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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.

I Believe the Children are Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post was updated to include the entirety of the author’s post. We apologize for the error! 

by Kim Lee

I had a newborn. But I figured: never too early to learn. Subsequently, there I was, attending a class for parents on teaching children to drive.

First question: “At what age does a child learn to drive?”

One called out, “Sixteen.”

Another, “no, no, no. Fifteen, that’s when they start taking driver’s education courses.”

Silence.

Photo from Selywn Ave Presbyterian Church Facebook page

After what seemed a rather dramatic pause, our presenter said, “I’d like to suggest that your children are learning to drive from the moment you buckle them into their car seat.”

“Do you slow down for yellow or speed up?” “Do you lock your doors?” “Do you wear your seatbelt?”

As a Christian educator, I think about those wise words and ponder: When does a child learn he or she is a child of God?

I’d like to suggest from the moment we welcome them into the family.

Are we keeping God’s words in our hearts? Do we recite them to our children? Do we talk about them when we’re at home? When we are away? When we lie down? When we rise?

I was a preschool teacher for fourteen years. Over those years, I came to realize that if I really wanted to impact the life of a child, and what teacher worth his or her salt doesn’t?, I had to reach the parents. Let’s be honest, as a teacher I had access to the hearts, minds, souls and bodies of my little learners twelve hours a week, if they were in school every day.

As the Director of Children and Family Ministry, I have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of my little disciples-in-training, at best, two hours a week, eight hours a month, and fifteen hours over the summer, if a family is EXTREMELY active. That means the church, assigned with the task of “guiding and nurturing by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging the body of Christ to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ,” has a grand whopping one hundred and eleven hours a year to fulfill its baptismal promise.

On the other hand, parents have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of their children twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of eighteen years! I think that is why the writer of Deuteronomy addresses Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statues and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children…
–Deuteronomy 6:4-9

What? What shall we say?

As parents and teachers and pastors, we are not asked to make up answers on the fly. Rather, we are charged to hear God’s Word; to love God with all of our heart, an undivided faithfulness; and with all of our soul, a commitment unto death; and with all of our might, everything we have and are — the totality of the human creature. Throughout the Bible, there is a recognition that it will take the whole of Israel — parents, teachers, preachers, and neighbors — to instruct children into the household of God.

An exasperated mom tells me that every day she fights the same fight: She gathers her eight-year old daughter’s cleats, socks, and shin guards, fixes a water bottle, makes a snack and places everything by the front door so that all her daughter has to do when she gets in from school is pick up her bag, grab her snack and get in the car. And yet, each weekday afternoon her daughter finds some reason or is flustered by some event that prevents her from doing just that, making them late to soccer practice every. single. day. And I wonder: Why do we expend so much time, energy, and money for our children to partake in soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, tennis and on and on and spend either no time or very little time worshipping God, praying, and studying the Bible with our children?

Where on earth did we get the idea that children are little bodies devoid of souls? We may not sacrifice our children to fire gods anymore, but I fear we are sacrificing them to soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, and the like.

Children are born unto us as curious, searching, longing, spiritual beings. They ask the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Why isn’t life fair? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? Why? Why? Why?

Then we shall say to our children…

What?

What will we say?


Kim Lee serves as part-time Director of Children’s and Family Ministries at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Kim is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. Before arriving at Selwyn, she served as the Director of Spiritual Formation at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian from 2007 to early 2015. Prior to that Kim served as a lead teacher in their Weekday School for fourteen years. Kim is a native Charlottean, having grown up at Covenant Presbyterian Church. She and her husband, Rick, have an adult son. Kim loves stories any way she can get them — books, movies, songs or spoken. She also enjoys frequent walks along the greenway with her golden retrievers, Norton & Tilly.

A Reminder of Divine Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Justin is co-leading a workshop during the 2018 National Gathering called “Songs for the Journey.” It will take place during workshop block 2 on Tuesday. Learn more and register

by Justin Ritchie

Love is my favorite theme from the Advent season. Well, that’s true this year anyway. For me it seems each year at Advent, hope, joy, peace, or love seem to rise to the surface for different reasons. With everything happening in the world around us, this year I find that my heart is longing for love to return in places it seems to have been forgotten and to be born in hearts that seem to be missing it.

We are creating our own corner of Advent love in our home again this year. My parents are traveling from Augusta, GA, to be with my husband and I and a few of our close friends to celebrate Christmas day. Our tradition since I was a child is to wake up on Christmas morning, eat breakfast, and then read the Christmas story from Luke. We still do that every year. In recent years, I’ve looked at our little Christmas gathering consisting of my family of birth and our chosen family, different skin tones and widely differing belief systems and faith traditions. We are gay and straight, Yankees and Southerners, conservative and liberal. Each year we find a way to be together on that morning. We listen to the Christmas story. We exchange presents. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We reminisce. We LOVE.

The other night I watched the Pentatonix Christmas special on television. They are one of my favorite groups and their Christmas albums are already on permanent rotation in our home. Near the end of the program and just before they sang a beautiful arrangement of “Imagine,” one of the group members talked about how Christmas was the time of year we could put our differences aside and come together. It is a lovely, and true, sentiment. Why do we only expect that to happen during the holidays? I think that this seasonal feeling of goodwill to our fellow humans could be something that we practice all year long. What if we used that “Christmas feeling” as a model for how to interact with the people in our lives every day of the year? How different our world would right now?

I grew up in evangelical circles and we did not celebrate or acknowledge the Advent season. I have come to cherish and deeply appreciate this period of longing and expectation. For me, Christmas and the story of Jesus’ birth boil down to this: Divine Love was born in the form of a human baby. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love for all of God’s children. This Advent I am indeed longing and anticipating. My heart needs a reminder of Divine Love. Our world needs a reminder of Divine Love. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Marianne Williamson, puts it this way, “Miracles occur naturally as expressions of love. The real miracle is the love that inspires them. In this sense, everything that comes from love is a miracle.”

May your heart be filled with love and miracles this Advent and in the year to come.


Justin Ritchie is the music director at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, MD – a multi-cultural More Light Presbyterian Church. By day he is a contractor for the federal government as a web developer. He lives with his husband Jason, Phoebe the French Bulldog, and Bruce the Pug just outside D.C. In addition to his ministry at Oaklands, Justin is the band director at Temple Rodef Shalom in Fairfax, VA. He is also an active cabaret performer in Washington, DC and New York and was recently seen in productions of “The Secret Garden” and “The Full Monty” in Annapolis, MD.

Transformation Through Tradition

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY, considers how tradition informs our present living. How can we access our great tradition in ways that are approachable and honest? What would such transformation look like? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

Futuristic Traditionalism: Small Congregations and NEXT Church

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By Andrew Taylor-Troutman

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox! Now we have some hope of making progress.

~Niels Bohr

Recently I came across an essay by Don Share, the new editor of Poetry, in which he cited a quote from the composer, Van Dyke Parks, as that of a “futuristic traditionalist.” This notion is a paradox by which two opposite notions, when thrown together, are somehow complementary. If the one holy catholic and apostolic church is engaged and invested in today’s world for the next generations, this paradox stems from a certain peripatetic Jew in ancient Palestine who was connected to his religious tradition, including its own cherished past; and yet likewise insisted that the basileia tou theou is an up-to-the-moment fulfillment of that tradition in each and every believer’s breath.

How then can we, as his disciples in next church, be futuristic traditionalists?

This month, our blog posts – though very different – will each engage this paradox through the lens of the “small church.” I place quotations around this term because it seems to me that, when used, it actually designates a characteristic spirit as manifested in beliefs and aspirations, not only pertaining to literal size. I think you know what I mean. Perhaps you have heard a wistful, elaborate description of someone’s memory of his or her “small church” from long ago, often uttered with a far-off gleam in the speaker’s eyes. Maybe you’ve heard stories of Dr. So-and-So preaching a loved one’s funeral, and Mrs. Saint teaching rambunctious children the Ten Commandments, and Mr. Rock quietly maintaining the building and grounds.

You can trust the voices gathered here this month to honor and respect such traditions. In her or his own way, our authors devout the majority of working hours, efforts, hopes, and prayers working side-by-side with such people and their living memories. And yet, with God’s grace, they labor with their communities as forces in our broken and badly battered world. Yes, “forces” – perhaps this strength-giving, mind-altering, soul-inspiring, heart-touching, life-giving ministry is greatest paradox of today’s small church, an unlikely power that is not ours but from the one who promised, For wherever two or three are gathered, there I will be also. I think that notion might be a paradox as well, and I hope and pray that, as we “meet” this month by encountering a wide range of voices, therein lies our hope.


Author photoAndrew Taylor-Troutman serves as teaching elder of New Dublin Presbyterian Church. His memoir about this experience, Take My Hand, is published by Wipf & Stock and can be ordered here: www.takemyhandmemoir.com  

Image: fusion-of-horizons via photopin cc