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Blog

Some of my written words, thoughts, and ramblings. 

Attentive to Advent, Not Social Media
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Because of a new software update on my phone, every Sunday morning I get a notification from Apple’s Screen Time app telling me how many hours I used my phone in the last week. Have you looked at that app? It tells you how many times you pick up your phone, the minutes you use each app, the number of notifications in a day, and your average weekly and daily usage.

At around the same time as I started getting these notifications, I starting looking at rhythms in my life; daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms. Those which were life-giving, those which were draining, those that I would like to change, and those that I would hope to incorporate. This has been a refreshing and deliberate process for me.

Over the last couple years, I have changed the way I use technology. I have realized that the technology which was created to connect us with people far away has actually become the barrier in connecting us with people directly in front of us. More often than not, I’m tethered to a device, almost a slave to its notifications and vibrations, and that makes me less present to life around me. And, I know I am not alone.

About a year ago I decided to make a few simple changes. Now, I no longer keep a phone near my bed at night and instead bought myself an old school alarm clock. I’ve deleted a lot of apps that wasted my time, such as Facebook, CSR Racing, Monument Valley, Candy Crush, and SimCity Build It (Ah, how I miss them). And, I’ve tried to make sure there are times in my day and week where I am not near my phone or laptop.

These simple changes have been great and helped me be less tethered to a device. And, I thought I was doing OK...until Screen Time. Now it’s been visualized just how much time I spend on other social media apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, and Gmail. These are keeping me connected to something other than my family, they are my go to when I’m waiting in line or am ‘bored,’ and are always there when I’m hoping to see the latest and greatest post.

So, with the arrival of the Advent season, I’ve decided to take a break from all social media. (Incidentally, I feel like a complete nincompoop posting on social media that I am stepping away from social media. That seems so counterintuitive.)

I’m deleting all apps from my phone and blocking websites on my laptop. I’m going to intentionally make my smartphone a dumb phone. I’m also planning to shut off my phone for an entire day once a week. Although this new rhythm will only be for a matter of weeks, I think it might be a great one; one that allows me the space to wait for the One’s arrival we celebrate in Advent, to open myself to the One who is always present to me, and to step away from things that seek my attention so that I might be attentive to the One who became the Christ.

This is the time of year we celebrate the incarnation, the Divine becoming “in fleshed,’ and I want to better model incarnation in my own life. I want to be present to God, be present to my wife, be present to my sons, be present my friends, present to nature around me, and present to Christ who is in all and through all. Here’s to a new rhythm. See you soon.

Nathan Albert
Leaving Behind Santa for the Divine
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I was recently reminded of the following quote from the English author, Karen Armstrong:

We often learn about God at about the same time as we are learning about Santa Claus; but our ideas about Santa Claus change, mature, and become more nuanced, whereas our ideas of God can remain at a rather infantile level.

What a striking thought for us to ponder as we enter the holiday season. Have our views of the Divine remained infantile? Are they no longer working for us? Or, have our views of the Divine grown deeper, evolved with our experiences, become more nuanced, and introduced us to a God that is bigger than the box in which we often put God?

Some theologians have described the spiritual path as one that includes times of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. And, I think this is the point Karen Armstrong is making. For many of us, a spiritual path was constructed for us, but as we have grown up we have found it no longer works.

Just as we deconstruct our view of Santa Claus after childhood (at least I’m assuming you’ve done this), it is easy for us to deconstruct (and even reject) an infantile view of the Divine, rather than reconstruct a faith that leads us to new levels of spiritual awareness. One of the early Saints described such a spiritual journey as moving from drinking only milk to feeding upon nutritious solid food.

I have experienced such a process in my own spiritual journey. In fact, I moved away from not only an infantile faith, but one that correlated the Divine as some sort of Heavenly Santa who would give me presents, or blessings, when I was good and give me coal when I was bad, or sinned. This type of God reflected the Santa Claus seen in Coca-Cola commercials; an old plump white guy with a beard who seems, at the same time, both jolly and somewhat creepy.

Yet, I crave a spiritual path and a God that is bigger, more complex, and more mysterious than a Heavenly Santa Claus. I want to embrace the Divine who is Love, Grace, Truth, Hope, Peace, Justice, and Joy. The One who is always present to me, as close as my very breath, who is before, through, and in all things, and is working to make everything new.

Maybe you do, too.

If so, my hope for all of us this holiday season is that we sense the Divine in fresh and new ways, that we encounter a spiritual path that embraces nuances, doubts, and ambiguities, and that we reconstruct a bold and mature faith that leads us to love, hope, joy, and peace.


Nathan Albert
Two Years Transforming; Forever Grateful

For the last two years, I traveled to a monastery outside of Chicago every three months for a three day retreat to tend to my soul. With a group of 70 others, as part of the Transforming Center, we practiced ancient spiritual practices and rhythms such as silence, solitude, centering prayer, lectio divina, confession, the daily office, and more. We traveled together down a road of spiritual transformation and it happened in this place.

For the last two years, I was fortunate to sit under the teaching of Ruth Haley Barton. I had one of her most well-known books, Sacred Rhythms, for about a decade. A mentor of mine had given it to me years before I entered ministry. I had never opened that book. A few years ago, though, I finally took it off my shelf….and donated it. I was going through a minimalism phase and thought I had no need for it.

Then, as part of this community, I had to re-buy, read it, confess to Ruth what I did with her book, and, of course, have her sign my new copy.

During these years, Ruth became my rabbi. We read her books, listened to her stories, studied her teachings, and practiced spiritual rhythms. I was honored to sit at her feet and follow in her footsteps.

It’s difficult to put into words what this experience has meant to me because it has radically altered my soul, mind, and life. For someone who was so eager to enter ministry and do work for God, I was shocked at how quickly I became burnt out and forgot to be with God. The Divine has become more real for me, present with me, and alive to me. It has truly been one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life and I am ever grateful for this community.

I have learned to be present to the One who is always present to me.

I have learned to be with God before doing for God as well as how to be in God for the world rather than in the world for God.

The best thing I can bring to my leadership, life, family, and work is my own spiritually transforming self.

Silence and solitude have become essential practices for spiritual health.

The Daily Office gives me a rhythm to commune with God throughout my day.

Centering Prayer and the Breath Prayer have settled my soul.

Spiritual transformation happens, not because I do anything, but because I open myself up to the God who transforms.

And I have learned that in returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust shall be your strength, for the Lord waits to be gracious to you.

If you follow the Christian tradition, perhaps as a leader of an organization or work in ministry, want to pursue seminary, yet feel as if the Christian faith isn’t working anymore, if you’re tired or worn out, if it seems as if God is distant, or if ministry is killing your soul, I encourage you to join a Transforming Community.

It has made me a better husband, father, friend, coworker, and neighbor. It has made me a better human. It has healed my soul. God will use it to change your life, too.

Nathan Albert
Epic Views and Prayers
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Moving to Lynchburg from Rhode Island, my family traded in the ocean views for the mountain views. We have enjoyed those moments every so often around town when you can get a quick, yet stunning, glimpse of the mountains. They pop out from between the trees or you notice them as you turn off the highway. Certain spots on campus give you the perfect view of Sharp Top Mountain.

Recently, my son and I were driving around Lynchburg and we ventured down a road on which we had never traveled. As our car slowly made its way up a massive hill and reached the top, we were overcome with a majestic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. From the back seat, my son exclaimed “That’s epic.” Ok, he’s only two, so he actually said, “Woah, look at all those mountains, Dada.” I’m pretty sure I kept saying, “This is amazing.” But, he was right, it was epic. In that instant, that road become my favorite in Lynchburg.

There’s something about ocean and mountain views that stir up a sense of awe within me. They make me pause, they slow me down, they calm me, they force me to be present, they remind me that next to their vastness I am so small, and when I’m driving around town, they can get me to start veering off the road.

Studies have shown that looking at a tree for a few minutes can drastically lower your blood pressure and relieve anxiety. Although I don’t have a similar study, I think the same can be said for looking at a mountain range or the vast ocean. Somehow looking at such a sight can settle you, remind you of your foundation, or simply pause to say, “Wow.” Some people argue that little word, “wow,” is the simplest prayer.

And I have to agree. It’s acknowledging the beauty and awe inspiring view of the Creator’s creations. That is prayer.

May you glimpse something majestically epic today.

May the beauty of the Creator’s creations bring you peace.

And may you, with gratitude and awe, pray.

Nathan Albert
Learning to Be
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For the last two years I have been on a contemplative spiritual journey. It has been a journey of recovering the truth that I am a human being, not simply a human doer. As a minister, it’s been a journey of learning to be with God, first, in order to do for God. As a husband and father, it’s been a journey of learning to be present to my family at all times.

Now, as a task oriented, to-do list completer, J on the Myers-Briggs, and Achiever on StrengthsFinder type of person, I like to get stuff done. Yet, in my rush to complete a task I have often ignored people who ultimately matter more than tasks. Sure, I’ve checked something off of my list, but I have neglected the people around me. I’ve been present to my list, but not present with the people I love dearly.

I’ve also seen how easy it so to get lost in our devices, such as our phones, tablets, or laptops, which results in ignoring the people around us. It’s interesting to note that our technological devices were created to connect us and be present with people who are not physically near. Ironically, though, these devices often hinder us from being present with people physically near. The device created to break down certain barriers actually creates more barriers.

So, I have been learning how to be with God and be with people. I have been trying to log off, shut down, turn off notifications, and leave my phone in the other room. I am working to be present with people around me rather than rush to get a task completed. Through it all, I have been learning how to be.

There is a great psalm found in the ancient scriptures. Written from the voice of the Divine, Psalm 46:10 simply states, “Be still and know that I am God.” Some meditate on this short psalm by reading it slowly as written below:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

It is in our being and our stillness that we can know the Divine. Learning to be still, learning to be, has been a beautiful life-changing quest. And, I invite you to learn to live as you were created to be; a human being, not a human doer. Be with. Be still. Be.

Nathan Albert
Thoughts on Preaching: Say Less, Preach More
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As a former actor and artist, I have found preaching to be an artistic craft. The sermon is an art form, actually, and delivering a sermon is a performance art.

That isn’t to say preaching is simply a show or a performance. Instead, it is an ancient form of communication that is deep, rich, and beautiful. It is the interweaving of words, thoughts, ideas, truths, stories, and silence that is powerful and passionate.

Preaching is also mysterious. Somehow, as one stands up to speak about the God of Love, the Divine One, the God of Love transforms hearts and souls of those listening. As we preachers craft our sermons, it is a chance to create, play, partner with the Divine. It is beautiful

Lately, I’ve observed that some sermons are really long. Like an hour. As I listen to these sermons, I find myself wondering if sometimes the longer the sermon the less is said. Can anyone relate to this? Half way through the 50 minute sermon, you start wondering if with all this talking if anything good is being said.

And so I’ve come to wonder if the more one preaches, the less is one’s sermon. The longer one preaches, the less one says. The longer one preaches and the more one says definitely means the more the listener forgets. Most congregants can’t remember your three to five points or that clever acronym you created. Most say that congregants remember about 20% of a sermon. So, roughly a few minutes of what you say or one point.

Because of this, I think every sermon should only have one point. And say that one point more than 20% of your sermon so your people remember. Some traditions are better at this than others. I think of the Catholic and Episcopal services I have attended where the sermons can be quite profound and leave me wanting more. Recently, one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard was 5 minutes and 8 seconds long. It was delivered by Fr. Richard Rhor and I can’t get it out of my head. You can listen to it here.

I think it’s best that we preach who Jesus is and what God has done through Jesus. If we don’t do this, we don’t have a sermon. If we don’t announce Good News for all people, if we don’t announce the Gospel, than we don’t have a sermon and we’re not preaching. We are just teaching some good advice or a moral idea.

So, my advice for us preachers, is let’s say less and perhaps our sermons will preach more.

 

Nathan Albert
Even the Ice Sings Out
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Sometimes a song is all that can be said. Sometimes music is better than words.

And sometimes, a song and music can be heard in unlikely ways.

Recently, I was on a three-day silence and solitude retreat. I am a part of a cohort of ministry leaders and clergy who gather every three months for such a retreat. On a beautiful afternoon with four hours of silence and solitude, I decided to walk around a lake near our retreat house. I made my way around this almost three-mile lake, looking for deer that roam the area, searching for animal tracks, finding the remnants of acorns, listening for the engulfing noises of silence, and watching all sorts of birds fly and chirp around me.

At one point, as I was crossing a bridge I realized that part of the lake beneath me was still frozen. Making my way to one side of the bridge, I saw small currents and waves being made in the lake as the wind picked up speed. These small waves started pushing up against the edge of the ice. Because of the warmer weather, though, the ice was melting and breaking. As these waves began to push against this ice, it made this spectacular sound. It sounded like a wind chime.

I stopped to listen and thoroughly enjoyed this surprising music. It was as if the ice was singing; as if the ice was an orchestra.

Tonight, I was reading my son the bedtime story, Giraffes Can’t Dance. It’s a cute book about Gerald the Giraffe who is quite clumsy on his feet. His village has a yearly dance celebration, but everyone makes fun of Gerald because he’s so clumsy and cannot dance. Sulking alone in the forest, he meets a cricket who tells him to find the music around him and let his body respond. The cricket says, ‘everything make music if you really want it to’ and goes on to show him how wind, trees, birds, and bugs make a melodic tune each evening. Not to spoil the ending of this bedtime story, but Gerald finds the music around him and becomes the best dancer in the village.

And so I was reminded that ‘everything makes music if you really want it to.’ It’s true. Even the ice can sing out. And, it’s just as beautiful as a full orchestra.

Nathan Albert
A Fresh Start and Clean Slate
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Life has brought a new season, which has resulted in a new blog and a new website. Ah, the perks. And by perks I mean paying for a new website and trying my best to figure out how to be all designer and IT-like. 

As of right now, I'm not smart enough to figure out how to transfer my old blogs to this site. So, maybe that just means it is time for a new one. It's been a long time since I've posted a blog. Much of that is due to busyness of life, having a toddler, and working for a church. Sometimes people don't like what you have written, and sometimes those people are in your church. So, it's time for a clean slate; a fresh start.

A fresh start is where I currently find myself. My wife and I recently transitioned out of our roles serving a church. I was there five and half years, while my wife was there ten years. Staff restructuring and budget cuts made it painfully obvious we would be leaving our positions. So, both unemployed, it's time for a fresh start and a clean slate. 

We are entering a season of rest, renewal, and hope. It comes with a few vacations, a new workout routine, a desire to start up my podcast again, and perhaps back to writing a blog or two. I trimmed my beard, got my hairs cut, and am ready for what is next. And somewhere, somehow, we are expectant that we will meet God, doors will open, and our lives in ministry will flourish.

Here's to a new blog, a new website, a clean slate, and a fresh start. 

 

Nathan Albert