Tag Archives: the Church

The Business (or Pleasure) of Pilgrimage

“We are all of us seeking a homeland, dear,
even though we have only seen and embraced it from afar.
We are all of us strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
Frederick Buechner

“Business or Pleasure?”

It was what acquaintances asked when I mentioned I’d be out of touch for a few weeks while traveling in eastern Europe.

It was what the sales associate asked me when I bought my electrical adapter and extra camera memory card.

It was what the teller at the bank asked me when I told her to mark my account as going overseas.

“Business or pleasure?”

It’s such a cliché and profound question at the same time. They’re asking because I’m going to an uncommon and surprising destination (the bank teller made me write “Transylvania” on a piece of paper for her before she believed what I was saying), and they’re asking because it’s what you ask when someone says they’re traveling.

But it’s also a deep and compelling question to ask someone: What is the purpose of your traveling? Why do you think you’re going to this place?

Really, I was never entirely sure how to answer that fateful question accurately. Because the categories of business versus pleasure aren’t enough of a distinction to encompass this trip.

Strangers and Pilgrims on the Earth

I’m going on pilgrimage, to a little town in central Romania, to visit strangers who are long-time friends of my church community.

I’m going because I’m on the church staff, and my presence underscores the importance of the partnership for us. I’m going because I was asked to go as part of my job. I’m also going because I very much want to meet these resilient, colorful people whom — until now — I have only known from afar.

Pilgrimage is more than pleasure: it is certainly the answer to what Frederick Buechner calls the “summons” of mystery in human experience. It is also more than business: this is a sharing of communities, not a transaction.

When I arrive in Transylvania tomorrow, I will be at the mercy of my hosts, who I’m sure will welcome me to their tables, their homes. Though we don’t share language, we share a commitment to honoring the places of their Hungarian heritage. Though we don’t share a culture, we share the roots of religious tradition, and those are deep roots indeed.

The complexities of kind of this kind of trip is not particularly easy to explain to acquaintances, bank tellers, and sales associates, so I tell them I am traveling for both business and pleasure.

Really, though, what I mean is that I’m traveling for more than business and pleasure.

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Speaking into spiritual darkness

“[The dark night of the soul] is a time of special vulnerability,
not only the kind that makes you feel weak,
but also the kind that opens you to signals in the world around you…
You may think that the time spent in a dark night is a waste.
You accomplish nothing… [but] you need to see
the waste of your life as having a place in the nature of things.”
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul,

Talking about spiritual suffering

It’s been difficult to write about spirituality over the last year. Mostly that’s because I haven’t been feeling very spiritual, and that can be difficult to admit — especially as someone who makes my living as a religious leader.

Our spiritual lives are intimate parts of our selves, parts that are often difficult to express in words. Working in ministry, I continue to be amazed at the depth and unique complexity of the spiritual lives of every person I encounter.

So, why is it so hard to say when we’re suffering spiritually?

A missing conversation

One of the main challenges I’ve encountered in my own effort to be authentic and transparent is that we just don’t talk about spiritual sorrow very much in the church.

Sometimes it seems to fall into that category of off-limit topics in the church — like divorce, addiction, financial accountability, or racism. You don’t hear very many pastors preaching about their own “dark nights of the soul,” seasons of spiritual darkness and separation from God. Even grief can become a topic that we push to the more private corners of our worship and congregational lives.

Perhaps it’s that we’re not sure how to measure our own spiritual well-being. Or perhaps it’s something too personal to share. Still, I’ve found myself longing for more openness and conversation within my religious community about the struggle to connect with God.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Often people in conversation with me — many of them also ministers or seminarians — will quietly admit that, secretly, they don’t have any kind of prayer life to speak of, or that they don’t actually get very much out of worship.

I wonder what resonance and edification might be possible if we brought those kinds of conversations into the open.

Re-framing spiritual language

One of the most profound insights I’ve had during my own journey with spiritual atrophy is that a deadened, grieving, or strained spiritual life is still a spiritual life.

We are not spiritual beings only when we are spiritually flourishing: we are always spiritual beings, no matter what our spiritual state.

One of the most helpful exercises for me has been identifying new images for God as my personal faith shifts and moves into new landscapes. Scripture, hymns, and poetry are filled with descriptions of a God that feels distant, or even entirely absent. Sometimes, we relate more to the God who forsakes us than we do to the God who shelters us under wings.

I think it is important to make sure we include these kind of dark or difficult images, names, and descriptions of God in our worship so that people who find themselves in a period of spiritual dryness may know that they are not alone in their struggle and that they may perhaps find new language for what they are experiencing. Otherwise we may unintentionally give the impression that the only God the church knows is the God of spiritual vitality and connection.

And how good it is that God is bigger than that. How good it is that, as Rilke writes, “even when we do not desire it, God is ripening.”

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Filed under Church, My Faith Journey, Spirituality, Worship

The Risky Business of Worship

Worship Change

I recently read Richard Foster’s classic The Celebration of Discipline. If you’re not up for diving into all 12 disciplines, can I invite you to read just his chapter on worship?

Brace yourself: it’s convicting.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I’m on staff at a church, so Sunday mornings are one of the most hectic times of my work week. I’m often filling in for missing Sunday School teachers or throwing together puppet shows or craft activities at the last minute.

Truth be told, sometimes I’m hiding in the choir loft by the time worship rolls around. Or at least sneaking coffee hour snacks from the Fellowship Hall.

Foster reminded me that praise is a sacrifice that we offer to God, and the praise we offer together as a community is impacted by the state of our individual hearts when we walk into the church building.

We need to be practicing hearing God’s voice all week so we will be more open and ready to hearing it from the pews on Sunday mornings.  Worship is to “permeate the daily fabric of our lives,” as Foster puts it. If we aren’t accustomed to inviting the divine into our own mundane moments, we won’t be ready for it in corporate worship either.

I’ve been carrying that conviction around inside me for the last few months, and I can tell you: it’s been changing the way I enter into worship on Sunday mornings.

I want to be ready to be changed, not only because I’m entering a sacred space of communal worship, but because I’ve been tending to my spirit throughout the week. I am grateful to those who worship with me that they, too, are bringing their vibrant spiritual selves to the sanctuary.

As Foster writes, worship “is not for the timid or comfortable. It involves an opening of ourselves to the dangerous life of the spirit.”

Thank goodness we’re on the adventure together.

How do you prepare your own heart for communal worship? Do you think Foster is right that worship is a risky business? Have you ever found yourself hiding in the choir loft?

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