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Intent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Intent. All prayer starts with intent.

In the beginning the intent might be a selfish desire to get something or achieve something. The intent might be to satisfy an elder or even a loved one. The intent might be to look good in public amongst peers; the intent might be to show off, as Jesus accused the scribes and the Pharisees of doing.
If one prays enough though, those original intents can begin to melt away. There is another intent that begins to emerge. At first, it is quiet and subtle, buried deep below the surface. It might start with the thought that one should not ask for things in prayer; it might be a desire to pray in solitude even if one has only ever prayed in public; it might come in a moment of seeking prayer apart from the person that has always been present before.

Over time this shift becomes greater. One might feel a need to pray, but is unable to find words; one might feel a necessity for silence; one might find themselves unable to make it through a day without stopping and giving themselves to something larger than themselves, deeper than their own capacity of experience.

Over time, one may begin to deeply understand that the intent of prayer is to simply be present to God.

I have come to appreciate this through the help of contemplatives like Gerald May, Thomas Keating, and Tilden Edwards. And as I have come to appreciate this, I have started to realize that with this intent, nearly all things can become prayer. That an intent to be in the simple presence of God is something that can guide one’s whole being,. One’s life can be intent to be present to God. When a person is intentionally present to God, simply and in still, patient awareness of the freely given Love of God, there exists the capacity to be transformed into the hands and feet of God, to exist as the body of Christ in the world.

One of the hopes of the NEXT Chuch blog this month is to share with the mainline church lessons garnered from contemplative practice. This lesson of intent is powerful. It is simple, yet in it is the capacity to “be reformed.”

What is your intent in worship? What is your intent with mission and outreach? What is your intent with leadership? What is your intent with stewardship? What is your intent as a congregation? The contemplatives offer a simple answer: to be present to God.

And even more than that, what if worship on Sunday morning was an intentional space to practice this intention? To practice it so one can live it out the rest of the week? What if the intent of worship was to practice presence in and awareness of God so that in the rest of one’s life they can more confidently live into this intent? In this scenario worship is not an end in itself; it is a means to God becoming actualized in more places. It is a means to God’s love in one’s community beyond the walls of the church.

Contemplation, then, is not something a person does for themselves; rather, it is something that is done for the community, for the world, because contemplation is the practice of letting God in, and by letting God in, God goes out.

It is with the intent to be present to God and to deepen awareness of God that the Love of God becomes manifest.

What is your intent?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

Opening the Door with Yoga

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sarah Pfeil

Yoga, like grace, arrived in my life when I needed it the most. I had gone through an arduous cancer journey and my spirit seemed broken. After my first yoga class, I knew I had found a way to regain a new sense of being, of wholeness.

The yoga path I am speaking of is a spiritual toolbox which includes all practices of yoga; ethics, breathing techniques, postures, mindfulness, and meditation. Through my practice of yoga, I integrated all aspects of myself into a personal relationship with God. However, the actual practice of yoga can take each person in a different direction. It is not necessary to subscribe to any particular religious beliefs in order to follow the yoga path. The yoga path can lead to a deeper understanding of God, to greater contentment, or to a stronger and healthier body. This is completely a personal matter and how a practitioner chooses to use yoga is up to them.

The heart of yoga is the cultivation of equanimity in mind and body, so the spiritual heart center can wake to the present moment of being alive and sink into the deep and sustaining relationship with God. We integrate all aspects of ourselves into relationship with God. The foundation of yoga, the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas, are the ethical precepts or core values of yoga. These ethics are about avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty and embracing those behaviors that promote love. The practice of the yamas and niyamas guides us into right relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, creation, and the Divine Spirit.

The practice of the physical postures strengthens our bodies. As physically embodied beings this vessel/body is where God has chosen to call home. Through yoga we appreciate and listen to our bodies. We release tension in our bodies and create openings for the Holy Spirit to move within us.

In every major religious tradition, the Spirit of God is the source of our life-giving breath. In yoga the focus is on mindful breathing. Yoga recognizes the breath as our life force. When we breath mindfully we remember that the breath of life that God breaths into us is the same breath that we share with all living creatures. We notice that with mindful breathing, our bodies relax, energy is flowing within us and we begin to feel a sense of peace on the inside. Our spiritual heart center softens and opens. The peace on the inside flows out to others as radiance and joyful light.

The practice of yoga is designed to move us into stillness and surrender. We develop awareness to notice thoughts as they arise and let them dissipate before we get entangled in them. As we witness our thoughts, the tight control of the ego-mind loosens. We create space in our minds to slip behind thoughts and surrender into the stillness. In this stillness we meet God.

The practice of yoga healed me…. physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I became a Kripalu yoga teacher and had my own yoga studio. The biggest blessing of my studio was watching students allow their Divine within to radiate out. Minds quiet, the heart opens, change happens, and grace flows. Yoga is a contemplative practice and is an opportunity to remember lost aspects of our own Christian tradition. Namaste.


Sarah Pfeil is currently taking part in an 18-month spiritual formation program with the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. The program teaches leadership of contemplative prayer groups and retreat leadership. Sarah is a Kripalu Certified yoga teacher and a former Yoga Studio Owner. Sarah has a master’s degree in finance and spent 30 years as an executive in Health care Management and Consulting.

An Opportunity to Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Mark Greiner

Please take a moment to notice your breathing.

For a full minute, simply enjoy breathing. What do you notice? Before reading further, what you do notice about your own breaths?

Is the breathing more slow or more fast? Is it deep into your belly or more in your chest? What sounds come with your breathing? Is there any congestion, or are you breathing freely? While noticing your breathing, do any emotions arise? Do the qualities of our breathing shift as we pay attention?

Our physical body speaks all the time, and we can listen.

I’m an acupuncturist as well as a pastor. As an acupuncturist, I help people listen to their own bodies. Our bodies speak, responding to the food we eat, what we drink, how we move, and more. Listening to our bodies helps us become skillful. As we become aware of what give us life, we can cultivate those qualities. Daily, we are our own primary care physicians.

“Mindfulness” is a wonderful set of awareness practices. (For an excellent guide, see Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh.) We can also have more than mind-fulness. We can have bodyfulness – a rich and ongoing awareness of our physical selves.

We are, all at the same time, body AND mind AND spirit.

The Gospel of John proclaims of Jesus: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) What an amazing affirmation of our bodies. Not only did God delight in making creation, God entered creation in Jesus’ flesh!

Of any faith tradition, ours especially is about the flesh, about being embodied. Embodied faith flowers beautifully in both an outer journey and an inner journey.

All the time Jesus cared about people’s concrete, physical needs: being hungry or thirsty or needing a safe haven or healing. Following Jesus means embodying care in very tangible ways. The outer journey is about cultivating and safeguarding others’ well-being.

The inner journey cultivates and safeguards our own well-being. Jesus embraced the whole of his own humanity in body, mind, and spirit. So can we. We are minds, and more than minds. We are enfleshed temples of the Holy Spirit.

The inner and outer journeys are one in prayer. Jesus modelled regularly withdrawing to pray. As our own life in God deepens, we can become aware of more and more. Investing time in solitude increases our intimacy with ourselves, with God, and our capacity for intimacy with other people.

So we return to the simplest prayer of all: our breath. It’s said that the names root names of God are breathing itself. Jesus related to God as Abba (“daddy”). Breathing through the mouth, “Ab” is like the sound if an inhalation. “Ba” is an exhalation.

Let us breathe, and know God.


Pastor Mark Greiner focuses on healing and spirituality. Along with 25 years serving Presbyterian congregations, he sees patients as an acupuncture intern at the Maryland University of Integrative Health in Laurel, MD. His wife works with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, and they have a daughter in college.

More than Mindfulness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Since contemplation can be a bit of a slippery term, I would like to try and define Christian contemplative practice as accurately as one can. It refers to a long practiced, deeply rooted Christian tradition that goes at least as far back as the first time Jesus went off by himself to pray (although its not like he was the first person to do that, so it rooted in something even more ancient than the Christian church). At its most basic level, Christian contemplative practice could be understood as meditation or silent prayer — but it has a far more robust history and practice than that.

Contemplative practice has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. There are thousands of years of Christian writers exploring and putting language to their contemplative experiences of God, people like Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Kelly, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Anthony de Mello, Tilden Edwards, Richard Rohr, and Cynthia Bourgeault. There are also various formal and teachable modes of practice including lectio divina, psalm chanting, labyrinth walking, icon meditation, and centering prayer that have been handed down and developed over generations. Christian contemplative practice reveals a non-duality to the world that uncovers a unity with God. Put plainly, Christian contemplative practice could be summarized as: intent to simply be present to God in stillness.

Over the past year, as I have been establishing foundations for a new worshipping community centered in contemplative practice, I have been meeting with folks across the religious/spiritual spectrum and a few things have emerged.

  1. There is clearly a longing for a deeper experience of life.
  2. There is a growing mistrust of the Church, particularly among millennials.
  3. There are burgeoning movements around mindfulness, yoga, and more general wellness, something for the sake of simplicity I will refer to (maybe unfairly) as secular spirituality since many (but certainly not all) practitioners in these emerging fields often go to great lengths to remain firmly secular.

It could be easy to worry about these developments, particularly when coupled with declining religious engagement, but I have seen reason for hope. If anything I believe there is an opportunity.

It starts with the fact that secular spirituality movements have offered a wonderful gift: through practices that grew out of ancient faith traditions more and more people are getting a glimpse of a “loving stirring” to the “naked being of God” (as put by the anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing). Folks are experiencing something larger than themselves, a wordless formless expanse that resonates deeply.

Rarely, though, do the practitioners of secular spirituality have the language or infrastructure to help people more deeply engage in these experiences. Not all who experience these transcendent moments will seek to go deeper, but many will. The more rational approaches of secular spirituality — rooted in language that seeks scientific proof of its efficacy, language that speaks to the rational mind, words that tend to dwell in neuro-biological space — are not particularly useful in helping people encounter and embrace the paradoxes explored by the poetic and mythic language of faith and mysticism. As a result practicers are often left with beautiful experiences but lack ways to engage that experience beyond the rational mind.

This is where the Church can help. It can mentor and walk with those seeking a deeper spiritual journey. The Church can dig deep into its past and offer a robust framework for those looking to engage more deeply in these spiritual realms of the heart mind and soul. Church can offer language and a treasure trove of diverse experiences that can act as guides and way points for the journey deeper into God. The Church is also practiced in community building and can help form covenant communities of accountability around practice, a central element of Christian contemplative practice over the millennia.

The beauty of this is it is not just that the Church has something to offer in terms of experience and tradition and practice, but that it can also learn from those engaging in spirituality beyond the walls of a church. This month’s posts will explore both sides of this, from the secular side and the religious side, and will sometimes appear to be in paradoxical opposition to itself (just like good contemplative practice!). Hopefully these posts will get you to thinking, asking questions and seeking to dig a little bit deeper in this rich and abundant resource, a gift really, gift to the Church.

If we go back to our plain definition — intent to simply be present to God in stillness — in that simple presence exists amazing transformation. In that simple stillness we can trust that the “NEXT Church” will emerge out of the infinite love imbibed in creation by God.


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

Pilgrimage is in the Leaving

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

“That’s not how the story goes,” I said to the Canadian pilgrim next to me as the doors to the tomb slammed shut. It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week after the Sabbath, just like the gospel story. I had ventured alone from my hotel in Jerusalem, through the Damascus gate, winded my way through the empty and narrow streets of Old City, and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says the empty tomb of Jesus is located. The wait was too long the day before and I was looking for a different ending to my pilgrimage.

After taking the Eucharist in front of the open tomb, I was third in line when an ecumenical argument broke out between two priests responsible for their tradition’s worship on opposite sides of the sepulcher. Whatever the dispute, one priest presumed it was enough to shutdown visitation. My fellow traveler leaned over to me, “Did we just get barred from Jesus’ tomb?”

This marked the end of my Jerusalem journey. Despite the disappointment, I logged the homiletical illustration and kept walking.

The call to keep walking was a common theme for the week. Whether in Galilee or Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Nablus, Shiloh or Joppa, our local Palestinian guide, Iyad, frequently whispered through our audio devices, “keep walking.” This was a short pilgrimage and our ambitious clip was designed to ensure adequate time with local partners like Daoud Nassar. After all, pilgrimage is about people as much as place.

VW Bus surrounded by olive trees and parked at Nassar Farm due to road restrictions for Palestinians. (Greg Klimovitz)

Daoud, a Palestinian Christian, lives on land his family has owned in the West Bank for well over 100 years. Also known as Tent of Nations, Israeli settlements are constructed all around them, suffocate the farm, and cut off the Nassar family from running water, electricity, and access to public roads. Yet Daoud Nassar and his family reject intimidation and keep walking. They peacefully resist through remaining, grounded on the mantra, “we refuse to be enemies.”

Daoud spoke with us about a Israeli military raid that burned down 250 of their olive trees, a major source of their livelihood. Tent of Nations shared their plight with partners, assured God would somehow hear their cries and concerns and resurrect something new. And God did, through a UK based Jewish community. Empathizing with their story, this community purchased new olive trees, organized a visit, and planted life alongside their Christian neighbors. I bought an olive tree that day, prayerful I would revisit this symbol of hope. “We believe in justice,” Daoud said before we left. “One day we will see the Son of Justice rise again.”

As likely noticed throughout this blog series, many of us wanted to linger longer in the caves and among the olive trees of Nassar Farm. We had spent two days in Bethlehem, where a thirty-foot wall lined with barbed wire, video surveillance, and snipers snakes throughout the region. This wall imposes separation, perpetuates fear, and sustains modern apartheid. At Nassar farm, however, we found an alternative narrative of hope through the prophetic witness of a new friend whose faith was grounded in the One who, amidst first-century occupation and oppression, also called this region home. Then we heard a familiar voice in our ears, “keep walking.”

So we did.

Sunset on the beach of Joppa (Greg Klimovitz)

We walked to Nablus and Hebron and alongside Muslims, Jews, and Christians. We walked with refugee children before we dipped our hands in the well where Jesus offered living waters to those written off as other. We even walked the beaches of Joppa, where Jonah was spit onto dry land and Peter reminded, “not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). There we were reminded of our call to keep walking towards Philadelphia and Charlotte, D.C. and Atlanta, San Diego and wherever we called home. Empowered by what we had seen and heard, keep walking to confront the dividing walls of hostility that snake through our own communities and threaten our own borders. Awakened by the courage of new siblings in the (inter)faith family, keep walking as advocates for neighbors oppressed by the ghettoization of our own neighborhoods. Stirred by the systemic restriction of resources through racial grids in one nation, keep walking with interfaith and ecumenical partners to dismantle the same practices in our own. And when the doors of tombs slam shut and resurrection hope appears burned to the ground, lean on the witness of Daoud and keep walking towards the Son of Justice, who will rise again. Keep walking, whispers God’s Spirit, because pilgrimage is as much in the leaving as in the initial going.

A poem written in the airport prior to leaving, which stayed with me on our pilgrimage and upon return:
Life is pilgrimage.
Travel well and never alone.
Venture to spaces where the divine and human collide
in a particular place.
Go with eyes wide open
where stories and parables
share the ground your feet now tread.
Pray en route
and listen to the voices of the other
those more oft passed by.
Ask questions
linger longer.
Expect to encounter the Holy
to return different than when you first set out
awakened
as you keep walking.


As the Associate Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Rev. Greg Klimovitz encourages church leaders in the development of collaborative and holistic ministry partnerships, exploration of intentional and creative mediums to tell related stories of faithful witness, stewardship of grant resources to fund and sustain new and existing initiatives, and design of contextualized expressions of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Greg is married and has four young children. Follow on Twitter @gklimovitz or gregklimovitz.blogspot.com

Pilgrimage is Dancing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Jessica Patchett

The children welcomed us with dancing.

Our band of pilgrims walked into Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus just before lunch. Nablus is a city in the West Bank, 30 miles north of Jerusalem, with a population of about 140,000 Arab Palestinian Muslims, Christians, Samaritans, and Jews. It is home to the traditional site of Jacob’s Well and in the shadow of Mount Gerazim, where Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well for a glass of cool water and a rousing theological debate.

Today, Nablus is also home to several refugee camps and a military occupation. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, many generational Palestinian families were forced out of their Nablus homes. Seven thousand of these Palestinian Muslims and Christians were herded into tents forming a camp called Balata. With nowhere else to go, families stayed, people built cinderblock structures, and over the past seventy years, Balata became a permanent home to more than 27,000. Most of today’s residents of Balata were born, have given birth, and know they will face death in the same 1/10th of a square mile.

(Greg Klimovitz)

I have been to Balata twice. There is no air conditioning. Doors open into narrow alleyways where adults must turn sideways to pass. Dirty dish water splashes down overhead. Graffiti tells the story of a half century, several generations, of life on hold.

Balata is often placed on curfew by the Israeli Defense Force, which means no one can come in or out of the camp. Sometimes curfew lasts a few hours. Other times a few days. During one of the uprisings, 27,000 people were locked in one tenth of a square mile for a year.

Perhaps the most terrifying reality of living in Balata is that the Israeli Defense Force conducts weekly search and arrest operations in the middle of the night. Youth as young as 12 are frequently taken from their beds and into military police custody without notice to their parents of where, why, or how long they will be held.

Walking past concrete rooms, one can hear arguing and crying. Hopelessness, domestic violence, and suicide threaten every block.

And yet, the person whose footsteps I have followed each time through this camp is a woman named Suhad. She grew up in Nablus. When she was five years old, she saw her best friend shot and killed in the street by an Israeli Defense Force soldier. She has seen cousins killed, lost friends and uncles, and been hit in the head by the butt of an automatic assault weapon.

Suhad also went to graduate school in Europe. And she says it was there, for the first time, she saw free people, realized it was not normal to live the way she grew up, and learned she had basic human rights that had been violated.

Suhad earned degrees in psychology and counseling. Though she could have taken other opportunities, Suhad moved back to Nablus to be a family therapist and eventually joined a team that created Tomorrow’s Youth Organization. Her vision as TYO’s Center Director and Psychosocial Program Manager is to help every child in the Balata refugee camp have a safe, supportive place to soothe traumas, learn how to read and write, and begin to find — with their own voices — a way to claim their own basic human rights.

Ten years later, TYO serves more than 1,000 children and youth, in addition to their families. TYO provides two shifts of daily programming for pre-school and school-age kids that includes reading, writing, arts and crafts, dancing and exercise, therapeutic support, and two meals. TYO does all of this for $50 per child per year.

I have often thought that if I walked into the same program in my hometown, I would not have found it remarkable. Reading, singing, dancing, playing — it is normal and pedestrian in Concord, North Carolina or Marietta, Georgia. But in the midst of Balata Refugee Camp, it is all an act of faith, a bold reclamation of personhood, a joyous defiance of all that dehumanizes people in the midst of a 70-year warzone.

(Greg Klimovitz)

When we pilgrims walked into the gym at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, we did not know the song the children were singing. But when they saw us come in, they changed the music. The Cha-Cha Slide blared, and everybody clapped their hands. Together, we danced and laughed and remembered that though crying may last for the night, joy comes in the morning.

Pilgrimage is dancing. It is pausing along a long, hard hike to remember with heart and soul, mind and body, in the company of friends and strangers what the journey is about after all.

In the days since my pilgrimage through Palestine and Israel, I have paused often to be grateful for Suhad and hundreds of children who greeted us at TYO. Dancing with them renewed my vision and refueled my desire for a world in which children can grow up without fear, young women and men know their worth, and all can live with dignity and joy.

If you’d like to learn more about Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, you can find them at www.tomorrowsyouth.org and join me in supporting their work at https://tomorrowsyouth.org/donate.


Jessica Patchett is the Senior Pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. She enjoys helping people discover life-renewing connections with communities of faith. She finds joy in friendship, yoga and running, good poetry, and exploring new places. You can find her on Instagram – jessicareneepatchett – and Facebook – Jessica Renee Patchett.

Pilgrimage as an Altar

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Ian Clark

Altars take many forms. In the church where I grew up, as well as the church I currently serve, the altar is a simple wooden table. In some churches, they are more ornate, perhaps made of marble. I have seen the tailgate of a truck turned into an altar; during our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I saw a simple bench turned into one as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Whatever form they take, altars are rich in significance. They are tables around which we gather as Christian community; the place where we seek spiritual nourishment for the journey of faith. And they are the tables to which we bring our offerings; the place where we return to God a portion of what God has given to us.

(Greg Klimovitz)

In this, the altar seems like something of an allegory for the core of Christianity. In the altar there is a tension, for the altar is a place of both giving and receiving. In the altar we are reminded at once of the gifts we receive and the responsibilities we have. In some ways, the altar represents all that we do in worship and all that we strive for outside of worship.

If the altar is a place of sacred tension, so too was our experience of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

My soul was fed as I walked where my Lord walked. To breathe the same air and witness the same sunsets as Christ did, I found myself moved closer to my faith in a more intimate way. In gazing upon the same seas and mountains that Jesus looked upon, and in feeling the same dizzying heat that he felt, I found myself experiencing him anew. Scripture came alive and I began to better imagine the ministry of Christ.

And, yet, for all of the spiritual nourishment that was provided, I was also deeply reminded of what I owe in return. Looking upon cities divided by concrete walls, walking through refugee camps, and hearing the stories of families living in fear, I was reminded that God’s love made known in Christ carries with it a responsibility for the believer: Christians, nourished by God’s goodness, are to seek a world which better reflects God’s vision of wholeness and justice, mercy, and compassion.

And, so, I see my pilgrimage to the Holy Land as something of an altar. I went to be fed, and I was. I went for community, and I received it. I also experienced this altar’s sacrificial call: the call to give of myself for the building of God’s kingdom. The call to escape my own comfort so others might taste freedom and experience the fullness of God’s call on their life.

So, next time I stand behind an altar of wood or stone to offer the words, “this is my body, broken for you,” I dare say it will take on a new meaning for me. Christ’s body is, indeed, broken for me: broken so that I might be fed – and broken so that I might respond in a way that heals.


Ian Clark is a pastoral resident at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His ministry focuses on the care and development of young adults, as well as Christian education. He is a 2018 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and is an officer in the United States Navy’s Chaplain Candidate Program. He is married to Kaitlin, a critical care nurse, and together they enjoy hiking, camping, and cooking.

Pilgrimage is Seeing with New Eyes

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Therese Taylor-Stinson

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Prou

This was my fifth attempt to visit “The Holy Land.” My aspiration was not big. I just wanted to be part of a group traveling there, visit biblical sites, and perhaps come back with new eyes for seeing.

Each of the first four attempts failed, even when I scheduled a Mediterranean cruise for my husband and me with two ports in Israel. The ship was diverted because of conflict in the region. I began to think this was a bucket list item I would not accomplish — until I saw the NEXT Church announcement.

Though a little weary of trying, I applied to go on the pilgrimage and requested a scholarship, and once accepted, I dutifully paid my installments as directed. It looked like I was finally going to Israel-Palestine, until about 2 weeks before our departure, when I became increasingly congested with asthma. I visited my pulmonologist, who gave me an emergency pack for the trip, and dutifully took my meds until flight time with a promise from pilgrimage leaders that they would help me through the challenges that the landscape and heat would bring. And they did beyond my expectations.

After a 4:00AM wakeup in DC, on May 19, to make a 10:00AM flight to New York, an unexpected coughing attack driving through Rock Creek Park to the airport threatened to turn me around to go back home. I made it to the airport, followed by an unexpectedly easy and fully accepted check-in for our 11-hour flight on El Al, only to hit the ground running in Tel Aviv at 5:00AM the next day, with a full day of pilgrimaging. As we rode to Bethlehem, the beauty of the city, the starkness of the desert, and the vastness of the land struck me immediately. It was a 48-hour, nonstop beginning!

A purpose of our pilgrimage was to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to compare it to systemic racism in the U.S. In Bethlehem, we met with Dr. Mitri Raheb, Pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church, and founder and president of Dar al- Kalima University College of Arts and Culture. Dr. Raheb is the most widely published Palestinian theologian to date, and he was ready to give us a lesson on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

(Therese Taylor-Stinson)

Dr. Raheb showed us the progression of the Israeli occupation — from a whole Palestine in 1946 to only a smattering of land today. He advised us of how the occupation is not only land-based, but also psychological; he showed us the extent of the occupation of land, resources, airspace, and the narrative. Israelis occupy water resources by giving residents colored water tanks. Israelis get white tanks with unlimited water access, and Palestinians get black tanks with access only three days a week. Israelis also control the narrative — “the Palestinians are violent.”

Compare the distribution of resources and the Israeli occupation of the narrative with racism in America, where the distribution of wealth, land, and resources systematically favors white Americans. Where the narrative about African-Americans in the U.S., or the black countries on the African continent, or the neighboring migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. from Mexico, or the oppression of people of color anywhere on the planet, favors a white perspective. I recently learned of how the narrative of black people is controlled even in our sacred Christian texts. The Biblical narrative we receive is the Roman narrative, with a few disparaging mentions of black characters, such as Simon of Cyrene, carrying Jesus’ cross, and an Ethiopian eunuch chatting with Paul. No mention of the Ethiopian Empire of Axum or how the Ethiopian Christians might have played a significant role in evangelizing Africa, including West Africa, where scholar John Mbiti states that Christianity was evident as early as the third century.

We were advised not to react. So, I struggled for control as I heard an Israeli military officer very matter-of-factly speak of random raids of Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, tying and blindfolding the male inhabitants and taking them out to the desert. He said, “We don’t have to kill many of them. Their minds will do more harm than we can by killing them.” He described these tactical incidents, with no sense of remorse, until the Palestinian woman with him spoke of the trauma these raids impose on the Palestinian women and children. I saw him put his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, apparently trying to abate tears. How awful! Yet, how familiar to the police raids in areas of concentrated poverty in the U.S. This was horrifying, and my most challenging moment.

We also visited The Tent of Nations, where Palestinian Christian Dauod Nasser has papers for his land near an Israeli settlement. With certain self-determination, he maintains his rights and offers an olive branch of peace to the world that visits him. Dauod shows the same love, openness, and desire for peace to his oppressor that African Americans have shown to theirs for centuries. We visited a school where the self-determination of Palestinian women care for those held in a refugee encampment made of narrow ally ways, teaching them the basics for survival and feeding them. We also visited an encampment where the children live. Not wanting anything but a smile and greeting in return, they ran to us to say, “hello.” These are also the qualities I often see at home in the self-determination of black and brown people in the U.S., so now I know pilgrimage is having new eyes for seeing, and hoping, and continuing….


Therese Taylor-Stinson is a retired Federal Senior Program Analyst and former expert on Federal regulatory activity, where she also served as a lead mediator for Equal Employment Opportunity disputes across Government. She is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served as Moderator of National Capital Presbytery in 2016. A graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Therese is a spiritual director in private practice for well over a decade and a member of the Shalem Society for Contemplative Leadership. She was also commissioned associate faculty for Shalem’s Personal Spiritual Deepening Program. Therese is the founder and organizer of the Racial Awareness Festival held in Washington DC, supported by National Capital Presbytery. 

Pilgrimage is an Endless, Tameless Endeavor of Hearts

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Janna S. VanderWoude

The NEXT Church ad grabbed my attention: “Holy Land: a pilgrimage together through the land where Jesus walked.” I had been to Israel before, as a Union Presbyterian Seminary student in 2014, and was compelled to re-visit. I needed to be present there again and to share the experience with my husband John, who had heard little about my time in Israel. He, like many Christians raised in the church, had harbored an interest in walking where Jesus walked, but children at home needed tending in 2014, and I learned of his disappointment only when I returned.

NEXT Church’s consideration of the political tensions, scheduled time with Rev. Mitri Raheb in Bethlehem, and a visit to Hebron on the itinerary all reinforced my determination that John and I would join this pilgrimage together. My previously closeted experience in Israel contrasted with reports from other acquaintances whose voices swelled with the joy of standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, of praying at Gethsemane. Typically, their only ventures into the West Bank were quick forays to the Church of the Nativity, undertaken hesitatingly by Jewish guides who spoke of Bethlehem as a dangerous place.

(Janna VanderWoude)

To truly see Bethlehem — or other parts of the West Bank, including a Jewish settlement — is indeed a dangerous undertaking for a follower of Jesus. The Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel wrote, “Faith is not clinging to a shrine but the endless, tameless pilgrimage of hearts.”1 An expansive and ever-growing system of Israeli-built walls, sectoring the West Bank and dividing its people while amplifying fear of those who are “other,” reinforces what Heschel writes in his essay, Faith. “The tumult of strife and envy, insidious selfishness, inflation of cruelty, is a poor setting for the plain unfolding of the divine. Yet a force from beyond our conscience cries at our insolent haughtiness of humanity, reminding and admonishing that the wanton will fail in rebellion against the good. Those who listen to this voice open their lives to the sight of the unseen in the desert of indifference.”

Pilgrimage is listening to the voice that is often unheard, opening one’s life to the sight of the unseen — in a desert of what often appears as indifference. Western media communicates little about the realities of Palestine: astronomical unemployment, restricted road use, managed water and electrical limitations, night-time house raids in which boys are seized and held, overcrowded refugee camps, and manipulative land seizures. The place indeed seems a poor setting for the plain unfolding of the divine. So perhaps I just needed to see that Mitri Raheb’s voice persists, that the confiscation of a Palestinian’s land at Tent of Nations is thwarted by volunteers from all over the world who come to plant trees, that children from a tenement-like refugee camp in Nablus can learn, laugh, sing and dance at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, supported internationally by advocates including Covenant Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC.

There is a bold metal sculpture on my church office wall declaring, “Something wonderful is about to happen.” Pilgrimage is living in that expectation, believing that when you get off the thousandth bus, you will hear-see-feel-touch something that is otherwise unseen. Hopeful expectations are answered by crowds of people from every corner of the world, all clamoring to touch, as best they can, the Teacher’s garment. The mix of languages in swarming places like Church of the Holy Sepulchre must truly bring joy to God’s ears. Hebron, where Abraham, the common father of our oft-warring faiths, is buried, is by contrast eerily silent. Anxious but vibrant five years ago with merchants delighted to see Americans, it is now heavily patrolled and highly restricted — a ghost town served by two remaining souvenir vendors.

One of the objects I hurriedly purchased was a small, ceramic “Hebron” bell; again, the words of Heschel, “Audacious longing, calling, calling, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind — it is all a stalwart driving to the precious serving of Him who rings our hearts like a bell, wishing to enter our empty perishing life” (Faith). We who follow a living Jesus receive him as God’s entrance into our empty, perishing life. Just as he did in that little, dangerous town of Bethlehem, “The dear Christ enters in.”

1 “Faith.” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays. Ed. Susannah Heschel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.


Rev. Janna S. VanderWoude, LCSW, ministers alongside the congregation of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Reisterstown, Maryland, a transitioning suburban community outside of Baltimore where people from many nations, languages, races, and religious faiths are trying to learn to live joyfully together without walls. The Northminster campus also houses a Messianic Jewish congregation, a start-up summer camp, and Jesu Christo es el Señor Iglesia Evangelica. Together we celebrate a saving God who enters our empty, perishing life, opening us to the sight of the unseen.

Pilgrimage is in the People

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Lydia Kane

I do not know what my expectation was for the pilgrimage before we boarded the plane for Tel Aviv. I think I wanted to see holy sites and be open to letting God work in my life. I was seeking renewal. I realized in reading and preparing for the trip, I had been willfully ignorant about the situation with Israel and Palestine. Learning about the conflict made me realize the pilgrimage would not be as straightforward and inwardly focused as I had originally thought, but I was hoping to make the journey without setting too many expectations, without limiting myself by seeking a certain place, feeling, or experience.

I found each place we traveled to, both in Israel and Palestine, whether incredibly new or old, was a place where people felt connected to the land and in many places expressed that through various forms of art. From holy sites from 2,000-plus years ago to schools, farms, and settlements in the present, God has always sought us out where we are, in our bodies, embodied, so this makes sense that we humans would mark these experiences of the holy in our lives with art.

(Lydia Kane)

The art exhibit Limitless at The Walled Off Hotel gave me a window into the people of Palestine. Yes, it is a tourist attraction (misery tourism as one of our trip leaders called it). And yes, I was moved by the gallery as well as the exhibits without and within the hotel and think tourists should keep going there. If there is a giant symbol of a problem, like a border wall that separates two groups of people, should not a person take the opportunity to go touch it, to know it exists and to empathize with the people whose lives it affects daily? With the artist Banksy taking the creative lead, the wall outside the Walled Off Hotel has become a mural and recorder of this moment in history with images as well as stories from the people. This wall, which once was not a part of their holy land, has now become a part of them.

(Lydia Kane)

Inside the small art gallery, just inside the border wall in Bethlehem, is a small collection from some of the most influential and well-known Palestinian artists, along with some newcomers. The collection is called Limitless after a piece by Mahdi Baraghithi, titled Had. I asked the woman working in the gallery to tell me about Had and she explained that all of the words on the bright blue canvas are variations with the same root of the word limit — to be limited, limitless, and so on.

Looking around, there was a painting by Nabil Anani titled Border with a woman sitting on her suitcase, as if posed, with the wall as the backdrop, cutting off and hiding the bottoms of the buildings it conceals behind it. Looking to the other side of the gallery there are two canvases with little boys doing jumps and tricks, like at a skatepark, but with the wall as their ramp. Mohammed Al Hawajri created another pair that looks like magical realism come alive. In one piece a man and woman float, the man holding on to the woman, above the wall, flying past the limit since they are not allowed to pass any other way. In the other piece a couple is on a rooftop near the wall and the man’s feet are firmly planted on the roof while the woman floats like a balloon on a string, the image suggesting that some force is drawing her toward the open air space over the wall. These Palestinian artists seem to say that if their bodies must live with limits, they at least have no boundaries imposed on their art.

Pilgrimage is in the people, past and present. Seeking the holy through the art of the Holy Land led me back to hope. I think hope is found in the relationships we make, the stories we carry with us from scripture that are our tradition of hope, and in creating new means of expressing hope, to which the artists of Palestine bear witness. This was my experience of pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

As we progressed through holy sites and met amazing people doing amazing things for youth and children in Palestine, I thought about how much is needed in my own community. I do not want to ignore the need for reconciliation, education, and human rights in Palestine, but I left feeling a renewed calling to be awake to the human bodies within a mile of my own home that do not enjoy the same safety, education, and standards of living that I do. Hope is big enough for all of us and we know that God cares for every body.


Lydia Kane is a parent, spouse, and educator living in Tarboro, NC with her family. She has studied literature, theology, and special education and loves seeking out ways for those three fields to intersect.