a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The Freedom To Dance & Worship

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The author

I feel it. Slowly at first. Suddenly, my spirit bursts and I must stand. Within seconds, I am on my feet. I’m swaying, one arm on my heart and the other raised in the air, palms open. Something in me notices that I am the only one standing while I am in church.

“Am I supposed to stand? Is it against some rule that I should not?” I begin to think to myself. I’m not sure who is looking at me, if anyone, and I try to concentrate on what drew me to stand, which is the Great Spirit. God beckons all of me–not just my presence, my voice, my ears, my eyes, or my attention, but my body. God wants all of me to worship. When there are any scrutiny or judgments I feel, I remind myself of examples of dancers in the Bible.

David danced.

Miriam danced.

Sigh. The service is over. A few individuals come up to me and comment on how nice it was to see someone standing during worship. I have received comments, “Wow, you really know how to worship.” It makes me wonder what about the experience of others makes such a distinction between what they see of me, and what they feel inside. Why are the experiences described differently if they too are worshiping? Did they want to stand? If they did not stand what stopped them?

We are used to singing in church. We are used to using our voice to speak in church. We are used to sensing the “spirit” in our spiritual spaces, but, rarely, are we used to seeing our bodies as a necessary, and integral part of worship. Why?

We use our bodies to enter a worship space, but we tend to disconnect the body once inside, and only focus on the spirit. We go into a mode of sensing, feeling, and concentrating on all things internal. Focusing on all things internal is a good thing. Churches and other worship spaces are one of the only designated places that our social sphere focuses on the spirit, where the spirit can have a voice, have a body, have a presence and be intentionally tended to.

However, sometimes we focus so much on the spirit that we disregard the temple in which that spirit lives, the body. We may kneel, we may clasp our hands together in a prayer pose, we may stand to take of sacred elements, or we may raise our hand. All of these embodied practices are indications of what is happening on the inside.

We move our bodies because we have to fulfill a goal of the spirit, and we can only fulfill that goal if we move our bodies. For example, if I am sitting in the pew and the offering plate is at the front, I have to move my body or get someone to move theirs for my spirit to offer finances to the offering plate. Likewise, when I take of the sacred communion or Eucharist, I move my hand, my mouth, and any other body part to fulfill the goal of the spirit to remember the Last Supper that Christ instructed us to follow. Read more

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and sky

The Importance of Mental Hygiene

wooden stair with white painted banisters in front of water, pine trees and skyMany years ago, one of my mentors moved from a large, prominent church to serving a mid-sized church. I suspect that she had brought with her some of the big-church cultural anxieties, with an emphasis on high performance and adopting best practices from the corporate world. She told me that a couple of months into working at the new church the senior pastor said to her, “God brought you to this church, and maybe God is not as interested in doing something through you here but more to do something in you here.”

She told me this anecdote with evident joy and appreciation. In the years since the senior pastor had made that insight, I could tell that she had given herself permission to relax and find greater freedom and grace in her ministry. I resonated with her story and filed it away in my memory as a good invitation of how to understand my own ministry.

Five months later, I ran a half-marathon. It was an okay experience, but during the race I started to realize just how negative my self-talk was. My thoughts included: “You’re so slow.” “You didn’t train hard enough.” “You don’t push yourself like you should.” I finished the race. I had wanted to complete it in under 2 hours, and I finished it in 2 hours and 20 seconds. I was disappointed with myself.

I went for a run less than a week after my half-marathon, and while I jogged that morning, I thought of how consistently some variation of the line “not good enough” played in my head as I ran. I sensed the Holy Spirit urging me to reframe running, just as that senior pastor had reframed ministry for my mentor. Maybe God gave me running not as something for God to achieve through me but God had given me running to change something in me.

Friends, I needed to be honest: I’m not going to be an elite runner, and I need to be okay with that. My shame and guilt around my slow pace was unhelpful. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” the protagonist said that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure. But that hadn’t been my experience: I have been much more attuned to my displeasure than God’s pleasure. My displeasure was very much connected to my performance, which I judged to be mediocre. I realized that I placed too much of a value on output and being productive, but, if God is more interested in doing something in me, maybe the outcome of my running didn’t matter that much. Read more

Lawful and Beneficial: An Exploration of Faith and Academic Freedom

As we begin a new semester, and a new school year, after the summer we have had as a country, I am thinking about academic freedom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes twice that “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (6:12 and 10:23). Paul was likely responding to a saying in the community at Corinth with the “all things are lawful” part.

There are, as with many Greek words, different ways to translate the second half: is he saying that not all things are edifying? profitable? expedient? helpful? I choose to translate it “beneficial” because I think that covers pretty much all those other options. All things are allowable, but not all things are beneficial. As a seminary professor and Christian, I think of this as a good way to consider the topic of academic freedom.

The academy (including Christian college, seminary, or secular state institutions), is a place where ideas should flow freely. Mistakes should be made, and even encouraged, so that everyone in the community (professors and students alike) can learn and grow. I often assign readings that I agree with wholeheartedly — readings that have challenged my thinking and broadened my perspective. I also assign readings that I don’t agree with, because they are important to have as part of the conversation in the class.

My students can expect to be challenged in their thinking in my courses. Read more

The Granting of Passage

Photo provided by the author

Photo provided by the author

I travelled abroad for the first time when I was six. Along with my parents and my then two-year-old brother we went with some family friends to stay in a large house in Brittany, France. From what I remember, the house had a big yard that was perfect for playing in (especially water fights!), we spent a lot of time on the beach at the end of the road where I learned to swim, and we walked up to the local boulangerie each morning for fresh bread – trois baguettes s’il vous plait – being the key phrase to remember.

My father drove us from our home in south London via the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry to the village of St Marguerite. It felt like it took forever. But it was straightforward. We drove to Portsmouth, sat (or in my case, played) on a ferry for a few hours, and then drove to our final destination. My parents had applied for and been granted one of those family passports that enabled us to all travel on one document. The passport was blue and the clerk who issued it had filled out the salient details by hand.

A passport is exactly what it says on the cover – a pass port – a document that enables the holder to travel internationally, ‘without let or hindrance.’ Or at least that’s what it says on the inside of my British passport anyway. A passport enables the holder to travel with the stated protection of their government asking that the government of the territory to be crossed allow safe passage. Interestingly, the earliest mention of a passport occurs in the Bible, in the book of Nehemiah,

Then I said to the king, If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah Nehemiah 2.7 NRSV.

When I recently travelled to Greece to meet refugees and visit agencies supporting refugees, I became very aware very quickly of the privilege it is to hold a passport that enables me to travel freely. A British passport allows the holder visa-free travel to 156 countries. According to the United Nations there are currently 206 sovereign states in the world so a UK passport holder can travel freely to just shy of 3/4 of the countries in the world; that same person can likely obtain a visa to visit most of the others without too much difficulty. Provided, of course, that one has the cash to pay for a ticket to travel and to cover the cost of the trip.

While in Greece most of the refugees that I met came from the following nations: Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is perhaps no coincidence that according to the passport index these are the five weakest passports in the world (weakest meaning that holding one allows for free travel to the least number of states); an Afghan passport holder can travel freely to a mere 24 nations, Pakistan 27, Iraq 30, and Syria and Somalia 32 a piece. These were people who, even on a good day, do not enjoy the same privilege of being able to travel that I have. Read more

Revelation on the AT

the author on the AT

the author on the AT

“So, when did you decide you wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail?” she asked.

I stumbled over my answer. The truth is I’m not sure when I decided I was going to hike part of the AT. Perhaps I decided to go for it because I finally had the time.

I had just finished my residency and first call. I had one month to move across the country and get ready for my next call. But in the meantime… I wanted to do something for me. I didn’t need a beach vacation, or a cabin retreat. I needed to leave my world for a little bit and get out of my head. From what I had read, the trail was the place to do this. It’s a totally different world, a secluded transient community of people who hike miles upon miles each day.

Many people in my life were anxious for me. They wanted to talk to me about all of the concerns they had about my hiking alone. Yet my conversation partners were never able to talk me out of this venture by coming up with things for me to fear. Most of their suggestions (being alone, getting sick or hurt, the threat of wild animals) were easily met by factual information about the AT. So finally they would ask, “Well, what are you scared of?”

The truth is, I was scared that I couldn’t physically do the hike. I’m not in terrible shape, but I’m not super fit either. I like hiking, but I hate running and have very little endurance. I’m strong, so I wasn’t so worried about the weight of my pack, but I was very concerned that my knees would give me trouble or my asthma would act up. I was right to be scared about this. My little 40 mile hike was the hardest physical act I’ve done in 15 years.

The first day I only hiked five miles but I gained a lot of elevation; it was tough hiking, and it took me six hours. I wanted to die. I turned around to go back and quit at least 28 times. I berated myself for being an idiot and thinking I could do such a thing as hike part of the AT. But I told myself I would get to my campsite and if I wanted to, I could turn around and go home in the morning. It seemed like a fair compromise. When I arrived at the campsite a group of older men who had passed me earlier that day cheered when I finally hiked in. They helped me light my stove to cook my dinner, showed me how to hang my food pack from the cables overnight, double-checked my tent (which I naively had never set up before). They were kind, encouraging, and helpful without being condescending. A little later that night, a mother/daughter pair arrived to camp with us and I was encouraged by the female companionship around the campfire.

When I woke up in the morning, I felt refreshed and encouraged by my camping company the night before. I decided to keep hiking. I also decided to take my hike slower than I had originally planned. Instead of doing 72 miles in eight days, I chose to do only 40 miles in six days. I had a friend who was willing to pick me up at any time and I knew I’d be able to get her a text at some point to ask her to pick me up at Clingmans Dome on day six.

Over the course of the next few days, I slowly gained some strength, met some incredible people, meditated on scripture, prayed, and observed my fellow hikers. This was a healing experience for me. Though at different times in my life I’ve longed for a partner with whom to do outdoorsy things, I felt completely safe and content to be hiking solo. Going solo actually gave me the freedom to go as slow as I wanted and stop when and where I wanted. It was a relief not to feel embarrassed about my turtle-like pace.

It was also healing to be around women who could not care less what they looked like. No one had mirrors. Everyone was smelly and hairy. Everyone wore clothing based on function and feel, not visual appeal. Best of all, these women wanted to eat as many calories as possible. After about a week on the trail, your metabolism spikes and you experience “hiker hunger.” These women were hungry all the time, snacking on full-size Snickers bars like it was no big deal, and eating cheesy salmon instant potatoes wrapped in a tortilla for dinner. Sounds gross. Smells gross. Lots of calories. They ate for the energy and didn’t worry about weight loss or even nutrition. While I overheard their conversations about gear and food, I reflected on the fact that hiking solo also freed me from caring whether or not I was attractive. Though I was single, I did not want to flirt with anyone on this trail. I didn’t feel obligated to speak to anyone. I didn’t care if anyone judged me for my pack weight or pathetic number of miles per day. I was doing what I wanted on my own time. It was a revelation.

This freedom also led me to feel a great deal of pride in what I did accomplish. Originally I was afraid I couldn’t do it, but I did. I didn’t give up. I hiked five to six hard miles each day. The voices of negativity and doubt did not win over my mind, and I discovered I was stronger than I thought. I experienced what it felt like to push my body and instead of fearing my limits, I learned I could do more than I had ever dreamed. For someone who has struggled with loving her body, this was the greatest gift I could receive from this trip.

While I had fielded a number of questions about fear while preparing for the trip, I received a whole different set from fellow hikers on the trail. Conversations always began with, “Are you going through or section hiking?” Almost everyone I met was attempting to do the whole 2,200 miles, so when I said I was only doing a section, they would ask me how long I was going and what section I was hoping to complete. Then they’d ask me why I wasn’t doing the whole thing. The first time I was asked that question, it caught me off guard. Down in the real world off the trail, we think of thru-hikers as crazy people! But on the trail, thru-hikers think of us real-world folks as the crazy ones. My response, after a moment of thought, was this: “I love my job. I can’t do the whole thing because I want to get back to my job.” For many on the trail, loving your job is a foreign concept. Many thru-hikers work jobs they dislike to save enough money to do the whole thing, and then quit and go hiking for nine months.

I undertook this hike to get away, and I’m glad I did. I was in-between, transitional, and stressed out of my mind. I understand the allure of the trail community and do not fault the folks who seek respite from the world by engaging the peculiar and endearing trail culture. I loved my first little adventure into life on the trail. It was refreshing and challenging and beautiful and painful.

The final gift I received from this hike was a desire to return to my work and a joy in doing so. While I enjoyed the trail and learned much from it, the peculiar and endearing culture that I love most is the church. I am called to serve God’s people through my ministry inside and outside the church, and after six days on the trail I was eager to get back to it. On days when I do not love or even like my job, I will remember the trail and perhaps I will yearn for it. But the trail will always be there, I only need to carve out the time to go. And with the space to remember the depth of God’s call on my life and my heart, I pray I will always return with joy and gratitude for the gift of this odd and wondrous calling.







The Art of Worship Planning

Church of the Pilgrims Advent wreath 2010

Several years ago my colleague, Jeff Krehbiel, went on a three-month sabbatical. While Jeff was gone, Pilgrims wanted to have their own enriching three-month experience. We created a sabbatical planning team to plan not just congregational endeavors but worship. Together, we explored the lectionary texts, the meaning of sabbatical, and came up with the theme of “connections and clarity” for the sabbatical season. All of these elements came alive in worship during the sabbatical. While still maintaining our loyalty to the Reformed Order of Worship, our planning process opened up our imagination, courage, and curiosity to what is possible. We sang new songs, congregants told stories on connections and clarity, we created more spontaneous moments of sharing, and we explored new ways of engaging with each other during worship.

Our planning process paid off and we were hooked. Read more

Wearing the Robe

Next month we will start a new feature in Christ and Creativity, an intermittent series of interviews with YCW’s who also practice art, writing or other creative pursuits. We want to hear what drives them to create, who and what their creative inspirations are, and any advice they have for others who want to undertake a creative practice.

And now, “Wearing the Robe” by Jessica Rivera.

Wearing the Robe

Who am I…?
I wonder this sometimes
Mostly on Sunday mornings
As I sit uncomfortably in the high backed chair; looking at red-painted toes in my favorite high heels
Poking out from underneath the white-robe of my position

I wonder at this when eyes travel to wonder at my earrings
As I speak earnestly of faith
When I am introduced as the “girl Pastor” to visitors who shake my hand and say “wow, I’ve never had a girl Pastor before– you’re pretty good”
As if this was surprising because I was born with different parts than they expected
To be wearing this white-robe

In my secret chats with God I ask the question
And wonder about dating and children
“I am a woman” I say to God “can I be a lover and a pastor too?”
Or does love require a quiet and demure woman instead of a preacher?
And does the white robe fit over 9 month’s pregnant belly?

God answers the question
Not always on Sunday morning
But always quietly, almost mischievously
When whispered conversations with teenagers in camping-tents lead to thoughts of Jesus
When babies cry at warm water embrace of faith
When harmony breaks loose in wooden pews, lifting faith song
And call comes clear in bright colors
You are my chosen one, God says
And white robe becomes swaddling cloth of becoming; instead of the bondage
Of my position.