books

Reverent and Rule-Breaking: There's a Woman In the Pulpit

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

I have had the pleasure of being part of the RevGalBlogPals community, a group of active clergywomen bloggers, and the great honor of being a contributing author in the RevGals first collective book There’s a Woman In the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, which is being released today by Skylight Paths Publishing.

As Rev. Martha Spong, director of RevGalBlogPals and the editor of this work (as well as a seminary colleague and friend of mine), states in the introduction, “Our community includes people who are single and married and partnered and divorced and widowed, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, parents and not, clergy and clergy spouses and laypeople, with an age range of twenty-something to seventy-something…” and we come from a variety of denominations around the world. In short, you will not find another work with the personal voices of such a diverse group of clergy women.

Included in this diversity of clergy women’s personal stories are some common threads: the difficulty of following one’s call into ministry by a still male-dominated patriarchal church structure, sometimes calling women away from the denomination of their youth; the focus by others on what clergy women wear and look like; wrestling with theological questions and walking with people on their faith journeys. 

There are prayers and poetry, laments and reflections; tales of baptisms and communions, deaths and births, revelations and resolutions. The stories shared are often of those intimate moments in ministry: placing ashes upon the forehead of a stranger; praying for a dying stranger; baptizing a child; being in the ER when people are informed their loved ones are gone. These intimate moments are shared beautifully, and as I read them, renewed in me the understanding of God’s call to this important ministry I am part of as a Christian pastor.

As I read each woman’s story, I recognized my own frustrations and trying times of being a woman in ministry. I especially resonated with the tales of breaking the rules. Standing in the line of Jesus, women called into ministry have been called to break the rules—even if their denomination ordains women. We still are challenging a status quo, a cultural idea that men are ministers and women are not. And in subtler ways we have been breaking rules even in our liberal, affirming contexts, because the work is not done to welcome all and to follow Jesus’ call.

This is not just a book to give to the clergy woman you know, though she will enjoy it, I’m sure. This is the book to give to anyone considering the ministry. This is the book to give anyone who loves Jesus but isn’t sure about the church and its laundry list of rules. Guess what—some of the clergy aren’t so sure about those rules, either. Yes, there is a place for you. There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and she’s inviting you in.


Slow Down, and read Slow Church

By Rev. Mindi

My small local clergy group was taking suggestions for new books to read, and me with my smart phone and sometimes smart mouth decided to search right then and there for a new book rather than taking a month to go do research. In my Amazon recommendations popped up Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. I really didn’t know much about it but that it was a brand new book, and that the book has a Twitter account that followed me, so I followed back.  It was really by chance and Amazon’s logarithms that I began reading this book.

But I’m so glad I did. Smith and Pattison are not pastors, not professional church leaders, but were inspired by the Slow Food movement to think about church life as an alternative to the “McDonaldization of Society” as George Ritzer coined it. (I read The McDonaldization of Society back in college and still have the book on my shelf—it was a profound wake-up call to the capitalist production machine that our society functions by: the idea that we have to make more stuff and make it faster, and that even our self-worth has come to depend upon it).  Slow Church looks at how church, just like the rest of the institutions of our society, have bought into the hyper-fast production-based model. “Decades, if not centuries, of taking shortcuts have repelled many people from the faith and diminished the quality of our life together” (117). We have tried to short-circuit discipleship and evangelism.

You might think at first that this is a book for a more conservative or evangelical audience, not for a mainline congregation—but we have done the same thing in the mainline church. Maybe we haven’t watered down the Bible to a tract that fits in the size of a business card, but we have (often) failed to do a good job of teaching our children and youth what it means to believe in and follow Jesus, what it means to be part of the church, how to participate in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, we have failed to connect with the greater community, and that is the key of Slow Church—a reminder for us to slow down and reconnect with God, others and nature. “The ‘ecology’ of Slow Church is embedded in the interconnectedness of creation and God’s reconciliation of all things” (90).

Mainliners don’t differ much from our evangelical or fundamentalist kin in that we also water-down and short circuit the uncomfortable parts of our faith. We don’t do mourning well. Where our evangelical and fundamentalist kin will jump to “there’s one more angel in Heaven,” and lots of celebration that a loved one is now with the Lord, we do the same: we water-down the grieving process and try to jump into getting over death, rather than struggling with the suffering. Slow Church looks at the way our society as a whole has tried to just overcome suffering rather than the “willingness to enter into the pain of others” (83). If we are going to be committed in community to one another, we also need to be willing to suffer together as well as rejoice. This is what it means in particular to be part of Christian community: that we do not suffer alone.

Slow Church is about digging deep and being engaged and committed to the process of God-growth in us and around us. This commitment happens with God and with each other and with the greater community. Slow Church goes back to the roots of our faith in Scripture—Sabbath practice, discernment, community—and asks how we can re-engage with our roots and develop long-term, lasting foundations.

My major critique of this work is that  while my experience resonates with the book's view of church and society, I wonder if similar parallels would be drawn by my colleagues of color and different church cultures. I often err on the side of viewing US culture as homogeneous when it never has been; even critiquing the McDonalidzation of our US culture comes through a white lens, as the McDonalidzation was a white creation to begin with. Just some food for thought.

I highly recommend Slow Church. It is not often that I read a book that I say, “Yes, Yes!” out loud while reading it. I often highlight while I read; this time, I made notes as to what parts to quote for my next board meeting when we talk about stewardship. Each chapter has good discussion questions at the end for small groups or churches. The authors also have a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ and are active on Twitter and Facebook.

Actions Speak Louder Than Doctrine

By J.C. Mitchell  

I hear Christians of all types say how you treat one another is more important than doctrine.   I can think of two men that remind me of this reality.  The first is John Meis, a student who subdued the shooter at Seattle Pacific University. In Meis’ statement  he writes, “When I came face to face with the attacker, God gave me the eyes to see that he was not a faceless monster, but a very sad and troubled young man.”  He held him for the authorities, and yet still saw the murderer as a person.  This is a powerful statement and it truly comes from a deep faith, which I imagine has been shaken.  I must admit it gives me hope for the world and Christianity that this college student would compose such wonderful response to a horrific experience and share what he saw: another man, not a monster.  I do not need to know John Meis’ doctrine to know that even in restraining another, and specifically a murderer, he still saw and thus treated Aaron Ybarra as a person, and certainly at one of the most trying times of seeing the Creator’s hand in every person.  Meis remarks it was the Divine that empowered him.

The other man that reminds me that how we treat one another is more important than our doctrine is Frank Schaeffer who wrote Why I am an Atheist, Who Still Believes in God: How to give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace.  Schaeffer recounts his life thus far, with wonderful and powerful prose.  Now I would not peg Schaeffer as an atheist, for he prays daily and is an active member of a Christian congregation, but he embraces his doubt.  I find this refreshing, and this should not be confused with being agnostic: “I don’t view my embrace of opposites as a kind of agnosticism. I view it as the way things actually are. An agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in God. I’m not that person. I believe and don’t believe at the same time.” (14)  While this may not seem possible to some Christians or atheists, it is Schaeffer’s experience of the Divine, of the world, and thus we should explore this with him, for it has led him to a place where it is easier to give love, create beauty and find peace.

I would love for everyone to share their faith journey, but what makes Schaeffer’s particular interesting is that his parents were famous evangelicals, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and he was involved in promoting the religious right. He rejected religion altogether, but now is able to fully embrace the mystery of the wonderfully mysterious love many of us call “God.”  Schaeffer shares his epiphanies and doubts in an engaging way weaving his life experiences, Biblical knowledge, scholarship, and art, that I imagine atheists and Christians (or for that matter all people of faith) would agree with his conclusion, which I started with: how you treat people is more important than what you believe.

Schaeffer shares moving stories about his very conservative parents who would have told you that homosexuality is a sin, yet they saw each person as a child of God and saved any judgment for the divine, even renting a home to a lesbian couple.  This proved to be the same non-judgmental love he felt when as a teen he and his now wife found themselves as unmarried and pregnant.  His parents embraced him and Genie, for doctrine about marriage is not as important as love.

One of the most interesting points Schaeffer makes is comparing Denmark and the USA.  In Denmark,  the culture lives the mission of Jesus, by taking care of everyone and providing education to everyone, but very few go to church.  While in the USA we consider ourselves to be a religious nation, and we know children go to bed hungry, have inadequate health care available, and education is influenced by your property taxes.  This juxtaposition of cultures has to rattle all Christians to consider what is more important: your dogma or how you treat the social other?

“How we treat others is the only proof of truth we have. That proof is not found in any book. It is only found in the expression of unconditional trust we may sometimes see in the eyes of the people who know us best.” (91) It is in our families and those we are close to where we, like Schaeffer, find the unconditional trust and love many of us call the Divine (God), and when we can look at those that have hurt us and others and see them as a human, we are on the way of truth. 

How we treat one another is according to Frank Schaeffer the key, and I believe Jon Meis lived that out in that instance he saw a “a very sad and troubled young man” even if do not agree with Meis’ belief that “God gave [him] the eyes…”  Meis did. 

 









Recommending Wilderness Blessings

By: Rev. J.C. Mitchell

Not that many years ago, my wife and I went for an ultrasound which left us scared, and we were given an appointment for another ultrasound at the hospital with a skilled doctor who simply analyzes visual pictures created by sound waves.  The worry was that there were two markers of Down syndrome.  Being clergy, we shared this fear in prayer at the church we attended together in the evening, after working at our respective morning churches.  A retired minister came up to me in fellowship time and was pastorally navigating this raw situation.  This wonderful man, David, was sharing very carefully that all people are people, when I said to him we are not mourning having a child with special needs, we are mourning the loss of our perfect dream and admitting we are scared, for no matter what, this is our child.  He smiled and said, “You will be good parents.”  At that hospital appointment, we found out that there was no reason to be concerned, but I am glad we had that moment, for I believed it helped us as parents to deal with our son’s autism which became obvious when he was about 18 months.  We had this cathartic moment to remind us that our fear is ours, not our son’s.  

There are many stories of children with special needs and often I share from my experience, but today I want to recommend a book by Rev. Jeffrey M. Gallagher, Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and FaithThis is the story of a pastor whose son Jacob was born with serious heart issues and Down syndrome.  Looking back through the Caring Bridge entries during the two surgeries of his son’s first year, he shares what it means to see the Body of Christ to include everyone through the lens of differing abilities.  Gallagher asks, and then admits by answering his own question, “So what makes Jacob’s story so special then?  Nothing.  And everything. And that’s exactly the reason why I felt so compelled to write this book.” (163)  I am so thankful that this very specific story shared is understood to be also a universal story for people with different abilities.

I must admit that I have been obsessed with Theology of Disability since Gallagher’s editor and mutual good friend, Rev. Dr. Beth Hoffman, introduced me to his way of thinking at the same seminary Gallagher attended (he graduated the year I began). Now having a son with different abilities and a new ministry that upholds creating a loving inclusive culture no matter of ability, I would of course read this book.  Also, having had a sister that was born with a heart condition that required surgery when she was a young child, I was compelled by this story of” J-Dawg’s” (Jacob’s) surgery.  However, I do not simply recommend this book to people that have children with Down syndrome, or other different abilities, nor for people that know what it is like to have a child need serious surgery.

I recommend this book to those that do not, as well as those that do have a child with different abilities. So often I talk about the theology of disability to pastors and lay people at conferences or coffee shops (or anywhere I go), and generally the response is to reply “that is interesting.”  Then they tell me some sort of success story they know, either in their church or another.  I listen intently because I love success stories, but I try to bring it back to why it is important to actually understand what it means to be an Open and Affirming church, which is not simply to be for equal marriage.  Don’t get me wrong--I like the success stories, but I recall once when serving in Massachusetts a youth saying we are not racist in that state because we elected Deval Patrick governor.  I know that is a success story, but I also know there are still systemic racism in the Bay Colony. 

Jeffery Gallagher engages the reader through this very tough first year in the raw entries from the Caring Bridge page.  He also brings in other future events up to the current reality, and leads the reader to understand what it is to have a child with special needs.  While not all have such life threatening surgeries, it is a story that resonates with the reality of raising a child that has different abilities.  Gallagher admits, “Looking back on these posts has revealed just how much of Jacob’s journey at the hospital is a metaphor for the life that we have lived with him.” (137)  There are steps forward and steps backward, the uncertainty that is the only certainty, and advocacy is needed throughout Jacob’s life. 

Gallagher writes this story in a very compelling narrative for those that know nothing about having a child with special needs.  You will be drawn into a wonderful story of vulnerability and love, and gently introduced to the theology of disability, which will only enhance one’s appreciation of the church as a place of belonging for everyone. 

To purchase this wonderful book please go to Chalice Press Website.

Gallagher, Jeffery.  Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Faith.  Chalice Press: St. Louis, Missouri, 2013.

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Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?

This article originally appeared on Christian Piatt's blog on Patheos.com.

One of the most pivotal concepts in contemporary Christianity has to do with whether Jesus died for the sins of humanity. For many, this is a central tenet of their Christian faith; for others, the very idea that a God would require the spilling of blood — let alone that of his son — to forgive us seems appalling.

In my “Banned Questions” book series, I’ve tried to pull together some of the most challenging questions about the Christian faith I could find. Then, instead of offering cut-and-dried answers, I pose the questions to a group of theological thinkers and activists to see what they think, with the intent of allowing readers to decide what they believe.

Given the centrality of this particular question, I decided it would make a good opening topic for the newest book in the series, “Banned Questions About Jesus.” I posed this to the respondents as follows:

Why would God send Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying for the sins of the world, instead of just destroying sin, or perhaps offering grace and forgiveness to the very ones created by God? Why does an all-powerful being need a mediator anyway?

Chris Haw, co-author of “Jesus for President,” says:

I have found it important for my mind to get “sacrificial lamb” idea back into working shape by, for example, considering how Jesus also died from the sins of the world. … A multitude of our sins, not God, killed Jesus. And for what it is worth, the “sending his son” verse should not be understood as God killing someone (Did God’s denunciation of human sacrifice not begin with the binding of Isaac?) No: we killed God’s Son, and it was sinful and unjust.

Haw’s response resonates with John Dominic Crossan’s understanding of what was the cause of Jesus’ death (humanity, not God), while also pushing up against the myth of redemptive violence, as put forward by such theologians as Walter Wink.

“There is a long and complex tradition of varying interpretations of the meaning of the death of Jesus,” says Lee Camp, author of “Who is My Enemy?” He continues:

The early church primarily thought of the death of Jesus as a victory over the powers of sin and death. … In the medieval era, another trajectory became predominant in the west: Anselm argued that a God-Man was necessitated because of the great gravity of sin: sin dishonored God, and humankind had to make some reparation, some satisfaction for sin. Humankind was unable to make such a repayment, and thus Jesus became the substitute, restoring the honor due to God through his obedience unto death.

It is worth noting that, in Camp’s historical context, the notion of Jesus dying for our sins did not gain traction in the Christian imagination until at least a dozen centuries after Christ’s death. This is critical in our understanding of the crucifixion, namely because so many assume today that their present belief in substitutionary atonement has forever been the cornerstone of Christian theology. Not so, suggests Camp.

“By the sixteenth century, Calvin focused upon punishment,” he says. “Because of the immensity of humankind’s sin, God’s wrath demanded punishment; Jesus became the substitute punishment.”

Australian peace activist Jarrod McKenna takes a different approach, affirming the need for sacrificial atonement, but suggesting we distort its purpose:

The Gospel is not that some deity takes out its rage on an innocent victim so he doesn’t have to take it out on all of us eternally. God doesn’t need blood. God doesn’t need a mediator. We do!

The Lamb of God is not offered to God by humanity, but is God offered to us to enable a new humanity. God is reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ by knowingly becoming our victim, exposing this idolatrous system that promise order, safety, peace and protection in exchange for victims.

The idea that the sacrifice of a living creature was required to appease God for one’s sins has been around a lot longer than Christianity has. Mentions of animal sacrifice can be found throughout the Old Testament, and Abraham’s faith is even tested when he’s asked to sacrifice his own son.

This value of sacrifice as part of one’s faith also was common in the Roman culture, where the types of sacrifices usually were specific to the characteristics of the Gods being worshiped. So a God of the harvest would require an offering of produce, and so on. Some pre-Christian cultures, such as those from Carthage, even practiced human sacrifice, though the Romans generally condemned it.

Interestingly, a millennium prior to Anselm’s understanding of blood atonement, there were very different understandings of Jesus’ death germinating in the Christian collective consciousness.

In the fourth century A.D., Gregory of Nyssa proposed that Jesus’ death was an act of liberation, freeing humanity from enslavement to Satan. Seven hundred years later, around the same time that Anselm presented to concept of substitutionary atonement, a theologian named Abelard proposed that it actually was that Jesus’ response of pure — some might emphasize nonviolent — love in the face of violence, hatred and death was transformational in the human psyche, reorienting us toward a theology of sacrificial love over justice or atonement.

Contemporary theologian Walter Wink goes a step further than Abelard, claiming that atonement theology is a corruption of the Gospel, focusing on an act of violence rather than the values of peaceful humility and compassion lived and taught by Christ.

Resolving the debate about the causes of, and purpose behind, Jesus’ death is an impossible task. More important, though is to make clear that such a debate is going on. For too long, Christians and non-Christians have assumed that all who yearn to follow the way of Christ universally believe Christ died for our sins. For millions, this not only defines their faith, but their understanding of the very nature of Good as well. For others, it is the basis for rejecting Christianity, understanding it as an inherently violent religion, centered on a bloodthirsty God that requires death in exchange for mercy.

This is not the God in which I put my faith, and I am not alone.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visitwww.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

THE SACRED MEAL [Reviewed]

THE SACRED MEAL.  The Ancient Practices Series.  By Nora Gallagher.  Foreword by Phyllis Tickle.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is central to the Christian faith, and to some traditions it’s more central than in others.  For Protestants it is one of two primary sacraments or means of grace.  For Disciples, like Episcopalians, it is a defining practice.  And Disciples might find the reflections of an Episcopalian very helpful in our own exploration of this central practice.

It is also an ancient Christian practice, by which we as Christians get in touch with the holy.  While we might not think of it as a spiritual practice – in the same way as prayer or fasting, Nora Gallagher offers us a way of looking at this activity in just that way.  Like the other spiritual practices, it serves “to gradually move us out of one place and into another” (p. 15).

Nora Gallagher is not an academically trained theologian nor is she a member of the clergy.  She is, however, an Episcopal layperson, Eucharistic minister, a licensed Episcopal preacher, and a writer.  She is best known for writing spiritually defined memoirs such as Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. In this brief book, Nora brings to bear both her experience as a practitioner of the Christian faith and her vocation as a writer of memoirs.  This is very much a lived theology of the Eucharist, one that emerges from her experiences as a member of Santa Barbara’s Trinity Episcopal Church.  In many ways this book is a perfect expression of the sort of theological exploration that Philip Clayton describes in his new book Transforming Christian Theology (Fortress, 2010).

As I write this review, I must acknowledge that I know Nora, and several of the experiences that she narrates – I was either in attendance at or something very similar.  Thus, as she narrated her own story, in a very real way I found myself in the story.  I know the people, the churches, the events.  This may skew the way I read the book, but my sense is that Nora writes in a such a way that you need not know or have met Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer or the Rev. Mark Asman to be pulled into the story.   One needn’t have participated in an interfaith Sukkoth celebration led by Arthur or an interfaith breaking of the Ramadan fast at a local Presbyterian church.  That I may have been in attendance, doesn’t change the fact that Nora writes in such a way that we are drawn into a life-changing spiritual practice, one that leads from an internal encounter with the one lifted up in the Eucharist, to a life of service to the world.

To give one specific example of this connection between worship and service, Nora describes a soup kitchen that was launched by members of the Trinity Episcopal Church to serve the homeless community.  That soup kitchen would be the precursor to a much larger community-based outreach to the homeless, but it began in a church, in a small group or base community as they call it at Trinity, that encompassed the sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  Because of the theology inherent in the Episcopal tradition, the elements used had been previously consecrated, but Nora links the Table of the Lord to the table set out for the homeless in a church’s parish hall.  That is an important link that needs to be lifted up.

As one reads the book, one encounters a personal story – Nora’s – and a tradition’s story.  She describes in some detail the theology inherent in the Eucharist – speaking of the way in which the service of Communion involves a time of waiting, a time of receiving, and a point afterwards.  In the first stage, we examine ourselves, what we’ve been doing, confessing our sins if need be, reading ourselves to receive the bread and cup.  From there we move to a point of reception, and this comes to us as a gift, as a matter of grace.  By receiving the elements of communion, we must open our hands to receive them, and that makes us vulnerable.  She writes of this step:

It’s dangerous, opening your hands.  You don‘t know what will end up in them.  This may have been the smartest thing Jesus ever did.  He must have thought, How can make them step into the unknown?  How can I get them to let in some surprise?  I know, I’ll figure out a way for them to put their hands out in front of them, empty (p. 45).

By doing this, by stretching out our empty hands, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers nor the power to accomplish the things of God.

After we receive the bread and the cup, a point at which Nora suggests that we are being invited into heaven with all its glories, we return home to the realities of life.  As she seeks to understand the point afterward, she tells the story of an interfaith celebration of Sukkoth, that was led by a mutual friend, Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer.  The point that she wants to make is that the Sukkoth shelters are temporary, serving to remind the Jewish people that theirs is a nomadic past.  Rituals, such as Sukkoth, Communion, and Ramadan, help us in a very real and bodily way reconnect with an ancient event.

The Practice of communion reminds Christians of a meal and many meals shared by followers of a man who wanted them to see a new kingdom.  The practices are “after words,” after the events are long in the past, and whatever words attached to them may no longer be accurately recalled.  The practice remains to keep us in tune with what the original event pointed toward and so that we can add to its meaning and history (pp. 55-56).

By returning to this event through this practice, the events and words of long ago seep into our cells.  The point of regular practice is that our bodies and minds and spirits are continually trained for encountering the God revealed in this practice.  That allows us to be transformed by our encounters with the holy.

In the course of these chapters we are brought into a better understanding of the sacrament that is so central to our faith.  She makes it personal and reminds us that it is something, that if we are able and willing to receive from it, a life-changing practice.  It is not simply a ritual, it is something that prepares us to go out into the world, knowing that the Christ who is present in the bread and cup as body and blood (not in a literal sense, but in a spiritual and mystical sense) is also present everywhere in the cosmos.  It makes Jesus present, so that he might reveal to us the true nature of God.  And as God is present everywhere in the world through Christ, we who are the body of Christ become the “ongoing incarnation.”

The Communion may be an ancient practice, but it has very present implications, and Nora does a wonderful job taking us into those implications, so that we might be transformed for service in the world.  This is a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed by the newest of believers and the ones who have traveled the road the longest.  I think it can be especially useful to the one who finds the Eucharist to be simply a ritual, something done simply because we’re supposed to do it on occasion.  As one who comes from a tradition that practices weekly communion, I am reminded here of the breadth of meaning found in the sacrament.  Those who don’t see the point of frequent participation in the Sacrament might discover a reason to rethink that idea.  If practice makes perfect, then we all have a lot of practice to put in!

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, MI.  He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Seminary, edits the journal Sharing the Practice, and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.