Becoming Aware of Altars in this World

My first response to Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in this World was to want to implement and integrate each of the practices she described into my life. I had to take a breath and back away from this initial reaction because simply adding more things to one’s life was not her intention, but rather to add meaningful spiritual disciplines to one’s life. I decided on three that seemed manageable: taking sabbath, getting lost and seeing my surroundings.

Taking Sabbath

Ever since I was introduced to the Lenten season in my college years, I have been attracted to the idea of fasting in order to prepare for Holy Week, but what I found is that this spiritual practice became more of an excuse to break bad habits than the focus on my relationship with God. So, this year, I decided I would add something to my life, something particularly hard for me: rest.

I have never been good at taking time for myself and for rebalancing. Sure, I have been able to sneak an hour here or there into my life, but I haven’t been able to stop myself even during those moments from scrolling through my to-do list and fitting those items into time slots. Sabbath means complete rest. Sabbath means not even thinking about those things. It means letting myself be and letting the dishes sit and the laundry stay dirty for just a little while longer. It means trusting that indeed there will be time and energy later to get things done that need to be done.

Not surprisingly, my sabbath experience involved finishing reading In the Garden of the Beast a book about the American diplomat to Berlin during the 1930s. It’s hard for me in the midst of a semester to take time to read books that catch my interest because I know I have so much other reading to which I am accountable; however, by taking a Saturday afternoon to finish this book while enjoying a hot bath and snuggling with my puppy, I was renewing a part of myself, the love of story, in a way that is going to make my writing and my reading for class stronger. See, what I learned was, resting and taking sabbath doesn’t make you weaker or mean that you can’t last as long as someone else, it means renewing and refreshing those parts of yourself, which make you uniquely you. It means remembering that you aren’t like anyone else and neither is your ministry. Without taking this time, your ministry and your work becomes lifeless and draining, but with this sabbath time, your ministry and work become fulfilling to you and those whose lives you touch.

Getting Lost

I jokingly referred to Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of this spiritual discipline as a relief because I get lost quite frequently with my bad sense of direction, but while Taylor describes this spiritual discipline as one with geographic location in mind, for me, it became about more than that. For me, it became about letting myself get lost in conversation and getting lost in story.

It’s easy as a commuter student to go to classes on Monday and Tuesday and not be involved in the Gardner-Webb community, but I didn’t want to get lost. I wanted to engage in the community with my classmates. In an effort to get lost in community, I’ve tried to specifically accept invitations to eat dinner and to meet up with classmates, in particular, those who live in the Boiling Springs area. What I found was I got lost in the hospitality of the community around me. Suddenly, I was getting a touch of home in the middle of the day as my classmates invited me to table fellowship at their houses using their plates and silverware and sitting on their furniture. There is something about this that provided me rest and relaxation when I was so far from home. I felt like I had a place to take a breath and I felt like I had company on this wandering journey towards becoming a minister. Because I let my guard down and got lost in the stories of others’ lives by actively listening instead of trying to talk, I was able to reconnect and realize I am not alone on this journey. There are many others struggling to make rent and pay for books and buy food. In losing ourselves to this call of ministry, we have also lost control of how our needs are met.

As I was lost in the continuity between my story and the story of those with whom I was in class, I realized how much I love getting lost in a good story. And so, I let myself for the first time in two years, get lost in the story of the ACC Championship and the upcoming NCAA tournament. I have always loved basketball and it has long been my favorite sport. My passion took on a new level when I became a middle school girls’ basketball coach and so there is something wonderfully freeing about watching the Florida Gulf Coast overcome the #7 seed Georgetown that reminded me of the reversals that Jesus constantly modeled and taught. Just because the world or the sports analysts give you a certain rank doesn’t mean that is who you are. There is always more to the story.  

Seeing My Surroundings

Barbara Brown Taylor refers to this spiritual practice as becoming aware of one’s surroundings, but for me, it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of what surrounded me, it was that I didn’t truly see who and what surrounded me.

The first example that floored me was walking into the Baptist Women in Ministry convocation. I was floored to hear and to see women who had trod the same road I was walking. I was moved to tears by the people who I am in class with weekly who had aimed to support and encourage women in ministry before I was ever able to answer my call to ministry. I was shocked to know that my whole life there was a group who helped women articulate their call to ministry, but I refused to be bitter that the possibility existed and I didn’t know anything about it. I was sad and I was moved, but I refused to be bitter. There is too much to be gained and too much to learn to waste energy on being bitter. And so, I soaked up the community of the Baptist Women in Ministry convocation and as I journeyed through the weekend at the CBFNC General Assembly. I was surrounded by people who would support and encourage me as I journeyed on.

I was also able to participate with The Timothy Project, which is a community service agency that connects mission-oriented groups with service opportunities in Asheville. I worked with a group of college students from Milwaukee, WI who had given up their spring break in order to come and serve in a community they had never seen before. The first day, I was able to serve at Manna Foodbank packing weekend food bags to be distributed to local area schools, which then would be given to at risk students to provide food for the weekend. We packed 950 bags, but I couldn’t help but wonder who packed these weekly bags when there wasn’t a group of college student ready and eager to volunteer.

The rest of the week, I served with Greenworks, an environmental actionist group who believes strongly that rather than talking about preserving the environment, going and doing work to clean up the environment changes the world. We worked removing invasive plants in order to clear a greenway for walking and running through Asheville. We also worked to clean and clear a dump site, which was found in a neighborhood creek bed. We collected and removed 66 tires that were clogging up the water supply. I was struck by how often we don’t think about how our actions impact others and our community. We often do what is easy and convenient. For me, this was enlightening because in a community which claims to be environmentally-friendly, I found that there were a lot of people who talked about preserving and conserving the earth and much fewer who actually went out into their community to help. I could have claimed to be unaware of my community and the needs that surrounded me in this new city, but I can’t anymore. Seeing my surroundings changes how I view my community at Gardner-Webb and in Asheville and drives me to participate more fully in both these communities.

So what, now?

Taking some of the disciplines that Barbara Brown Taylor and integrating them into my life brought An Altar in the World to life. I think this is why Taylor wrote this book, not merely to cause people to reflect, but rather to cause the reader to do, to see, to transform.

For me, it means my ministry doesn’t start after I graduate. My practice of spiritual disciplines doesn’t start after I graduate. They start now in the midst of midterms, in the midst of commuting, in the midst of learning. Life will not get easier. Life will not get less busy. Life will not get less messy. And if I don’t challenge myself to take sabbath, get lost and see my surrounding, then I just might be lulled into the false reality that ministry is about me when it’s about loving others and losing ourselves as we follow after Christ.