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New Life

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 Kirstin Melone

The smell of cacao is hard to explain, but it strikes the nose with a pungent and earthy flavor. As I walk into the meditation space, I notice the candles, soft pillows, and loose fabric hanging from the ceiling, serving as a wall between the kitchen and seating area. Bodies are pushing their way in from the cold Leipzig air. They bend to take off their shoes. And then my nose is hit with a new smell of sweaty feet… got to love yogis.

As the group moves through the fabric and takes their seat, greetings are passed and warm embraces exchanged. We prepare for our cacao ceremony with Ian, a young New Englander who now lives in Berlin. He spent some time studying in the far east, discovering the monastic way of life, and now travels around teaching. He wears loose harem pants, a mala, and his fuzzy beard coils like a snake at the tip. His guru top knot completes the look.

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection.

The cacao is scooped by ladle into our mugs brought from home and then passed around the circle to their proper owner. We get comfortable in our individual cushions and cover our lower extremities with blankets.

My eyes wander to those around the circle… a unit of bright-eyed, new-age followers. Hair is natural. Make-up is absent for the most part. Clothes are properly sourced. Shoes are worn and leathery. Feathered earrings, nose rings, and tattoos adorn the bodies.

As a teacher of yoga and meditation, I have become accustomed to these settings, but as a student of religion, I am hesitant… Not even a year prior, I had dropped out of a divinity program at one of the most prestigious seminaries. I had abandoned my hopes of becoming a pastor, and was still currently looking for how I should take my path alongside the church.

But how did I get here? To such a familiar setting… a small group if you will of like-minded individuals participating in an ancient tradition. Though the clothes and personas seemed different, the attention and following was so similar. Instead of a bible study or a prayer circle, these individuals wanted to chant and meditate. Instead of speaking in tongues of the Holy Spirit, they wanted to writhe with the force of Kali surging through their limbs. Instead of honoring the cup representing Christ’s blood shed for our sins, they wanted to honor the mighty healing powers of the cacao plant.

Yes, Christianity and Hinduism follow separate teachings and figures, but the thought kept creeping upon my psyche… How was this any different from what I had left behind?

I am torn by my love for religion. I relish in the ancient stories, the mysticism, and the questions of the universe. As a young Protestant, I had spiritual envy for the prayer mat of Islam, the yoga mat of Hinduism, and the altar of Catholicism. I craved a sacred space and a physical practice, something to stretch my body and mind. But I didn’t want to convert. I wanted to work with the community in which I was raised – to learn from my elders and pass on the faith. As the Church grew, I wanted to grow with it and shape it.

But the Christian world is not ready for change or to be challenged. And although many in yoga, meditation, & mindfulness world may not identify as Hindus or Buddhists, are they ready to be challenged? Are they ready to have their leaders called out? Are they ready to face their own limitations?

The modern world claims to be secular, to be science-based, to be open-minded… to have no time for religion. But generally, these are also the same people parading around with talk about crystals, energy-healing, and past-life regression? So why is it that those who criticize religion for being strict and limiting, have merely created their own form of ideological imprisonment?

We need to belong and we need to be part of a group of like-minded individuals that support and strengthen us, but when did we stop calling out what we know is crazy? When did we start failing to hold one another accountable – and to acknowledge when reality is being usurped.

In a time when we are more polarized than ever, when we cling to our groups – we cannot be afraid to challenge those closest to us. We have to continue to speak up and to ask questions. Humans have evolved and created narratives that shaped how we see the world. But we cannot forget that there have also been moments in history when those narratives have needed to die in order for something new to grow… for resurrection of life from death.


Kirsten Melone has always been interested in mind-body discoveries, from dancing as a child to practicing yoga in her 20s. Her hope is to better understand how to help individuals access their fullest potential as human beings. As a lover of stories, art, and nature, she seeks to embody the wisdom of ancient contemplative practices in an over-stimulated world. As a certified Yoga Teacher through Yoga Alliance, Kirsten makes herself available to anyone who is curious about going further into their practice or spiritual musings. She is currently working through a two-year certification program in Spiritual Companionship at the Shalem Institute of Washington, DC.

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.

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