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Of Asses and Raindrops

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 Melanie Weldon-Soiset

The water drop plopped on my brow, hovering over follicles.
I continued to work, my hands aflutter,
yet the water drop cried foul.
“I’m here! I’m heavy! I’m wet, and on your face!” it howled.
I flicked my hand toward my eye,
but paused

mid-air,

wondering Why this drop,
Why me,
Why now?
Like Balaam’s ass, this ball of dew demanded that I halt.
So I stopped my hand, stopped my work, and listened to that glop of rain:
It hummed and hawed on my temple,
Reeling and wobbling, a breath away
From crashing into my eye.

I wait under its weight, miniscule yet full.
And then,
only then,
do I discover the divine.


Melanie Weldon-Soiset is the Fellowship Program Director at Sojourners, and is a participant in the 2020 cohort of “Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats” with Shalem. Melanie is also a pastor, published poet, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @MelanieWelSoi, and check out her work at melanieweldonsoiset.com.

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.

The Gift of Contemplative 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. Kevin Hershey

If I was to summarize the gift that I think contemplative practice has to offer to the Christian faith, it would be that contemplation is what allows my discipleship to truly be a way of life, rather than a series of activities or events that I engage in, or a set of beliefs that I articulate. Traditional Church offers opportunities to learn about our beliefs and chances to live out our faith in particular times and places (e.g. Adult ed., Sunday morning worship, mission events, fun community gatherings). Contemplation moves beyond expressions of faith that are bound by time and place. It is about practicing a constant awareness to what is around me, and where God is in it. It includes everything from my capacity to see everyone I encounter as both “guest and guide” (as those from the Northumbria Community say), to how my body feels at that moment, to an awareness of my thoughts, feelings, and reactions to anything and everything that I experience around me. It maintains an open curiosity about everything I am present to and what (if anything) God could be trying to show me through my awareness. Walking through life in this way of contemplation, then, becomes an expression of Paul’s praying without ceasing.

Mindfulness, as I understand it, carries this same sense of awareness to one’s surroundings and self.
Where I think contemplation deepens this is that it moves us beyond awareness of what’s happening around and within us, and into connecting with all that we are becoming present to. As I become more aware, contemplation then asks me to consider how I am connected to it all. Once I am aware of the sights and smells and beauty of nature around me, how am I connected as part of God’s common Creation? Beyond awareness of the pains and pleasures in my body, how do I experience awe and gratitude for how God has formed me? As I am increasingly present to another’s thoughts and feelings, and my reactions and responses to them, how can I express a sense of connection with that person as a fellow child of God? If mindfulness is a way of practicing a deeper sense of awareness about all things, then I think contemplation is the extension of this awareness into actively connecting with God, others, creation, and self. Contemplation is mindfulness-in-community.

When I do well with contemplation (which is a lifelong, up-and-down practice for me), I am aware of how I am constantly walking together with God, serving God by being present to others, receiving God’s guidance and love through the world around me… it all becomes a way of life from the time I get up, until the time I go to bed. It is part of what I carry with me to my job, to interactions with friends, family members, and strangers, as well as those I’m annoyed by, angry at, or hurt by. It becomes part of the most spiritual things I do, like walking in the wood or meditating, and I find it in every-day things like watching TV and playing Barbie with my girls. Any sense of separation between “holy” times and “ordinary” times of life gets blurred and, at its best, disappears. All time becomes holy time when I become aware of and connected to the Holy in it.

This is, I think, the most significant lesson that contemplative Christianity has to teach the mainline church. There is nothing inherently more sacred about worshiping God in a sanctuary on Sunday morning than there is worshiping God by going to the beach with one’s family. There is nothing more missional about taking a group on a trip to rebuild homes in another country, than there is in noticing someone who is painfully lonely and stopping to talk with them while you’re out on your daily walk. These are all acts of God’s love. Doing them one way engages our Christian living as a series of events, bound to particular times, spaces, and groups, that we hope carries something of the sacred into the rest of our lives. Christian contemplation is the practice of seeing the sacred in all of life, and connecting ourselves and others in the Christ’s love. A contemplative life, then, becomes prayer without ceasing, mission without ceasing, worship without ceasing, love without ceasing. Through contemplation, we awaken to our discipleship.


Kevin Hershey is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a former therapist, specializing in Contextual Therapy with couples and families. He is a New Monastic, a Contemplative, a Friend of the Northumbria Community, and is always at work becoming what Brother Wayne Teasdale and Dr. Christine Paintner call a “monk in the world.” In 2015, he founded Companions on the Way, a new monastic community which focuses on looking at how Jesus teaches us to be in relationship with one another, and practices this way of relating in the world. It draws its identity as a “School of Love” from the language of Brian McLaren, and is part of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities Initiative of the PC(USA).

Finding Home

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 Paula Estornell, PhD

Everyone has a story to tell. This is my story of finding home.

I got the travel bug when I was 10. It was my turn to fly with to Spain to visit our relatives. (My older siblings had already gone.) The sights, sounds and smells of Spain were strange and captivating. So were the people and the slow-paced, fun-loving way of life. It was a wonderful experience and for the last 40 years I have been thrilled to discover new people and places across much of the United States and many countries. I’ve lived in the north east, north west, mid-west and southern parts of the United States as well as Europe.

I love newness and adventure and never stayed in one place for more than a few years. Too much stagnation makes me restless. In my early years, I was searching for excitement. In my later years, I began looking for home. A place to connect with the landscape and people and rhythm of an area. A place to belong. But a sense of home has eluded me. Even after I moved back to the town where I grew up, where I had family and old friends, married, and had a child. It wasn’t until I discovered, rather unexpectedly, a deeper connection with God and then with others that I felt a true sense of home.

I had grown up without religion in my life and no real concept of God. My tough single mother had left the church disillusioned by the patriarchy and lack of women’s voices. I came upon religion rather accidentally when, soon after returning from two years abroad in the US Peace Corps, I looked in the yellow pages of the phone book to see what community organizations I could join. I wanted to reconnect with Americans and make friends. Unitarian Universalist sounded intriguing and worldly so I went to a service. The exposure to the teachings of major world religions, open-mindedness, freedom of expression, and social justice appealed to me and I stayed an active member for almost 20 years. The faith fed my mind and provided a wonderful community of people to connect with.

When our daughter arrived, we needed to leave our small lovely UU Church in search of a church with a vibrant children’s program. We started attending a local Christian church and there I discovered more than a nice community of kids for our daughter. I found a church library and a deeper understanding of God.

Since I knew very little about mainstream Christianity, I wanted to read a little about the faith and about Jesus to better understand what was being said during Sunday services. Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault changed my understanding of God and Jesus and changed my life as I continued to read books she referenced and others from that church library. Until then, what little sense I had of God and Christianity was that they provided moral guidance for people and those morals were subject to cultural influences. Cynthia and other authors wrote about the indwelling of the light of God in everyone and of a mystical Jesus who launched a radical peace movement and love movement across the Middle East and beyond. Thomas Keating provided centering prayer practices from his Contemplative Outreach organization that guided people to sit quietly each day to hear the voice of God. These Christian spiritual teachings and practices fed my heart.

I’ve now read over 200 books and articles on spirituality and Christianity and am active in local Centering Prayer and Wisdom gatherings and also a student at Shalem Institute in Washington DC. The impact of this reading, community building, and prayer practice has been profound. My restlessness has disappeared, and been replaced with a great sense of peace and gratitude and awe. I no longer search for home because I found it deep inside and in all the people I encounter who carry the light of God within. I still cherish teachings of other faiths and remain active in interfaith dialogue and activities through local organizations. My sense of home is in a loving God, the Divine Spirit that I feel and know is alive in me and in all creation.


Paula Estornell is a wife, mother and travel enthusiast. Paula has worked for many years promoting sustainable community development in academia, government and private sector. She is training to be a spiritual retreat leader and travel guide.

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 Not What I Expected

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. Allison Wehrung

As a handful of our group walked through the streets of Bethlehem after dinner one night, the wash of street lights and glow of neon signs dimly lit our way, while the city came alive with Muslim neighbors breaking their Ramadan fast. Families did their shopping, car horns blared, and street vendors advertised their wares. Into my head wandered words I’ve heard probably every December of my life: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”

Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem, Palestine (Allison Wehrung)

I was struck by just how different these moments felt from deep and dreamless sleep. Not to mention that in the distance loomed the harsh concrete slabs of The Wall, snaking through the soft hills where Jesus was born. During our time in Bethlehem we visited the site said to be where the angels appeared to the shepherds and announced Jesus’ birth. As we stood at the entrance to a cave that would have protected the flocks from nighttime predators, closed-off boardwalks criss-crossed our view and Israeli settlements sprawled on the ridge lines.

A few days later we were walking again, this time through the Old City of Jerusalem. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, as we went inside, there wasn’t much option but to follow the slow, consistent flow of shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic winding through the dim interior of the complex. Nudged along by the people behind us, we followed a narrow staircase up, past the place where some say Jesus was crucified, back down to where Helena is said to have found the “true cross,” wound around and eventually emerged back into the main space that included the tomb where Jesus might have been buried and resurrected. The line to see the tomb’s interior wrapped around the room and was longer than our timeframe allowed. The building felt so complicated and crowded that I remember wondering how long it would take me to find my way out if I was separated from our group.

Pilgrimage is not what I expected. Anticipating our trip, I was amazed at the number of familiar biblical names on the itinerary. But honestly, the act of setting foot on many of the holy sites we visited just wasn’t as moving as I thought it would be. The ornate churches built around these places began to feel almost intrusive. The institutional regulation limiting access — sometimes literally dividing a building in half — seemed to grate against what I know of an arms-wide-open God. I had no doubt that these places were powerful, but, at the same time, I wondered if we humans were getting a little too close to putting God in a box.

Prayers and offerings left by pilgrims at the Wedding Church at Cana (Kafr Kanna, Israel). Notice the column laying horizontally, repurposed from Byzantine ruins to become part of a later wall. (Allison Wehrung)

And yet, for hundreds of years, pilgrims have found their way to these sacred places. Despite the dissonance I felt during some of our holy site stops, I was struck by remnants representing the people who had come before us. Many of the structures we saw are relatively modern, but are built on top of older sanctuaries that were built on top of still older ones, located where they are because before that they were synagogues or other sacred ground. Destroyed and rebuilt, again and again, each time using the rubble of what was as the foundation for what would come to be. Across time and tradition, God had met people there. Even in the midst of humanity’s brokenness, God continues to meet people there. I found myself particularly captivated by the small paper prayers folded into cracks and crevices — tangible signs left behind by believers who could have been desperate or joyful or anything in between.

I came to realize that, at least for me, the power in our visits to holy sites wasn’t about the buildings at all, beautiful as they are, or sometimes even about the ground beneath them. This part of our pilgrimage reminded me that, despite the particulars of how we each live out our faith, we are part of something far bigger than ourselves. Being a person is messy and Christianity definitely isn’t perfect either. But maybe the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” fit after all: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…”


Rev. Allison Wehrung lives in Oxford, MS where she is the Presbytery of St. Andrew’s Associate Executive Presbyter for Campus Ministry and the Campus Minister at UKirk Ole Miss. She is a maker and lover of recycled art, handwritten letters, coffee, and her favorite Southern vegetable (macaroni and cheese).

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.