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Good Ways

Fruitful Sacrifices for Wholehearted Joy by Carrie Graham

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Fruitful Sacrifices for Wholehearted Joy by Carrie Graham

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I’m with seminary friends and their spouses on a sunny LA afternoon. It’s our first year, but already my study buddy group has gelled. Today no sirens sound and no announcement is made, but I quietly know my party job: “Make friends with the wives, Carrie. Just make friends with the wives.” My hope was to gain their trust since I was spending so much time with their husbands. But within minutes at this gathering, it occurred to me that since I thought my classmates were cool, their female counterparts might be even cooler. I was on the right track. The author of A Good Way Through is a prime example.

The trick was the men congregated in one huddle and the women circled up in another one. If you took this image to an aerial view, and pretended we made a human Venn diagram, I was the only one in the overlapping middle. While I did ultimately have some female classmates at seminary, this aerial image is a fair metaphor for my life since seminary. Sometimes it acts as a warm spotlight; other times it is the ugliest of mush pots. Cue the life of a single, female, millennial, childless, thirtysomething, entrepreneurial minister in Texas. 

The fantastic way to see this is that my experiences provide me a distinct angle to view the world. I also relate in part to many people’s experiences. The underbelly of this means others have trouble relating to me. The more strongly drawn I am to creative, experimental, high-risk endeavors in ministry, the more both my demographic and passions disconnect me from relationships built on shared experiences. Sometimes it plays as my own personal “Upside Down,” where I often feel like Barb from the Netflix show Stranger Things. Maybe I am a strong single female, but sometimes I feel so alone and lost that I might never make it out of the darkness.

American culture does not make it easy for adults to find good friends, no matter how unique my situation may feel at times. I have had moments where I have reached out and failed to find connection in difficult seasons, only to find myself in the fetal position on my kitchen floor, crying and not knowing what else to do but to keep breathing.

Because of the particular set of cards stacked against me when it comes to meaningful connection and support, it is often tempting to leave ministry, much less Christianity. But one of the single most compelling aspects of Christianity to me is the Incarnation of Jesus. It’s pretty darn Christian-y, this beckoning idea that a mysteriously unified and interdependent Trinitarian God chose to define Love through God-With-Us. Loaves and fishes could’ve rained down from the sky. Garments did not have to be touched for people to heal. Jesus didn’t have to stand face-to-face with Legion in order to drive out the demons plaguing him. Nobody needed to be around for God to raise Lazarus from the dead. Yet Love put on human flesh and showed us by example that Love is expressed at its core via “withness.” This is the core lens through which I experience loneliness among human communities. This assures me in two ways:

  1. I am not built to be alone because of what I have learned from the example and even existence of Jesus as Messiah, which makes my struggles both understandable and shared with other humans around me. This is a legitimate need, and the struggle reveals its great value.
  2. I am not truly alone. Even in feelings of utter loneliness, I retreat to Scripture for stories of people of faith that have gone before me, outlining all the ways in which God doesn’t abandon us, continues in relationship with us, works with us AND behind our backs for our good. Christ sees me, understands me, knows who I am and calls me by name.

We need humans to be the hands and feet of Christ that demonstrate our own interdependence. We need each other. Yet when our limitations prevent this, we are not left with nothing. God is alive all around us. (See Krissy’s poem in the (DIS)CONTENT chapter!)

I am drawn to certain experiences without blueprints. That’s part of who I am. God grants me fantastic joys in it. I have come to accept the “challenge accessories” to life pursuits as vital formation on my life’s road. When I do come across connection and support, it is fully as myself, with my whole heart. Finding companionship without forsaking who and how God made me is a joy I would not trade for 1,000 forced connections. There is abundant life to be received here indeed.

This path demands I trust God, who retains control of all this mess, in order to be wholehearted in my life and service. Yes, this means I will live a life of sacrifices. We each have crosses. I accept my endeavors may often be uphill both ways; below is a practice that helps keep my heart in line for wholehearted joy along the way.

Practice: The Living Priority List

I regularly take time in imaginative prayer to assess my life-and-call’s priorities. Knowing I am committed to pursuits that involve big challenges, being intentional with a living priority list helps me best sort out the difference between worthy sacrifices and empty ones, faithful desires and cheap cultural scripts I don’t have to follow. Knowing why I am sacrificing x, y or z helps ensure that any challenges involved are more pruning than damaging, meaning they hold the possibility for growth rather than unjust damage to myself or others.

Instructions:

1) Sit with God in prayer - be true to yourself, your calling. Don’t initially think of the how, the limits, the scariness, etc. Only think of where your heart desires for your life to go. Listen for God.

2) Start writing down what you want to get out of your life, whether next week or before you die at age 157. You may find yourself writing about what you want for your family, your hobbies, your travels, your money. Resist the temptation to categorize the list by topic or timeline. It all goes in one single page, in order, in reasonably-sized handwriting. The list may in part sound as abstract as “live in simplicity” or as concrete as “pay off my debt by the time I’m 35.”  Get it all out on one page, then transfer it to another one in order of importance. 

When I start wondering about why I am working so hard for x goal, I get out the list and remind myself of why it is so worthwhile to give up y for x. Or it helps me realize it is not worthwhile anymore, and I seek God's help in discerning new changes to the list.

3) Know that God doesn’t ask us to be challenged by choosing empty, fruitless endeavors, such as treating ourselves as less than beloved. Injustice may happen to us at times, but it doesn’t mean to opt for it as if life can’t be hard enough without our help. To that end, God doesn’t ask us to devote ourselves to anything out of anxiety or fear.

Life is not about safety nets, nor is it about convenience. Fruit is on the pathway of abundant life we have been given in Christ, fruit from both pruning and from belonging encountered fully as ourselves. On your path, I pray you will feel fully alive, as your lows and highs weave together to form a secure rope of abundant life in Christ.


Rev. Carrie Graham is founding pastor of The Church Lab, a non-profit community that explores and empowers innovative paths to spiritual growth. She spends much of her time faciltiating inter-religious dialogues and pastoring folks through how this experience invites spiritual maturity. Her passion is to help equip Christians to creatively meet unmet spiritual needs in our shifting religious landscape. Carrie loves to sing, dance, travel and hang out with her dog Addy. You can find her on instagram at @thechurchlab or by e-mail at carrie@thechurchlab.org

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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


A few years ago our family went on a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion trip to my homeland of Australia.  While there, my husband had many meetings about jobs there so, after fifteen years away, I gave myself the luxury of calling the sea and the kookaburras mine again.  But after we returned to our life in inner city Cincinnati, and heard that the job had fallen through, I fell into a dark place.  The simplest tasks took all my energy and I could hardly get out of bed.  The part of my soul which waits and hopes shriveled into a bitter lump.  And all around me, instead of birdcalls and beaches, I found urban ugliness.  As I walked the sad streets, my beach-combing habit continued but instead of shells, I filled my pockets with bits of broken glass and rusty bolts.

Around this same time, a friend asked me to make art for his inner-city counseling center.  I wanted to make something hopeful but not sugary sweet, honest but not cynical.  It had to acknowledge both brokenness and healing because the kids who visited the center would see right through any attempts to gloss over the challenges of life and certainly didn’t need any more darkness than they already had.  So the natural medium for the art was the growing pile of junk by my back door.  With a bit of care and a lot of glue, green wire twisted its way into leafy tendrils and smashed amber tail-light covers were reborn as golden sunshine.  And somewhere along the way I got dragged into the whole rebirth thing.  The habit of forcing myself to find beauty and meaning in brokenness leaked over into my life.

But the story goes on.  While I was working on these junk creations, a young woman in our community (I’ll call her Sophia) was savagely attacked in inner-city Cincinnati.  Her sister visited me and tearfully shared her family’s story and suffering.  In the weeks following the attack, Sophia was too distracted to read and too disturbed by violent images to watch TV.  Drawing on the healing I was beginning to experience, my first question to her sister was “Does Sophia make anything?”  As I looked at the city around me, a city with a struggling school system, ongoing racial tension and more than its fair share of pollution, I knew I had to make the process available to others.  And so I created a city-wide art project which I called The Collect.  

For two months, all Cincinnati was invited to drop pieces of junk (we called them "artifacts") at local coffee shops.  Cincinnati responded with bike wheels and sunglasses, doll parts and Christmas ornaments.  Somebody gave an entire collection of watch-bands and someone else emptied out their camera lens case.  People provided stories with their pieces:  “This is a shoe that walked me through my college years.”  “This is the rusty hoop that tripped me up and made me smash my teeth on the pavement.”  Then I gathered all the "artifacts" and laid them out for one of the most unusual parties ever to take place in the basement of a church.  Seventeen artists had finger foods and mingled as they picked through what looked like the remnants of a very dismal yard sale.  In their eyes, the rusty jetsam became teapots and aliens on bicycles and all manner of marvelous things.  And off they went, with boxes of junk under their arms, with the summer to work their magic.

In the Fall, my church’s cafe hosted the most motley and meaningful art-show I’ve ever seen.  There was a delicate porcelain doll torso with a corsage made of old keys, a concrete table inlaid with a tiny nest filled with jewel-like eggs and a purple foot-bridge made of an old shoe.  The grand finale of the month-long show was an auction event with free food and live jazz where all the proceeds went to ArtWorks, an urban youth art program.

There was no doubt that the artwork positively glowed with the message of brokenness reborn.  But, of course, for me the best art from ugliness was the faith and friendship that was born in broken human hearts.  At least, in this broken, human heart.  Throughout the course of the six-month project I’d heard so many stories and made so many friends.  In the eyes of junk-collectors, café owners, and artists, I’d seen a dogged determination to find meaning and beauty.  It became apparent to me that the greatest work of art was the community that had formed around all this resurrection until eventually Cincinnati once more was safe and, to my surprise, home.


Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today publications and the Missio Alliance Blog and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Making a Mess and Meeting God. She is also the creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their two kids in a little house where the teapot is always warm.

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I remember sitting at an unknown burrito place with a good friend, perched at a hightop table, feeling so desperate. After several years of trying to get pregnant, undiagnosed infertility, and a failed bout with foster care, I had almost completely lost myself. We were trying to have an important conversation, about me, about us, and all I could think was, how is my face

Is it appropriately sad? Is it too sad? Am I scaring her by revealing too much? Am I sitting up straight enough? Am I holding my head right, are my gestures normal? Do I seem erratic? Should I tell her I’m not doing ‘fine’? Is this going to be the end of us? Does she still want to be friends? Does she see me as a diminished version of myself? But, wait. Was that self really myself? The one from before? If not, does that mean that THIS, this now, this self is myself? Because, oh God, if that’s true, what do I do now?   

Navigating life had always been easy for me, but it seemed desperately hard now. 

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

It seemed to me that all the ways I used to interact with friends, family, and God, had shifted without my permission—shifted to the point where the logic of them failed. Before, I would say this and they would say that, we would spend time talking and our friendship would grow. After, I would say something and they would respond strangely. We would go out to lunch and I would cry in the car afterwards, doubled over with tears and slashing pain. 

With friends, they would ask how I was doing, and I would freeze. I would try to be honest, but I never knew whether to answer for that particular moment, for the week, for my life? I would scare them sometimes. They really just wanted to hear that I was better, that things were looking up, that God was giving me peace. I wanted to tell them those things, but I also wanted to be truthful. I would try to be honest. Try to let them in. Try to be gracious in my pain. But most times, I would just get a side-arm hug and a “hang in there” as they walked away…as if I was radioactive. I knew that no one knew what to say, but I longed for them to say just that—that this situation was awful, and terrible, and I didn’t deserve it. That it was okay to be broken, okay to mourn, okay to be in the “middle” and not at “the end.” I wanted them to carry hope for me, assuring me that I was mendable, and my mended self would be breathtakingly beautiful. 

Mostly I just wanted them to say that they would be with me…no matter how ridiculous or awkward or broken I got. 

With God, I would try to worship. Try to pray. Try to read my Bible. Try to ask. Seek. In the past, that would have “worked,” and I would have grown closer to Him or found peace or hope. But in the midst of this clouded season, nothing seemed to do the trick. I wasn’t readily finding what I had always found in the past, and I also was thinking things about God that weren’t quite in line with the way I had thought before. If I remove myself from the standard faith responses of my younger self, what is left? What do I think God says? What promises can I cling to? What does it mean to have hope…real, godly hope? How much does He care?

All questions I couldn’t really answer. And God didn’t seem to be getting any closer while I floundered. 

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

One day, while walking through San Francisco on my morning commute, I had this urge to write a poem. So, before I could really think about it, I snapped a picture of the rainy street corner in front of me, typed three lines of un-rhyming verse onto it, and posted it to Instagram. 

And my soul breathed. 

In that single moment, I gave of myself fully. To myself I offered a valid space to be, without explanation, detailed analyses, or caveats. To others I offered a glimpse into my pain and my creativity. To God I offered an invitation, a longing, for Him to find me exactly where I already was. 

Startled and excited by that brief sensation of lightness, I started desperately looking and writing. Every day I would take a picture and attempt to put words to this life I was in the midst of. Many were dark, some were bright, and a few didn’t make any sense to anyone but me, but they were all true. 

Slowly, slowly, God found me there. I would see something that brought me joy, or I would hear a whisper of hope as I wrote a poem about my pain. I could physically feel the tightness start to loosen, and my soul seemed slowly won over by gentleness. I started to feel gratitude. And I started seeing, feeling, and sensing grace. 

I believe that was God doing His work…while I practiced offering myself, in gratitude and grace.  

A Practice

Take a moment today, to find your own glimpse of hope and beauty and truth. You don’t have to go anywhere special—stand in your kitchen, on your street, or under the sky. Breathe. And then look, and appreciate what you are being offered in this moment.

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

Stand there, and consider how you feel.  

How does your body feel? Is there a lightness in your feet? A heaviness in your chest? Do you feel grounded? Does your breath flow smoothly in your lungs?

Stand there, and look around you. 

What do you notice? What stands out to you? What do you hear? What is beautiful in your eyes? What isn’t beautiful? What does it offer to you? What might God be saying to you?

Take a picture and write a few words. 

The picture can be anything—your feet, a shadow, the sky, the corner of a cabinet. Try not to judge what words come up for you. Write them down. Appreciate them for what they are. Give thanks, and allow yourself to accept grace.  


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Leah Chambers is an artist and creative in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poetic works call attention to the beauty and hope that exist in spite of the darkness. Find her at ontheflypoetry.com and on Instagram as @leahreneechambers.

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Good Ways

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Good Ways

Dear friends,

If I were to name the essence of my spiritual life (not its theology or beliefs, but its practice) I would say this: When we open ourselves to God’s love through spiritual practice, God transforms us.

I have felt much freedom and grace since naming this truth. I don’t need to overanalyze my spiritual growth; I don’t need to evaluate whether or not I really believe what I profess; I don’t need to measure my closeness to God with some cosmic yardstick. I simply need to walk—to continue to move toward God in practical, real ways—and transformation follows.

I first discovered this truth in a season of hardship. My old ways of connecting with God didn’t resonate the way they had before. I struggled with depression and fear about who I was deep in my soul. With the guidance of mentors and friends, I tried new (and old) practices, which opened me in a new way to God’s love, and that love transformed me. The book I wrote about that revelation, A Good Way Through, releases next week. 

But here’s the thing: My story and practices are not enough. Yes, I believe they will be helpful to other people and many kinds of people will find truths and practices that speak to them in its pages, but that is not enough. The way God speaks to each of us is as unique as we are.

And so, it is with great joy and gratitude that I announce a guest blog series, beginning right here one week from today.

For at least the next six months, each Thursday I will share a new story and practice, writings collected from (so far) 26 friends: writers, teachers, accountants, pastors, mothers, and filmmakers. These are wise practitioners of the Christian faith, and I know the collection will be robust, varied and insightful. I am honored to host such a series. I sense already the blessing it will be.

Get excited, my friends. Good things are coming.

-Krissy

 

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