Merely Beloved: Practicing Presence


This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Kate has written here before about her experience and reflections on tragedy, and offered this insight for the CT shooting. I waited a little bit to post because I needed some time and space from it. I felt like it fit this Merely Beloved series because it feels applicable to spiritual practice. So thankful for her unique experience! For more information, click here.

A lot of people have asked me about how to talk to children about ugly incidents like the tragic events that occurred in Newtown, CT, on December 14th.  There are many good articles out there . . . and also poor ones. Here’s one that I agree with. For me, talking to children about murder, and other challenging topics, comes down to a few basic elements.

Be a reliable, trustworthy adult for a child. Children need reliable, trustworthy adults in their life in order to grow well.  These adults are not just parents, but other adults (family, friends, neighbors, community members) who are consistently a part of their lives.

Tell the truth. When you are discussing a tragedy, stick to basic facts of the case. Do not embellish, do not use euphemisms or metaphors.  Be specific and simple.  Here are the words I used with my children (ages 4, 7, 9):  “Something very sad happened today.  A man who seems to have been very sick inside, came into a school. He had a gun and he shot people.”  [Note: if a child among you is younger than three years-old, this conversation is not necessary.  If the child is two or three years-old and knows a person intimately who died suddenly, you can discuss the fact that the person is no longer alive and discuss the concept of death.  I use pastoral counselor Wayne Oates’ practice of describing death with children as the experience where everything on the outside and on the inside stops moving.]

Let the child(ren) guide the conversation. A child’s age and development will influence how they respond to your sharing with them.  Preschoolers tend to be very concrete.  My four-year-old son asked, incredulously, “Did he shoot kids?!”  This kind of bluntness can be jolting for adults.  Remember that this conversation is not about you, and that it is helpful if adults are mindful of finding safe forums with other adults for their own struggles with grief and sorrow.  Elementary school kids most likely will express more empathy and make more connections.  My daughter commented, “How sad . . . .”  My oldest son asked, “Was it like when [another person who struggled with mental health] shot [some other people]?”   Here are my responses:  “Yes. He shot kids.  Yes. It is very sad.  You will see today and these next few days that many adults right now are very sad about this.  And, we don’t know yet if it was similar to that other situation.  We don’t have enough information yet.”  If they ask a question that you do not know the answer to, remember to be truthful.  Say something along the lines of, “That’s a good question.  I don’t know.”  You may suggest how the answer might be found, “Perhaps we could ask . . . about that.” Or, as a faithful adult, you may suggest that you pray together to ask God for answers.  If they don’t want to talk, allow the conversation to end by letting them know that they can talk with you any time.  Eventually, move on to other activities together – playing, making meals, home chores, etc.

Encourage safetyFollowing their comments and questions, speak to their safety.  For example, you may describe how rare this act of violence was.  Whether it is rare for your community or not, you may speak to helpers who are around, including other trustworthy adults such as police officers, firefighters, nurses and doctors, counselors, church members, pastors, government leaders.  You may speak to how people are working to make sure this does not happen again or begins to stop happening so much.  You may remind them how you are together right now, and how safe you are together right now, how safe your home is.  You might encourage them to locate the things that make them feel better – for young children, their security toys or blanket, for older children, their favorite music or activities.  Sometimes children will just want to be together, quietly. Consider finding a cozy spot together, perhaps playing some gentle music and lighting a candle – creating a sense of present peace together for some time.

When it comes to healing after trauma, spending time together and sharing your stories of hurt together can be very helpful.  Stories can be shared by talking, and also by doing things together.  You may pray together, listen to music, draw or paint together, play, or exercise together. You may sing or play instruments together, or incorporate special foods into your mealtimes.  Your children may reenact violence in their play or art – this is a common way that children make sense of what has occurred.  Invite them to share their creations with you.  They also may share their joyful memories.  There feelings may seem out of sync with your own, as an adult.  Again, be mindful of finding meaningful places for your own healing, beyond healing with children.  Finally, consider having children participate in creating responses to tragedy both by incorporating their spontaneous gestures and interest into ordinary experiences, as they come up, and also through intentional community memorializing.

Whatever you do, do not try to pretend away or ignore the truth.  Avoiding the truth, especially when children are in close proximity to a tragic event, produces deleterious effects on family and social systems and on children’s senses of well-being.  Kids experience adverse and extreme results when they grow up sensing truth among adults who refuse to speak of or acknowledge what has occurred.  Emotional residue permeates, no matter how hard someone tries to reduce or ignore it.  We do our children no favors by avoiding difficult or challenging topics.  In effect, we do something worse. We avoid the vital relationship that occurs during pain, a relationship that children and the adults around them need greatly.  The building or relational construction that comes about during the sharing of emotive content – sorrowful experiences, joyful experiences, boring experiences, and so forth – creates the substance of what holds us together – trust, reliability, emotional safety, and forgiveness.  What occurs when two or three are gathered amid ordinary and extraordinary times becomes foundations for the next times that we encounter adversity or joy.  Being in these relationships with children is not about having answers.  It is about practicing whole-self living within the frameworks of faith, hope, and love.

Practicing presence is hard.  This discipline is hard when things are not stressful, let alone amid the chaos of tragedy.  Yet, true to our faith tradition, incredible strength and well-being grow from remnants after sorrow and destruction.  As adults show up and companion with one another, as they stand ready to include children in the experiences of grief, mourning, and lament, we go about the work together of growing new life.

kate 1Kate Wiebe is the Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG) and a National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  She is someone who has had to discuss murder with her own children at young ages when people they knew well and associated with frequently were killed.  She is a trained pastoral psychotherapist and traumatologist.  Kate lives with her family in Santa Barbara, CA.

Merely Beloved: Spending Money


This post is part of a series called Merely Beloved. For more info click here.

Tearing Open the Barn Door

There is always a lot of chatter in religious circles during Advent about “reclaiming Christmas.” The idea generally is to reclaim the meaning of Christmas from a commercial endeavor whereby we do our best to spend more than we can afford on gifts that no-one needs anyways and instead remember the coming of the Christ-child who brought peace, redemption, and healing to the world. This is a worthy effort. But one of the spiritual disciplines that is most meaningful to me and my family during the Advent season is spending money.

Before you gasp with horror at my heretical and shallow spirituality let me explain. One of the most meaningful spiritual practices for me leading up to Christmas is giving money away. I like giving money away. Well, okay, I’m not sure I can truthfully say I like it when I think of all the fun things I could buy for myself, but I am blessed when I give money away. Especially at this time of year, giving money away, donating to charity, tithing, whatever name you want to put on it – keeps me from being such a fool.

Most of my life I live like the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. I do just what Jesus warns against – storing up all my grain and my goods in larger and larger barns. (Well, I am a minister so my barns aren’t very big, but they are big enough, probably bigger than they need to be.) I put money away in ROTH IRA accounts, 403b accounts, and of course the wonderful PCUSA pension plan all young Presbyterian ministers are sure will be there for us when we retire (won’t it?). I re-finance my house to lower my mortgage rate. And I do my taxes carefully in order to claim as many deductions and credits as is legally possible including the very nice deduction for…giving money away.

Yes, at this time of year my wife and I make a list of the charities we want to support and we make sure we have completed all of our donations before December 31 in order to deduct our donations on our tax return in the spring. But it isn’t only for the financial incentive that I appreciate this part of our national tax code. I am grateful for it because each year it reminds me to go through what has become a life-giving spiritual discipline that lowers my foolish quotient and keeps me sane.

Because most of my life I live like the rich fool. I live as though my life consists of the abundance of my possessions. Even though it doesn’t. I live as though what I earn is all mine, mine, mine like Gollum hunting desperately for the “one ring”. Even though it isn’t. I live as though I can store up my grain forever if I just keep on gathering up each kernel. Even though I can’t. Yes, most of my life I live like the rich fool.

So I am grateful for the poke and prod that comes each fall to give money away. Because giving a tenth of my first fruits rips a nice big hole in my barn door. Grain spills out. Lots of grain if I remain faithful to the commitment my wife and I made years ago to actually tithe. Grain spills out and onto the fertile ground of need and opportunity that is the world around us. One of my favorite traditions at this time of year is sitting down at the kitchen table with my daughters and a Heifer International Gift Catalogue and “buying” animals for each person in our extended family. Our grain becomes chicks and llamas, water buffalo and honey bees.

Tearing open a hole in my barn door frees me from the self-deception that I can ensure comfort for myself for eternity. It reminds me who my maker and provider is. It reminds me to be grateful that I have the means to give financially and still put food on the table. And it grounds me in the joy of a life lived with open hands and an open heart. And so I will do my best each Advent to practice that very important spiritual discipline of spending money…by ripping a big hole in my barn door.

20121219-221515.jpgRev. Mark Elsdon feels very blessed to be celebrating this Christmas season with his two daughters and wife in snowy Madison, Wisconsin where he also serves as Co-Pastor and Executive Director of Pres House, the Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mark will be cheering for a Badger win against his alma mater’s big rival Stanford in the Rose Bowl.


Merely Beloved: Possibility as Practice

Merely Beloved: Possibility as Practice

Merely Beloved

This post is part of a series called Merely Beloved. It is adapted from a sermon to be preached on 12/23/12 at Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church, Kettering, OH. For more information about the series, click here.

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” –Luke 1:38

In the passage prior to Mary’s response to the angel from the Gospel of Luke, we find Mary going through a series of steps, one by one.

The first step is when she realizes the mission to which God has called her. As far as we know, Mary is simply minding her own business in Nazareth…she’s been promised in marriage to Joseph…and an angel pops up He calls her “Favored one” and tells her that “the Lord is with you.” This doesn’t exactly get the angel off on the right foot, because Luke tells us that Mary is perplexed—she can’t figure this angel out. She learns that she will conceive, even though she is a virgin, and that her son will be the son of God.

Now, these days, the first thing that pops into Mary’s mind would probably be: “Great! I’ll get a reality show! It’ll be a cross between ’16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Virgin Diaries.’ It won’t be long until I’m on the cover of People magazine and then there’ll be book deals and maybe one of the Kardashians will play me in the movie!”

But back in those days, the first emotion would probably be fear, the next step in the cycle. Fear, because Joseph could divorce her. Fear, because she might even end up killed by stoning. Fear, because nothing like this has ever happened to her before—or to anyone else before, for that matter.

A baby in these circumstances would not be a blessing—this would seem like a curse. And I’m betting Mary feels afraid, and overwhelmed, and worried about what it coming next.


Gabriel gets it. He knows it’s hard to live up to the mission he’s given to Mary. So he breaks out with the promise, the next step in the cycle: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Not a virgin having a baby. Not that baby being the Son of the Most High. Not a young teenage woman accepting her overwhelming mission from God. And not Mary conquering her fears and being faithful.

Gabriel knows all this, but the question is: will Mary believe it? She’s got a choice (the last step in the cycle) to make. She can say, “This is all too overwhelming; I can’t do it; just leave me alone and let me live my life the way I’ve got planned.”

Or she can say, “Bring it on.”

You know her answer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) “Bring it on.” Bring on the challenge, bring on the excitement, bring on the pain, bring on the anxiety, bring on the obedience. Mary trusts God enough to say, “Bring it on!”


Do you? Do I?

After all, the movement from mission to fear to promise to choice is one each of us faces.

I don’t know the specifics of the mission God is calling you to. I do know he’s calling each one of us to become more and more like Jesus, each and every day. But I don’t know the specifics of what that means—how God’s calling you to live out this mission in your specific life right now.

I do know that understanding our mission more and more clearly can often lead to fear and a sense of being overwhelmed. That’s when we need to hear the promise from God, that with him, nothing will be impossible. And that’s when we face our choice: will we say “Bring it on!”?

I was on a trip to Taiwan earlier this year where I got to see the cycle play out with Pastor Chen. To understand his mission, you need to know that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan literally picks names out of a hat for where its graduating seminarians will serve. Pastor Chen’s name popped out for a church in central Taiwan with members who are aboriginals—the poorest ethnic group on the island.

While he was initially very enthusiastic about serving there, it didn’t take long for the fear to set in when he realized that the church had taken on a lot of debt. Because not very many of the church members had jobs, the church couldn’t pay off the debt, and needless to say they couldn’t pay him. So here he is, having been chosen for a new call without any pay…trying to support his family.

Pastor Chen prayed about it, and he heard God’s promise that nothing would be impossible. He heard God’s promise to make a way where there seemed to be no way. And he heard the rustlings of the Holy Spirit to give him some inklings of what he could do to be faithful to his mission in this situation.

Pastor Chen was faced with a choice. And his answer, again and again, was “Bring it on!”

The Holy Spirit inspired him to start a company. Soon afterwards the local Presbyterian hospital asked him if he and the couple of church members he had hired could clean the hospital. He didn’t have any experience with cleaning, but of course, he said, “Bring it on!” Then he said he went quickly back and read everything he could find out about cleaning hospitals. And clean the hospital they did.

Next the hospital asked him if they could fumigate the hospital. “Bring it on!” he said. Then he quickly went out and read everything he could about fumigation, because he knew nothing about it at all. But soon afterward they were handling the fumigation.

Next the hospital said, “Can you do landscaping?” By now you know his answer. And you also know he knew next to nothing about landscaping. “Bring it on!”

To make a long story short, the company that started with Pastor Chen and three church members now employs three hundred aboriginals, many of whom are church members, and all of whom are grateful for Pastor Chen and the work they would never have gotten otherwise, if he hadn’t said, “Bring it on!”


Mary said it. Pastor Chen said it. What about you? Will you say it?

What mission does God have for you? How will you live out Christ’s call to serve the world this Christmas season, and into the new year? What’s that mission?

What fear does it provoke in you? Put your finger on it, so that you can give it over to God.

Can you hear the promise, that all things are possible with God?

cbh headshot suitThe Rev. Dr. Charles B. Hardwick has served as the Director of Theology, Worship, and Education for the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA) since January, 2012. He most recently served as Pastor/Head of Staff of Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, IL, a congregation of 1700 members. He has also served a new church development outside of Princeton, NJ; the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA; as well as congregations in New York City, London, England, and Madrid, Spain. Chip’s education includes a B.A. from Alma College (Spanish), an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, a Th.M. from the Candler School at Emory University, and an M.Div. and Ph.D. (homiletics) from Princeton Theological Seminary. The biggest competitor to Christ’s lordship in his life is the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.

Merely Beloved: Writing As Spiritual Discipline

Merely Beloved: Writing As Spiritual Discipline

Merely Beloved

This post is part of a series called Merely Beloved. One of the most inspiring and articulate people of faith I’ve ever known was also a seminary classmate. We happened to overlap during my ThM and his MDiv. It’s an honor to have him here! For more information about the series click here.

Writing for me is a form of communion—a gathering of the most innermost senses of my self. And whether I am randomly scribbling purposeless words on paper or writing prose or poetry with a pending deadline in mind, I have always considered writing a way for me to practice hospitality: a way for me to graciously place my words, thoughts, fears, feelings, queries, quandaries, triumphs out there, in the universe, beyond self, on altars as if they are gifts. Our words are charitable offerings, indeed. In what follows, I offer brief ruminations on writing as a spiritual practice and the ways that writing prompts inspiration, faithfulness and hospitality.

On Inspiration

There are moments when I have placed unimaginative and creative words, fragments of statements and full sentences on paper only to erase them out of frustration because they were conjured without a muse, sans a source of inspiration. In fact, it is difficult for me to write unless I sense that the words given are traveling from a deep place within—my spirit; heart; reservoir of feeling; my life world.

A friend once quipped, “You write when you are moved as if there are Ancestors resting on your shoulder pushing you to write. When they speak, you write.” My friend was right. I understand the movements that move me to write as an act of Spirit. And my use of Spirit here is not intended to connote a transcendent being with the power to fill the human, the empty vessel. But, I imagine Spirit as a vast plane of collective consciousness and life-force—where the here and the transcendent conjoin, where the mundane and extramundane meet, where we touch each other and the Other. In the Spirit, creativeness from all of these sources can be found.

Thus, when I am inspired, I write. This practice can be evidenced as a mystical act because it requires that one both leans into oneself for expression and into the expanse of Spirit to locate words: logos: expressions; tales; conversations; and speech. It requires a type of presence-with-self and the universe and is, therefore, a collective undertaking that inspires.

On Faithfulness

When I write words and affect, which might otherwise rest within self, are released from within and are allowed to travel.. My words move, and so do I. I journey often between temporalities: pasts and futures; here and there; at once and not yet all at once. I move between and among worlds: fictive and material. In fact, I sojourn in worlds that I create, with words.

What such journeying has allowed me to experience is a type of contemplation and faith-praxis that sees beyond and in the present. The writerly journey allows the writer to manifest that which s/he has seen or has yet to evidence and/or materialize. Writing, then, is a faith journey—one that demands of us writers, faithfulness.

There are not many practices that I remain committed to employing, but writing requires of me a type of reflexive movement between my mind, spirit and the page, the world. I’ve learned to be faithful to the Spirit when it moves me and have, therefore, transformed a sometimes extraordinary practice (of writing only when required; writing speeches, papers or sermons because I must) into a mode of everydayness. And I am becoming more faithful, not just as a writer, but as a spiritual being who is learning to respond to the Spirit and calls emanating in my self and the world when I sense them.

All this to say, writing allows me to share with others and in that way it is an hospitable act. For the writer, it can be a practice of charity and humility and for the reader (if the writings are shared) an act that might easily be rendered a gift.

376970_10151119800840791_1016834661_nDARNELL L. MOORE is an educator, writer and activist. He is an Editorial Collective Member of The Feminist Wire and co-author, with former NFL player Wade Davis, II, of a bi-monthly column on The Huffington Post Gay Voices focused on Black manhood and sexuality titled, “Tongues Untied,” in honor of the lives and work of Black gay geniuses like Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam. His essays and poetry have appeared in various outlets including The Huffington Post,,, Mondoweiss, NewBlackMan (In Exile), Lambda Literary,, Arts & Understanding, Urban Cusp, Gawker and Social Text: Blog.

Merely Beloved: Layers of Paint

Merely Beloved

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. We are in the season of Advent and Elsa offers us a really beautiful reflection on a creative and honest way to engage spiritual practice. For more information about this series, click here.

Last week, while searching for something to inspire me for Advent 3C, I found these words on Jan Richardson’s Advent Door:

From time to time, someone will look at a piece of my art and ask, “So what does it mean?” As if meaning were the main thing. Or as if it could mean only one thing.

You can read the whole post here but I didn’t read any further. I still haven’t. Not this time anyway. I’m quite sure I did in 2009, but it didn’t fit what I needed for worship planning. I knew that I wasn’t going to be talking about paint. I was looking for something else. But, these words stayed with me. They crept into my consciousness and interrupted my novel reading on Saturday afternoon. They beckoned me away from my novel into my yet-to-be-unpacked studio and made me stand there before the bare easel and stare blankly.

Somehow, I ended up pulling out my paints and slapping on another layer to one canvas. And then a second canvas. I have been adding layers of paint to these two canvas for months. One of them is collaged with paperwork from my call process that only concluded a few months ago. Admittedly, it’s not so deep. It was a fit of rage that another church wasn’t what I had hoped. They were not the place was calling to me. I was frustrated so I ripped up their materials and pasted them to the canvas where those bulletins and church pamphlets still exist beneath layers and layers and layers of paint. On Saturday, I added another layer to the veneer.

And still, I remain unsatisfied. I would so like to believe that paint is part of my prayer language. I have been trying to realize that wish for the past several years. That may be why my painted prayers are more like fits. I get really into it and then become completely exasperated, asking myself, “What does it mean?”

Maybe I’m not supposed to ask that question. I’ve never quite figured that out about the spiritual life. Intellectually, I know that my spiritual practice encompasses everything I do and it’s not always rosy. But, Christ in a bucket. I’d really like for this to feel a little bit better. I’d like for these layers of paint to feel like they have some relationship to the hope and love that God offers me. I would really, really love it if I could finally feel like something on that canvas has real meaning. But I’m not there yet. (I’m stubborn. I believe I will get there somehow. It just hasn’t happened yet.) So, I keep painting. I keep trying to find meaning.

That’s what I really want. I want this painting — these layers of paint and my whole life — to mean something. I’m not sure that it really matters if someone else can see it. It’s not quite the gnawing question that Jan Richardson fields. Because for me it is the main thing. It might not have just one meaning. Maybe there will be many meanings, but I still haven’t figured out what that meaning is. I want it to appear in one of these layers of paint. I want that long-expected meaning to suddenly come together as one complete masterpiece. But it doesn’t happen that way. So, I guess that’s why they call this spiritual discipline thing a practice. Most of the time, it feels like I’m failing. It feels like I haven’t done anything to illuminate the divine I so need, but still, I wait. I pick up my paints and add another layer — hoping that this time, God will appear.

527994_10152007501435405_746261149_nThe Rev. Elsa A. Peters is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She currently explores her faith as the Pastor of the The United Churches of Olympia in Olympia, WA. She claims to believe in impossible things and blogs about them here.