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

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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.

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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.

Adding to the reading list…

As you might have guessed, I was enthralled by the book sellers at convention in Pittsburgh last week. I came home with three new books to read…

At the Menno Media exhibit, I purchased A Christian View of Hospitality by Michele Hershberger. As I think about the future and possible changes in direction or vocation, I’m attracted by hospitality. Broadly speaking, I see hospitality as opening up spaces in which we can encounter God. Michele writes:

In our North American society at the turn of the century, where busyness is the curse of the hour, materialism threatens to destroy our families, and homes are sanctuaries instead of centers of community, there is great need to redefine and to revisit the notion of hospitality. What is biblical hospitality, and what does it mean to take up God’s call to be hospitable in our present age? These are the questions that we must face before our lives burn up in our frantic pace.

And so, I purchased this book as something of an investment in my future. I’m especially excited to read it after sitting in on a tremendous seminar on Bible study that Michele did at convention.

I purchased two books at the Wipf  and Stock booth. I had no idea that they’d be at Pittsburgh. (As far as I know, they aren’t a “Mennonite” company, although they publish a number of things of interest to Mennos.) But after purchasing and reading (almost done!) Unclean by Richard Beck, I was glad to browse some other titles.

Working with Words by Stanley Hauerwas is a collection of essays and sermons that reflect on…

…what it means for theology to be work and, in particular, work with words…

It is my hope that these essays and sermons exhibit the training necessary to say “God”.

I’ve been wanting to read some of Hauerwas’ work for a while now, and this is the first of his books that I’ve picked up. I think that I’ll enjoy this work, given my amateur interest in theology. I hope that the “training necessary to say ‘God'” is not too advanced. After all, the training should be accessible to fishermen, tax agents, and those whose wont is to sit under fig trees.

The final book I purchased is Presence by J. Alexander Sider and Isaac S. Villegas. While I was considering the Hauerwas book, I asked those at the booth if they could tell me a bit more about it. I didn’t immediately realize that the person who describing the book was Isaac Villegas. I had just heard him speak in the adult worship session, and he had his own book for sale at the booth. Once I figured that out, I asked him to tell me about his book, too. I’m hoping that I might find this book to fit in somewhere between the other two…

As a Mennonite congregation, our worship is a display of what it means to be a priesthood of all believers. To be a church of priests means that you mediate God’s life to me. The Holy Spirit offers a fresh word for you through each of the people gathered for worship…

…the Word of God is not God’s Word until it has been received as both ‘good’ and ‘news’…

Whereas I expect Hospitality to give insight into how we share God with each other in basic, tangible ways, my hope is that Presence will inform on how we share God in our conversations about God.

We’ll see. My current reading list should get me well into next year.

Book club update

My regular readers might know that my family has a book club.* My sister came up with the idea that we could all read the same book throughout the year – discussing it as much as possible (which is challenging, as it turns out). At the very least we’d discuss it at Christmas time.

* Since I have about six regular readers and since three or four of them are in the book club, it turns out that most of you should know about this!

Happily, I’ve just finished last year’s book: Winter World by Bernd Heinrich. It’s a tale of animal survival in the midst of brutal conditions. My dad chose it. I’ve given a few thoughts on it, although my thoughts tend to be more like a review and less like a discussion starter. If you’d like to be part of the discussion, maybe we should invite you to Christmas next year.

In the meantime, Ordinary Spouse has chosen this year’s book: Between Two Worlds by Roxana Saberi.

Five for Friday… Blog posts that I should be writing

1) Blogs that I’ve started and haven’t completed, or blogs that others have requested

I have quite a few of these. It’s sort of like my life. I start things and don’t always complete them in a timely fashion. As of right now, this list (for my blog; not my life) includes (but is not limited to):

  • A ‘Now Playing’ update – It’s been a while since I’ve talked about music.  On the other hand, how often do you want to hear that I’m listening to U2 and the Indigo Girls?
  • An ‘On the Nightstand’ update – I haven’t discussed books, either. This would include Winter World (which is my family’s book club pick right now*), as well as my discussion of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Oh, and I still haven’t finished most of these books, either.
  • Mr. Guest Complacent’s suggestions for other “Five for Friday” blogs. I think I’ve done two out of five.

* In my defense, I have a hunch that I’m doing better at reading Winter World than most of the rest of my family. Ordinary Spouse has finished it, however.

2) A more intimate and/or artistic look at the sacredness of the ordinary

After all, ‘ordinary’ is in the title of my blog. Take a look at these blogs:

Two thoughts:

  1. I like these blogs. I like the imagery, and I like the thoughts and reflections. I would like to blog like that.
  2. These blogs are written by women. You may ask, “What difference does that make?” Well, our society has a whole bunch of gender baggage.  Richard Rohr explores some of it in a Sojourners article that I read this week – “Boys Don’t Cry (And Other Lies We Tell Men)“.** I wonder to what extent I’m also carrying this baggage. I wonder if I’m able to see and feel and experience in the same way that the writers of these blogs do.***

** Sojourners may ask you to register. It’s free, and I think that you can get them to promise not to bug you to buy their magazine.

***  Tricky me – I’ve just slipped in a whole other topic for blogging. But it’s a hard one. After all, boys don’t acknowledge a sensitive side.

3) Privilege and what I’m doing about it

Actually, this is partly inspired by #2. You see – even though I love those blogs above, I also wonder whether these explorations of ordinary sacredness are made possible by the affluence of middle-class North America. You generally don’t find those in third-world poverty writing blogs. I’m not pointing fingers, since it’s also the context from which I experience life. But I am challenging myself to recognize my advantages (white, middle-class, educated, United States citizen, male, heterosexual, etc.) and to work to level the playing field.

4) More stories about my family

Let’s be honest – I write the deep reflections for myself. Who else (besides, perhaps, my brother-in-law) wants to read my theological ramblings or the aforementioned thoughts on privilege? My mom wants to know what cute things her grand-daughters had to say today.

5) What it means to be Lay Minister of Worship

On July 1st, I began a term as our congregation’s Lay Minister of Worship. On one hand, I think I should reflect on that. Then I wonder, “do I really want my congregation to know how unqualified I am for this job?”

Blog housekeeping

This week, I’m too frazzled to post anything interesting here.  However, at the request of my Extraordinary Brother-out-Law, I’ve added a message board, where you may leave whatever random comments you wish.  (He has already provided some suggestions for future “Five for Friday” lists, which I’m sure will please my mother.)

(By the way, EB-o-L: I moved your comment to the new message board.)

I’ve also added a link in the book club section for the book that my family is reading this year.  (“Winter World” by Bernd Heinrich was my father’s choice.)

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