On Retreat: Day Three

Peace Be Still; Peace Be Still; the Storm Rages; Peace be still.

-Stephen Iverson

This week is flying by!  It is so energizing to spend time in community with ministers, and to find that we have so much to share with one another.  I am relishing the time on retreat, and even, dare I say, feeling a bit of sorrow to leave each evening… part of me wishes I could stay the evening with the group.

This time tomorrow, our time together will have ended, but for now I have the pleasant opportunity to bask in the experience.  The music, thanks to Stephen Iverson, has been absolutely amazing; the worship has been peaceful; the conversation, thanks to Judy Yates Siker, has been fruitful.  Our time today in the stories of Lent will most certainly have an impact on our liturgical experience in the coming year, and I have so much to think about besides.

What I am interested most to share is our wrestling with the Scriptures today.  We spent our reflection time in imaginative dialogue with characters from the Scripture texts.  Beginning with the temptation and in conversation with the Tempter in Matthew 4, and then later with the Storyteller who speaks the story of the Blind Man in John 9, I had the opportunity to work in a new way with the texts of the season.  The permission to use imagination and creativity in my preparation was an opportunity that has lent itself to discovery, personally.  To begin, HDS didn’t spend a whole lot of class time on much other than the academic enterprise of study and reflection.  The concept of praying and wrestling with a text with one’s hands or one’s artistic brain was not something that was done.  I believe this was a weakness in our education, for I have found both yesterday and today that the creative mode is an absolutely wonderful way to enter scripture.  Now, don’t get me wrong here– I’m not saying that making a cup out of clay is the answer to all one’s sermon ruts–but what I am suggesting is that perhaps we go too quickly to the commentaries, rather than sitting with the gem of our own minds and our own imaginations for a while as we process text.  Certainly I am quick to step away from the text and towards another’s intellectual wrestling with it.  But to let it enter you to the point where it lives in a dialogue imagined or in the stroke of a paintbrush–that is exciting.

Ultimately, I guess I look forward to seeing what we will explore tomorrow, and in figuring out how all this might work in my life back home–back in the thick of it, as some might put it.

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On Retreat: Day Two

The Kingdom of God is such as these

“Torah is acquired in the presence of community”

Our mighty band of fellow travelers gathered in fellowship for a second day of study and conversation.  Our task today: to gather and consider the Scriptures of Epiphany through Transfiguration.  To help us do this, our facilitator, the talented Dr. Judy Siker, introduced us to the practice of Havruta (חַבְרוּתָא), the study of Scripture in groups.  The word finds its root in haver, which translates in Hebrew as “friend” or “fellowship,” and it is the one of the dominate forms of faithful scripture study in the Jewish Tradition.

And so it is that we gathered in groups, calling upon the Holy Spirit to be present in our fellowship and in our dialogue as we asked questions, pushed ideas, and challenged one another in our understanding of Scripture.  My group focused on the Isaiah and Gospel passages for the 3rd Week after Epiphany, which had been paired with the following quote from Xenophon:

The true test of a leader is whether his followers will adhere to his cause from their own volition, enduring the most arduous hardships without being forced to do so, and remaining steadfast in the moments of greatest peril.

We read, and we listened, and most of all we asked questions.  We argued over the agenda of the pairing of THESE texts at THIS time in the church calender.  We struggled with the silences of Isaiah, and with our own discomfort with the text.  We worried and wondered at the author’s decision to parallel the joy of harvest with the joy of plunder.

In the Gospel, we pondered over the motives and movements of Jesus, and noted the changes in the quotation of the Isaiah passage.  We wondered at the sons of Zebedee, struggled with their decision to follow a stranger in that time and place, questioning the motives of their following and their leaving behind of the father.  We grappled with the call that Jesus offers all of us, and weighed the responsibilities of claiming one’s status as a person of God.  Some of us spoke into the mystery of choice and of following, wondering whether we have a choice at all to follow, when the alternative is to be left outside in the dark where the light may not shine.

We wondered whether we are the followers that Xenophon speaks of, or whether it is perhaps the case that Jesus himself is the follower that tests the true leadership of the Holy One, who leads us into places we do not and cannot know with any degree of certainty.

All of this and more we struggled with, together.  It was interesting, and it was fruitful, and it was a meaningful way to experience the community of faith in dialogue with the Spirit of Truth on this retreat.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to explore the Scriptures with art.  Meditating on the beatitudes, I chose a combination of collage and acrylic paint, the result of which is the beginning of this post.  It was a wonderfully meditative way to explore the scripture.

In the end, I had the blessed opportunity in three hours to experience two fruitful means of prayer with Scripture, both of which deepened my personal and communal experience while on retreat.  And when you add to all of this the amazing massage I received after our classes, well, you can imagine how I am feeling at the moment.  I feel in touch with my body, with my colleagues, and with the Spirit, and I cannot wait to bring some of this back to my congregation when this is over.

But at least for now, I am happy to rest in this experience with gratitude, and with peace in my heart.

On Retreat: Day One

“God doesn’t answer prayers; our prayers are answers to the prayer that God has already started”

The alarm buzzed irritably from the window where I had left it the night prior.  Morning, I thought to myself.  How swiftly we are plucked from the warmth of our beds to greet the day.  Earlier than I would ordinarily rise, I lifted myself out of the warm blankets and began the process of waking up.  There was running to do before class could start, one week left in an extended process of disciplining myself into health.

A brisk run in the fog, a quick shower, and I am back and dressed at the breakfast table, a bowlful of granola and mug of dark coffee in hand.  Morning devotions are at 8:15, and so I am out the door by 7:45, having only once to return to the car for whatever I have left behind.

SFTS is a quick drive from my husbands’ parents’ home, and so it is that I arrive in the parking lot with little trouble and plenty of time to spare.  Settling into the pew, I marvel at how peaceful it feels to sit and to rest in the knowledge that this is retreat time, that I am away from the noise of my life, if only for the briefest moment.  It is praying time, spirit time, reading time, re-charging time.  It is good, and it is well, and it is welcomed.

I must say that I am quite excited about the format of this space—a time to pray and live more fully than I would otherwise in the life of the Gospel Text for next year’s lectionary.  It feels good to dwell in this Scripture, to sit with Matthew, the synoptic with which I am least comfortable, and to let it become a part of my daily rhythm.  To be honest, it almost feels good for me, but more like homemade granola than vitamins or annual exams.  I relish the flavor of it, the diversity of community that has gathered here in the shadow of Mt. Tam, and I hope that here is space that has power, if I but let God have a crack at it.

So I sit in the silence of the chapel, weaving my voice into the melody of the chanted music, entering the mystical space of our worship as it enters me.  I try to focus all of my self and my intentions in the act of prayer, and though it is difficult, it feels good.  It reminds me of conditioning exercise, and I hope that some of it will stick with me when I return to the parish.

Today we speak of lenses and perspectives, of what we see and what has authority, and I am struck by the words of my colleagues.  One speaks of the Scriptures as representing the “arc of human potential,” and of their authority resting in this fact.  I find it intriguing, for certainly it is the case that Scripture offers portraits of the best and the worst that we can offer to God.  It seems meaningful then that these stories hold so much water for us—they are not merely God’s story, but our story as well, and we repeat them in our daily lives, in differing and wildly diverse combinations, with manifold results.  In this sense, the Word is living because we are living it, not only in our extraordinary moments, but in our most mundane.  The Spirit is within us all, it would seem, and the “meaning potential,” as Blount might say, is only as limited as we choose to make it.

That this is the point at which we begin our time together and the entry point for our study and prayer upon the texts is a great blessing to me.  I appreciate that this is a time for deepening relationship with God and Scripture, for open dialogue with willing colleagues, and for intentional devotional space, rather than a race to plan a year’s worth of sermons.  That I may rest rather than write restlessly is a gift, one that I believe more of us pastors need to give ourselves, for it is what we ask of our community, is it not?  That they stop, that they pay attention, and that they respond to the Word that defines us?  And how can we model this for our congregations, if we are not making it a priority for ourselves?