About Jodi-Renee Adams

Jodi-Renee is a curious mesh of "heretical orthodoxy": evangelicalism, post-modern philosophy and liturgical practice. Oh, and she's a perpetual student of theology and humankind...as in "I'm still learning how to be human." She is currently pastoring an urban church and working as a writer and musician in various settings from funk bands to liturgical guilds. Her reasons for getting out of bed in the morning include designing formal and informal spaces for people to reflect on Mystery, raising compassionate children, and eating green chili. She resides in Denver with her brilliant jazz-man husband Justin, her high-schooler Sara, middle-schooler Anna-Michelle, and Kinder Leo, along with Dogma the Boston Terrier.

An Epiphany

Denver hosts a parade of light-filled floats the first weekend of December to kick off our Christmas season. It’s a rather time-honored tradition and crowds are packed onto the curbs of the parade route every year. A few years back, I took my then three-year-old son to his first Parade of Lights. We stood opposite the historic clock-tower with it’s red-light lined peaks and every window glowing. His eyes and mouth were fixed in a look of perpetual astonishment; but when Santa came around the corner, with the dancing gifts and snowflakes, the animated penguins, and his genuine spirit of joy, every person jammed onto that curbside came alive. Regardless of age, life-journey, class, race, religion, social group, for a few moments everybody believed in something bigger, something beautiful. Everybody could foresee a time of peace, of togetherness, of mystery and magic. And I wept. Not because of Santa or Christmas or my baby boy’s sweet reaction—but because of the overwhelming presence of heaven. The kingdom was there, quiet and hidden, but seeping into every pore and sound and scent on that street.

I think I also cried because it was not too long ago that this kind of experience would never have made it onto my radar as a sacred encounter. My spiritual categories were so entrenched that I lost sight of what it meant to be enchanted. I might have even “prayed for” those lonely, hurting people who were confusing GOD with the experience of Christmas. Because, of course, I knew what they were really looking for. Ouch.

It’s hard to not wonder how many times I still miss GOD-Who-Is-Bigger or settle for GOD-Who-Makes-Me-Feel-Okay or the safe and expected GOD-Who-Fits-Inside-the-Christian-Culture-Box. You know, the one who grows big churches with “hip” worship. One thing I’ve learned is that the GOD-Who-Is-Bigger isn’t really in the business of making me feel better or reconciling the situations of my life, but often meets me in ways that are subtle, disturbing, and gently lifts my chin from gazing at myself and my ideas of what it means to be “spiritual” to a vision of all that could be out there. There’s an invitation by the GOD-Who-Is-Bigger to genuine self-discovery and Divine-discovery and world-discovery and love-discovery that simply can’t happen when we play it safe or “culturally relevant.” In other words, it’s an invitation into Epiphanies.

I certainly came from a Christian culture that said GOD is big enough to heal my wounds (both literal and metaphorical), to come through when everything else is failing, to “defeat my enemies” (whomever and however I interpreted that), to legislate morality (as defined by Christian culture, not necessarily Scripture), or to act in the blatantly-Christian supernatural. But this GOD was still only big enough to fit into my world—instead of inviting me to get lost inside of GOD’s world; and certainly, once I knew The Truth, there was no need for free-thinking openness or looking about the world with curious longing. This was never more evident than in all of my favorite worship songs and defined worship experiences. It was never more evident than in the lack of profound creative revelation and thematic grandeur. And yet, how cool did I think I was with my anti-tradition, pop-Christian music and my normalizing appreciation for Pink Floyd!!

Perhaps a large part of our spiritual crisis in America is due to the smallness of the GOD we profess and reflect in the day to day of our lives, to our lack of curiosity and to our missed Epiphanies. That’s a pretty big accusation. I get it. I’m not asking you to agree with me, I’m simply asking you to think about it.

Here’s what I learned from a bunch of wise guys: I’m learning to let go of my smug insight into what GOD does and doesn’t look like even as I stroll blindly past the manger bearing the Incarnate. I’m learning to confront myself: How open am I, really, to encountering the GOD-Who-Is-Bigger, even if that GOD doesn’t fit into my cultural or pre-defined categories? And am I willing to worship there?

May the GOD of Surprises, the Deep Well of Mystery, the Divine Spark enlarge your world and your experiences this week. May this GOD illuminate you with Epiphany. May we all mirror that light to those we serve. Through Christ Jesus.

Image © iStockphoto

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Wrestling with Incarnation

I spent a nice chunk of time last night hanging out with my journal and a bottle of red wine while I processed through a deep personal disappointment. Next to me, on the table, was the Christmas Eve liturgy I’d been working on yesterday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice that so many of the images of incarnation—of GOD encased in the here and now—and it got me wondering… Do I really believe that I see it? Do I really believe that this is happening all around me?

Yes.

The problem is: I don’t believe that the sign-posts that I’ve been given are pointing in the right direction. AND I don’t believe that incarnation is that in-or-out, here-or-not. Therein lies the rub for me.

The deep soul of the incarnation’s story starts with slow waiting bearing down on hopelessness, with an arduous and messy labor, and with questions hanging around the manger even as people bent their knees to worship. Incarnation—at its very core—is never without wrestling.

Here’s what I wrestle with: Where does incarnation “begin”? Who bears it into the world? Tim Burton, the homeless lady I passed on my way to church, Bach, the nameless nun who hands out condoms to sex workers, a song, a caress? That seems more honest to me than the Contemporary Christian Music or church programming. Does it only count if it’s (manipulatively) branded as spiritual or “redemptive”? How do we acknowledge, nay, even celebrate and tremble at mystery without having an apologetic for it? How often can we say “I don’t know” or better yet, “we don’t know” and still practice and grasp onto incarnation? When can beautiful explode beyond “pretty” and also mean “disturbing,” “grotesque,” “honest” when we talk about this birth of the sacred into the world?

…sigh…

I’m not actually looking for answers. In many ways, these are just rhetorical questions to be spun around and acknowledged as I go along. I am looking for wrestlers, for grapplers, for architects, and dreamers. Those who are the midwives of the sacred. This is my Advent star-seeker’s journey. I carry no disillusion that I will wake up one misty morning with any of these questions put to rest. That would be disingenuous to the process. Not all who wander are lost…

Giving up certainty. Giving up compasses. Giving up self-protected interior spaces. Giving up notions that we know GOD. Giving up spiritual arrogance. Giving up career-oriented church callings. Giving up above-averageness. Giving up against-the-worldness. Giving up consolation. Giving up quantity. Giving up old maps. These are incarnational invitations.

I have to admit, I’ve always been suspicious of those who don’t doubt, wrestle with, speculate on the bigger questions or those who make Advent a season of “and now Jesus is here” finality. Would Jacob have been chosen by God if he’d surrendered without the infamous ferocity and suspicion? Would Job have stood the test if he hadn’t worshipped in the midst of his sadness, questions and crying out while the Presence of God, the revelation of God, seemed nowhere to be found? Luther sparked a reformation with one initial, internal question: is GOD merciful? Really? then proceeded to wrestle with himself, with GOD, and with the Church.

If you are brave enough, if you are weary enough, I have something to say to you: Let the match begin.

Image: “Fear Not” © Mandy Smith

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A Lesson from the Big, Gold Dome

I can’t say the word “tradition” around my house without a slew of the muppets I call my children breaking into song. Trah-dish-ahnnnn… Tradition! And of course, with that quick cultural connection comes the rest of that image: an idea of tradition that looks, feels, and acts more like a cage than a treasure box.

Poor, misunderstood tradition. It gets such a bad rap in all of the metaphors and archetypes of our narratives. Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh, Old Aunt March from Little Women, the townspeople in Footloose (the original. Please, people…), every higher learning institution in a movie starring Robin Williams or Julia Roberts. In fact, most of the heroes of our novels and stories seem to be the ones who buck “the way it ought to be” and go against the flow of, well, tradition.

Gets me thinking that maybe we don’t understand what tradition is really, why it exists, why the idea challenges us so much.

Coming out of the Baptist, Evangelical stream, I was highly suspicious of systems or traditions and chalked them up to lifelessness, souless-ness, even idolatry. Of course, never could I have seen that my free-church experience was rife with habits and values that had haphazardly become tradition; we just didn’t have the guts, um, I mean, language to capture that succinctly. So when I returned to the Church, after my long and winding wilderness adventures, I found that I craved—no, I needed tradition. And interestingly enough, every great spiritual writer from Julian to Rohr talks about the deep and abiding sanctuary that is to be found in the long-standing traditions of faith.

So I went to the big, gold dome. The Orthodox church in Denver. I sat in the circular sanctuary. Bowed my head in silent though befuddled reverence as the icons came in. Stood or sat over the course of two hours and listened to a liturgy I knew not a word of, holding my breath sometimes until I could hear my own heart beat.

The Orthodox have existed for two thousand years on two ideas: a simple faith rooted in Christ, and tradition. Or as they more beautifully put it: her determination to remain loyal to her sense of living continuity with the Church of ancient times.

Sitting there among the Greek Orthodox faithful, even as an “outsider,” was such a life-giving moment. It wasn’t about converting, joining the ranks, abandoning my own stream: but it was an invitation into the River… into this continuity as observed through creeds, sacred texts, silence, Eucharist and (in the Orthodox tradition) Art.

To the Orthodox, to remove these traditions from the life of faith is to impoverish both alike. There’s an embrace of mystery that is essential—not just chic or post-moder—to the smallest tasks of life and to the heart of faith itself.

Lessons I carried away from the big gold dome: I don’t always have to “get it” for it to affect me, even change me; simplicity is beautiful; mystery keeps knocking away at the smaller, seemingly insignificant moments of my life even when I try to ignore her.

Here’s to continuity, simplicity, and beauty… and the life led by tradition’s wholistic wisdom.

Image © iStockphoto

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GOD-With-Us Every Gathering

Advent always leaves so many of us in a stage of discovery and recreation. What a rich and exhausting place to be! We know where we want to be, especially as we look through the soft light of Advent. We want to be unique, resplendent, alive.

So, yes it’s true that there’s no “formula” but here are a few thoughts as we all keep journeying towards the cradle and the cross:

Spiritual Formation is our intentional or spontaneous experience of God; Worship is the life-infused blessing and affirmation of God-With-Us. Call me a repeat artist… I can’t say this enough. We short-change ourselves and God when we think that our Sunday gathering is intended for us to experience God. For our worship to be a truly God-centered soul-offering, it starts with our eyes open to GOD-with-Us. This happens intentionally—through spiritual direction, prayer, through Eucharist-ing, in journaling the psalms, in religious reading, in centering prayer, meditation, painting our prayers. These “disciplines,” these ancient rites get us out of our own heads for the sake of encountering God and learning to listen in the deepest parts. Of course, this is not the end; it’s really only the beginning. Then we experience GOD-with-us much more freely in the unintentional but still profoundly sacred: listening to Brazilian folk music, standing before a Rothko, truly seeing a friend, or being seen, the hot meal handed to the homeless man and then staying to hear his story, the perfect red wine, your child’s first art project, touch, feel, smell, sight, sound, taste, experience. Where life, truth, soul, beauty (disturbing or pacifying) intersect, GOD is with us. Without these moments, we come to worship with no signposts or windows. We lose sight of the God we profess to serve, worship, and bless. Our journey begins with experiencing God through intentional and spontaneous spiritual formation.

Bringing our stories into worship is an art form we must refine. In the old practices, this may have taken form as a sharing service or a personal testimony. In the old-new practice, this may have been a video story or an off-camera interview. In the advent-new, this will have more artistic overtones. Not just because art is “cool” or creative but because art gives us a common voice. It makes humanity much more human. Think of it as the perfect collage of experience and story. Narrative, image, song, dance, poetry, video… all these things serve to speak a common language and make our stories much more accessible. As we hear stories throughout the week (and as worship leaders we should be avid story-hunters) it subtly shapes our art-offerings into something that tells the story without having to concretely lay down the facts and or give the Lassie-come-home ending. If a sobered addict gets up and recounts their “testimony” it can move a certain demographic to affirm God-With-Us… probably those people that are themselves former addicts, struggling addicts, or have a friend or family member who is an addict. If a sobered addict writes a poetry piece—a beautiful and artistic piece—based on her own personal narrative, suddenly it becomes worship art and sacred offering. Suddenly it becomes accessible to the Church universal because we all can relate to her story somehow—to the darkness and light, to the images and metaphors that will inevitably shape her narrative. And the honesty inherent in good art is refreshing to all of us. This is the new language of story.

Finding the great poets of soul will unconsciously make us better worshippers. Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Rumi, St. Catherine of Sienna, Robert Frost, Octavio Paz… these are the Fathers and Mothers of our contemporary prayer, our collective voice. It’s truly an impossible task to read these great poets and not feel as if you have been transported to a sacred space. As we renew the ancient, we can start to unearth the deep and mystic rhythm of the spoken word. Liturgy, psalms, words of institution… these things are poetry in the truest sense. In fact, as we continue to be shaped by the God-With-Us, it won’t be surprising to hear the voices of these great thinkers making their way into our worship gatherings as liturgy, as prayer, as blessing.

These are three practices. Just that. Practices. They will undoubtedly produce something in you, but what that will be is beautifully unknown and will be utterly unique to you and to your community. Blessings on your Advent journey.

Image: “Pondered These Things” acrylic on canvas, by Mandy Smith.

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Changing Our Expectations as Kingdom Work

There was a blanket of unlit candles on the altar. The call to worship pressed against the air and people took their postures of worship depending on their current orientation: the cynical sat with their heads buried in the liturgy, leaning on elbows; the expectant sat up straight and joined in the collective voice with a certain measured pleasure; the mystics and contemplatives among us sat back in the chair seeming to anticipate the rhythm of the spoken words with the whole of their body and breath. It was what I expected. The interruption to the normalized liturgy came as an invitation, an invitation to tell stories. We redefined our paradigm: we didn’t come to experience God or get our God-fix for the week. We certainly didn’t come to escape from the very real parts of our world. But… we did come to draw the light towards what God was doing in the world with or without us—to find our place in a kingdom reality. We did come to affirm (and incidentally, to remind ourselves) those moments in our last six days where we’d grazed against grace in the form of beauty, compassion, subversive awakening—whether as a witness or a sideways recipient.

Over and over again people told stories and lit their altar candles to give light to the mysterious incarnation of Christ, to the idea of of living in an unseen reality, an invisible principality. I was blessedly relieved that the stories were rich in “non-spiritual” encounters: nature, art, relationship, even grief. As a worship and teaching pastor (and a very post-church, post-evangelical one, at that) I was expecting the usual barrage of God-saved-me-from-a-car-accident, my-friend-stopped-taking-antidepressants, so-and-so-got-saved kind of sharings. Not that these are illegitimate or not Divine, but they are definitely of the culturally programmed variety and flow from the idea that “kingdom” work is somehow more shiny, sanitary, and objective-driven than other kinds of work.

We continued on after this, but there is no definitive way of explaining the shift in the room. Moving on with the flow of the service was easy, effortless, thoughtful. Communion had more of a celebratory and mysterious air to it than I had experienced in a long while.

I don’t mean to imply that we performed the right magic spell or worship formula. In fact, I think the idea that we conjure up God in our worship is both superstitious and arrogant. But I do think that we woke ourselves up. We started to shift our own expectations—of worship and of God. Perhaps better said, we confronted our expectations of worship and of God by thinking about something bigger.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about… when that element of our worship began, an element I had planned and mapped out in the liturgy, I didn’t know what to say or what to expect. My own stories failed me and my own personal and private fears—fears that the congregation I served wouldn’t engage—threatened my thought process. And yet the stories were unremarkable and brilliant and sparked my own stories, my own affirmations of God’s amazing, subtle imploding into the world. I was led by the people I was leading. It was humbling and beautiful.

It was the piece of our worship that stayed with people as we went out into our week. It was the piece that would spark more recognitions of God-in-the-world as we move in our path-worn rituals of the week, that we would be moved to honor God, join God in “kingdom” work—or those things that were formed in a place governed by mercy, grace, and beauty.

This is Romans 12:1. Fitting that we brought this to our own community altar, that we re-enact it in a micro way in the worship. Isn’t that what the worship hour should be? A re-enactment of God’s revelation?

It was more than talking and postulating. It was more than Christian nirvana and “entering in.” It was beautiful. I’m so glad I could light my candle to acknowledge the Presence of God—not only right there or right in that perfect combination of worship elements, but now and then. It’s changing the narrative for me. It’s changing for the community that worshipped together and created that beautiful mosaic of encounter.

I hope that you will have stories to tell at the end of the week. I hope that you and your communities are shining lights of the ever-moving hand of God in those places that exist outside our own clichés and our own Christian expectations—because the kingdom of GOD is hard to find inside our own Christian culture. I hope that you find yourself surprised.

Image © Dominik “Dome”

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