The “Real” World

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

The summer is winding down. The mosquito bites on my ankles have waned in their itching intensity. As family camps and youth camps have begun drawing toward closure, we are left with our reflections on this peculiar communal practice of going into the wilderness together to draw closer to our God and remember our belonging to one another.

It is not unusual to feel a strange dissonance in these early stages of entering back into normal daily rhythms. It may still be beyond articulation, but what one senses in the soul is a restlessness with the way things are compared to the glimpse of the way things were in a more relationally, spiritually grounded way of being. Many will have just experienced the holy relief of pure acceptance for the first time. The desire to hold on to those moments of God-presence and radical inclusion is surely an understandable feeling.

Every year, I notice something interesting as we dialogue with each other about the initial strangeness of re-entry. It has to do with what is really real. Comments will range from, “time to go back to the real world” to “camp is the real world and everything else is fake.” I find myself increasingly troubled by both ends of the “real world” spectrum and how we attempt to make meaning of these transformational moments in our lives. Isn’t all of it real?

Without integration, the experiences we’ve had lose their transformational potential in our lives and the world. The mystics throughout the centuries demonstrate that genuine spiritual experience is not meant to occur in isolation but always has real-life implications. To so quickly label one experience real and the other somehow less real is to diminish the potential for both experiences to impact each other. If this is all God’s world and God’s Spirit is incarnate everywhere within it, then all that is required of us is our attention in whatever place we are in to discover it!

Perhaps in places like youth camp and SPEC and Reunion (family camp), we find ourselves more diligently practicing attention to God’s Spirit through regular personal and communal spiritual practices like worship and prayer and shared meals and time for holy conversations. The time, which seems to be so scarce in other moments of our lives, is suddenly set-aside in abundance for this exact purpose. Does this make the other times any less real? No! Every moment, every minute is an invitation to dwell deeply in the reality of God no matter where we are or what is on our daily agenda.

In Heart of Flesh, Joan Chittister challenges us to see more clearly the link between our spirituality and the culture surrounding us. “The spiritual life, because it must be lived in the present to be real, is anything but esoteric and abstract. Culture and spirituality, in fact, are of a piece. Culture creates the framework within which the spiritual life comes to be and grow. Some people, of course, look to spirituality for refuge from the real world… But a life that takes us out of life is no life at all.”

An authentic spiritual life allows the deep roots of experiences like camp to shape the way we see the whole real world around us on a daily basis. We are not called to reject this world as some half-truth giving it our half-heartedness while counting down the days until we can escape again. We are called to draw from the reservoir within us of stargazing around the campfire and prayers for healing and inspiring messages of justice and the dream of being one in Christ to influence every detail of our daily actions. We are called now to embrace everything and everyone as real and as revelation of God’s real presence… even what we don’t want to see or accept.

The dream of shalom that has grown as a foundation in the soul does not remove us from the real but prompts us toward deeper engagement as we encounter injustice and separation of many kinds and feel that dissonant nudge reminding us of another way that can be real if we have courage enough to live its truth. We can’t forget that hungry children are also real and so are warzones and long lines on city streets waiting for the homeless shelter to open. If our spirituality is not also for these real spaces and only takes place occasionally in seclusion, we may need to ask some hard questions of ourselves.

Yet, what is also real is the power of invitation to a common table, a holy conversation, to the church which can become that place in our lives that mends the wear and tear in our shalom dream from its weeklong living. What remains real is the radical acceptance you found (even when you feel rejected) and the belonging you felt (even when you feel alone) and the relationship with the Holy that came to you with an embrace you craved (even when it’s hard to feel at times). You can trust in the realness of these things too. You can live their realness everyday and strive to make them real also for those who have never sat around a campfire singing “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.”

I would like to suggest that this year we embrace all of it as real, all of it as space for holy encounter! The fact that these incredible experiences we’ve had are real means that they can happen and become real again anywhere and anytime we open our hearts to the reality of God’s presence wherever we are!


by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

An invitation
For you

Right here
Right now
In the middle of everything

In these details
Of this moment
Of this life

No pre-requisites required
Just this simple noticing
Wherever you are

Just a heart opening
Not even sure exactly why
Or to what

Just this sweet unexpected grace
Offered to you
As whatever you most need it to be

Right now
The invitation
Is for you
For right now

You don’t have to go somewhere else
Or be someone else
To receive it

It is in this person
This task
This conversation
This silent awe

What could be more important than this?

There will be other invitations to come
But this one expires
As soon as the moment
Has passed

Each moment arriving
Holding in its open palm
Another invitation
For you
For another
Into the heart of the holy
That is right before you
Right within you
In the middle of everything
Wherever you are

Seeing “The More”

Lenten Practice: Holy Attention
Daily Act: Schedule your day to see the sunrise or the sunset. Consider the extraordinary gift of life you have experienced in another day on Earth!
Weekly Prayer Phrase: Repeat this phrase slowly as you breathe deeply. You may choose to memorize this phrase and repeat it throughout your day.


by Dustin Davis

“The multiplicity of forms! The hummingbird,
the fox, the raven, the sparrow hawk, the
otter, the dragonfly, the water lily! And
on and on. It must be a great disappointment
to God if we are not dazzled at least ten
times a day.”

– Mary Oliver “Good Morning, 5.”

In an interview I listened to recently, poet Mary Oliver said, “Attention without feeling is just reporting.” You don’t have to read many of Mary’s poems to know she is a woman who pays attention with a great deal of feeling. Her poems, often about common experiences or observations in nature, transcend mere reporting of the facts. Her writing elevates and is full of awe. She experiences the More just beyond the mundane. I don’t want to presume too much about Mary Oliver, but I like to think that she is an expert practitioner of Holy Attention, even if she might not call it that herself.

The other day I had an experience of Holy Attention. I was out for a walk just before sitting down to write a sermon. I had spent almost two weeks in preparation – much longer than my procrastinatory nature normally allows! – and I was rewriting the sermon in my head for the hundredth time before setting it to paper. I was in a space of heightened awareness, both mentally and spiritually, which characterizes Lent, when I stopped to watch a squirrel for no particular reason other than that it caught my eye.

The agility of this squirrel is quite amazing, how it moves so swiftly among a tangle of twigs. She stopped moving and is now sitting on her back legs, her tiny claws curled around a branch. She brings some nut or something to her mouth with the her front…are they paws? Arms? Hands? Her teeth go to work and make a squeaking chewing sound that is quiet distinct. The outer layers of the nut shell fall to the sidewalk below. Suddenly a bee hovers over a flower right near her. I feel nervous for this squirrel! I could never eat so calmly while a bee was so near! She, however, seems unfazed. The squirrel and the bee, eating together. What a world! Is she watching me, as I her, so intently with her shiny black eyes? I can’t tell. If she is, she doesn’t betray her curiosity. The meal is apparently over, and the bee flies away. The squirrel jumps to another branch without falter. A question emerges. Do I belong to this same world where a squirrel and a bee eat side by side, this marvelous, mysterious and wild world? An answer. Yes.

When we pay Holy Attention, whether purposefully or accidentally stumble upon it, we see with new eyes and hear with new ears. Isn’t this what our souls long for? Don’t we yearn to experience the More just beyond the mundane and discover that it isn’t mundane at all? Do we not thirst for meaning in our encounters with squirrels and neighbors? When we pay Holy Attention we cannot ever be blind or deaf. We will rejoice with God. We will suffer with God. We will seek peace and justice to alleviate that suffering. We will know God. And we will belong to the same world as the squirrel and the bee.