than 6,000 youth will live in the spartan rooms, pitch tents in the fields, park their campers and take part in the community and worship services.

Now that I’ve been there, I understand why.

Which model would attract you?  Taize started in the 1940’s and has morphed many times since; what do you think makes it appealing to so many?  Other ideas for approaches?

“Pray Until You Pray”. Huh?

prayer-150x150In last week’s introductory class to American Church History, the professor shared some life-shaping advice he received from his pastor as a young adult — “Pray until you pray.”  My initial response was, “Huh?”  Then I heard the wisdom hidden in those four short words.

Nearly every time I come before the Lord for a time of prayer beyond the blessing of a meal or an on-the-go “help”, my mind takes a while to stop whirring.  All I have to say is “Dear Heavenly Father”, “Dear Father”, “Jesus”, or “Dear Lord” and my thoughts shift into hyper-drive.

The mental video screen unrolls, and I’m caught up in replaying and analyzing a previous conversation.

A post-it pad appears, and now I’m writing down the things I still need to do today.

My memory decides to function, and I recall items to add to the “to-do” list.

I start a spiritual inventory of my failings, sins, and shortcomings and ask myself why I think God would listen to me anyway.

My stomach growls, and I conduct a mental refrigerator inventory or make dinner plans for the next few days.

My pants pinch, and I think about changes to make in my exercise program, and ponder how well I’m doing in keeping my resolution to eat fewer Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered almonds.

My phone buzzes, and I wonder who sent a text and what it’s about.

I’m doing anything but praying.  Anything but conversing with God.  Anything but listening for the still small voice (I Kings 19:11-13).  Anything but being mentally still and knowing God (Psalm 46:10). Ugh.

So what to do when the mind starts An Around the World in 80 Seconds trip?  A few of the suggestions I’ve heard:  Begin the time of prayer with a request for God to grant you the grace to remain focused. Keep a notebook handy to jot down the “to-do’s” so you can refocus in prayer without worrying you won’t remember them later.  Recognize what are coming to mind are issues weighing on you more than you realized; concerns bigger than you had acknowledged.  Turn each concern over to God and release it into his care. Acknowledge the distraction and intentionally turn your mind back to God, to an encounter with him  (Matthew 6:33).

Whatever helps you refocus, do it.  Keep refocusing until the distractions stop; until your mind has centered. Always with the recognition that what settles you one time may not work the next.

Whether the battle to focus takes seconds or all the time you’ve set aside for prayer, persist.  Keep praying until you’re praying.  Until you’ve reached that point where your heart and mind are free from distractions, and you sense attunement with God. You’ll know when you’re there.  How?

Well, it’s hard to describe.  Your mind feels settled.  Worries slide away like Dali’s timepieces; post-it notes swoosh away. Your hands relax, palms turn upward.  Shoulders and ears disconnect; your breathing slows. Wisps of Scripture, thoughts of what is true, noble, pure and right (Philippians 4:8) push aside negativity.  The love of God is nearly tangible.

When I begin a time of extended prayer, I am frustrated by the distractions and want to fight them. I want to stop them and think if I were mentally tougher or more spiritual I could.   But I’ve found the saying, “what you resist, persists” is applicable here.  Acknowledgment and release of the wayward thoughts brings me back to focus more easily than attempts to muscle my way back in.  

Even those who have practiced extended times of prayer for years encounter these same challenges. Don’t be surprised by them, and try not to be discouraged.  They don’t mean you’re failing. Remember, there are spiritual forces aligned against our efforts to pray; and our own human nature conspires against our taking the position of humility one assumes in the mere act of prayer.

I’m off base if I beat myself up for my passport-toting mind or think it’s my efforts that count in this prayer venture.  I want to remember it’s my brokenness and need that qualify me to pray in the first place (2 Corinthians 12:8–10).  I don’t want prayer to be my accomplishment or have expectations that something earth shattering will happen each time I commune with God.  Instead I want to remember that God is pleased when his child offers her time and seeks his face.  He is honored I desire to be in his presence and will honor me with his.

“Pray until you pray.”

What are your experiences when you try to pray?  What helps you to focus?

Suggested reading:

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (IVP Books 2010).

Kevin O’Brien, SJ, The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life ( Loyola Press, 2011).

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (IVP Books, 2005).


Transformation and Positive Change: Two Movies Show It Well

Lars and the Real Girl - movie posterFrigid weather with sub-zero temps, the snow machine stuck “on”, and evenings where darkness sets in early are prime conditions for hunkering down and watching movies.  Add Netflix streaming available in front of my couch, multiple releases in theaters I want to see, and–voila, I have a perfect celluloid storm.

Not one for comic-book heroes scaling building exteriors or angry, hell-bent victims avenging past wrongs with bullets and fists, I prefer dramatic, often quirky, stories with a touch of humor.  Two of my recent faves? The characters in “Lars and the Real Girl” and “The Scapegoat” who embody the power of communal and individual transformation in unique, quasi-believable story lines.

Lars of “Lars and the Real Girl” is a socially awkward young adult who keeps to himself.  Despite persistent attempts by co-workers and his sister-in-law to become friends, Lars resists.  He lives in the garage behind his childhood home, now inhabited by his brother Gus, and expectant sister-in-law Karin, and ventures out only for work and church. Until Bianca, his girlfriend, comes on the scene in a shipping crate.

After a fellow worker shows him a website for anatomically correct, life-size dolls, Lars orders one.  He prepares Gus and Karin for their first meeting with Bianca, who he describes as a paraplegic missionary of Brazilian and Danish descent.  But little could prepare them.

Lars wheels Bianca in her wheelchair into his childhood home for dinner, and treats her throughout the awkward meal as though she is a living, breathing human being.  He asks Gus and Karin to let her sleep in the pink room, which had been Gus’ and Lars’ mother’s favorite.  Shocked and concerned they oblige; Karin more willingly than Gus.

Karin and Gus convince Lars to take Bianca see the wise female therapist, Dagmar, after her long trip. Lars, the real patient, brings Bianca to Dagmar’s office for regular treatments and gradually reveals himself.  Dagmar encourages Gus and Karin to accept Bianca as Lars’ way of dealing with the death of his mother immediately after his birth, and his father’s reaction of withdrawal and depression.

What follows is a wonderful depiction of a small-town, Midwestern community rallying around one of their wounded.  Gus, Karin, Lars’ co-workers, church members, the pastor, hair stylist, and others bring Bianca into their lives, and Lars with decreasing reluctance tags along.

scapegoat2In “The Scapegoat”, a well-heeled, aristocratic Englishman, head of a dysfunctional family and a failing family business, discovers his recently unemployed doppleganger in a hotel bar.  Aristocrat Spence treats Greek teacher Standing to multiple rounds of the local brew, swaps clothes and identities while Standing sleeps.and then disappears.

Standing awakes to Spence’s chauffeur pounding on the hotel door, and steps unwillingly into the shoes and well-tailored suit of the AWOL Spence.  The comedic conversations that follow give Standing room to maneuver, and reveal the power of assumption and presumption in personal exchanges.

Now husband to Frances, son of a morphine addict mother, father of one precocious daughter, brother to a weak, younger brother and a bitter sister, and Savior/Contract Negotiator, the responsibility to rescue them all sits on his shoulders.  Unlike womanizer and narcissistic Spence, Standing is a good and caring man who draws the best out of people. His expressions of warmth, challenges to the status quo, compassion, and honesty gradually thaw their blue blood.

Spence’s wife holds one key to the family’s financial future, but she must predecease him for the family to access the sizable trust fund.  Coincidence and simple sleuthing resolve the plot, but it doesn’t distract from the deeper story line.

In “Lars and the Real Girl”, the community enfolds a damaged young man and influences his healing process;  in “The Scapegoat” a healthy young man reluctantly interjects himself into a community and like a packet of yeast influences the lot of them.  Lars feels safe with Bianca and experiences bits of a childhood he never had.  Standing experiences a wife and child and grows to love the family Spence abhors.  Seen together, the two stories cast a positive light on the power of a community on an individual, and the power of an individual on a community; and remind us there’s no need to go it alone.  Why do we want to?

What other movies follow a similar theme?

What movies get you through the winter nights?



Paper and Pens, Tools for Dinosaurs?

Diary and Moleskine journals

Diary and Moleskine journals

I am finicky about the paper and pens I use.  Really finicky.

My strong preferences for writing materials surfaced in college when I routinely used a refillable blue Paper Mate “click” pen to take notes in class.  The point had to be fine and the ink had to be blue.

If I forgot my favorite pen and was forced to use another, I felt out of synch.  Plus the notes didn’t look right with the consistency of appearance broken by the intrusion of a foreign pen. Was this an obsession for me? Quite possibly.

But my being persnickety revealed something about myself.  I discovered the power of color and layout, and how important the visual aspect of communication is for me.

A pen needs paper.  For me,  the quintessential match was between my Paper Mate and a particular brand of college-ruled, three-ring notebook paper sold in the Wheaton College bookstore.  I preferred the college or narrow rule spacing of 11/32 of an inch between lines over the wide or filler spacing of 1/4 inch.  I can’t name the brand, but the ink flowed over this paper at the perfect rate without skipping or smearing. Two sheets of notebook paper stacked worked even better than one. With this set-up, lecture notes poured from my fingers onto the pages and looked fantastic. I  realized the impact of a sheet of paper’s texture, weight, finish and impact on the flow of ink and reveled in the tactile feeling of a great pairing.

Since my first diary with the faux-leather strap and tiny key, I’ve been picky about journals and notebooks.  The first one was a gift, a Christmas gift, and I felt so grown-up at age twelve.  I thrilled to record my deepest secrets, (“I don’t like Kurt anymore.”), but I didn’t like the way the ink bled through to the other side. I was finicky early.  After the 366th day (always allow for leap year), I began a quest to find a new diary with the just-right paper texture and line spacing in a lay-flat binding.

I tried blue, accountant green, cream colored papers; spiral bound, book bound; leather covers, floral covers, hard covers, flexible covers; 8.5 x 11, half-sheet, 6×8; lined, unlined, squared paper.  The decades-long search was finally consummated ten years ago when I a high-school student I befriended showed me her Moleskine journal, and I was hooked.

My pen of the moment for journaling and note-taking is the G2 blue fine point made by Pilot. The ink tends to smudge on glossy paper often used in greeting cards and thank you notes; a ball point flows better on those surfaces. Otherwise it can’t be beat.  Always open to recommendations…

The feel of paper in the hand, the flow of ink from a pen, the leather journal unlikely to be revisited, are these sensuous pleasures facing extinction?  Am I a dinosaur to revel in the tactile experience of something other than a keyboard ? In the look of handwritten notes on a piece of textured paper written using a pen with a particular point and ink flow?

I’m not a Luddite yearning to return to the Pre-computer Age.  I do acknowledge that the feel of a keyboard is important.  The height of the keys, the spacing between, the amount of pressure necessary all matter, but there’s something missing.  Sure I can change the font color, size, and italicize everything if I feel like it, but it isn’t my handwriting.  It isn’t distinctly ME.  Someone else designed the font.  Many people use it, and our “writing” looks the same.  And it looks the same everyday.  It doesn’t vary with mood, hand tension, paper texture, ink flow or writing surface texture.

When I sit in a long row of tables in class, my spiral notebook looks antiquated amid the backlit apple silhouettes and the clicking keyboards, but I’m not trading it in any time soon.  I may be a dinosaur, but I’m a happy one.

Do the kind of pen and paper matter to you?  What is the expected life span for handwritten notes and journals?

What things are you finicky about?