Storytelling with Faith and Wonder

My good buddy, Casey Fitzgerald, is a master Biblical storyteller and has started a blog called Faith and Wonder to explore more deeply personal storytelling in relationship to Biblical storytelling. Casey's tag line is "living and telling stories with Spirit." Being a Biblical storyteller means Casey learns the Biblical stories by heart and shares those stories with congregations and audiences of every interested sort. Casey's pretty bad-ass.

Casey started a podcast not only for Biblical storytelling but to have others tell their personal story alongside a Biblical one.

Casey asked me to jump on her podcast to share my own personal Emmaus Road experience. Here is our 25 minute podcast where I share my story of worshiping at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia and realizing I had a choice to make: Will I be a minister for Christ or a Minister for the Machine?

Check out the podcast HERE.

Check out Casey in storytelling mode here.

Yoga: Jennifer Harvey and the Practice of Yoga

Jenny, Chris, and Harper on the first day Iowa had marriage equality.
Jenny, Chris, and Harper on the first day Iowa had marriage equality.

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of powerful people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Guest Blogger is Jenny Harvey, whom I adore, and known now in the academic world as Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey. I met Jenny at Union and ran many a miles together, early in the mornings, in Riverside Park.  I loved sharing time and conversation with Jenny at Union, and still do now as we've grown-up into married adults with kids, a dog, and the never-ending quest to find time for yoga. Jenny is now a professor at Drake University and lives in Des Moines with her spouse, Chris, and two kids, Harper and Emery.

Here, Jenny reflects on her consistent, spiritually aware yoga practice.

“I practice yoga.”

“I’m someone who practices yoga.”

I’m not sure if there’s a difference between these two statements, but lately it’s seemed worth wondering about.

For years I dabbled knowing the flexibility and strength yoga could help me build would be good for me. But I usually couldn’t shake this thought as a sat, posed, breathed or whatever-I-was-doing: “Seriously, my time would be better spent running.” A soccer player and runner, I couldn’t find the will or way to take yoga seriously even while this nagging voice (and a lot of people I really respect) kept telling me I should.

Then came my late 30s, with its aching knees (making running more dicey), two babies (so soccer too time-consuming) and a decision to make a one-year commitment to yoga twice-a-week. Some part of me knew I had to practice with consistency for a sustained period before I could actually know what yoga might be in my life.

Turns out what it might be is the emerging understanding that practice is everything.

Looking back I see my commitment even then was a decision to practice. (Of course, I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was just praying to the ‘groupon’ gods: “please send me another yoga coupon so I can keep going without paying full price.”)

Practice.

Besides loving bodily activity, I’m also a person of ideas. I teach, write and tend to live in words, thoughts and categories. My ongoing relationship with my religious tradition—Christianity—has been vexed relative to how adequate (or inadequate) I have found its “beliefs” to be; how much its “claims” make sense; what the right kind of “thinking” about the divine might yield in my actions.

I didn’t anticipate that a year-long commitment to what I saw merely as a new type of physical activity would become spiritual activity that would turn this way of understanding upside down.

Here’s how it’s happened. The constant refrain of my teachers as I practice, urging me to “be in the moment” has crept into life off the mat. The constant reminder as I practice to let go of negative energy (self-judgment, worry, control) has found me turning away from my own or others’ negative energy off the mat. The realization that what I am experiencing on the mat has as much to do with how I choose to see it than to what is happening physically has become more and more my default recognition off the mat.

I’m coming to understand life as practice even as these practices have begun shaping my life.

It turns out my fixation on getting ideas and thoughts right first is backwards. It turns out practice changes thoughts and ideas, how I see and how—even who—I am.

“I am someone who practices yoga.”

Yoga is teaching me that I am (that’s the “someone” part) literally what I do (“who practices yoga”).

There isn’t a self, separate from practice.

The implications of this truth are astronomical for about a million other things in life. Practice is always process and never perfection. Practice has an insistent rhythm that transcends will or mood. But for me today the most important is this: a release from lifetimes telling myself “I should [idea/thought] do this [action]” only to be frustrated at my lack of follow through, discipline, choices, or whatever.

Putting practice first is nurturing fragile and tentative transformations for which I’ve longed for years, ways of being that thought I would get to eventually if I had figured it all out in my mind first.

Well before my year was over practice became part of who I am (for now—by nature practice also assumes impermanence: the physical with the spiritual; ideas about “should” less distinct from that which I simply do; postures on the mat not so different from those emerging in me (as me) off the mat.

Practice.

More about Jenny:

Jenny, Chris, Harper and Emery.
Jenny, Chris, Harper and Emery.

Jennifer Harvey is a yoga-obsessed writer, educator and parent interested in how social structures shape us and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures.  She is passionate about racial justice, the problem of whiteness, queer life, community and spirituality.

Her forthcoming book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation  will be out in November 2014. She also the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty  and Disrupting White Supremacy: White People on What We Need To Do. Jennifer blogs at Huffington Post and her own blog formations.  where she posts her written attempts to make living connections among all of these passions and interests.

Powerful People: John Allen and Lenten "At Table."

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.John Allen grew up in Needham, MA, graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina and received his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2013. He is currently a Pastoral Resident at Wellesley Village Church and ordained in the UCC. John spent a lot of time in James Chapel, the liturgical laboratory at Union, and thrives on liturgy that takes us full throttle into the heart of the Biblical narratives.  While at Davidson, John was Pilgrims summer intern in 2008 or 2009---I can't remember what year. Below John shares his experience of liturgy "At Table."

Christian worship, even in its more modern forms, tends to be unidirectional. Classic architecture dictates all participants facing the front, more recently communities are making a shift toward worship in the round facing a center point. Neither of these arrangements however allow truly erode the sense of authority and sacredness having a fixed location which others face from a distance.

At Village Church we have begun gathering for worship around tables. This “At Table” worship service happens in the evening, over a meal, and invites participants to make worship at each of their tables. Bread and juice are set out in the center of each table and participants eat food and share conversation with one another, blessing and sharing the elements at each table and having sacred conversations about ordinary life.

At Table is a model for Christian worship with its roots in the early Christian meal. Jesus’ first followers did not meet in churches, while their movement was fledgling and their numbers small, they met in each other’s homes, or in rented rooms, for dinner. Gathering in ‘supper-clubs’ was a common form of meeting in Roman society. All the ship-builders in a city might have had a weekly dinner meeting, or all those who worshiped Dionysius. So also, the ‘Jesus people’ had their weekly dinner.

Whether religious or not, all these meals followed a familiar pattern. Guests would gather, say a blessing, and eat having informal conversations with those around them, about their day, their lives, and probably a good bit of gossip.

Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life
Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life

After a time, the host would rise and bless a cup of wine, sometimes as an offering to emperor, or some other deity. In the case of the first Christians, this cup was offered in memory of Jesus.

After that, attention would turn away from eating and toward the “symposium,” a time of conversation on a specific topic. This might be a time when one of Paul’s letters would be read or a story about Jesus told and the guests would discuss and debate long into the night.

Many ancient ‘supper clubs’ were quite homogenous. Those who attended these meals all worked together and were often all from the same ethnic group. Early Christian meals however seemed to break some of those trends. People from all walks of life ate together, and it seems possible that women’s leadership was recognized more in these gatherings than in other spaces.

It was this sort of radical inclusion that often got Christians in trouble in the ancient world. They were accused of being an unruly bunch who were bad for Roman society because they would not follow social norms. Hence the common accusation hurled at Jesus in the gospels “he eats with sinners.”

It is remarkable how many well-known Biblical stories take place around meals and it is telling that the central sacrament of our faith is the sharing of bread and wine. In recognition of this Hal Taussig and Janet Walton at Union Theological Seminary have developed a modern Christian worship service called “At Table” which seeks to bring the spirit of these earliest Christian gatherings to life for us today.

The service we do at Village Church is our own adaptation of their work.

What we have learned doing this worship at Village Church is that stripping away pretensions and formality around worship creates a space for profoundly genuine experiences of God and one another. By dispensing with vestments, fixed roles, a singular table, and polished forms of speaking and prayer, worshippers are invited to meet God as they are, and to witness each other having that experience.

There are plenty of awkward moments in the service.

  •  Storytellers often stand up to talk and struggle to quiet the room down.
  • Sometimes uproarious laughter at one table impinges on a painful story being told at another.
  • Sometimes people pouring grape juice into their glasses pour too much, and they have to pour from their glass into someone else's to be sure that all have some.

These are the moments I love in the service because the people of God are asked to be improvisational in navigating a shared sacred experience. Worship is a rehearsal for life. The more choreographed forms of Eucharistic worship in our community may instill us with a sense of God’s abundance and abiding presence, but they do not quite help us practice the bumpiness of communal life.

Gathering At Table we learn that we encounter God as we navigate our interactions with one another through humor, grace, laughter, and honesty.

As we go forward, I wonder how we could bring more spontaneity into our time together. For now we plan who will lead different moments, who will tell a story, what songs we will sing, who will cook dinner for everyone. The one thing we never plan is who will do the dishes, but people stay, often because they want to linger over a conversation, or simply because they are faithful disciples.

I often wonder if we might carry that trust to other areas of a service. What would it look like if we did away entirely with roles and entrusted the yearnings of the community to lead us through our time together? What if we asked folks to bring a bit of something to share and trusted that we would be well fed? What if we heard someone’s story and said, that’s the one we all need to hear, stand up and tell it again.

Powerful People: Bethel Lee and Yoga Chapel

Bethel Lee
Bethel Lee

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Bethel Lee is chaplain to Yoga Chapel, a ministry that weaves together the art of Christian reflection with the wisdom of the physical yoga practice, and ordained into the United Church of Canada. I've said this before---Bethel creating a yoga chapel pretty much makes her the most interesting person in the world to me.

Below is a reflection Bethel wrote for Yoga Chapel and the yoga practice she's offering during Lent that focuses on the garden. It's so beautiful. Bethel created a yoga practice that is woven into this reflection, in between the opening and closing meditations. This Maundy Thursday, our plan at Pilgrims is to end our service in our own garden, using some of Bethel's words.

Opening Meditation: Genesis 2:4-9

The author of Genesis describes the beginning of Creation in this way: God waters the face of the earth, just as we might water a bed of flowers. And then, with this now fertile ground, God plants a garden in this new world. And this garden is where humanity begins.

It would’ve been quite a different story if the author had placed our origins say in the desert, or a valley, or a swamp. But sometimes this is how we perceive ourselves. When we’re not doing so well or when we’re really struggling with something, it can be tempting to believe that the place we come from, that the stuff we’re made of is no good. Swampy. Bleak. Brittle.

Lent is traditionally a solemn time, a difficult time. And during Lent we are called to remember that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” In the season of Lent we are called to remember how fragile life is, how fragile we are – our bodies, our thoughts and all our big plans– we are humbled that in the large scheme of things, they are but dust.

But as the writer of Genesis insists, this dust that we come from and this dust to which we return isn’t passive or meaningless – indeed it is rich and fertile, and when watered by God it always bears the capacity to give birth to new life. No matter what might fall apart in your life – whatever may be going on in your body, your thoughts or plans, the message is that there is always hope.

If you were to hold the same view of Creation as the writer of Genesis does, how might that change how you see yourself? How might you understand and treat yourself? How might you understand and treat others, if you too carried the vision that the source of your being, the place from which you come, is a garden – a place flourishing with energy, a place where things grow with wild abandon, a place of beauty and a place of new life.

Closing Meditation: Mark 14:32-36

Toward the end of his ministry, toward the end of his life, we find Jesus in a garden. In a garden called Gethsemane, he pours his heart out to God as he battles unbearable grief. This garden scene seems worlds away from that idyllic garden in Genesis – that hopeful beginning, that place of bubbling life. This garden, at night, where Jesus has thrown himself onto the ground seems like such a dark and desperate place.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if in Jesus’ darkest hour, it was this sanctuary of a garden – surrounded by this green growth and organic beauty that he could see and touch and smell… I wonder if it was this garden that reminded him of who he is and what he’s made of. As Jesus waters the garden with his sweat and his tears, I wonder if he remembered in this moment that there is always hope for new life when God is the Gardener.

In the words of May Sarton, may God, “Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.”

Powerful People: Abby Mohaupt

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950's is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors.   First up is Abby Mohaupt. Abby is an artist and Pastoral Resident at First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto. I met Abby through Sara Miles who thought we would like each other. And we do! Abby Here Abby write about compost and yoga--two of her loves.

Every Sunday, two to four Tupperware containers appear (like magic) under my desk in my office. These containers are filled with rinds and coffee grounds and banana peels and apple cores.

Two members of my congregation used to sheepishly try to sneak this garbage into my office in paper bags and leftover lettuce bags, until I presented them with their very own reusable containers, and said for the millionth time that compost is wonderful.

I take these containers home to my compost pile, letting their contents join the weeds and worms, stems and stalks, pits and peels from meals ago.

This is real resurrection.

Turning the new earth and the earth-to-be—mixing past and present and future—soil invades my fingers nails.

The scent of earth fills my nostrils.

The heat of decomposition warms my skin.

O God, this earth is so good.

I could eat it.

These peels and rinds and pits—they are reminders of death and what has been.

They transform in the ground, resurrecting into dark earth—full of new life to give to the meal that has not yet been planted.

++

Every Monday, I rise before the sun and walk a block to the yoga studio to breathe deeply and let my body transform into new shapes.

Joining my class, we sit on our mats and set intentions for our practice. I always try to focus on how strong and wonderful this body of mine is.

Breathing in, I remember the breath of God.

Breathing out, I give thanks for the Spirit.

My fingers—still muddied from that new earth—spread across the mat and I push my hips up and back, my toes curling under. I give thanks for these muscles and this skin, stretching and moving.

And rising into mountain pose, I give thanks for the ground beneath me. That beautiful, eatable ground.

These are moments of God—of grace—incarnate.

I didn’t believe my body could be transformed into crow or warrior or eagle.

+++

Home again.

I wrap my hands around my mug filled with coffee. My mug from one of my budding composters.

Not grounds.

Not compost.

Just coffee.

Breathing in, I can smell the delicious earth.