Belonging to Our Places: Lenten Reflection by Chris Smith

Street of Santa Rita, oil on canvas, 1961 by Antonio Lopez Garcia.Accessed from

Street of Santa Rita, oil on canvas, 1961 by Antonio Lopez Garcia.
Accessed from

This morning’s post for Return to Our Senses in Lent is contributed by C. Christopher Smith. He is the editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of several books, including most recently The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities (Patheos Press 2012).  He is presently in the process of writing a book entitled Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison, forthcoming from IVP Books). Chris and John blog about Slow Church on the Patheos Interfaith portal.

“[Hope] to belong to your place by your own knowledge /
Of what it is that no other place is…”   – Wendell Berry

I was deeply moved by the story of the Spanish painter, Antonio López García, as it was told by art critic Daniel Siedell in a recent Books and Culture review:

For most of us, the world is no longer a cause of fascination, of sustained contemplation and reflection. A bird is just a bird, a vase of flowers just that, and the grace of this man or the charm of that woman is buried beneath a multitude of judgments we make about them as they pass us. This is the “real world,” the world in which as Cervantes writes, an inn is just an inn.   …

One of the more remarkable and stubbornly beautiful and seductive objects in the world for López García is the quince tree in his backyard. For decades he has tried to paint this simple tree as it absorbs and refracts the sunlight. In 1992 filmmaker, Victor Erice was given unique access to the artist’s world to make the award-winning documentary El Sol del Membrillo (The Quince Tree of the Sun). The film tells the story of López García’s approach to art through his relationship with this little tree, which he feels the urge to paint every autumn. And yet every autumn it thwarts his attempt to capture his experience of it.

In a similar way, I have for several years now been getting to know my own immediate urban neighborhood in Indianapolis, an undertaking that I like to call urban naturalism. Inspired by the poetry of early twentieth century agrarian Liberty Hyde Bailey, I walk the streets and paths of the neighborhood, take pictures, climb trees, look, listen and often write. Our Englewood neighborhood is a postage stamp of a place, about twelve blocks in all, sandwiched between two abandoned industrial complexes that have sat idle for about two decades.  Our ZIP code also has one of the highest rates of abandoned housing in the nation.  By practically any measure, Englewood is what the new monastics would call “an abandoned place of empire.”

And yet, the life of God abounds in this place (as in all places).  Treetops are full of all manner of birds, insects and mosses; fiesty, bright yellow dandelions emerge through cracks in the pavement; even when things made be human hands start to crumble, the life of creation rolls vibrantly on. And the life of creation is a superabundant gift of god for us to see, smell, feel, hear and maybe even taste.   Certainly, we need the wisdom of time and others. Not every plant was made to be eaten, or even touched, for instance.  Being able to identify birds, plants and trees, can help us to care for them better, or to know when something is awry – say, when we encounter a bird or an animal that is not native to our place.

As we come to know our places, and belong to and love them, we make ourselves available for the healing love of God to flow through us to our neighbors and the other creatures who share this place with us.  We strive to live carefully on the land, and cultivate it in ways that sustain us and our neighbors (e.g., growing food), and engaging in the economy and built environment of the place in a way that moves the place forward ever so slightly toward health and flourishing.  But to submit ourselves to God’s all-encompassing work of reconciliation in this way takes discipline.  We have to slow down, be still and receive the rich gifts that God wants to offer us. Our fast food world does not make this easy for us.  Lent is a season in the church year in which we learn to discipline ourselves, not for our own sake but for that of the common good.  I’m not a very disciplined person; even in my urban naturalism efforts, I am often too busy with my work to do much at all.

We need discipline. We need seasons like Lent that help us look beyond ourselves and our busyness and by belonging to our places to grow in our love for God and for God’s creatures that share our place with us.  God help us. May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!


C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of several books, including most recently The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities (Patheos Press 2012).  He is presently in the process of writing a book entitled Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison, forthcoming from IVP Books). Chris and John blog about Slow Church on the Patheos Interfaith portal.


Planning For Transition – Wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Seeing with new eyes

Seeing with new eyes

Yesterday I posted this post, about the fact that Mustard Seed Associates is in a time of transition and talked about the impact that Walter Brueggemann has had on my theology and my thinking. There are others that have helped to shape my thinking in this transition time too that I wanted to mention.

The second book I took with me was Christine Valter Paintner’s book Desert Fathers and Mothers Early Christian Wisdom Sayings. What particularly struck me is where she comments:

We often bring unconscious expectations to life. We feel disappointed when things don’t turn out as we had hoped, even when we aren’t aware we had a desire for a particular outcome. Often we are poor judges of what should happen in our lives. We bring a whole set of ego-centered habits and patterns, and we dream from the person we have been , rather than the person we are being transformed into. Our transformed self is always far beyond our own striving.

When we realize we have limited vision and that our planning minds will only take us so far, then we can begin to gently release the pressure we put on ourselves to have things turn out in a certain way. We may begin to approach life in a more open-hearted way, receiving its gifts rather than grumbling about what we would rather have had happen. (60).

When we seek to bring about change that is not a tweaking of what has existed in the past but rather something entirely new, our own planning and limited vision often does get in the way. Letting go does not begin in the planning room, it begins in the place where we seek to listen to God. I am more convinced than ever that unless we can unleash our creativity and imaginations in the realm of prayer and worship, we will never see real change that leads us into the new reality of God’s kingdom, occur. God’s new reality does not emerge fully grown, but as a baby that needs to be nurtured and fed.

Why Do We Hide From God?

Art by Emmanuel Garibay

Art by Emmanuel Garibay

Over the last few days I have had several messages from friends who are struggling with their faith, feel far from God, confused about who and where God is. How is it that the God is omniscient and omnipresent can seem so hard to find?

1. Problem number one is that we don’t always seek God with our whole heart, – with everything that is within us. We are not willing to give up the pursuit of everything else in our lives in order to seek God with urgency, boldness and enduring perseverance. We allow busyness to distract us, sacrificing closeness to God for our career or social ambitions. Even our work for God can absorb our time in such a way that it leaves little space for drawing close to the eternal creator of our universe. How many of us when we feel far from God are willing to set everything else aside to seek after God until we once more feel the intimacy of the divine presence?

2. We don’t purse God with repentant hearts. Confession and repentance is something that has kind of gone out of fashion. How many of us take time on a regular basis to look into our own hearts and ask the hard question – what is separating me from God? What do I need to repent of and seek forgiveness for? There are many times in my life that I have clung to things that I know God wants me to let go of – possessions, attitudes, emotions that make it impossible for me to draw close to the lover of my soul.

Sometimes I have come to God with anger rather than repentance, or with self justification and arrogance rather than humility. Sometimes I don’t want to let go of my resentments or my anxieties. It is easier to hold onto these than it is to face the God who is love and then I wonder why God seems distant.

3. We are looking for the wrong kind of God. God is loving and patient and kind, slow to anger, quick to show mercy. God is just and righteous but also forgiving. God is generous and compassionate, the provider of abundance, the bringer of peace. And we cannot come close to this God without developing these same characteristics. It is no wonder God seems far away when we constantly ask selfishly for our own advancement, comfort and ease. We we are absorbed in ourselves we cannot recognize God or else the revelation of God is so blindingly magnificent that we cannot cope with it.

4.Our God is too small. Many of us are satisfied with a very small revelation of God. We should never be content to rest in our current knowledge of God. We should always be seeking to learn more of God’s love, absorb more of God’s truth and discover new ways to follow. God is far bigger, greater and more awe inspiring than any of us can imagine.

5. We are looking in the wrong places. How can we looking in the wrong places you might ask when God is everywhere? The trouble is that most of look for God with our heads and not our hearts, with our understanding and not with our imagination, with our reasoning and not our conscience. And we don’t encounter God quickly we get disillusioned and turn our backs.

You cannot meet God face to face and live the Old Testament prophets often proclaimed. God’s greatness passes all comprehension. God’s love and holiness is beyond our imagining. Even a glimpse of who this God really is will have us flat on our faces in awe and repentance.

We must grow like God, become the image of God, be transformed into the people that God intends us to be before we can truly see God and live. Only as we absorb the love of God into the depths of our being and allow the life of God to flow out through every word and action and thought are we able to draw close to the loving eternal God. This obviously is a never ending journey. I hope that you will continue to walk the path with us.

Labyrinth in Lavender – Lets Celebrate World Labyrinth Day

Yesterday I posted this gorgeous photo on facebook

Thanks to my good friend Patty Doty, I found out that this marvellous lavender labyrinth is in Kastellaun Germany.

I love labyrinths and as many of you know we construct one each year for our Celtic retreat on Camano Island in August and a couple of years ago even had participants making their own finger labyrinths. I have also blogged about the significance of labyrinths here and still hanker after the labyrinth that Craig Goodwin created out of his backyard vegetable garden.

Going online this morning to do some research on labyrinths for my upcoming book I discovered that the Labyrinth Society celebrates World Labyrinth Day on the first Saturday of May – which just happens to be next Saturday so it seemed a good time to post again about labyrinths.  I have not posted resources to help one explore and create one’s own labyrinth and thought that this was a good time to do that.

Here is the list provided by the Labyrinth Society, though these are not specifically Christian.

Many Christians, because of the non Christian roots of this tool are skeptical and even condemning of its use. This is a well balanced article that explains some of these concerns. However labyrinths are gaining popularity amongst Christians and I personally have found them to be a very helpful tool for mediation.

Some of the best Christian resources come from Jonny Baker and the people at Proost in the UK.

Labyrinth Kit

Labyrinth Meditations

Labyrinth Instrumentals

Hold This Space Pocket Liturgies [pdf]

Navigatio Pocket Liturgies [pdf]

Landskapes – Labyrinth Meditations, Eucharist, and Spirit of the New.

VJ Loops Volume 1

The labyrinth Network Northwest also has some great resources available. – It is an extensive list and I am very glad that I did not need to reproduce it.

And this pdf on Labyrinth Prayer  not only explains the labyrinth & provides some prayers to use in walking it but also mentions some great books on labyrinths.

Bosco Peters just made me aware of this video that he uploaded for his post Twists and Turns of Holy Week. Thanks Bosco.

I also really enjoyed this video introduction to labyrinth walking.

Virgin Mary &The Bible’s Answer to Human Trafficking by Rev. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson

Madonna with flowers - Joysmith

Madonna with flowers

I have been strongly moved by a series on The Bible’s Answer to Human Trafficking that has been published over the last few weeks in Christians for Biblical Equality’s weekly ezine ARISE. The articles are written by Rev. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson (PhD, Trinity International University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) a professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University in Chicago, IL.   This excerpt is from the third and final article of the series on human trafficking. Click for Part One and Part Two.

We tend to think of Mary’s pregnancy as a joyful time of celebration. Today’s article shared about human trafficking in the times that Mary grew up in and helps us to understand some of the challenges she would have faced even before Christ was conceived :

Mary, also grew up among girls who were regularly abused and trafficked by the Sadducees and the Roman soldiers. This was the reason that the most common name given to girls was Miriam, meaning “bitter,” since the life of the girl was assumed to be full of bitterness due to sexual abuse and human trafficking. Yet, miraculously, one girl was preserved, a virgin, to bear the Messiah of the world! She was not a virgin because she was the only one who was pure. She was a virgin because of a miraculous preservation of one girl. Mary becomes, in many senses, a symbol of hope for all girls throughout history, all over the world who are trafficked and abused by fallen humanity. This is indeed a thick answer to the problem of human trafficking.

The Messiah born by Mary elevated the status of so many women that he encountered. He knew what his own mother had gone through. She was ostracized by the so-called high class people, for carrying and bearing a child out of wedlock. He himself was called a mamzer—a term reserved for the children born by women who were sexually abused by Roman soldiers. During his public ministry, Jesus, knowing the horrible life faced by women around him, always reached out to them and restored their dignity. A good example is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus knew that Samaritan women were abused on a far more regular basis than low class Jewish women. They were the lowest of the low people group in the society around Jesus. They were constantly and systematically abused, just because they were Samaritans. During his conversation with her, at a poignant moment, Jesus asks her to “Go call your man.” She shrugs her shoulders and says, “I have no man.” Jesus says to her, “I know what you have gone through. I know that you really have had no man. Each of the other five have sexually abused you and battered you. The person who has you now is not really your man” (John 4:17-18, paraphrased). To this woman who had suffered so much because of systemic evil against women, Jesus offered the water of life—the water which alone could heal her deepest wounds. The rest of the narrative is a powerful example of how Jesus heals and elevates the status of a trafficked woman. She goes back to her town, and the whole village listens to her words. This woman, who was trafficking material and was sexually abused by men around her, is suddenly transformed into an eshet chayil, a strong woman. Read the entire article

Remember Our Story by Ellen Haroutunian

Ray Dirks CMU chapel painting

chapel painting at CMU Winnipeg by Ray Dirks

This morning’s post in the series: Jesus Is Coming What Do We Expect comes from Ellen Haroutunian. It was first published on her blog as Advent 2011 Synchroblog: Remember Our Story. I feel that as we move closer to Christmas and start to feel more and more overwhelmed by the frenzied hype that beckons us to consume, consume, consume there is even more need to draw aside, reflect and remind ourselves of the story that is meant to be celebrated at this season.


Our world is unraveling. We are seeing the deterioration of civil society in many ways. The Thanksgiving holiday week alone has been an embarrassment of aggressive consumerism with shoppers resorting to pepper spray and robbing each other at gunpoint. Black Friday is extending back into Thursday, threatening to diminish the one day we have set aside to pause our frantic lives and give thanks that some of us actually have money to spend. And that’s just the news on the small scale.

I just had a long conversation with a friend over the meaning of Christmas. It began around her assertion that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus. When you look at Walmart at midnight on Thanksgiving, you can see that that has become very true. But the conversation was more about how many choose to celebrate Christmas either in a secular fashion or with more ancient ties to the pagan rituals that were the inspiration for the choice of December for this observance. I agreed, the holiday was birthed from engagement with other traditions and has taken on many more dimensions, much of which have nothing to do with the remembering of Jesus and the Christian story. I also agreed with her that people should be allowed to celebrate how they wish without harassment. In her insistence that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus, I assume she wanted to show support for the millions who celebrate Christmas in various ways but have no Christian affiliation.

Even so, it’s important to remember that the shaping of the Christmas celebration (long before secular commercialization) was intentional and beautiful. Early Christians brought their story to the celebrations that they had already been observing such as pagan solstice rituals, or more likely, the Roman solar celebration. Since the beginning of time people had observed that light returns to the world as the world revolves around the sun, renewing and enlivening as it comes. The Christian story, the gospel story, is about the Light coming into the world, bringing life and healing to hurting souls. What was already observed and celebrated in rhythm with creation was then seen to hold a deeper meaning in the minds of these early Christians. As a result, the season of waiting (Advent) and the celebration of the Incarnation of God, Emmanuel, was born. Eventually, the season became known as the Feast of the Nativity or Christ’s Mass. So on the level of tradition and history, the evolution of Christmas as a holiday (holy day) is indeed about Jesus. The whole point of the discussion was that there’s no need to diminish Christian tradition to make room for other traditions, just as there’s no need to diminish other traditions to make space for the Christian.

But that discussion isn’t the true issue. I understand that there is a lot of anger towards Christians who have been offering judgment instead of the Good News. I understand that people would then choose to diminish the Christian Story as a result. That’s what people do. That’s why the world is hurting. We all diminish and deny the traditions, beliefs, needs and feelings of the other in order to make space for ourselves. However, in doing so, any empathy for the other is also lost. Lack of empathy for the other is the human heart in its most desolate state. The particular case above was about diminishing Christianity. But the way of thinking that essentially diminishes or eliminates the other, any other, has become the norm worldwide as each of our hearts shrink and pull back into self-protective bunkers. This is what our broken and hard-hearted system of justice does.

So, we live in a world in which empathy is a rare gemMore than ever, this has become a world of every man or woman for themselves, whether it be about grabbing the last waffle maker at Walmart or blocking job creating bills because you don’t like the politics of the party in power, or insisting that every conservative Christian is hate-filled and every liberal one is immoral, or that every Muslim is a terrorist. We no longer seek to listen, to know, to honor and respect each other. We no longer see the Image in one another. The idea of being our brothers’ keeper has become laughable, even amongst Jesus followers. We cannot compromise and work together because whatever the other represents is simply too offensive, too threatening, too inconvenient, too irrelevant to our personal lives. In this sense, we indeed have truly lost Jesus.

We do not need to create a “let’s take Christmas back” mentality. That is not what this post is about and it’s only another way to diminish those with whom we disagree. We do acknowledge that millions of people who are not Christians celebrate “Christmas” in various ways around the world and can remain unthreatened by that. However, the most important thing we can do is to reflect to the world the Light that has come to us. The incarnation of God-as-human is an act of ultimate empathy. God, who is Wholly Other became the other in order to love fully and to reconcile, to heal, to save. This is what love does! Love enters the story of the other. This world that has become more cold and hard and cynical than ever is desperate for a love that enters in.

Remember the Story. May we remember and act accordingly and thus bring true empathy back into the world, whether it’s at Walmart or in congress or towards Wall Street protestors or in trying to be politically correct (or not).  The world says, “Your needs and pain don’t matter to me” as it steps on the heads of the weaker brother to move upward towards bigger and better. Jesus calls us back down to our senses, back down to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, back down to a life of love. And when we listen to his Story, we find that he has shown us how.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. John 1:9 RSV

Definitions of Empathy:

1. The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it (perhaps incarnates it? – my addition)

2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

Surrounded by Prophetic Voices – Clouds of Witnesses that Call Us Out of Numbness

surrounded by ordinary saints

surrounded by ordinary saints - Emmanuel Garibay

Today is All Saints Day, and like many who celebrate this festival I have been meditating on the words of Hebrews 12:1,2 this morning which I quote here from the Living New Testament.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

At the same time I have been mulling over the invitation to participate in this month’s synchroblog which reads:

Richard Rohr says “the role of the prophets is to call us out of numbness.” Since the beginning of time, prophetic voices both in and outside of scripture have been calling us to consider change of some sort. Sometimes it is spiritual change, other times it may be economic, political, or systemic change. Regardless of the emphasis, prophets challenge us to consider a better future. Right now there’s a strong sense of change brewing in the church, the world; people are rising up and calling individuals, communities, nations, and everything in between out of numbness and toward justice, mercy, equality, and love. Read more

The voices that have called me out of numbness this year are many and varied. There is much change in the wind and I know that I need to listen closely to hear what God is saying. In many ways it has been a hard year, starting with the death of a good friend in the Christchurch earthquake speeding through an extremely busy summer with our annual Celtic retreat on Camano Island, preparing to launch the Pacific NW Sustainability Semester away program next September, relaunching our MSA ezine in January and  putting together Waiting for the Light our latest Advent/Christmas resource from MSA. But it has also been a very good year, beginning with the celebration of my 60th birthday and new ministries emerging in the writing of prayers and the expansion of the MSA garden team.

All of these events have brought me into contact with a rich array of people across the world, many of whom have spoken into my life in prophetic ways. For me this year the prophetic voices have not been well known inspirational speakers or cutting edge theologians. They have been the ordinary people who surround and support Tom and me and the MSA team and ministry. People who comment on this blog and constantly challenge me to walk with integrity and live the talk. People who encourage me to keep writing, praying and speaking out when I feel discouraged.  People who support us when we come up with ideas like the Mustard Seed Village that sometimes sound more like si-fi imagining than reality.

All of us are prophetic voices for someone. Any time we encourage, support or cheer for someone to make decisions for a more just, more generous, more loving life we are being prophetic. We are helping bring their dreams for the future into being and that is I think what being prophetic is all about.