spirituality

Open Doors

By Rev. Mindi

During the entire first half of 1998, from January until June, I attended one worship service. It was the folk mass at my host family’s Catholic Church in England. Before I had left the states for my semester abroad, several people had told me about various churches—Baptist, Methodist, Anglican—that I could attend while I was abroad. But I chose not to. I chose, quite purposefully, not to attend worship the rest of that spring. 

I was at a crossroads in my faith. I had been part of a few conservative Christian campus ministry groups, and found that while I enjoyed the spirit of the music and the community, I could not abide by the legalistic approach to the Bible nor the narrow theology. I was also involved in our campus’ Gay-Straight Alliance group (this was the late 90’s), was reading feminist literary theory and I always claim that my Introduction to Sociology course the fall of my junior year saved me from fundamentalism forever. While I attended a fairly liberal congregation in college, I found my faith conflicted—I loved the spirit of worship among my conservative friends, the relational nature of God in Jesus that was expressed—but not the narrow ideology. During that time in my life, Christian community was stifling. I equated Christian community with conformity, and liberal or conservative, I did not want to conform. So I chose not to attend a worship service.

However, I was in a church, a chapel, a cathedral or other sanctuary at least every week, if not more often. I lit candles in York Minster and Notre Dame, sat and listened to the choir in Westminster and Winchester, and lifted my eyes up to the stained glass everywhere. I sat in the pews and lit candles under the names of saints I had never heard of.

I grew up Baptist, and am a Baptist minister serving in both American Baptist and Disciples congregations. But in those days, having the opportunity in those old Anglican and Catholic churches to pray, to sit and be silent in the presence of God—or even in the emptiness in some of those dark days of my faith journey—helped me in my faith journey.  It is something I lament in the free church tradition, that often we do not have our sanctuaries open.  The few times I have participated in opening the doors of my own churches I have served have been after major tragedies, such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook. Most of the time, our doors are locked.

In the debates about SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) what often gets argued is the need for community—and the assumptions that those who are not in church do not have community. But I am starting to wonder if those of us in the church have been arguing from the wrong angle. Besides the fact that many people who claim to be spiritual gather in other settings for community, what about those who are seeking, or who are spiritual, or even *gasp* religious, but find community stifling? What about those who have been wounded in community?

Are there ways we can be open, be a place of prayer to the public, where people can come and pray, or sit in silence, or listen to music, or light candles? Our Catholic and Episcopalian brothers and sisters, among others, have kept up this ancient tradition, but many of us in the free church tradition have forgotten. We have placed such great emphasis on community that we have forgotten other’s needs. There are times in people’s lives in which community can do more harm than good. But it is the work of the community in providing the space set aside specifically for God, that can reach those in need of solitude.

I still value community and worship together. When I returned from England, it took me a while to get back into church, but I remember clearly the first worship service I attended when I came back was Communion Sunday, and I was never so glad to participate in the breaking of bread and the meal of remembrance with the church I had been raised in, with the people who had always been there for me. But I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much had I not had the time away. I also feel that had it not been for the open churches, the candles in the chapels and the opportunities to pray or sit in silence, I would not have felt as assured of God’s presence even in my own dark valleys.

 

 

Unbox Church

By Rev. Mindi

As she poured me a drink, she asked me, “Are you really a pastor?” I smiled and nodded to the bartender. Only two of us regulars made it for our Pub Theology at a new location tonight, but along with the bartender and a few others who happened to frequent here, we had a great discussion about what it means to live out one’s faith. We didn’t talk specifics about church, and it wasn’t until I brought up Matthew 25 as a discussion point that we even got into the Bible or Jesus, but we had church tonight.

I lift this up as an example of church unboxed. I think that in church talk, we are quick to make assumptions about the “unchurched.” We make assumptions about those who have no church or religious affiliation. We assume we haven’t done a good job of selling the church message, or haven’t done a good job of raising our kids, or that we aren’t preaching the Gospel.  Our assumptions also lead us to call people who have no affiliation “unchurched,” which is an unfortunate term based on the assumption that “churched” is the preferred category over “unchurched” (and I wrote about this last spring in “Becoming Unchurched”).

Sure, lots of churches are doing Pub Theology and having Bible studies in coffee shops. But rather than trying to use these as avenues to get people into the church building, what if we were to already recognize the community that exists and meet them where they are at? What if pastors started to see themselves more as freelance ministers sent out from the church to be pastors to those who need spiritual support? What if our churches understood that an important part of our ministry was not to work to get people in on Sunday morning but to minister to people in their own communities?

As I left tonight, a woman asked me to pray for her. I was happy to do so. I also tipped the bartender very well because I wanted her to know I appreciated and valued the service she gave as well as her interest in what I do.

What can you do to unbox church? This isn’t to say to stop having worship on Sunday mornings and go into the coffee shops and bars, but what can you do to minister to those outside of your box? What can you do to meet people where they are at and be the presence of Jesus among others? Can we unbox our assumptions that people do not have community or are in need of specific church community?

Speaking the Language

By Rev. Mindi

“Does she know the Word?” the salesperson asked me. I blinked for a moment again. “Does she read the Bible?”

I understood her the first time, I was just taken back for a moment, remembering another time. Stepping into a commercial Christian bookstore is a timewarp for me, reminders of getting saved at Friday night youth rallies (and more than once), high school Bible study groups and college campus prayer gatherings.  I was also reminded of my brief ministry in the South.

“No,” I replied, “but she wants to start.”  The salesperson put back the awkward bulky study Bible she had pulled down for me when I said I wanted a study Bible, and went instead to a more devotional easy-to-read NIV Bible with softbound cover. Not something I would ever have picked for myself, but this would work for the person I had in mind. “This is perfect. Thank you.”

Sometimes I forget that I ever spoke that language. I grew up in a mainline, progressive church start. In junior high I was already questioning the idea of a male God. I was given a copy of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as a baptism present in 1991, with great study notes. I was already pouring over liberal commentaries in my pastor’s office in high school.

But my church was small, and though we had a youth group that met occasionally, I ended up wandering in and out of the youth group gatherings of my friends. These gatherings were high-energy, had great music, fun games, and a lot of bad theology. At one church we were told if we didn’t have a believer’s baptism it didn’t count; at another if we didn’t receive the Holy Spirit we couldn’t go to heaven; at still another, we were once yelled at and lectured for forty-five minutes about the sin of lust.  Still, despite the bad theology and messages that gave me chills, there was a language I learned that I began to use and incorporate into my faith life.  This language included phrases such as “God is opening a door,” or “the Spirit is moving,” “walking with Jesus," and "Getting right with God."

I’ve lost this language over the years. It was language that was familiar to me and what I used in writing my seminary application essays, but after my first year of seminary it dropped away. I suppose I felt silly thinking of God opening doors for me in an academic setting, where I needed to be rational.  My daily devotional reading that I began when I was thirteen fell away along with my evening prayers. I delved into books and became a scholar. Even my ordination paper, in which I described my faith journey, was empty of this language as I focused on the more heavy topics of eschatology and ecclesiology using wordy theological terms to share what I believed.

But language is woven into my spiritual life and is part of who I am. The language that I learned in those evangelical circles became part of my blood and was waiting to come back to the surface again. But it needed to be authentic. Sometimes, when we lived in the South, those phrases came out so I could fit in.  They weren’t heartfelt and they made me feel like a fraud.

Over time, I have met people who grew up in church but haven’t been part of church for a while. Sometimes they describe themselves as having “fallen away.” While I don’t like to use that phrase for its negative implications, I understand where people are coming from and why they may feel that way.  I met someone now who wants to “get back into the Word.” So I went to the commercial Christian bookstore, knowing there I could find people who would speak the same language.

When I first was going to seminary, I used the language of following where God was leading me, and learning that there was more than one right path. Now, no longer believing there is a path set out, a divine plan for everyone, I find myself coming back to that language of following where God leads—but recognizing that God is leading us all, always, in all things.

I remember once in seminary a professor talking about the old hymns that he grew up with, hymns that spoke of being washed in the blood. What a terrible image! But he found he could still sing the songs. And I find myself coming back to the same place. I can still sing the songs (well, most of them), I can still speak the language, it still is within me though I may filter it differently. I still hear Jesus calling me, I still feel God putting words on my heart, and I still know the Spirit is moving me on this journey of faith.

A Spiritual Routine

By Rev. Mindi

This post originally appeared on Edge Pieces, the blog for Open Gathering, a new Disciples of Christ Church plant on July 9th, 2013. It has been adapted slightly for [D]mergent for a wider audience.

One of the concerns I have as a pastor, and a parent of a child with special needs, is bringing spirituality into AJ’s daily life. As for many parents, church can be hard work. Sometimes people at church do not understand and can make church an unwelcoming place for those with special needs, who cannot sit still or stay silent. Sometimes sensory issues make it difficult to attend worship, and sometimes the older buildings are not fully accessible to those who have mobility needs. Traditional church, because it is only once a week and not every day like school or other activities, and it is not primarily focused on a specific person like once-a-week therapy sessions are, can be difficult to add into one’s weekly routine. We know many families for whom going to church is such a struggle, they do not even bother.

While I am at Open Gathering now, I also serve a small church in Burien, WA.  AJ goes to church most Sunday mornings with me to Burien Community Church. When I was not serving as a pastor when we lived in Oklahoma, I was able to sit with him and try to help him understand the order of service—now we stand, now we sing, now we sit quietly and pray, etc. Routine for many children with special needs is important, and in many of our church worship services, we can establish a routine more easily as the service usually follows the same format every Sunday.  I no longer am able to sit with AJ every Sunday morning as I am pastoring a church now, but I still try to help him understand the routine.  Because I cannot sit with him, sometimes he only understands the greeting time, and I let him use his iPad to stay quiet in the pew until the Children’s Message.  But he understands the routine: he puts the iPad down and comes to sit next to me on the chancel steps.  Then after the prayer, he can run down the aisle to the back and go downstairs for Children’s Church at my church in Burien.

But at home, spirituality is just as important. We try to model that God is in our lives everywhere, not just at church. Church is often just one day a week, and while we may be at the building during the week at other times, we do not have the same routine there.  So at home, we at least say prayers every night, something I have been doing with AJ since he moved from a crib to a bed. We read a book, and I try to read a child’s prayer book or baby Bible as the last story, then I say a simple prayer but fold his hands as well, and I close my eyes. Then I tuck him in.

During Advent, we began a routine of lighting the Advent Candles at home every night and doing a short reading and prayer. We did this at the dinner table so AJ was already sitting. We made sure the TV was off and no other distractions were on. It was a nice ritual of quiet time and reflection for our family during the Advent Season, but it also introduced something new for AJ. While I’m sure he didn’t understand the complete significance of it, he seemed to enjoy us sitting together and lighting candles.

Routine is important for many children with special needs. Establishing a spiritual routine, just like establishing a hygiene routine or any other practice takes practice.  Some families say grace before meals, and that is another wonderful (and traditional) way to introduce spiritual practice in the home.

At Open Gathering, what makes us unique is that we have made worship even more accessible for those used to routine because, while doing emergent-style worship, we have kept the same routine every time we gather: Music, Wondering, Table.  During Music we sing five or six songs from our songbook, songs that become familiar (we usually do two or three that we did the week before).  At Wondering, all are invited to come sit near the table for the Story—in which the Bible Lesson is shared in a Montessori-style storytelling. As part of the Wondering, we also do Work, in which we respond to the story. One can do Work by sharing one’s perspectives on the Bible lesson in a dialogue-sermon (often many of the adults do this in a corner of our shared space), or by staying put at the table and responding with art, crafts, and play. Then we all return to the Table for prayer, offering, and communion. We end by singing our benediction song together “Peace Before Us.”

Because our routine is simple and not a long list in a printed bulletin, Open Gathering is more readily accessible to those with special needs because it becomes familiar more quickly. We also have fewer “rules.” People are invited to dance and move as needed or desired during the Music time. During the Wondering time, we are invited to sit closer for the story, then during work we can sit or stand or move about as necessary.  We gather at the Table again for the end. We are invited to pray together, sometimes to sit together, but we are also invited to be ourselves.

***** 

Church leaders, there are many different ways to do worship. Perhaps you can inspire others to begin a spiritual routine at home, establishing a semblance of spiritual life that works for them and their family’s unique needs.  Perhaps there are families who simply are not able to attend worship due to unique needs or work schedules, but maybe there is still a way to reach out and include others by inviting them to begin a spiritual routine at home.