I can’t pray sitting still.

I can’t pray sitting still.

The search for an authentic way to talk to my God.

A number of years ago I had a spiritual mentor who asked me what my prayer discipline was. “I don’t really have one, I said. I just … pray.” I had not thought deeply about the idea that there were different ways to pray, different practices and different approaches to entering into conversation with God. I thought you just bowed your head and prayed in whatever way you were able.

My mentor asked a lot about my personality in those conversations. Was I introverted or extroverted? A morning person or an evening person? What interested me, what bored me? He kept trying to figure out how I was uniquely made, what traits and characteristics made me into me. All the while, he kept tying these insights back into the practice of prayer. You need to find a habit of prayer that works for you, that is well-fit to you, he said. Otherwise you’re not being as authentic as possible, and your practice will wither and weaken.

He’s right. During that phase in my life, when I was learning to really pray, I had very little imagination for what it meant to talk with God. I would sit quietly in a chair, cover my lap with a blanket and a Bible, and I would try to emulate the very fluent and beautiful prayers that I heard in church. This worked for a while, but if you know me very well, you know I’m not a sit-in-a-chair-and-whisper-quietly type of guy. As the novelty of my prayer practice wore off, it began to take more and more energy to force myself into this practice, to force myself into a time of reflection and prayer. To force myself into talking to God. Does this sound like the way it should be?

A number of years ago I made a decision. If I was going to be a Christian, I thought, I would do so in a way that was authentic. I wouldn’t fake it or just blend in like everybody else. I would be me. After all, if God made and loved me, wouldn’t this be what God wanted? This may be most alive in my practice of prayer. Sitting down, being quiet, and closing my eyes is not peaceful for me, it’s not centering, it’s not meditative. It’s distracting; I spend so much time trying to focus myself that I end up cheapening—and shortening!—my conversation with God. So I do as little of it as possible.

I’m an extrovert, I’m active, and I like to think out loud. So I came up with a practice of prayer that celebrated the authentic me. What that looks like now is something like this: at some time in the day, morning or evening, I put on a pair of shoes and a sweatshirt with a hood. I pull the hood over my head and I head out the door. I go for a walk in my neighborhood, hood drawn, eyes low, talking to the God who made me. I speak and I listen. I pray for myself and I pray for you. I pray for the world, and pray that our hearts would be open to whatever God has for us this day. I pray on the move not because it’s better but because it’s who God made me to be. That’s the real me, the authentic me, and when I come before God in that spirit, the conversation can finally get started.

A terrifying vision that is, somehow, good news for kids.

A terrifying vision that is, somehow, good news for kids.

One of my very favorite images in the Bible comes from the first chapter of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is a priest, and he finds himself in exile, displaced from his homeland and far from the Temple that served as the site of his sacrificial worship. He’s in the wilderness in a foreign land, surrounded by his conquering foes, and he’s sees a vision.

It’s easy to read this text and get focused on the wild imagery; the storm, the fire, the wings, the wheels–it’s overwhelming. We forget how shocking it is for Ezekiel to not only see a vision of God, but to see God there.

Remember, in that culture, Ezekiel would have had the concept of a phyiscal spot in the Temple where God resided. As Ezekiel walked alongside the Chebar River, he would have been filled with grief that God’s home had been destroyed and that he was, literally, far from God.

In the midst of that grief, God shows up.

In that first chapter of Ezekiel, God reveals that there isn’t a place that we can travel that is away from God’s presence. Whether we stand in holy spaces or wander around lost, God is with us, as close to us as our own breath.

One of the most meaningful times of spiritual growth in my life was a season in Chicago where I worked in a corporate office. I remember walking in the hallways breathing deeply, thinking of how close I was to God even as I went about my day at work. In the midst of whatever stress or anxiety I faced, God was as close to me at work as God was during my morning prayers or Sunday worship in the sanctuary.

Next Monday a bunch of our students and teachers will head back for the beginning of a new school year. To mark this occasion, we’ll celebrate with a Blessing of the Backpacks during the Gathering on Sunday morning. This will a be a brief ceremony at the beginning of our time together, and it will serve as a reminder: God is with you. In the hallways, in the classrooms, in the ups and during the downs. God is with us, now and every day of our lives. Thanks be to God.

There will be waffles.

There will be waffles.

If you’re new to The Gathering, I want you to understand that I will never ask you to do something that I’m not also doing/have done. When I urge you to attend worship, join a Bible study, give sacrificially, serve in the community, pray with regularity, etc., I want you to know that I’m taking those same steps myself. I also do these practices not just to be authentic, but because I need those disciplines and practices to help me grow as a Christian, too.

One of the key practices in a healthy spiritual life (and a healthy life in general) is being a part of a small group of people who commit to growing together as Christians. These small groups are built on open and honest relationships, of intentionally stepping beyond normal, shallow acquaintances and creating the real deep friendship that we all desperately need.

Small groups, like all groups, aren’t intended to last forever, and I found myself missing being in a small group recently. Since my last group ended, I haven’t had a group of people who knew what was going on in my life and in my soul. I didn’t have anyone that I could pray for while knowing they were praying for me in return. I didn’t have anyone to look forward to meeting on a regular basis for no other reason than we had promised to be a part of each other’s lives.

So I picked up the phone.

Starting a small group isn’t hard, and it’s not something that you need someone to do for you. It’s a two-step process. First, you think of the people that you want to form an intentional relationship with. Second, you call them. That’s it.

Our first small group meeting is tomorrow morning. We’ll eat waffles and talk about what we want to get out of this group. We’ll commit to how often we can meet and for how many months. We’ll focus on how we can help each other, pray for each other, support each other. We’ll ask each other, “How is it with your soul?” And when we answer, we’ll know that somebody is really listening.

I want you to have relationships like these, too. Pick up the phone and call; they’ll be excited to hear from you.

Begin in the beginning

Begin in the beginning

The story begins with a question: “Why?” Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why did something as complex and nuanced as our lives, our families, our societies come to be? Why is it that the natural world continues to organize itself into more complex, more creative forms? Why?

The first step of the story of the relationship between God and humanity is an attempt to answer that question. Left on their own, humans love to create stories of how creation came to be, and so often these stories revolve creation myths filled with violence, deceit, and death. Left on their own, humans form ideas of gods made in the worst caricature of human weakness. Left on our own, humans form ideas that reveal creation to be ultimately chaotic, unstable, and pointless.

So God tells us a different story.

When God tells us the story of how we came to be, God doesn’t get bogged down in the details of molecular structure, energy conservation, and the myriad nuances of physics that explain how creation was made. God answers the question why. Physics can never answer that question, so God tells a story.

A story of a methodical, purposeful creation, where being is drawn out of nothingness and blessed with the very breath of God. Where the cosmos is populated with infinite diversity to reflect the depth and grandeur of God’s self. Finally, placed at the pinnacle of that creation is us, creatures filled with the breath of God, capable not only of love but of relationship, an expression of the very image of the divine placed deep inside of all of us.

When we tell the story of the relationship between humanity and God we have to begin in the beginning, with God telling us a different story so that we might understand. The world is ordered, and purposeful, and meaningful, and at the very center of it is God’s burning, undiluted love for all of us.

This blog is a portion of the message from the August 7 Gathering. Hear the entire message by clicking this link.

Why I am United Methodist #4: Body

Why did a twenty-something seeker with little church history choose to become a United Methodist, and why do I affirm that choice over and over again? I’ll tell you. Read #1: Questions, #2: Touch, and #3: Photos.

Much of Christianity doesn’t make sense when seen from the outside. Why does a movement that proclaims love emanate so much anger? Why does a community of sinners feel so free to judge others? Even more troubling to me; why are Christians so divided? Why do you keep splitting up, going your separate ways? If you, the Christians, want me to join you in changing the world, you need to prove that you’re different than the world first.

A lot of Christian teachings are difficult for new believers to grasp. Healing, visions, signs, wonders, incarnation, resurrection. All these challenge our worldviews and push us to the edge of faith and reason. But for every difficult principle there is an obvious one, an easy one. Something basic and true.

Like “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Or “judge not, or you will be judged.”

Or “let the one who hasn’t sinned cast the first stone.”

The Christian faith is a glorious mix of intuitive and impossible, and we test this mix when Christians join together. When we live as a community while our human flaws try to rip us apart. In the face of disagreements and conflict it is easy to split up and go your own way. It’s much less painful to be independent than to live in connection with others. It’s much simpler to keep for yourself than to share. The world tells us to split up, to look out for ourselves. Jesus tells us that we’re all connected. That we’re in this together.

Every United Methodist is connected to every other United Methodist in the world. I am part of the same church as United Methodists in Congo and United Methodists in Congress. We share theology, we share leaders, we share money. We have different gifts and different needs. We love this connection when it allows us to support missions around the globe. We bemoan this connection when it stops us from having our way in theological disputes. It’s not easy but it’s right, and our struggles to stay together honor the Christ who calls everyone to gather around a single, common table.

Looking at Christianity from the outside, it seemed obvious that the church should be connected. That Christians should focus on uniting around what they had in common rather than splitting over their differences. That they should try to live together even when family squabbles made divorce an attractive option. If the church isn’t just an organization but the body of Christ in the world, that body should be as broad, as unified, and as alive as possible. I didn’t want to join a church, I wanted to join the body of Christ, and this is where I found it.