Distractions and Renewal

Stuff gets in the way. Stuff gets in the way of life happening the way it is supposed to. We get distracted, we lose focus, and before we know it, our lives have veered from where we thought they were supposed to go.

Maybe that’s where Lent comes in. As a season, it asks us to let go of some of those distractions. To let go of those things that keep us from living life as we were meant to live it. When people pick a trivial thing, even a happy thing, to give up for Lent, I think maybe it misses the mark.

I like the notion of Lent as a time for renewal and refocusing. Last week at Christ Church Easton, the Gospel reading was Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Interim pastor Jerrett Hansen, reflecting on this mountaintop experience, asked, “How are we connected to the story?”

He posited we need to live into the mystery of the story, the mystery of God and Christ, rather than try to intellectually analyze it.

“Jesus and God are to be experienced. We need to be open to these experiences… Experiencing God is essential to our journey.”

I think that is what life’s distractions prevent us from doing. They get in the way of our wonder; they get in the way of loving more fully; they get in the way of opening ourselves to possibilities and to each other. Distractions keep us from knowing ourselves more fully and from knowing God more fully.

Maybe instead of giving something up just to give something up, for Lent we can think about getting ourselves into spiritual shape. Building better habits to peel back the distractions. Jerrett introduced a notion that a friend of his, Michael Foss, spelled out as marks of discipleship:

1. Pray daily
2. Worship weekly
3. Read the Bible daily
4. Build spiritual friendships
5. Serve in the community
6. Be generous in all things

We’ll be spending time over the next weeks working through what some of those look like and what they mean. If you are up for it, maybe think of Lent as time to take on a discipline, or a devotional habit, to help get into shape a bit.

We all need help in our lives in some form or fashion. We can all be better people, for ourselves, our family, our friends, our community, our world.

I’m stoked to be helping lead groups this Lent and spring, which will be looking at Mark’s Gospel; which will be looking at how and why to pray and read the Bible. And the Alpha Course.

I love Mother Teresa’s notion that through prayer God guides us to do the things that need to be done in the world, that “prayer changes us and we change things.”

God invites us to come as we are, just as we are. But He also knows we are capable of being so much more. We can be better. We can do better. Maybe we can start now.

I’ll leave with a final though from Jerrett’s sermon this past Saturrday:

“God loves you the way you are, but He knows how much more you can be.”

Finding Meaning and Community

Life can be rough. That’s not even worth a bumper sticker, it’s just a given. Even the most positive people have dark nights of the soul. And we all run up against questions we can’t answer. I think Fr. Bill Ortt is on to something when he says it is our questions that define us. It’s also our questions that drive us.

“Is there more to life than this?” That’s one of the first ones we come across in the Alpha Course. Alpha is phenomenon that took off in London under the leadership and vision of Nicky Gumbel. The notion was and is to take people who aren’t church-goers, but who wonder about life’s big questions, bring them together, to eat a meal, to enjoy each other, to watch some short films and talk. No judgment, no pressure, but plenty of laughter, connection, and fun. And funny things begin to happen when you put like-minded seekers together, no matter how different they may seem.

Last winter and spring, something like 60 adults and 40 youth went through Alpha at Christ Church Easton. It was a transformative experience for just about all involved. I went from feeling like a newcomer to knowing I was a part of a community of people. And I saw the same thing happen to other people. It wasn’t about “church,” it was about relationships, conversations, and connections. The weekend away itself left me reeling and inspired.

It seems a rare thing today to make the time to sit down with people, to eat together, to have meaningful discussion about things that matter, to admit we don’t have all the answers, but we have plenty of questions, and to put that on the table. The humor, the honesty, the laughs that follow are amazing.

Christ Church is starting Alpha up again this coming Saturday, Sept. 9. There is a worship service called “Alive at 5,” that is one of the most laid back and Spirit-filled I have ever encountered. At about 6-6:15, everyone sits down in the Parish Hall to eat together. Right now there are 70 adults signed up, plenty of whom haven’t been a part of Christ Church, a number who have and who are looking to go on a journey of sorts, together. The church’s youth program (ages 10-18) has dinner with us. Daycare is provided, free. Then we go watch a short film and break into small groups to talk.

It’s fun, it’s free, and there is no pressure. There are folks this spring that found it to be pretty cool. I found it to be something totally unexpected that I had been waiting for for some time. So much so that I am signing on again, as are a number of other folks. If it sounds like something you would dig, you can find more information at Christ Church Easton’s website.

There are different ways to find meaning and community. Alpha is a great beginning.

 

Difference Makers: Christ Church Easton’s Alpha Weekend

Faith is not a sprint. The Holy Spirit is irrational and real. And sometimes, finding ways to nurture and stoke a community of faith and love; something that feels like a family, is about the best way you can spend a weekend.

Christ Church Easton‘s Alpha Weekend was a retreat suited for people who would quickly tell you they don’t do church retreats. I know because I was one of those people–I’d never done anything like it. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone at the end of the weekend who didn’t feel like they had been part of something totally unique, moving, connecting, and Spirit-filled.

The Alpha Course is billed as a sort of introduction to Christianity. It’s about understanding and building a relationship with God, not about hitting the books or simply learning facts. It was created in London and since Nicky Gumbel took it over in 1990, it’s become a bit of a global phenomenon. It’s designed with people who don’t know much of anything about church in mind; who maybe never thought they’d have a need or interest. Each meeting is centered on food, fun, discussion, and laughter. In my experience, it’s as much a personal and group adventure as it is a course.

At Christ Church, Kelsey Spiker, who heads up the youth ministry, was gearing up to lead a Teen Alpha Course. Fr. Bill Ortt and Jana Leslie liked the idea of running an adult Alpha at the same time, for any parents or others who were interested. What followed was 100 people–roughly half kids and half adults–who signed up. On Saturdays, after the 5pm worship service, the whole group sits down for dinner together, eats and laughs and connects, then breaks up into groups to watch a video and discuss. I signed on as a leader, and I’ve seen some pretty cool things go on each Saturday.

Which led to the Alpha Weekend away.

My daughters are part of the Teen Alpha group. The three of us were a part of about 60 people who headed out to the Claggett Center in Adamstown, Md–an idyllic setting in Maryland mountains.

It was a weekend to unplug from the distractions of everyday life; to refocus energy and attention; to connect with each other; to grow together in faith and understanding.

The youth movement took nature walks, played basketball and impromptu capture the flag, and made the most of the Claggett Center campus on a rainy Saturday. The adults went between group videos and discussion and unstructured time for reflection, with everyone coming together to eat, and morning and evening time to pray. As someone who generally prays by myself in solitude, there is something about praying as a community that transcends anything I can feel on my own.

Saturday evening, the rain let up and everyone gathered around a fire. There is a core of this group who radiate music and just being around them is being around a concert ready to happen at any moment. That night it was Grace (yes, that kind of Grace, but also a person), a soft-spoken 18-year-old arts student, who opened the song flood gates with a guitar and a song called “Difference Makers.”

It’s easy to think of a retreat as an escape. This wasn’t. The death of an Easton High School student preceded the weekend and was on hearts and minds of everyone. While we were there, word came in of a tragic death of a young child of somone’s close friend. People’s lives, loved ones, joy, pain, questions, sorrow, searching, and happiness were all present. And all real.

With the rain, Saturday was a day largely spent indoors. So when the sun came out Sunday morning, I ate breakfast quickly and hit a hilly hiking trail at Claggett. I wandered through the woods until I found a stream flowing downhill, and hopped onto rocks and followed the stream to the river. I sat next to the river, listened to birds, felt a breeze on my face and prayed for a while. Until I realized I had to get back for the morning’s movie, “How can I make the most out of the rest of my life?”

With a book in my hand, wearing jeans, I hit the trail running, smiling and laughing like a kid, making it with a couple minutes to spare.

I am a note taker–never leaving home without a pocket notebook and pen. The weekend was filled with things to write down:

“Prayer is a two-way conversation.” – Nicky Gumbel

“Jesus didn’t come to make life easy, He came to make people great.” – NG

“You’re not saved by doing good; you are saved in order to do good.” – NG

“The Holy Spirit is completely irrational and totally real and relevant.” – Fr. Bill Ortt

“The inspiration of the Holy Spirit isn’t found on page 101 of the prayer book.” – Fr. Bill (meaning it isn’t as simple as just opening a book)

After the movie and group discussions, morning worship service was filled with song and Spirit. People who don’t generally speak in front of groups shared gratitude and thanks for having a church family. We left the Claggett Center, and the weekend, fully charged.

This past weekend, we were back at Christ Church. Fr. Charles Osberger, a guest minister, led the Alive at Five Saturday service. He talked about his own experience with Alpha, saying, “the love of God is present like surfing on a wave.”

Building on a theme, he prayed that we “have the Scriptures open to us in ways that stretch and deepen our understanding.” And he noted that, “When God moves from a God ‘out there’ to a God inside us, it is like igniting a fire.”

That fire, the feeling that something is starting and building, that’s what it feels like is at work right now at Christ Church. With Alpha, but that’s only part of it. It’s something that is hard to put into words, but something you can see and feel. It’s people making a difference in each other’s lives. It’s people trying to walk their walk and live God’s love. It’s struggles, failures, challenges, and successes. To use a Christ Church notion, it’s “real hope, real grace, real joy, real God.”