This is going to be a little personal and more than a little long. My apologies for the length.
Some months ago I began intentionally, at the beginning of each worship service, to open myself to encounter God. It might be anything in the service, something the pastor said, the flames of the candle, a hymn, a song by the choir, anything. One morning last fall, I sat down after the passing of the peace and noticed one of the parishioners, Elizabeth, still standing, waiting for one of her friends to join her. Elizabeth was 90 when I became her pastor in 2000. She was still driving then, picking up friends and bringing them to church. When she gave up driving a few years after that, if the weather was good, she walked everywhere. She walked the several blocks from her house to church, many more blocks to the post office, everywhere. She's not doing that so much anymore, as she's now over 100 years old.
There she stood, and I smiled as all that ran through my mind. I thought of her being at church Sunday after Sunday, as a witness. In my imagination, I began to see light streaming from her as she let her light shine, and I played with that image. I began to feel a flow of love streaming from her, and I thought, "Oh, an encounter with God." All of a sudden, I imagined light and love streaming from everyone in that sanctuary. It was more than a little emotional. My throat was all constricted, and I could barely croak out the words of the hymn that I found myself singing. Later in the service, during the time for prayer requests, I shared my experience. They give me a little latitude there, letting me speak briefly sometimes when others might not. I was their pastor four years, before becoming the chaplain at the college in town. I told them about my experience, saying that I didn't want to keep it all to myself and that I had come to realize that all of us, having been made in the image of God, is always shining, blazing with the fire, the light, and the love of God, but that we're just not always aware of each other in that way. After the service, one of the parishioners thanked me for sharing my revelation. I politely thanked her for her kind words, but internally objected that I had not claimed to have received a revelation, only that I had played with this image in my imagination and had found it powerful. Upon reflection, I have decided that the two interpretations can both stand. If that imaginary scene builds me up and builds up my community of faith, by faith I receive it as a revelation from God.
A few months later, I attended a continuing education event about campus ministry. During a worship and prayer time, I intentionally opened myself, asking, “How can I encounter God in this time?” We sang a few songs and prayed, and I had the distinct impression of a human figure, a person, hunkered over against the wind. Suddenly that person stood up and held out their arms. They had one of those wing suits or glide suits, you know, with the webbing between the arms. It was all in one fluid motion. Snap, like the sails of a boat catching in the wind, and this person flew straight up. Now, this image has several different meanings to me. One, it had a very personal meaning for me as an individual. But, two, I began thinking about campus ministry in a new way. We have some good programs here, and every year is a bit stronger than the previous one. But I knew there were many ways I had been hunkering down against the wind of finances, the wind of problems with facilities, the wind of being a mainline ministry in a very conservative area, the wind of the fear of being too churchy to students who are fleeing toxic church backgrounds. I thought and prayed and meditated on these two images for a long time -- the light of the image of God shining, blazing even, from everyone if only we have eyes to see and the hunkered figure who finally stands up and flies.
So I did what no sane person should ever do. I told my district superintendent, the pastor who oversees about forty other pastors as middle management for the bishop. Middle management likes numbers and stability (stable growth is preferred, to be sure, but stability nonetheless), not talk of fire and light and wind. But he was asking me whether I wanted to stay another year at this appointment or to move on to another place. I had to tell him what was in my heart, so I did. And I cried in front of my boss. I told him if I stayed, I was going to seek eleven people on campus -- Jesus could shepherd twelve, but I'm no Jesus -- who would commit to spending an hour of worship with me each week, an hour a week in small group, and an hour a week one-on-one. I said, if I could find those eleven people, the spiritual life of Union College would fly. He gave me all the support I could hope for, encouraging me to do just what I was feeling I should do.
So I talked to my student leaders. I gave them each a stone with a cross engraved into it, and I told them a story about spiritual depth. Then I told them about my two images. I told them that I see the beauty, truth, and goodness of God inside them. I told them that any of them who would commit to be one of that eleven, I would commit to helping them to dig deep; to discover who they are; to find their own unique beauty, truth, and goodness; and to polish the image of God within them until it shone, until it blazed, until they could spiritually fly. And I cried in front of my students.
One of them texted me later that day: "Your words this morning were so uplifting. Thank you so much for the rock. It holds a special place in my heart. I stepped out of the room and felt like a whole new [me] just by listening to your words. Thank you!" I share this not because I think my words are so great but because this is a testimony of the fire that she feels burning inside her and her yearning to fly spiritually. And others of my student leaders -- not all but several -- share that yearning for depth, a yearning for more.
Each meeting we've had since then, we've included worship and prayer time. Each meeting, I've expanded my vision of what we can become together. I explained centered-set Christianity, where there is no in-group and no out-group, but that the center of our common spirituality could become the way of love taught, practiced, and lived by Jesus. I said that whoever is moving toward that way of love, regardless of what they believe, regardless of even whether they identify as a Christian, would be living the spiritual life that Jesus calls us to live. As the first of the Phoenix Affirmations puts it: "We affirm that the Path of Jesus is found wherever love of God, neighbor, and self are practiced together. Whether or not the path bears the name of Jesus, such paths bear the identity of Christ." Each meeting, I've invited them to share what they are receiving from God in their own personal spiritual practice. Together we are weaving a common vision of what we yearn to become together.
Today at lunch, I shared this with a faculty member, and she was very encouraging. This evening, over dinner with some students and that faculty member, I started a discussion of the "nones." You know, the growing number of people who answer the question of religion with "none of the above." I also mentioned that Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons recently said that he wouldn't call himself a Christian because of the baggage the word carries. I opened the table and mostly sat back and let the students talk. They agreed that "Christian" is in some ways a bad word, that they sometimes feel like apologizing for being a Christian because Christianity seems to be against everything they are for. (I want to note that not all of the student leaders in this campus ministry are Christians. The vast majority of our campus community will self-identify as either Christian or some kind of post-Christian like the "nones." But a small segment of our campus community are members of other religions, and I have made certain that some of the student leaders in our campus ministries come from other religions. Most of those leaders self-identify as Christian, but not all.)
Some of what they said tonight has always been the case. There have always been hypocrites in the church. But much of what they said shows an increasing divide between what the church has been (and still is in most places) and where the spirituality of people, not only this generation, is headed. They cited the same things the polls have cited; Christianity is anti-gay, anti-science, too interested in one specific brand over against all others ("My clique is holier than your clique"), doesn't pay enough attention to social media as ways of connecting and learning about spirituality. These are the student leaders of the campus ministries at my college. We need to listen to them!
Later this evening, I attended a concert on campus with the band Appalatin. It is a fusion band, its members coming from South America, Central America, and Eastern Kentucky. Appalachian Latin. Appalatin. The small son of one of the band members was right down front, bobbing and dancing to the music, and I thought of his light shining, teaching those of us who have been socialized into just sitting there and nodding our heads or tapping our feet, if only we had eyes to see. Then I imagined all of us shining, blazing forth with light and love. It was an enjoyable image, and I thought of how we squeeze God into church services and don't think of spirituality in such a secular setting. But I was experiencing spirit or Spirit or whatever you might want to call it.
I was startled when the band introduced a new song, saying it was about letting our light shine and letting our soul fly free. Light shine and soul fly free? After just talking today with my friend at lunch about this very thing? And after just thinking about that child teaching us how to shine and how to fly? I perked up! I wish I could link to the song or at least its lyrics, but, alas, it is not yet released and not available anywhere except at their live performances.
So is this coincidence, synchronicity, or God? Yes, of course. It is all three. I do not believe in some magical figure in the sky pulling strings, controlling my destiny. But I do not discount the magical and the mythical, even while embracing the empirical and the rational. See my blog post entitled, "Simultaneously Embracing the Magical, Mythical, Empirical, and Rational" for a full explanation of this. This post is already too long.
So here is how Appalatin has inspired me tonight.
The life of the Spirit at Union College (Spiritual Life) can become our common life as lived out in the tension between the rootedness of home and the fusion of my spiritual home and your spiritual home. There can be no in-groups who think we have all the answers, that we are the only holy ones. There can be no out-groups that are considered to be wrong or ugly or bad. We all have spiritual treasures to share with the rest, just as Appalatin has Appalachian musical treasures and Latin musical treasures. Their fusion creates music that is unique and beautiful, and the fusion of our spiritual lives at Union can create something unique and beautiful, too. I'm not talking about some easy lowest-common-denominator kind of spirituality. Traditional songs from Ecuador gain new beauty when played with an Appalachian twang, and "Shady Grove" does so when played with a Latin beat.
Spiritual Life at Union can become our common life as lived out in the tension between the handcrafted and mass culture. One of the musicians of Appalatin plays on traditional Ecuadoran instruments that he made himself. Many of the songs they play are written by themselves. But they also play on mass-produced instruments and play songs known and loved by many. Try "My Old Kentucky Home" in an Appalatin style (unfortunately, also not yet available online) as an example of both rootedness/hybridity and handcrafted/mass-culture. In worship at Union, we're going to sing songs by Mercy Me (or plug in your own mass-produced Christian music) and by John Newton ("Amazing Grace"), and we're going to handcraft our own songs and our own way to sing them together. We're going to help each other discover who God has created each one of us uniquely to become, and we're going to stay in touch with each other via text, Facebook, and Twitter. We're going to share inspiring material we find online (I hope not sickly sweet, false stuff; I hate that stuff), and we are going to write our own liturgies that express the longings, the hopes, and even the fears of our own hearts.
Lastly, Spiritual Life at Union can become one that spreads the love around (and this bears repeating from above), centered on the way of love as taught, practiced, and lived by Jesus, regardless of whether you call yourself Christian; regardless of whether you call yourself anything at all; regardless of whether you have experienced the fullness of God or whether you feel empty, fractured, wounded right now. We can all spread the love around by recognizing the beauty, truth, and goodness in each other, and by engaging together in our rooted/hybrid, handcrafted/mass-produced spiritual practices of love.
So there! That's me standing up! I'm through hunkering over. I feel more than a little vulnerable, but, if you've read this far, I suspect you're sympathetic to what I've had to say.
If you're one of the eleven God is sending to stand up with me, to commit to spending an hour a week together in worship, an hour a week in small group, and an hour a week one on one, contact me. If you have been inspired by this vision and want to be part of what's happening, but can't quite commit to all that, contact me. If you can be my partner in this endeavor in any way, please contact me. And lastly, if you are the person God is sending to be my spiritual director, with whom I can meet for an hour a week (in person or online) to be guided by your beauty, truth, and goodness as I continue to discover my own beauty, truth, and goodness, which comes from God, please contact me. I need you!
Union College, let your light shine and let your soul fly free!