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"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger

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An Altar in the World

The practice of encountering others (“An Altar in the World”, Chapter 6)

The wisdom of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers] includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self…

It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

– Barbara Brown Taylor

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorAs I re-read An Altar in the World, I’m reminded that this chapter is one of my favorites. It is heavy on the theme of hospitality – a theme which has been formational in my life recently. Hospitality is the reason we moved to Laurelville in June; it is the reason I love my job; it is the natural result of working out my faith, based on a theology of Matthew 25.

I’m also reminded I’m not very skilled in this practice of encountering others. As Taylor notes, it demands action, not just thought. Which is to say, it requires me to see myself in someone else at the precise moment when I’d rather not be around that someone else. Or is it that they don’t want to be around me? Sometimes both.

One of the challenges I face at Laurelville is the wide diversity of people we welcome to the camp. It is our mission to offer “Christ-like hospitality with welcome and safety for all“, and ‘all’ tends to encompass quite a few people. Of course, many of our guests either don’t know about this little phrase, or they don’t quite grasp ‘all’, or they fail to realize that it’s hard to extend this hospitality if one harbors prejudice.

In any case, they’ll strike up a conversation regarding politics or hot-button issues in the Church and society, and assume that I must be in agreement with them, since I work at church camp. (It’s funny how one can hear such a variety of “biblical” opinions that are in complete disagreement with one another.) Anyway, it is easy enough to welcome people who see things as I do, but much more difficult when it’s clear that my conversation partner isn’t on the same page. Sometimes the best I can do is to simply listen and then try to change the topic. I’d like to do better, though. I’d like to learn to affirm the beauty and truth in each person. I’m still learning.*

* I’ve tried to do some learning by watching our director, John Denlinger, who is gifted in this practice of encountering others. I am sad that John will soon be leaving Laurelville, but am thankful that one of his legacies at Laurelville is a rich and broad vision of hospitality.

My goal is to begin each day by asking…

Lord, when will I see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when will I see you a stranger and welcome you…?

And then to close the day by reflecting back and asking the same thing. Eventually, I may learn the answer…

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

The practice of getting lost (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 5)

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorThroughout this year, I’ve been reflecting on how I experience the practices Barbara Brown Taylor outlines in her book, An Altar in the World. Since my family moved to Laurelville in May, this has felt very natural to me. It’s easy to forget that I chose the book for my family’s book club before our new life at Laurelville was even on the radar screen.

In chapter five, Taylor describes the practice of being disoriented or getting lost… or (if one takes the idea to the extreme) failing. She asserts…

Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.

There were a quite a few points of connection for me in this chapter. I immediately recalled how my father and I enjoy hopping in his truck and trying to get lost. We grab a Gazetteer and set off to explore new roads…

Somewhere in Garrett County

We still tell the story of the wrong turn – the downhill gravel road, that turned to a dirt road, that gradually became too washed out and narrow to continue on. We didn’t have room to turn around, so we had to back up. But in the process, we managed to poke a stick into the side of one of the tires. Luckily, we had a spare. Too bad one of the bolts was rusted tight. Luckily, we were able to shear it off. Too bad we were out of gas. Luckily we could make it to the nearest station on fumes. Too bad the owner only accepted cash. Luckily Dad had $2. We eventually made it home.

Taylor also relates how a medical emergency can be a type of “getting lost” – a time when you have to rely on someone else to provide your care. In that regard, I recall my two DVT hospitalizations. Like Taylor, I always felt safe and loved. Maybe it was divine; maybe it was youthful delusions of invulnerability. Whatever it was, it continues to shape me.

Perhaps the most tangible example of “lost” in my mind now is our move to Laurelville. It is not entirely clear to me: Was I lost in Chicago suburbs, trying to fit into a life that didn’t quite work out for me? Or is this new life in the Laurel Highlands an attempt to get lost, to break out of an area of comfort? I don’t know the answer to this, but I value the sense of being “vulnerable to this moment”, as the book describes it.


Sometimes I get so wrapped up in Taylor’s stories that I have trouble explaining the bigger picture. While I might agree that a certain practice is valuable, I’ll have trouble saying why. So I’ve been reflecting a bit on “getting lost”…

I’ve already mentioned the idea of being “vulnerable to [the] moment”. While it isn’t quite the same as valuing the moment, it is a step in that direction. Learning to value time and place is an (the?) underlying theme of the entire book.

“Getting lost” also reminds us that we aren’t in charge here. We aren’t God. A healthy dose of humility is a good thing.

And “getting lost” helps orient us throughout life. Hebrews 11 talks about lost people in this way…

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

We can (and will) debate what a “heavenly country” might look like, but it is clear that there is searching to be done. The practice of getting lost reminds us of this.

One final thought: “lost” may be a matter of perspective. A recent post by Trevor Scott Barton in the God’s Politics blog touched on this:

Human eccentrics move in a seemingly aimless way… Their movements make them seem like wanderers to other human beings with finite views. They don’t wander aimlessly, though. They revolve around a different center.

And in the Beatitudes, Jesus demonstrates that things in the Kingdom of Heaven are not judged in the usual way:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Go get yourself lost.

The practice of walking on the earth (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 4)

Thanksgiving has passed for the year; Christmas and New Year’s are a month away. Do you know what this means?

It means that my family only has one month to finish reading our book of the year! The annual discussion is just around the corner!

This year, it was my turn to choose the book, and I’ve been trying to blog through it. I’m not sure that I’ll make it before Christmas arrives, but let’s continue on…


“Solviture ambulando,” wrote Augustine of Hippo, one of the early theologians of the Christian church. “It is solved by walking.” What is “it”? If you want to find out, then you will have to do your own walking…

So says Barbara Brown Taylor in the fourth chapter of An Altar in the World. It’s a pretty bold statement, and I confess to be seduced by it. But what does she actually mean? How does walking help? Or any other spiritual discipline, for that matter? Taylor says…

The only promise [spiritual practices] make is to teach those  who engage in them what those practitioners need to know — about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God.

I’m not a disciplined walker. I’m not disciplined at much of anything – at least not anything that you might call a “spiritual” discipline. But walking is important to me, and has been especially so for the last decade…

In 2003, I experienced a DVT. In 2010, it returned. The DVTs were painful – more painful than anything else I’ve experienced. At their worst, I could hardly move. And they resulted in some permanent damage to my leg. Because of poor circulation in my leg, I now get tired more easily than before.

As a result of this of all this, walking has become something of a motivating challenge for me. I love strenuous hikes, not because I’m a good hiker, but because when I’m hiking I feel especially in touch with life. I’m keenly aware of my own limits and my mortality, and so I also am thankful to be alive.


At Laurelville, I get many chances to walk. My morning walk from home to the main part of camp helps to ground the rest of my day. I joke frequently about how the “commute” is awful. The traffic crawls along at about two miles per hour. Sometimes it even comes to a complete stop as the commuters gawk at everything going on around them. (It is really an incredible blessing.)

We also have a labyrinth on Sunset Hill, but I don’t actually use it too frequently – which is a testament to my lack of discipline. On the other hand, we have lots of trails, and I love to get out onto those. Sometimes, we follow unmarked trails, which is an exercise in getting lost (coming up in Chapter 5 of An Altar…!).

The most challenging of these trails – the one we call the Silver Trail – is the one I like most. For about half a mile, the trail goes up at a 25% grade. When I hiked it this fall, I had to stop multiple times on the way up, but along the way I reflected on how I have seldom felt more alive than I did in the midst of that hike. At the top, I was rewarded with a view of Pittsburgh, 35 miles away…

The view from the top of LaurelvilleWithout a tidy way of wrapping up these thoughts, I’ll simply give thanks for walking – for the opportunity to walk frequently where I live and work, for the groundedness of a day begun by walking, and for the awareness of life that comes with walking. Amen.

Playing in the creek

Jacob's Creek

Yesterday after getting home from my parents’ place, Middle Daughter and I cut a path through the rhododendron lining the bank of Jacob’s Creek beside our house. After a few minutes of work, we had a little trail down the steep descent to a quiet bit of stream.

And then we moved rocks. Probably tons of them. Seriously.

It has been a long time since I’ve played in a creek. We made dams and channels; wading pools and rapids; and even some towers at the end. We spent at least two hours – just for the fun of it. Eventually, Ordinary Spouse and Oldest Daughter joined in the fun, too.

An altar in the world

Here I raise my ebenezer

I could probably sit there all day, listening and watching…

The practice of wearing skin (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 3)

With my work schedule at Laurelville, “weekends” tend to fall at odd times — this week, it’s Tuesday and Wednesday — and we’ve come to my parents place for a couple of days. This morning, I was sitting at breakfast feeling the aches and pains of work — “wearing skin”, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it. I’ve got some minor tendinitis in my elbow, and I’ve stoved (staved?) my thumb, both from moving firewood around, I think. A yellow jacket sting on my ankle has been a major annoyance. My hands feel swollen from the summer heat and humidity.

But it wasn’t all bad. There was also the joy of slowly sipping a warm almond mocha. Coffee is one of the best simple pleasures of wearing skin.

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorThere is no faith, says Taylor, besides the one that we live and express in our skin:

If one of our orthodox beliefs has no corporeal value, if we cannot come up with a single consequence it has for our embodied life together, then there is good reason to ask why we should bother with it at all.

After all, God “so loved the world” and its bodies that God took on a body, too. In affirming the Incarnation, we affirm that our bodies matter.

Mennonites have always done well in this affirmation – at least, in theory. When we pray, we stress “on earth as it is in Heaven”. We confess with James that “faith without works” — in other words, faith without a corresponding bodily action — is dead.

Nevertheless, this chapter of An Altar in the World made me uncomfortable — uncomfortable because I’m uncomfortable with myself. Mostly, it’s this ongoing battle with the extra weight I’m carrying around. I just don’t want to be reminded of it. And then there’s an awkward relationship with sexuality that I imagine a lot of Mennonites have. Could we have a switch to turn it on and off?

My discomfort aside, there is much wisdom in this chapter…

One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.

And I’m reminded that by showing reverence to your body, I show reverence to Christ (think Matthew 25, which has become a focus of faith for me). So in this one practice of wearing skin, I may simultaneously learn to love myself, my neighbor, and my God.

A few days ago, I confessed to my wife that I didn’t have much use for a faith concerned only with a life after this one. If my belief doesn’t have much to say about here and now, I don’t have use for it. That is why wearing skin (and this chapter) are important for me now.

Amen.

The practice of paying attention (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 2)

(After a longer-than-intended hiatus, I’m continuing my reflections on An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.)


In the second chapter of An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor explores the practice of paying attention: reverence. In paraphrasing philosopher Paul Woodruff, Taylor writes…

Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.

While reading the chapter, I could immediately identify in myself two irreverent tendencies: to regard myself too highly and to not regard others highly enough. According to Paul Woodruff…

To forget that you are only human, to think you can act like a god – this is the opposite of reverence.

Taylor suggests that one of the easiest ways to practice reverence is to simply sit down outside and pay attention to what is happening around you for twenty minutes. I wish I could say I’ve done this in the last couple months in my new surroundings in the Laurel Highlands. Alas – I cannot, although I’m eager to do so.

However, hosting at Laurelville has its own way of countering those irreverent tendencies I mentioned above. In Illinois, I was ‘doctor’ with a PhD in chemistry and ‘lay minister’ with important worship responsibilities at church. Now I’m the guy who plunges toilets and cleans up guest bedrooms when children – ahem – suffer from a stomach bug in the middle of the night. It is my job to practice reverence – to regard each person highly. In many ways, this is exactly why I came here. Hospitality and reverence are siblings.

And living here is making my whole family more reverent, I think. At the end of June, a gorgeous bird died after hitting the window of the camp office. I had no idea what kind of bird it was (which is somewhat unusual for me), and I knew my girls (especially Middle Daughter) would want to see it. I carefully carried it home, where I discovered it was hooded warbler. Ordinary Spouse practiced reverence by sketching it, and we had a short memorial service – thanking God for its life – before burying it in the back yard.

Hooded warbler

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.

– Matthew 10.29

Concluding thoughts on “The practice of waking up to God”

As I begin life at Laurelville, I’ve been re-reading and reflecting on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. During the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the first chapter: “The practice of waking up to God”. Before moving on to the second chapter in the coming weeks, I wanted to jot down some final thoughts on the first.

In chapter one, Taylor reminds us that God is not constrained by the walls of our church buildings. The whole world – indeed, the whole of creation – is God’s house. We may just as easily meet God lying on our backs staring up the sky as we can sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning.

This isn’t a message I have trouble embracing. Indeed, I’m thrilled to be living and working at Laurelville because of how I’ve encountered God on the trails, beside (or in) the creek, and in the mountains. Instead, there is a different, but related, challenge for me in chapter one:

In the same way that God isn’t limited to the walls of our churches, God isn’t limited to the people in our churches.

When I worked at Argonne, I felt I was unable to connect faith and occupation. I had trouble waking up to God in the faces of my colleagues. I couldn’t see Jesus in the guise of the people I worked with. And I’ll be very clear: this says more about me than about my colleagues. It always felt as something of a personal failure that I couldn’t make that connection.

During our move to Laurelville, I became even more keenly aware of this failure. In some ways, it seemed like I was giving up and running away. But I also felt some grace to let it go. Maybe the gift of waking up to God anywhere or in anyone is a lesson for another time. Maybe it’s one that I’ll never learn. Maybe Laurelville is the place where I’m to learn it. Or maybe I already understand more than I know…

On my last day of work in Illinois, one of my colleagues said, “There have been few bright spots working here. You were one of them.”

That touched me deeply. It humbles me. What can I learn from that?


Now I’m in a place that I love. It’s easy for me to see God’s presence all around me. Each day, my “morning commute” (a five-minute walk from my house to the camp office along Jacob’s Creek) is an act of waking up to God. Yet even here, I expect to be challenged and surprised. I look forward to saying with Jacob…

Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!

Amen.

The practice of waking up to God (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 1)

An altar in the world

When I recommended “An Altar in the World” a few days ago, I mentioned that I was looking forward to re-reading it (and taking it to heart) when I got to Laurelville. I decided to get a jump-start this week. My goal is to experiment with the practical suggestions that Barbara Brown Taylor gives for incorporating spiritual discipline into everyday life. At least, I thought she gave suggestions – that was my recollection/impression when I reached the end of the book the first time through. But when I went back to chapter one, it surprised me.

In chapter one, Taylor is describing the practice of waking up to God. ‘Vision’ is the word she suggests for this practice. So as I was reading, I was looking for ways one might learn to see God. But I didn’t find answers – at least, not the kind of concrete suggestions I was looking for. And then it occurred to me that this was the point of the whole chapter. We create events for God to attend and structures to serve as God’s dwelling. But Taylor notes that the whole world is the dwelling of God, and she asks, “What if the gravel of a parking lot looks as promising to God as the floorboards of a church?” Like Jacob we gradually wake up to the realization that “the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28.16)

Taylor writes…

If there is a switch to flip, I have never found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did not make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away…

And she continues by describing how she can respond to a “vision of the divine”:

I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is…

… I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.


As I anticipate my new job at Laurelville, I have been keenly aware that this is a very dramatic change in my life. It isn’t realistic to think that I’ll ever return to science, at least not in the way that it ordered my life for the last eighteen years. And yet, during these months I have never had the sense of these years being wasted time. Everything in my life, each community and place, has led to this moment, contributing to what comes next.

So I thought it was appropriate to be reading chapter one this week and to pause to “set a stone or say a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.” I needed to clean up some geocaches* that my daughters and I had placed around the suburbs. As I did this yesterday, I decided to take some time at each place to offer thanks and a blessing…

* For those of you unfamiliar with geocaching: geocaching.com.


Eaton Preserve

Eaton Preserve

Eaton Preserve is less than a mile from our Plainfield home. It has a park area, a few acres of prairie, and a small out-of-the-way wooded corner. It was in that corner that Oldest Daughter hid her geocache. You have to work to get there. But once there, you find yourself in a quiet spot to watch the stream pass by.

Black Partridge Woods

Black Partridge Woods

Black Partridge Woods is just southwest of where I work at Argonne. There aren’t any groomed trails; subsequently, few people know that it exists, let alone visit. Middle Daughter chose a hollow tree for hiding her geocache – a kind of rebirth for the tree (to invoke the music of Rich Mullins). Her cache was also close to a stream. Our family seems to like these riverside locations.

Sag Quarries

Sag Quarries

The Sag Quarries lie beside the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel and are just to the southeast of my work. There is no more quarrying; the area has been converted to a county park. I spent many lunches here. Like the other two locations, you can find a spot that almost no one visits. This is where I had hidden a geocache. Yesterday, as I started out to retrieve my cache I was greeted by a flash of orange: a Baltimore oriole welcomed me to the path. Cardinals and chickadees also kept me company.


At each of these places, I thanked God for being present with my daughters and I, even if we hadn’t recognized it at the time. I said a blessing for the plants and animals that had witnessed our presence and God’s Spirit in that place. I even placed my hands on the hollow tree as I blessed it and created an altar of rocks like the one at the top of this post.

What good did any of this do?

Heaven knows. I’m just learning to wake up to God.

On the nightstand: “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown Taylor

As some of you know, my family has a book club. Every year, one of us picks a book for the rest of the family to read during the year. When we get together at Christmas, we all sit down and discuss it. This year, it was my turn to choose, and I picked An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.

The book club rules (as defined by my sister) stipulate that the person who chooses the book is supposed to have completed it before choosing it. I had forgotten this rule and was only a couple of chapters in when I made this selection. But now that I’ve finished it, I think I got lucky. This is a good book!


The other day, my friend, Stephanie, and I were discussing how hard it can be to embrace spiritual disciplines. In my own life, discipline seems to come and go, and I’m not always sure why. But I’ve gotten really energized by reading this book, because it takes a very practical approach to spiritual discipline…

No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.

(from the introduction)

I freely admit that it is a bit odd for me to quote this passage at the precise time when I’ve pulled up the tent pegs and have settled on a new life and career. (In fact, some of you may recall that this same quote appeared over a year ago in one of my many angst-filled blog posts.) Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to slowly re-reading this book at Laurelville, and deliberately exploring its down-to-earth wisdom.

Many people are familiar with the some of the “classic” spiritual disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, simplicity, solitude, worship, and so on. However, what I really appreciate about An Altar in the World is that it re-frames the disciplines in a way that explicitly ties them to our life here and now. In this way, the book appeals to my sense that for faith to be meaningful it needs to see and embrace the Kingdom of God as a present reality, and not some future hope.

So, for example, it sets out these practices:

  • Waking up to God
  • Paying attention
  • Wearing skin
  • Walking on earth
  • Getting lost
  • Encountering others
  • Living with purpose
  • Saying no
  • Carrying water
  • Feeling pain
  • Being present to God
  • Pronouncing blessing

Wearing skin? Walking on earth? Feeling pain? I already do these things! How did they become disciplines?

This is the beauty of this book. Taylor isn’t trying to get us to do anything strange or new. She’s just trying to nudge us to pay attention to what we’re already doing, to do it deliberately, and to discover the holiness that is already present.

Anyway – I highly recommend this book, and I hope to find the discipline(!) to reflect on it more thoroughly in the coming weeks and months.

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