holy spaces

holy spaces prayer spiritual practice

Walking in the Wilderness

There was a time when I didn’t take walks alone very often. With children to keep up with, walks were usually an exercise in multitasking as much as they were actual exercise, and they were rarely peaceful. Now, I frequently take walks alone, just because. A need to get out of the house during the pandemic and an increasing focus on self-care are the reasons I began taking walks alone, but I have maintained the practice because walking has become a sustaining spiritual practice for me.

In the spring of 2020, as the time approached to leave the church where I had served for 9 years, it became clear that I no longer had a home base for my path in ministry, or my own discipleship. I was setting out into the wilderness. I would no longer be hanging around my campsite, with short forays into the woods and back to camp. I was packing up and walking away, with no plan or destination in mind, no timeframe or set distance to travel. I had provisions for my journey and skills for procuring more, but no specific plan.

That was when I began walking on a regular basis. 

I realize now that walking was an intuitive spiritual practice, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was seeking movement, a little time alone – and I did achieve those things – but unexpectedly, my walks became important times of reflection and discernment. Walking nourished me, like a cool drink of water or a restful night of sleep.

I hadn’t truly considered my path, in my life or my ministry, in a long time. As a teenager and early twenty-something, I contemplated and considered my path often, making decisions strategically with the hope of following a certain path. As I settled into local church ministry and started a family, my sightline became shorter. Instead of focusing on the horizon, I became focused on the here and now, on avoiding tripping over the rocks in my path. But I had begun to look up again, farther in front of me, and what I saw in the distance did not align with where I felt called. I needed to change directions, to take another path. What followed was the decision to change my work situation, to pack up and leave the campsite, setting out into the wilderness.

As I walked the streets of my neighborhood and the trails of nearby parks, I found myself imagining a path through the woods as a metaphor for my ministry. Walking in the woods, a person can go a long time without seeing another human, or even a trail marker. For many months after leaving the church I was serving, that’s exactly what happened on my metaphorical path. I simply walked along the trail, enjoying the fresh air and exercise, appreciating what I noticed and learned along the way. It was invigorating to be in the wilderness. I just wanted to keep walking; I didn’t want to stop and set up camp, to encounter anyone, to approach a crossroads. 

At times it didn’t even feel like I was going anywhere. My path might have been circuitous; it was certainly meandering. There were days I was comforted by knowing it didn’t matter if I was going somewhere, as long as I remained in the wilderness. Other days, I felt anxious and directionless without a plan. I noticed that even when I passed by a familiar spot, it never looked exactly the same. The woods are not static – weather, wind, animals, and the changing of the seasons all influence the landscape – the context is different each time. Not only were the woods changing, so was I.

That was when I realized that my walks had become a form of prayer. 

My walks had begun to resemble my experiences walking labyrinths. I deeply value the spiritual practice of walking labyrinths. I love that when I walk a labyrinth, I don’t go anywhere but I am always changed in the process. I enter and exit at the same point, wander around a small, fixed area and emerge different than when I entered the labyrinth. Similarly, each time I set out on a walk, I left from my house and returned to my house, not having “gone” anywhere, but changed still.

As I walked, all the thoughts floating around in my head began to converge in a way that enabled me to reflect and discern, to listen to my life and to God. As I walked, I reconnected with my call to ministry. I considered my gifts and passions, turning them over like a stone in my hand, feeling their weight and observing their particularities, those experiences that contributed to their present form. As I walked, I discerned God’s voice leading me in a clear direction, but still, there were no signs. Like a labyrinth, I knew I would find my way out eventually, that the path that leads inward always leads back out. I also knew that on a labyrinth, there is no point in trying to look too far ahead; it is best to keep walking, trusting the path with each step. As I walked, I trusted the path, and I kept walking.

One day, I began to see signposts in the distance. I didn’t know what the signs meant, but I could detect them ahead of me on the path. It seemed I was approaching a crossroads; nothing else would need that many signs. When I reached the first sign, I felt anxious, wondering if other people or perhaps a community lay ahead. I wasn’t sure, after so much time in the wilderness, if I was ready to encounter anyone else. It became clear that this was merely a turnoff, an opportunity to travel a different path for a considerable distance before arriving at a campsite. As I kept walking on my path, the signposts continued to appear. So did the people; I was clearly traveling in a more populated area. I struck up a few conversations, learning that those walking in this area had things in common with me. I stopped here and there and helped others, offering what I had to share. And still, I kept walking.

Soon, I discovered that I was near a community. This area was different than where I had camped before. Perhaps I should take a closer look. It was a smaller community than I was used to, but that might be a nice change; I could get to know people more easily. Everyone I met was kind and generous. As I approached and began to explore, I was welcomed with open arms. I was invited in and included. I learned that in this community all are welcome, and all are accepted. So, I set up my tent and decided to stay.

I still take walks in the woods because time alone is critical for self-reflection and spiritual formation, but I am no longer walking through the wilderness with no destination in mind. When I walk, I leave from and return to the same place. And just like when I walk a labyrinth, I am changed each time. I am glad to have a place to call home again and a church to serve, after wandering in the wilderness for so long. And, I am grateful for every meandering step that brought me here.

holy spaces sacramental

Backyard Communion

It happened unexpectedly. We had been gathering outside with friends for months – spacing our chairs at least 6 feet apart, constantly reminding our kids to keep their masks on. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could do in terms of safe social interaction. It felt comfortable, much better than not seeing our friends or letting our children play with other kids. It was also emotionally and mentally taxing. But we found ourselves doing it more frequently because gathering with others felt necessary for our mental and emotional health, and, like baby steps toward eventually sending our children back to school in-person and returning to other “normal” activities.

That week was ordinary in many ways, exceedingly stressful in others. I didn’t plan or anticipate anything particularly notable happening. Perhaps that’s what made it extraordinary.

On Monday, I texted a friend I had been hoping to spend time with and she was available that evening. My husband and our daughters were meeting friends at the park, so my friend came to our house and brought dinner. We sat at our back patio table eating, drinking, and talking for hours. No masks. Zero interruptions. Perfect weather. Good food, and even better conversation about the real stuff of life: family, work, ministry, discernment about the future. It was a gift – a means of God’s grace – and it was so very good for my soul.

On Saturday, friends texted that they were in the area visiting grandparents and would love to meet us so the kids could play. We invited them to our backyard, and it was a delight to watch our girls and theirs playing together so naturally, so comfortably, as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. It was getting close to dinner time, so we ordered pizza. We found ourselves gathered around our patio table – eating, drinking, and talking. It was delightful. It has been so long since we have gathered like that, without the stress and worry of infection, the trappings of social distancing and masks. It was a gift – a means of God’s grace – and it was so very good for my soul.

Two gatherings in one week, doing ordinary things in our backyard with friends. And yet, they were not ordinary gatherings at all; they were much more than that. Unexpectedly, by God’s grace, these ordinary gatherings became extraordinary.

Gathering around our patio table to eat and drink with friends that week reminded me of communion, that holy meal that we share in worship. Communion mediates God’s grace to us and connects us with the community of believers, helping us grow in our relationship with God and others, as we partake of a shared meal and remember the gift of Jesus Christ. In communion, ordinary bread and wine (or grape juice) become extraordinary, by the grace of God manifest in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Though the food we shared with our friends was not bread and wine, and we did not explicitly remember Christ’s sacrifice or invoke the Holy Spirit, the practice of sharing food around the table in community with fellow Christians is reminiscent of the community we experience with God and one another when we share in the sacrament of communion. The community is gathered, God is there, and there is good food to share. There is nourishment for our souls. We experienced it in our backyard that week, and I am grateful. I hope it happens again someday soon.

holy spaces

Our Dining Room

This post was originally written in October 2020. While much has changed since then, a lot has also remained the same. The main difference is that the “someday” I refer to is much closer now than it was when I wrote these words, and for that, I am grateful.

The plates that hang on the wall in our dining room

A collection of plates hangs on the wall in our dining room. The plates were hand-painted by my maternal grandmother. Born in 1917, her early life was shaped by the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. The plates are symbols of beauty born from resilience. They come from a home filled with good food, laughter, and love, where gathering around the table was as natural as breathing.

The plates that hang in in our dining room bear witness to a piece of our lives. Until this year, our dining room was used periodically for meals with extended family and close friends. Much of the time it was quiet and unused, the one room in our house that usually remained tidy. I have fond memories in our dining room, of the types of gatherings for which I chose our lovely table – on which we have eaten good food on family heirloom china, just like in my grandmother’s house.  

In the last fourteen months, we have lived in our dining room in new ways. Last spring, I found myself filming videos at our dining room table when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to stay home from church. It served as an altar around which our family led the congregation in worship on Maundy Thursday and as the backdrop for story times and Sunday School lessons.

Our dining room functioned as a transitional space while we consolidated my church office into our home office, in preparation for leaving my position at the church I had served for 9 years. It served as a holding space for physical things on their way in and on their way out, and the people who have spent time around our table held emotional space for me in that time of transition.

Currently, the dining room is a home for virtual Kindergarten. It holds a laptop, crayons, scissors, pencils, paper, early reader books, and learning game supplies. It is a perpetual mess, the floor strewn with crayons, dirty socks, and tiny pieces of paper. It is where our daughter overcame her anxiety of going to a new school and where she learned to read.

Though it is rarely used for meals in this season, our dining room has been used more often, and for more purposes, than I could possibly have imagined. It may not look like it used to, but it is well-used. It is a space in which our family has learned, grown, and adapted to new circumstances. It is a room in which we have experienced love, joy, and grace in unexpected ways. It is a holy space.

Someday, we will set our table again with my grandmother’s china and gather with loved ones in close proximity. Someday. But until then, we will use the dining room for whatever purpose seems right, expanding its uses as we expand our definition of what life looks like in this season. And the plates on the wall will continue to hang there as concrete signs that we will we get through this, and eventually, beauty will emerge from the ways that we are being formed in this season.