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.

Space for Grace

Tohu wa-bohu. It’s fun to say. Like an incantation you would chant while waving a magic wand over a hat. Tohu wa-bohu. It’s a Hebrew phrase from the Book of Genesis, describing the state of the Universe before God created order. “Formless void,” and “primordial chaos” are two of the translations I enjoy the most.

It’s a phrase Fr. Bill Ortt has unpacked in a couple different small groups at Christ Church Easton of late. He used it to point out that the first things that God created, in addition to light, were time and space. These were the ordering principles of the Universe. To get rid of the chaos, it was light, time, and space.

The image above is William Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” in which God creates order out of chaos. Blake is depicting God putting his orderly stamp on the Tohu wa-bohu. It’s an image I am familiar with: it’s on my left shoulder, the first tattoo I ever got, when I was 25, after my first encounter with Blake in Dr. Gillin’s British Romanticism class at Washington College. Funny to come back to it in a new way, almost 20 years later.

There is something to that need for order. When we want to calm the chaos in our own lives, we need to shine a light on things and create time and space. When things get hectic, there is a blueprint that goes back to the beginning.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” I like Lamott for her honesty, humor, compassion; for her irreverent reverence; for her willingness and ability to shine the light on herself and laugh and make us laugh at what she finds; for her willingness to wrestle God and surrender; and for her unique and personal path and walk of faith.

Both in reading her and for some time before, I have had the notion of “grace” on my mind. Here is how Lamott looks at it:

It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

There is so much there that I like. Grace is what is left when we have nothing else. It’s what is there when we are on empty. It’s foundational. It’s also not something we have alone, or by ourselves. Grace connects us to God and to each other. Sometimes that is a tough lesson to learn for those of us who are hermits by nature.

Here is another way she puts it, “Man is broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” Let’s play that out to bricks and mortar. A single brick only gets you so far. With a bunch of bricks, you can have a sidewalk, patio, house, etc. But the key to putting bricks together is mortar. And you have to make space for the mortar to join them together and make them stronger.

You have to make space for grace. If we get so busy with our lives, or so self-absorbed that we can’t see or feel grace, we are the bricks without mortar. We are the ones deluding ourselves that we can do it on our own.

We are broken. We live by mending. The grace of God is glue. We need to make space for grace.

Scripture, Small Groups & Ephesians

This week at Christ Church Easton, we kick off a small group study of The Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. The build up, the study, the reflection, and prayer has led me to think about the nature of Scripture and how we read it and relate to it. And why. I doubt it’s a coincidence that one of my go-to thinkers, Richard Rohr, is spending this week talking about Scripture:

Serious reading of Scripture will allow you to find an ever-new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history and your own soul as you discover that the text holds truth on many levels… Sacred texts will always maximize your possibilities for life, love, and inclusion, which is precisely why we call them sacred.

The liberation of our own soul and maximizing possibilities for life, love, and inclusion–not a bad way to spend our time. I also love Frederick Buechner’s thoughts on reading the Bible:

If you look AT a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look THROUGH a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past and into the depths of ourselves. 

There is so much to be gained by a thoughtful, in depth reading and study of the Bible. But it’s not easy going it alone. It’s a communal document, passed down by multiple people, for multiple people. It’s a living document, a living Word, that can open us up to more when looked at and wrestled and reckoned with together.

At a worship service, we can hear the Word. We can listen and reflect on it. But we don’t have a chance to discuss it. That’s what small groups are for. In looking at the reason for small group study, Carolyn Taketa writes:

When we take the risk of being authentic with a small group of people, we can experience God’s grace and love coming through others, which leads to freedom and transformation

John Ortberg writes: “God uses people to form people. That is why what happens between you and another person is never merely human-to-human interaction–the Spirit longs to be powerfully at work in every encounter.” So the goal of small groups is to create the environments where Spirit-driven, life-giving experiences can flourish.

The need for these kind of life-giving experiences, that kind of interaction and helping foster that kind of community is part of what compelled me to follow a calling to lead small groups.

What better place to start than Ephesians?

Bob Deffinbaugh calls Ephesians “the Rolls Royce of the epistles.” And he cites William Hendricksen’s “Exposition of Ephesians,” which calls the letter:

“the divinest composition of man,” “the distilled essence of the Christian religion,” “the most authoritative and most consummate compendium of the Christian faith,” that is “full to the brim with thoughts and doctrines sublime and momentous.”

If someone had to write a movie trailer for Ephesians, I would sign Hendricksen up on the spot.

Life has a funny way of working itself out. Twenty years ago, I would have told you that the texts I would be wrestling with in my 40s would be Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and the heavy hitters of continental philosophy and phenomenology. Looking back, it is clear to me that that would have been an academic exercise. I have lived and watched over that time as my head and my heart have become synchronized and moved into alignment with one another. I want to put that same spirit of inquiry into not just words, but the Word, and not just for study, but for living.

And so maybe it comes back to Ephesians, which seems the perfect place to start, when it is time to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

This is just the beginning.