Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why I Am Hopeful for the Future of the Church: a Photo Essay

Four days at one of the most spectacular Catholic retreat centers in the country, just outside the great city of Chicago.
Four days of some of the most intense work I've done since my retirement at the end of 2010.
Four days living in a small dormitory, individual rooms, shared bathrooms, one large living room with a fluorescent light buzzing loudly enough to wake the dead and a heater occasionally cranking out warm air with a deafening whoosh.
Four days with nine other people, only a few of whom I knew at all, each with their own ideas/opinions/working styles/life experiences/biases/favorite talking points.
The work was exhausting, confusing, challenging, amorphous, multi-layered, intense, demanding and important. It was also rich, rewarding, exhilarating, and very, very good.
While breathing in a glorious whiff of springtime in the Midwest, walking to the dining room, finding long-time friends by accident, discovering shared connections with new friends, hearing stories of gospel good news from all corners of this country we share, somehow - by God's grace - we became a team. 
Not always in agreement, sometimes dissatisfied with results, often overwhelmed by the task - we joined hearts, heads, prayers, and vision to do the work before us.
Our task? To create a weekend retreat experience as part of our denominational tool-kit; something that could be led by a trained facilitator in a variety of church settings; a brief slice of time in which people might begin to discover what it feels like to truly listen and to be fully heard.
How often do we come together with other followers of Jesus and feel as if we are invisible? Not seen, not heard, not understood. Very little in our day-to-day living - filled as it is with tight schedules, too much 'should' and 'ought' and 'How are you?' and 'Oh, I'm fine...just f.i.n.e' - very little in our lives allows enough space to practice listening well. 

We wanted to create something that would help people to find and nurture true spiritual companionship as we journey together through life. Something that would introduce the basics of attentive listening, something that would encourage the thoughtful sharing of stories, something that would include an enlivening thread of liturgical worship, a shared meal, the sacrament of communion.
We hammered away at it from Sunday night through Wednesday noon, sampling things like dwelling in the word, taking a Cleopas walk, using art or music to fill in the gaps, thinking about lifemaps and technology and crafting a blessing. 

It was tough sledding at a few points and there is much still to be done. 

But here's the greatest gift of this time away, this intense stretch of little sleep, lots of questions and not quite enough answers:  
I discovered a beautiful sprouting thing in the center of my spirit - a thing with wings and light-filled, buoyant beauty. And it's name is HOPE. 
And right here is where much of that hope is centered: three women who are pastors. Three beautiful-to-the-core, loving, creative, committed, intelligent, Jesus-loving, kingdom-building, forward-thinking, open-hearted, life-giving leaders in our denomination who will change the church as we know it. ALL FOR THE GOOD. Becky from Ohio, Diana from Illinois, Michelle from Massachusetts - each of them gifted by God and called 'for such a time as this.' Each of them eager to follow the Nazarene wherever he may lead them, each of them fearless in their faith, pushing the envelope of 'that's how it's always been done,' seeking the pearl of great price, no matter the cost.
So, as I flew home on Wednesday night, I gave deep thanks for the work of the Spirit in our midst. I basked in the afterglow of new-found friendship. I rested in the knowledge that the God we serve is ever-faithful, ever-present, ever-guiding and guarding the church.
As the California ground got closer and closer, I marveled at the rich communion just enjoyed in Chicago, all of it centered around our shared commitment to the deep ways of God. I rejoiced in the wisdom of older saints, in the commitment of denominational leaders to finding new ways of going 'higher up and further in,' and the energy and probing thoughtfulness of the entire group. One woman ran a marathon on Sunday and flew west that night. One man participated in a spiritual directors' graduation ceremony on Sunday and took the red-eye east to join us on Monday morning.
We all thought this was important work, creating the last in a set of three retreat options for the broader church, this one focusing on leaning into and learning from one another. That sense of shared values and high commitment fueled each piece of the discussion and experimentation of our time together.
Over the next two months, I must assemble all our notes, all our thoughts and prayers and goals and guesses into some sort of cohesive whole. This will be a work in progress for a number of months, with pilot experiences in the fall.
We hope to end up with something that encourages people to journey more deeply together. For if there is one thing I know at this end of life's twists and turns, it is this: there truly are NO 'Lone Ranger' Christians. We need each other, we are better together, we are meant to be a living body of believers, connected 
by the binding, energizing power of the Holy Spirit, 
by the shed blood of Jesus Christ who shared our flesh, 
by the creative, living presence of Almighty God.

My deep thanks to Doreen Olson, Executive Minister of the Department of Christian Formation of the Evangelical Covenant Church, to Millie Lungren, Director of Covenant Resources and overseer for Prayer Ministries for the DCF, and to Diana Shiflett, spiritual director and Associate Pastor at Naperville Covenant Church, for her skill and grace in facilitating this experience.

The rest of our team consisted of:
Ron Ferguson, Associate Pastor, and spiritual director from Keene, New Hampshire
Jim Gaderlund, retired pastor, spiritual director, coordinator for Re-Visioning and Sabbath Retreats for the denomination from Mountain View CA
Letha Kerl, spiritual director and Regional Co-Director for Missions in Europe and Africa from Lyons, France and the Seattle area while on home assignment
John Kiemele, spiritual director, Founder and Director of Selah Contemplative Retreats, Seattle WA 
Becky Przybylski, Associate Pastor, Toledo OH
Michelle Sanchez, Associate Pastor, Medford MA, in training for spiritual direction 

I will be posting this with Michelle at Graceful, with Jen at Finding Heaven, with Laura at The Wellspring and with L.L. at Seedlings in Stone. You can find their buttons on the sidebar to the right.