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.”

Nostalgia and Home

It’s the green house that I think about the most. It was off the back of my grandparents’ house in Towson. It was full of flowers and plants and my grandmother would go around watering and studying things out there.

Nostalgia grabs us in strange ways. It can be a smell, a song, or a feeling. When I walk into the sun room in my house and see plants inside for the winter, my mind goes immediately to my grandmother’s green house. It makes me smile. To get to the green house, you would have to walk by my grandfather sitting at the dining room table, drinking coffee, and reading The Baltimore Sun sports section.

Lately I’ve been thinking that nostalgia isn’t longing for the past, it’s touching something missing. In his book, “Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth,” Hugh Halter goes with nostalgia meaning “to return or go back home:”

We all have nostalgia and memories of going back home. Some of us remember our fathers through old cars; some of us keep Christmas ornaments our mothers passed down. Maybe it’s old guns; maybe just a photo. But whatever the point of reference, we all know emotions of looking back to times that brought us great joy. Nostalgia is the answer to the why.

A question I love to ask people is, “Where/what do you picture when you hear or say the word ‘home?'” I think it’s something that gets to the core of us. For one person it could be a childhood home, or the house where they raised their kids, or where they’ve spent the most years. I don’t picture a house. For me, when I think of home, I think of the Eastern Shore, Oxford, the Tred Avon River, anywhere outside in nature. Christ Church Easton and the people there feel like home. Log cabins in the woods feel like home, though I’ve never lived in one.

Christmas is a heavy nostalgic time. In part because many of us have deep memories tied to Christmas growing up. As a holiday, it can stoke both joy and emptiness, missing time past. But there may be more to it than that. Personally, it can sometimes take hearing Linus explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about before I get it right in my head. Funny how maybe it takes Charles Schulz to get kids to connect to Luke’s Gospel.

Let’s appreciate the forum here for a second: this is a blog, where I work out half-baked thoughts that should probably stay in the oven a while longer, or at least until after another cup of coffee. I don’t generally edit and things tumble out free form. That’s my disclaimer.

My memories don’t go back to the beginning of creation. There is a time before I was born. I think nostalgia reaches back further than our lifetimes. Maybe it’s a longing for a return to something in us that came before us. A Garden of Eden time that we can feel in our bones and hearts. We know there is something there, something to this longing, but we can’t put our minds around it quite right.

Halter points out that with the Incarnation, God wasn’t/isn’t trying to give us a ticket to get back to that perfect time–He’s bringing it to us. Christ brings the kingdom here and now. But it’s a process we have to open ourselves to. Christ gives us clue after clue; He shows us how to live, how to love, how to be in the world to help bring the kingdom/home both to ourselves and others. Halter goes into ways we can do a better job with this in our lives.

David Bailey’s book “Journeywork” found me via Outside Magazine. And it’s been a slow, wondrous walk since. Bailey describes home and coming home in a different way:

There’s a part of us already home
from the journey, resting by
the eternal fireside, and with us now
through the dark age and renaissance, through
every resurrection and
the great breaking-opens that feel like
endings. Storm lantern holding course
through every misadventure. Evergreen growing
through all seasons. It shines a halo of worth around
even our most irredeemable trials.

Feel that place now.

Returning home. But not as a journey to somewhere out there, but bringing home to us. Followers of Christ call it the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a gift we can’t buy, it’s given to us by grace. It’s been brought forward to us, but we have to open the door. And we help bring it about through love.

Maybe that’s the connection: nostalgia is a longing for home, to be reconnected to it and to each other by love.

Buechner on Eternity

I spent late Sunday on a bike and under a tree. The morning and afternoon had been music, prayer and fellowship of worship services, then blessing of pets (several dogs, a hedgehog, two guinea pigs, and a horse) at Christ Church Easton.

On a beautiful fall evening, I hopped on my bike and eased around Boone Creek and then found a tree on the shoreline of the Oxford Cemetery. I stretched my legs out and listened to geese in the cove, the breeze through the trees, conversations of boaters in Town Creek, and watched the sun dance on the water. I read David Bailey, Richard Rohr, and N.T. Wright. Mostly I sat, watched, listened, imbibed.

I was completely full. I didn’t try to give it words, just breath and feeling.

Yesterday I came across this passage from Frederick Buechner’s “Wishful Thinking,” and I realized Buechner had the words I was looking for:

ETERNITY IS NOT endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time. 

If you spin a pinwheel fast enough, then all its colors blend into a single color—white—which is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum combined. 

If you spin time fast enough, then time-past, time-present, and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined. 

As human beings we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a marriage—some event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what “it’s all about” involves not just the present but the past and future too. 

Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15) “inhabiteth eternity” but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where he stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too. 

On Vocation Part II: Closer to the Heart

My path seems spiral-shaped sometimes. I come back to a familiar place or thought, but things are different. It’s like further unearthing something, brushing dirt away to reveal more of the picture or map.

When I graduated Washington College in 1998, I was set to go to graduate school with the goal of teaching philosophy and religion. Ultimately graduate school debt didn’t make sense and there was something to staying in this community that stuck. That fall I started working at the Academy Art Museum, overseeing public relations, marketing, and development. Almost 20 years later, my career and spiritual paths combine, right across the street from the Academy: on October 16, I will start working full-time at Christ Church Easton as Assistant for Adult Christian Education & Newcomers Ministry.

I’ve been working at Christ Church part-time since last November, listening to a calling to work with small groups and adult education. I go back to Frederick Buechner’s thought that, “the place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I knew right away that working with the church was the first time that my vocation lined up with the big questions that I’ve always asked, the things I wonder about, and how I want to spend my time.

I am humbled by and grateful for this opportunity. This summer I told friends that if I won the lottery, I’d focus more on working for the church, continuing my own education, and writing. This fall it seems I’ve won the lottery.

Since February 2015, I’ve had the privilege of being the Executive Director of the Oxford Community Center, in the town where I grew up. I don’t have the words to say how much that experience has meant to me and what an incredible time it has been developing programs and events and welcoming and building the community at OCC. It has given me back a town I had lost touch with and one I am excited to call home again.

There have been a few moments in my life where/when things have lined up and I have known in my heart and in my bones what I was supposed to do. To this point in my working life, I’ve had jobs that I’ve enjoyed, but not that called me from the deepest level. I’ve felt this calling time and time again–from studying and wanting to teach philosophy and religion; to wanting to go back to school for Christian theology in 2014; to last year, putting my hopes and intentions out into the world, which led me to the small groups position at Christ Church.

I’ve reached a place and time in life that feels like a new beginning. It’s a beginning that is the culmination of everything that’s happened up to this point: work, fatherhood, friendships, connections, questions, faith, joy, struggle, community, opportunity, study, passion, prayer.

In his book, “Desire,” John Eldredge spells out:

“To live life fully–that is to say, to live life as God meant for us to live–demands a full recovery of our heart. You need that wellspring flowing swift and clear and true… The adventure calls. The future awaits. How you handle your heart’s desire will in great measure determine what becomes of your life.”

To be a part of a community of faith. To help each other in our own walks, with our own questions. To study, to learn, to share, to write. To have the opportunity to follow a calling in vocation. To live life closer to the heart. To listen, to discern God’s will and find deep happiness in His Way and Word.

Those are things that get me out of bed in the morning, things that stir my heart watching the sunrise. They are thoughts and images that dance through my mind when I am running, skateboarding, hiking, reading, or paddleboarding.

It’s a coming together of life and experience to this point, my part and passion in God’s larger work and will. It’s coming to know God’s grace and love as lived out and given to and for us through Jesus Christ.

Here I am. I am grateful, humbled, excited, and so many other things.

Amen.

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.

 

After the Mountaintop: So What and Now What?

Two of the questions everyone seems to want answers for are: “So what?” and “Now what?” Those are the questions that beget action. They need a response.

We were just talking about “mountaintop experiences,” or those experiences where something has opened up for you, you have seen (been shown) and felt something that changes you, or that changes everything. Now what? If you have this incredible experience and then just go back to things just the way they were, then what good is it? What was it for?

You’ve got to act. You’ve got to do something. What that something is is different for everyone and inherent to who we are–it involves our unique talents and passion. It is what defines us.

Over the past couple years, I’ve had St. Paul on my mind, especially gearing up for a study on Romans this fall. Most of us will never know Paul’s clarity or conviction. His mountaintop experience was an encounter with the Risen Christ that left him blind for a few days, and completely transformed his life. He went from being an all around not-so-nice guy to being a prolific letter-writing, missionary master, New Testament first ballot hall of famer. Even changed his name.

What we take from our game-changing experiences doesn’t have to involve evangelism, like Paul. It could be anything–working with kids, creating art, pushing yourself and those around you to be better, kinder; inspiring others through… what? That’s for you to decide. But it involves change. It involves action. It channels your passion. It engages your talent. It calls us to pass it on, to pay it forward.

I know I sound like a broken record at times. We’ve all got our soapboxes to stand on. I come back to a lot of the same things: being outside and experiencing God’s creation. I find peace, have some of my most profound thoughts, and talk to God when I am running, hiking, or walking. I am inspired, uplifted, and overflowing at times when reading and/or writing. And I am lit up beyond words in small groups of great people.

Over the past 10 years, some of my most meaningful experiences and relationships have been come from a group of early morning runners, which has created oddball adventures, lifelong friendships, and ultimately even helped me find a home at Christ Church Easton.

I love this notion that N.T. Wright has in “Simply Christian:”

“We honor and celebrate our complexity and our simplicity by continually doing five things. We tell stories. We act out rituals. We create beauty. We work in communities. We think out our beliefs… In and through all these things run the threads of love and pain, fear and faith, worship and doubt, the quest for justice, the thirst for spirituality, and the promise and problem of human relationship. And if there is any such thing as “truth,” in some absolute sense, it must relate to, and make sense of, all this and more.”

Drink from that fire hose for a bit. When I think through those five things and how they relate to my life, I think back on some of my best memories and look forward to meaningful experiences to come.

“So what?” and “Now what?” I feel like as individuals and as a society, these are questions we constantly ask and come back to. Sometimes they can leave us stuck in the starting gate wondering what to do. And sometimes they can call us to action.

Mountaintop Experiences

Sometimes hospitals can be mountaintops. Mountaintop experiences are those moments or experiences in our lives that rearrange things, change our hearts, bring us closer to God.

Two years ago today, while visiting her mom’s family in Pennsylvania, Ava had a seizure that led her to be flown by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. I was sitting in my sun room at home at 9pm, and got a phone call, and was on the road within a few minutes.

She spent 10 days in pediatric intensive care and all told about a month in the hospital between neurology and the rehab unit. After EKGs and MRIs and who knows what other acronyms, the likely diagnosis was that Epstein-Barr Virus had gotten into her spine, and caused her brain to swell and provoked that and subsequent and ongoing seizures. The doctors, nurses, and technicians at Children’s were rock stars, stayed the course and sent Ava home to conquer 5th grade. Since then, she has been on medication to manage her seizures and we have learned a bit about the world of provoked epilepsy. Ava’s has been a good story, with her making honor roll at school, playing sports, and living a mostly normal life, albeit mornings and evenings feeling like a pharmacy.

Mountaintops are what you make of them. The main thing I remember is the amazing support, prayers, good vibes and good deeds from so many people. It redefined what community meant to me. What Ava went through, and her attitude, and watching her come back to herself gave me a sense of gratitude I wouldn’t have come to any other way. It showed me first-hand, the way a community of people praying can change the heart(s) of the people being prayed for. I have been in a constant and growing conversation with God since (not that I always listen the first time or catch what He’s saying).

Yesterday’s Gospel reading and sermon at Christ Church Easton were about a mountaintop experience–Luke’s story of Peter, John, and James witnessing Jesus’s transfiguration, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”(Luke 9:29). You can’t get much more mountaintop than that. I like how Frederick Buechner brings transfiguration back to everyday life:

“Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”

When I think back to two years ago in the hospital and getting home, I have seen that look on a face. It was there in Anna caring for her sister; it was there in Ava getting home, excited to see her friends and start the school year. And because of that mountaintop experience, when I remember to look with the eyes of my heart, I see it now.

 

Faith, Wonder and Surfing

Faith and wonder are siblings. They begin in a curiosity, a fascination with something beyond us that we can’t fully comprehend, but we want more. Maybe they are intertwined, spinning around each other like a spiral shell.

Some people may feel like they outgrow either or both faith and wonder–they fill their minds only with facts that fit inside what can be understood and categorized. And there is little time for things that don’t fit.

In his book, “Simply Christian,” N.T. Wright works with the metaphor of hidden, living springs. He says to imagine those springs paved over with concrete so thick the springs couldn’t penetrate it, and that a complex system of pipes was built to use the water, chemicals added, and the water was controlled and brought to people, so that they didn’t have to do anything to get it. Useful, regulated, controlled, right to your door with no work. No thought. Wright posits that an explosion, something between a volcano and an earthquake taking place, that none of the water regulators could explain. The water, he says, is “‘spirituality,’ the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.”

I started reading Wright to get to know the man behind Bible study guides that we will be using for classes on the Gospel according to Matthew and Paul’s Letter to the Romans this fall at Christ Church Easton. It has felt pretty quickly like I may have found another member of my tribe of writers–Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen, John Eldredge, Anne Lamott–who look at the world through a lens of faith.

The other book in my beach reading stack this week is Victoria Erickson‘s “Edge of Wonder: Notes from the Wildness of Being.” I’ve written about it a lot, think about it even more, and try to live and spark it when I can, but I often feel like wildness, passion, wonder, is the thing we (I) have the hardest time keeping in sight when daily work and life can keep us (me) so focused on what needs to be done–all good stuff, but all demanding time and attention.

Erickson gets us back to the wonder within us. “Are there equal parts magic, contentment and quiet beauty when you’re just being simple?  If not, then wait for it.” She writes about walking, something I see also in running:

When I walk,
I can no longer feel
fear or weight
or worry or pressure,
as they vanish
beneath the rise
of movement,
breath and creative fire.
To me, walking is
recharging my life.

This morning I ran barefoot along the beach in Ocean City. This dance of spirituality (Wright’s water), faith, and wonder spiraling in my head; my head which wasn’t clearing itself as it was directed.

I passed a stretch of beach where people were learning to surf, kids and adults. I stopped and watched for a bit, and smiled. In a world where there are a million options for things to do and demands on our time, people are learning to surf.

If I want to play Wright’s metaphor into the physical world, where water is spirituality, that’s a response that makes me happy. Be in it, be a part of it, learn to ride it. We know the ocean is bigger than we can see, we know it is beyond us, and so, we learn to surf.

Faith and wonder both start from within us. They are a part of us, our response to something bigger than our minds, which we want to know more about.

Show Me How to Live

Our senses are gateways to the world. What we see, hear, smell, touch, taste give us our world, in part. And our senses have memories.

Walking the dog the other morning, I was overwhelmed by the smell of honeysuckle. It transported me back to being a kid, building forts in the marsh, sections of which were absolutely and wonderfully overgrown with it. The smell of steamed crabs has the same effect.

The feel of cut grass under bare feet, or hot sand, or gravel under toughened summer feet. The first time my daughters’ newborn hands wrapped around my finger.

Our senses cue up a lifetime of memories in our mind’s eye and in our souls.

And there is music. Our lives have a soundtrack. Mine is different from anyone else’s, though certainly we share songs and groups with others. Anyone who rode in my car during high school heard their share of the Beastie Boys “Paul’s Boutique,” The Specials, Public Enemy, The Clash, and Metallica.

Getting to North Carolina for college, it was meeting Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog.

I don’t generally sing, but to this day when Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” comes on the radio, much to my daughters’ cringing, I am belting it out.

Cornell and Vedder are still on about every running playlist I have. But Cornell is integral.

We all get to those rough places in our emotional lives. When I was driving four to five hours a day back and forth to DC, in what came to feel like a soul-less grind, and my marriage was crumbling around me, it was Cornell, Tom Morello and Audioslave. Played so loud the windows and dashboard shook. It was the angst, the wail Morello’s guitar, the reach and pitch and emotion and questions in Cornell’s voice.

You gave me life
Now show me how to live.

Audioslave was and is catharsis, solace, energy. When I moved down Bailey’s Neck and got my feet back under me, and would run the wood-lined back roads, it was Audioslave time and time again.

Show me how to live.

In finding a job in Oxford at the community center and re-embracing a community that helped raise me, in moving back to town here, and running through town and up Oxford Rd.

Show me how to live.

The night Ava had her big seizure in Pennsylvania and was flown by helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh; as I buried the gas pedal driving through the night it was Cornell and company playing in the car to keep me awake and focused.

Show me how to live.

As we all returned home, and I was filled with gratitude for the outpouring of support and prayers from friends and family and strangers, and I found church and faith, and would shuffle a playlist on my runs, I could hear:

You gave me life
Now show me how to live.

In hearing and finding a calling and Christ Church and being in small groups and building a family and community of faith through our Alpha program, I hear the same words.

I’ve never met Chris Cornell. His death isn’t like losing a family member or close friend. There isn’t a hole in my life in that way. When David Bowie, Prince, or Lemmy died it was sad to lose great artists. But they weren’t a part of first team soundtrack of my life.

We come to know artists through their art. When we find those artists whose work resonates and enlarges our souls, we know it. We connect with them in ways that makes our own struggles and questions seem relevant for someone else; we feel less alone. Like together we tap into something bigger–in the best art we can feel connected; at times maybe we can hear God’s message for us.

In the end, I’m best leaving the words to Morello, who knew Cornell well. The poem Morello wrote to Cornell after his death is beautiful, moving, and open-hearted and minded. Go read the whole thing. But we’ll leave his last words here:

You’re the clear bell ringing, the mountains echo your song

Maybe no one has ever known you

You are twilight and star burn and shade 

 

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.”