Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pictures of Spiritual Formation

I'm not a photographer but I love taking pictures.

I remember a video we watched in Dr. Hardy's Spiritual Formation class at NTS where a professional photographer spoke about his trade. Like a lot of things in my life, I don't remember hardly any of the details of that video we watched and yet somehow it still had a deep and lasting influence on my life. I think it had an impact because it freed me to starting thinking about spiritual disciplines in ways that I had not up that point. That was several years ago now and there have certainly been a lot of changes in the way that I think about my spiritual life since then but from this vantage point it seems clear to me that that video and that class were instrumental in opening up a new path in my spiritual life even though I may not have realized it at the time. I think it is safe to say that I now regard picture taking as an important spiritual discipline in my life. While I have never taken a single class or workshop on photography and don't have any of the tehcnical skills that a professional has, I have found that photography cultivates in me some of the same characteristics that are important for ministry.

When I go for a walk with my camera, most of the time is spent simply waiting. It is rare that I am looking to take a picture of anything specific. I usually just go somewhere I think I am likely to see something interesting and wait to see what presents itself. Often I go for long periods without finding anything that catches my eye. Nevertheless, I continue to watch and listen and it is when I am most patient that I usually see the most interesting things. So often in ministry, it is tempting to try to fast forward everything; whether in our own spiritual lives or the life of our congregation. But there is much grace in simply being present in the moment and waiting faithfully to see where God is working rather than forcing our own agenda.

Keeping an eye out for possible pictures has also taught me to see beauty in seemingly ordinary surroundings. It is easy to take a quick glance around and think that there is nothing worth photographing. But in reality, viewed in a certain way, almost anything can make an interesting picture. Often its just about framing a picture just right; putting a subject in its proper context or separating it from the distractions that surround it. Often I see certain potential in a subject but I have to work to position myself so as to find the right light, an original angle, or a unique perspective from which to view that subject. So many things about the Church are so ordinary. Most Sundays, nothing that we would describe as "miraculous" takes place. In fact, if you've been around the Church long enough you know that there are parts of church life that can be down right ugly. It is in those times that it helps to be able to see the beauty of God's creation and redemption in each of us even if at that particular moment our sinful nature is showing our less photogenic side. There is much beauty in the midst of our brokenness, in our imperfect fellowship with one another, in ordinary things like bread and juice, if only we will allow God to open our eyes to see it.

There is also something spiritually wholesome about walking around in solitude with a lense constantly pointed away from myself. As a pastor, it is a regular part of my job to have everyone looking at me and listening to me. It doesn't take much imagination to see how that kind of attention could lead to a certain level of neurosis for just about anyone. No matter how loving, gracious, and considerate your congregation might be (all very much characteristics of my congregation) it is difficult to not feel a certain level of pressure in that kind of position. Sometimes the self-examining questions become overwhelming. Am I leading this congregation in the right direction? Am I paying enough attention to this ministry or this group of people? Am I working hard enough? Am I trusting the Spirit? Am I spending enough time with my family? Have I got my priorities straight? I suspect that for anyone who takes their responsibility as a minister to heart, it is easy for these kinds of questions to spin out of control. Most often, these pressures do not come from the congregation. They come from a recognition of the tremendous responsibility we have been given as ministers. I have found that when those inwards doubts mount, there are few things more beneficial than finding solitude behind an instrument which is designed for the specific purpose of focusing on other things. As I look around for things to photograph, I am reminded of the plain truth that I am not the center of the world or my church or even my own existence. There is a whole world that goes on just fine apart from my work within it. No doubt, I am called to a life of responsibility and faithful obedience but the very essence of that obedience is to be an instrument which points away from myself and toward someone much greater than myself. The irony of solitude, practiced as a spiritual discipline, is that this time alone reminds us that we are not alone and therefore gives us perspective on our role within the community of faith.

A couple days ago, Jess, Hannah, and I went out to Weldon Springs, our nearby state park, together ...of course, bringing the camera along as well. There are four trails there, all of which offer tremendous scenery. I derive a unique kind of joy from taking Hannah out on these trails, pointing out different things to her along the way and watching her take in the world around her; sometimes quietly observing new things, other times squealing with delight at a favorite familiar sight. I wonder if God derives a similar type of joy when I go on walks with him and wait to see what part of his creation he will point out to me. Perhaps, for more than any other reason, photography has become a spiritual discipline for me because it distills this faith journey down to one of its simplest forms; walking hand in hand with my Father as he shows me the beauty of his world and my place in it.

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