working out what life and call and prayer and silence are all about

Posts tagged ‘transformation’

Itineraries and Expectations OR “what I should have told my students before we left”

What do you do when things don’t go as planned? For most of us, it’s easy to take it in stride when a new recipe turns out less than delicious, or when the weather doesn’t cooperate with our outdoor activities. But what if you’ve just traveled thousands of miles, arriving at a Christian community that specializes in stirring worship services and inspiring action for justice and peace on a holy island known for its breathtaking views and spiritual experiences – and you’re not moved at all?

Going on a pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual discipline that many of us are undertaking in new ways. Traveling to Iona Abbey on my own 5 years ago, I learned first hand what it means to be a pilgrim. Making the long journey to a special place, and then living in intentional community for a week with strangers, taught me a great deal about myself and my faith and my sense of call. I was transformed by the land, by the people, by the worship. I was so moved that I returned the following year with a small group from my congregation. Sharing the pilgrimage with others deepened my experience, as we formed our own little community as we traveled, and made room for each other along the way.

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Carol and Marty at the William Wallace memorial

After completing my first year as campus pastor at TLU, I imagined the impact on students of a pilgrimage to Iona. I waded through piles of paperwork and mounds of requirements to put together a study abroad trip that would give young adults the opportunity to travel as pilgrims and open themselves to the transformation I had experienced. I shared with potential students my stories of meaningful relationships, beautiful music, and solitary walks along the rocks at the beach. I told them that the Isle of Iona has been considered a “thin place” for centuries – a place where the earth and the heavens meet and the holy is within arm’s reach. I encouraged them to apply if they were looking for a place to contemplate their life’s meaning, the bigger questions of faith and call and purpose.

After meeting every other week throughout spring term, talking about what to expect, what to bring, and what was required, we set off from the airport, ready for our spiritual adventure. The journey was long. And the jet lag was harsh. With just 7 hours of “night” on the plane ride across the Atlantic, we hit the ground in Scotland at a brisk stroll. Navigating the bus into the city and construction at the train station, we found the right track, and traveled several more hours to our overnight stop, where there was still much walking to do. The next day held two ferry rides and one harrowing bus ride with a very impatient driver, plus another long walk. By the time we were settled into our rooms at Iona, our group was exhausted.

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Iona Pilgrimage Study Abroad class, one ferry away from Iona!

And so the spiritual experience began. We were meeting new people: our roommates, our housework group-mates, and the volunteer staff who were there to support us. We were going to chapel two times a day, getting up early for the first, and staying up late for the second. We were hearing about the Iona Community’s work for justice and peace, and were encouraged to find ways to make a difference back home. We were exploring the island, finding paths that cut through fields of sheep, leading to sandy shores and craggy hills.

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rocky, mossy beach on Iona at sunset

As an experienced pilgrim, I could see that the place and the people were doing their work: planting seeds, offering new perspectives, blowing through with unexpected insights. But my group of new pilgrims, some of whom were first-time travelers, were frustrated by the end of the second day.

“I’m not feeling anything.” “I’m not meeting any new people.” “I don’t see the point of going back to worship today. I already went once.” “I came here to have this powerful experience of God and nothing’s happening – something’s wrong with me.”

What do you do when things don’t go as planned? Even as pilgrims, maybe especially as pilgrims, we experience disappointment. When you decide to set off on a pilgrimage, you have big expectations. You’re going to meet God in every flower and sunrise. Your whole approach to faith and life and spirituality is going to be transformed. Every day will be filled with happiness and light. Every conversation will be uplifting.

But then reality hits: pilgrimage is like real life. Sometimes you wake up tired and miss the sunrise. Some days you’re just going through the motions. And occasionally you encounter people you can’t connect with. Some days are just dark, even in a holy place.

What enables a pilgrimage to be transforming is letting go of expectations and allowing reality to do its work. What turns a dark day into something meaningful is allowing it to be dark, and gently examining where the darkness got its start. What turns a challenging conversation into an enlightening encounter is holding up a mirror to see the traits you despise in others staring right back at you. What changes a crappy travel day into a transformative pilgrimage day is attention: taking the time to pay attention to what’s right in front of you and what’s deep within you. We go on pilgrimage to give ourselves the time and space to pay attention to life – life that’s all around us. Expectations just get in the way.

As the experienced pilgrim, I was able to have some good conversations that week. I helped students name their expectations of what was supposed to happen so they could set them aside and focus on what was actually happening. I tried to point out the places where I saw God at work, in little and big ways. And I encouraged them to follow their hearts, take care of themselves, and recognize that transformation is deeply personal, physically draining work.

And in the midst of guiding them, I relearned some things myself. My expectations of myself as a perfect leader get in the way of opportunities to be an authentic leader. My need to follow an itinerary can be stifling to the winds of the Spirit, who blows me in new directions when I finally let go. And my job as pilgrim leader is not to remake everyone’s experience in the image of my own. My job as pilgrim leader is to stand beside and walk with other pilgrims and enjoy the wild diversity of my companions. Who knows where the Holy One will lead us next? I have no expectations. Only hope.

 

 

Abundant life in transformation

I am not an artist. I am definitely not crafty. This has been my identity for a very long time. In 6th grade, I was forced to make daily sketches for art class, and I was miserable. I just didn’t know how to translate what I saw to the paper. And ever since then, I have avoided artsy-craftsy situations like the plague. At VBS, I’ve busied myself with learning the music for the next day instead of helping in the craft room. During Sunday School time, I’ve always had very important pastoral duties to attend to whenever there’s been a request for help with the art projects. I’ve always felt that there was just no need for me to even dip my toe into that pool. Art and me don’t mix.

But that’s where God’s humor comes into play. Lately I’ve found myself smack dab in the middle of artsy-craftsy chaos. Here I am at Messy Church, surrounded by kids and adults being creative:

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And again, helping kids learn about the Lord’s Prayer by making a bead bracelet:

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And then, in the midst of learning different prayer forms to help people descend into the silence of contemplative prayer, I’m instructed to use my creativity and create a collage:

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Honestly, what is going on here? I was perfectly happy avoiding art and devoting all my time to something I’m already good at: music. Why am I continuing to bump into craft projects that make me feel inadequate?

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe in those times when I’m feeling off-kilter, when I’m caught off-guard, I’m more open, more able to hear the whispering of the Holy. When my ego has to take a step back, there’s actually a little bit of room for the Spirit to move around in and do the work of transformation that’s needed in my heart. It doesn’t feel great – being put in a position of ignorance. But it’s in the not knowing that my heart is softened and my mind refocused on what is truly life-giving.

I still don’t plan on leading the crafts at Messy Church any time soon. But I’m learning to be grateful for the chance to try a new project, and for the gift of the Spirit working through my inadequacies. There is abundant life in our weaknesses, and transformation underneath every failure. Bring on the scissors and glue – I’m diving in!

abundant love in the bounty of seasons

The first time I saw the tree, it was in the spring. I was here, at Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center, Marriottsville, MD, in May of last year for our first Residency. In between the breaks of our very intense learning about contemplative prayer and leading groups and retreats, I would wander the grounds, reveling in the abundance of blooms. So much was flowering at that time: dogwoods and daffodils, azaleas and crocus. There were colors and blossoms everywhere I looked. The abundance filled me with awe at God’s creativity in living Technicolor.

I don’t know why I fell in love with this particular tree. Perhaps it was the way the branches leaned out over the water, as if wanting to go for a swim. Maybe it was the little birdhouse hung on the lowest branch. Whatever the reason, I was drawn to this tree, and experienced several poignant moments meditating on its beauty.

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Now it is winter. Late winter, to be sure, but still winter, as proven by last night’s snowstorm. We awoke this morning to the quiet beauty of new fallen snow. And I was called to explore! I had brought most of my snow gear from Flagstaff in the hopes that I would actually need it, and so I plunged into the crisp morning, reveling in the stillness. As I came around the lake, I recognized my tree, still standing proudly, with branches arched out over the small lake. And even though the landscape was void of color – covered entirely in white – the beauty took my breath away.

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The branches were bare of leaves and gently balanced the snowfall as gift and treasure. The buds that were just beginning to form spoke to me of the promise of spring, suspended in the reality of this last storm of the season (some would hope.) And in that suspension, there is the hope of transformation. Spring is promised, but not yet present. And yet the tree waits, heavy with the burden of reality while also pregnant with possibility.

Here is abundant life – that trees and bushes and creatures and all of us are held in that waiting time. That while we long for the transformation to come, we are supported and nurtured and guided by the Eternal Love that birthed all of creation. And so no matter what season of living you are experiencing – growth, death, birth, waiting – know that you are held by the One who holds all of creation in love. And in that certainty, you can live out your abundant life!

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