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Stillness, Silence & Simplicity

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

As I slowly and deliberately near the top of the climb, I am surrounded by emptiness. At this height the world is far away, and with the exception of a turkey vulture circling below me, all is small and still. At this height the wind envelopes everything, howling with such steadiness it becomes a blanket of white noise, producing a deep and profound silence. At this height the vastness, the void, the sheer expanse of space is overwhelming and in that moment simplicity reigns, for I can only focus on is what is in front of me: handhold, foot hold, pull up, the jingle of gear, the rope every so gently reminding me that it is there, the smell of chalk and sweat, rock dust faint in my nostrils. Whatever worries or thoughts or motives I brought with me to the base of the climb have been given over to this still, simple silence.
It is there that a clarity emerges, ever so fleetingly, it exists in a place beyond words. I am united with something impossibly expansive, a deeper self, a self in unity with this Ultimate Reality. Time slows into the moment and the sense of clarity begins to feel like eternity itself, as if all things flow through, into and out of this moment.

I once had a maroon t-shirt with the image of a imposing mountain face embossed with the words: “Somewhere between the bottom and the top is the reason that we climb.” The longer I climb, the more I appreciate the truth this shirt proclaimed. For the uninitiated, climbing may look like little more than a way to seek thrills, to tick off summits from a list. But the more one climbs, the more the joy comes from moments like the one described above. In the process, I would even go far as to say the joy really starts to come in the midst of the monotony of it.

The author approaching the south summit of Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. Photo credit: Chris Peterson

Yes, believe it or not, climbing can become mundane. Imagine obsessing over subtle shifts in the texture of a rock face, checking and re-checking gear, the act of belaying (holding the rope with a friction device so the climber climbing does not fall to the ground) is often a practice in tedium, and this goes on for hours on end. But it is in that very monotony — as opposed to the “mountain top” experiences — that one can uncover these fleeting moments of clarity.

If this seems counter intuitive, think of the way the world is currently obsessed with “experience” — particularly the spectacular kind. Cruise through just about any social media feed and it is ripe with curated posts and selfies that feel almost like an arms race towards who had the greatest experience! This happens in the spiritual world as well: the perfectly lighted yoga studio, the wellness trips to beautiful destinations. Even in the church there has been a push for experience: the best praise band, the perfect background for slides, the “right” website, making sure the greeters are properly trained. There is a particular kind of seeking that seems to be looking for God in the profoundly extraordinary and miraculous.

The summit experience, when I began climbing, fit the bill as profoundly extraordinary and I undoubtedly chased after them for a while. After nearly 28 years of spending time in the mountains, I can honestly say that summits are now just a part of the journey, no longer the goal in themselves. The real transformation has come through being patient with the process and resting in stillness, silence, and simplicity. And if climbing has taught me anything, it’s that stillness, silence, and simplicity are best when they are internal states of being. In other words stillness does not need to be still, silence does not need to be silent, and simplicity can be found in even the most complex of tasks.

This isn’t a perfect parallel for the church, but there are similarities. For one, focusing on “experience” will only get a person so far. And if there is no one around ready to invite people past “experience,” someone with some familiarity with stillness, simplicity ,and silence, then the community will not get very far.

The good news is that one does not need to perch themselves hundreds of feet above the ground to discover stillness, simplicity, and silence. In fact, although I may have first uncovered fleeting moments of clarity in the mountains, it is through contemplative practice, through intentionally being present to God, that I am able to deepen those moments and expand those moments and to let those moments continue to transform and work through me towards a unity with the divine.

Amid the rampant anxiety of the mainline church at the moment, we need the counter-intuitive. There is a reflex in the face of dwindling membership numbers to be more attractional, getting caught up in providing an experience, to do anything to just get people through the doors. Maybe thats the starting place, maybe not, but if the church can not provide a pathway towards that deeper experience, in stillness, silence, and simplicity, then it will almost certainly fail, for those fleeting moments of clarity that come through practice and embracing the process and letting go into the undefinable vastness of God are where real transformation happens. Are you embracing stillness even when its dancing, silence even when its loud, and simplicity even when its nuanced and paradoxical? Where in the impossible expanse of God do you let go and rest into the still, simple silence?


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.

The Possibility of a Contemplative Reformation

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 Stuart Higginbotham

​The day-to-day life of a parish priest can often be a surreal experience. Sometimes, I find myself moving from preparing for a funeral with a grieving family, to calendar planning, to liturgical details for Christmas six months from now, to reviewing monthly budgets, to hosting a community opioid crisis group, to addressing a dogwood tree that was mowed down on the edge of the parking lot after a centering prayer group.

The days are long, as are the memories of valued customs and a typical discomfort and resistance in departing well-journeyed patterns and routines. Add to this the complexity of the larger dynamic of the decline in attendance and interest that spans any denominational constructs, and the spiritual and emotional weight bears down on weary shoulders.

As I scan bookshelves, I see methods and frameworks that offer programs for myriad issues and stresses. There is an understandable desire for some answer, some relief to the pressure we feel in traditional congregations. While I celebrate well-developed plans for Christian education, for example, something in my soul resists relying too heavily on a program-maintenance model in congregational ministry.

​For the past several years, I have been curious about the possibility of a contemplative reformation within the traditional, institutional church. Rather than rely on corporate models and cultural assumptions so often laden with a consumeristic mindset, I feel led to delve more deeply into the fullness of the prayerful tradition we have been given. What role does prayer play in engaging the tensions we feel in traditional parish churches? How do we understand the presence of the Spirit of Christ as guiding us? What does it feel like to trust in this Spirit’s movement?

​In the broader Christian contemplative tradition, we understand that the presence of God is the foundational element of our lives. Our practice of prayer does not seek to bring God closer to us or us to God, per se; rather, we seek to become more aware of this indwelling presence in our lives. As St. Catherine of Siena described, “just as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean in the fish, so are our souls in you and you in our souls, O God.” It is a matter of cultivating an awareness that enables our hearts to be further transformed.

​This contemplative grounding is essential for how I understand parish ministry because it challenges me to consider whether I am trusting in the movement of the Spirit or in my own cleverness and egoistic persistence (and need for success and accomplishment). Rather than seeing contemplative practice — such a cultivation of attunement with the Spirit’s abiding presence within our spiritual heart — as something offered in side retreats for “those who are into that sort of thing,” how does such a practice of waking the spiritual heart reform the very way we understand Christian community within long-standing congregations?

​For me, it boils down to what I understand as the trajectory of transformation: the movement from a deeper awareness of God’s indwelling presence in our lives to a reorientation of the way we live in the broader world. In liturgical studies, we claim lex orandi, lex credendi, that the way we pray shapes the way we believe and thusly live in the world. Our practice of prayer reorients us; therefore, a practice of prayer that nurtures an awareness of the indwelling Spirit of Christ leads us to trust that the Spirit is indeed at work in the life of our community — all communities. Our anxieties and fears are reframed.
​We become less anxious about maintaining programs and more curious about what the Spirit is up to in our midst — and how we can share in that movement. Our ears become more sensitive to listening for what the Spirit is saying. Our eyes become sharper to catch glimpses of God that offer us hope in the midst of stress. Our spiritual hearts become even more spacious to respond with compassion to those who are in need. Perhaps we say, “Come, Holy Spirit” with a bit more enthusiasm!


The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia. He is the co-editor of Contemplation and Community: A Gathering of Fresh Voices for a Living Tradition. His vocation explores the intersection of contemplative practice, spiritual leadership, and congregational development, and he has worked and studied with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation for many years. His writings and resources can be found at www.contemplativereformation.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.

Holy Spirit, Is That You?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sam Hamilton-Poore

A most important responsibility for church leaders is learning how to notice the movement of the Holy Spirit, and then respond to the movement in ways that are faithful. Whenever we gather, we call upon Christ’s promise of the Spirit’s presence and guidance — we hope that our discussion and decisions will be Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. But how do we recognize when it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit that is moving us, guiding us?

I’ve found help for this question in the words about the Holy Spirit from the Gospel of John and the letter of 1st John.1 Again and again we’re told in the Johannine witness that the Holy Spirit is inextricably linked to Jesus Christ, and links us to him. The Spirit is Jesus’ emissary, we’re told, who will bring to mind all that Jesus has said and done (John 14:25-26). The Spirit is our counselor, who advocates on behalf of Jesus and enables us to testify to him (John 15:26). Different spirits exist, not all of which may be holy — therefore all spirits must be tested (1 John 4:1); and the standard or norm by which the various spirits are tested is Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh (1 John 4:2). The Spirit is often manifested in an inner experience by which we recognize Jesus or God (1 John 3:24). And an essential mark of being grounded in God by the Holy Spirit is a sense of confidence toward God as a response to God’s love (1 John 4:16b-17).

As I understand these words from John and 1st John, this means that whenever or however we perceive that our thoughts our actions are being drawn closer to the pattern of the life, death, resurrection, and power of Christ, we are in fact being moved by the Holy Spirit. It’s not simply a matter of how I may feel about something, or any surge of enthusiasm for a particular decision — but whether we are being drawn more closely to the person and work of Christ himself. If our discernment is leading us into ways of being that more clearly reflect Christ, the Word Made Flesh, then this discernment is being guided by the promised Holy Spirit.

It may be worthwhile to ask ourselves something like this: How does this decision (or ministry or activity or expenditure) reflect Christ? How does what we do as a church and as Christians embody the ministry of Christ—the Word Made Flesh—in our community and world? Yes, whether it’s Session or committees, there are usually a wide variety of things to be considered—from boilers to by-laws. But at heart, we gather to try to discern the will of Christ for our congregations and community — and such discernment requires attention to the movement of the Spirit. And this Spirit, more than anything, wants to connect us more firmly to Christ himself: his life, his witness, his power, his justice, his compassion.

May you perceive and follow the Spirit throughout your life and service to the church — the Spirit that links us inextricably to the Risen Christ among us!

1My thanks to Elizabeth Liebert and her wonderful book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Westminster John Knox 2008) for calling my attention to this. See pp. 14-15.


The Rev. Dr. Sam Hamilton-Poore is a Presbyterian minister and spiritual director who has served congregations in North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He is also author of “Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation,” and the former Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

The Spirit Comes to Washington… A Reflection on the DC/Richmond Regional Gathering

by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

We began out on the side porches of The Church of the Pilgrims with coffee, bagels, and a gentle but persistent breeze that was a portent of things to come in more ways than one. While we all were more than aware of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Sandy and her high winds and heavy rains, I am not sure we were as aware of the coming of the Spirit. But the NEXT church leadership conference, “Dynamic Church in a Time of Change,” was one occasion when the Spirit came.

With song and a choral reading of the Pentecost story from Acts, pastors Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff of the Pilgrims church welcomed the participants and shared the story of the worship life of their congregation. Just as the story of Pentecost came to us from all directions in the choral reading, the worship life of Pilgrims seeks to involve worshippers in multiple ways. Worship at Pilgrims strives to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connectional). The Pilgrims congregation believes that God is calling them to be a community of transformation that engages newcomers, especially young adults, in the practices of Christian community. At this NEXT church event, the whole day was itself a reflection of this kind of worship experience … as the Spirit came.

Jud Hendrix, Coordinator of the Ecclesia Project, a ministry of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, used images and poetry as he shared reflections on leadership. As we did throughout the day, participants broke into triads for sharing impressions and thoughts about what was presented. Judd used several poems that became the basis for examples of and lessons in leadership. He spoke of prototyping, which he defined as a short-term experiment for the purpose of learning – as opposed to the way some use the term “prototype” to speak of a kind of model for solving a problem. Jud closed the morning with the “Broken Toaster” game, in which we might take apart a toaster, and then, instead of trying to put it back together exactly as it was, we instead ask what the Spirit wants to do with all the component parts. What can the Spirit do or create with these parts? And the Spirit came …

During lunch we used an “Open Space” approach to breaking into small groups. Individuals who wished to lead a discussion were invited to share the topic they wished to discuss (like “Biblical Story Telling,” “How to Make Friends in Church” and “Creating Relationships and Community in Worship”). These leaders stationed themselves at various tables in the fellowship hall and participants brought their lunch to a tables according to their interest. Of course, some only wanted to share fellowship and conversation over lunch and several did just that.

We returned from lunch to hear Jud share the remarkable story of the Ecclesia Project and how God used some unlikely folks to help begin new communities of faith in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. One important leadership distinction Jud mentioned was how, rather than funding one large project with one large set of funds, the Ecclesia Project used one large set of funds to make multiple small grants for wildly different initiatives, trusting the same Spirit of Christ that spoke in many different languages at Pentecost to work in many different ways in their presbytery. And the Spirit came …

The final theme for the day was mission. Andrew Foster-Connors and Jessica Tate shared their experiences of how community organizing had made a difference in the ministries of their congregations, as well as their own personal ministries. The very definition of the word “mission” was transformed for them through broad-based organizing in their congregations. Where mission had previously been defined as “helping the less fortunate,” mission now meant “sending.”

In their experience, broad-based organizing provided a framework for living into God’s mission as it shifted the church from a maintenance culture to a relational culture. They spoke of the changes organizing had brought as their churches shifted from groups to actions, to having a higher accountability to outcomes and results, and from doing one thing from eight different directions instead of doing eight different things superficially. They closed with a challenging question: What would need to happen in your church to begin to shift you from a culture of maintenance to a relational culture of action? I’m guessing one thing for sure would need to happen: the Spirit would need to come…

We concluded the day gathering around the table. Literally. Everyone got up and out of the pews and gathered (as Jeff Krehbiel put it, “by gather we mean crowd”) all around the Lord’s Table in the center of the sanctuary. There several elders from Pilgrims church, along with their pastors, led us in the communion liturgy of word and song and then shared the elements among us all. After sharing the communion, we all gathered in a large circle and held hands as we sang the John Bell hymn:

“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I can be;
Set your strength upon my heart and live through me.”

Speaking for myself, it was a great and grand day to share with disciples of Jesus. I left refreshed, renewed, and fed – both body and soul. I left hopeful for the NEXT church. For, indeed, the Spirit had come. And I am confident that the Spirit, just as Jesus promised, will come again.


smith cobbsStephen Smith-Cobbs is one of the pastors of Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, VA. He is a native Texan and graduate of Austin College in Sherman, Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before coming to Trinity in 1997, he pastored two congregations in Texas. His current ministry passions include “what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ and what it means for us to be the church in the 21st century.”