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Report by Debbie Mead 

NAGA members were delighted to hear presentations by keynote speakers, Dr. Daniel B. Clendenin, founder of the Journey with Jesus webzine (, and Debie Thomas, webzine writer, as they spoke about their journeys to the Episcopal Church. Dan was quick to point out that since Debie joined their staff in 2015, their readership has doubled.

Both Debie and Dan thanked the altar guild for the work it does. Debie lovingly referred to it as the work of cultivating mystery, beauty, wonder, reverence, artistry and grace. She said that her particular journey to the Episcopal Church and the kind of spiritual writing she now does owes a great deal to the work that we do as altar guild members. Dan said he is especially mindful of the ministry of the altar guild on Maundy Thursday at the stripping of the altar, the one day of the year when the dark church is left barren of the beauty the altar guild bestows upon it each and every week. He referenced Exodus where Aaron’s priestly garments are “for beauty and for glory,” which is to say liturgical beauty was an important part of the people of God even 3,000 years ago!

Debie described her early faith as having derived from a 2000-year-old Christian heritage that began when Jesus’ Disciple Thomas came to India, but that it had “devolved” over time to a religion of the mind, not a religion of the body; not a religion of the senses, beauty, festivity, creativity, art or imagination. This looked like a church with bare walls and bare worship, with none of the vestments, candles, icons or crucifix that we are used to seeing. Their reason behind this bareness was to prevent distraction or idolatry and to focus on what really mattered, which was their beliefs and separateness from the sinful world outside the church doors. The emphasis was put on each individual to carry their faith forward without doubt, being disconnected from the rest of the world. This meant no dancing, drinking, movies, music, jewelry, jeans — no boyfriends.

Even though she began to have questions as she became a young adult, Debie expressed her gratefulness for those who raised her and laid the foundation for her faith today. They were so earnest about their faith, reading the Bible and praying, and they taught her that The God of the Universe loves her and wants a relationship with her, and not to take God’s grace for granted.

At this time in her life, she also started to have questions and couldn’t understand why so much of what she loved about the world — the wonder of nature, artistry, imagination and the senses — had no place in her church, no connection to the sacred. Why did God require bare walls, bare language and bare worship when the world outside her church was bursting with color and sound, light and shadow, taste and texture? She began reading the Bible differently, looking for hints, for clues of a faith of integrity that would not separate the secular from the sacred, body from mind, nature from scripture, the church from the world. 

She found the embodied faith she was looking for in the human Jesus, who experienced the world as we do. God calls us to live an integrated life. It is why we are here — to be co-makers with God, and as such, invite the abundance of God’s world into the scarcity all around us.

Debie described the first time she walked into an Episcopal Church feeling awkward and clumsy, but that it was okay, because the worship that was being enacted inside that candle-lit sanctuary did not depend on her. She saw the meticulously-prepared space as a place where she could rest in the fact that the traditions, symbolism and ritual had existed long before her and would exist long after her — she didn’t have to make the “Holy” happen, the “Holy” was all around her. All she had to do was enter it, experience it, and embody it. She felt that the faith of her childhood had been given back to her in a more expansive form, with wholeness, depth and fresh clarity.

Dan opened with a description of the Journey with Jesus webzine, saying that it contains not only Debie’s weekly essays based on the Common Lectionary, but reviews of books, movies, music, writings of poetry, and interviews. Dan shared a brief summary of his life after grad school, which included working in Michigan, Moscow, Russia, and finally California. He experienced several periods of joblessness during his professional career, the last of which led him to launch the Journey with Jesus webzine in 2004. It is now read by people in 130 countries around the world. The single largest group of readers are pastors who use the webzine to aid in sermon preparation. Additionally, the readers are broadly diverse, and Dan noted just three examples of their readers: a black pastor in rural Oklahoma, a French-Canadian Catholic missionary in Japan, and a gay professor in Boston.

It was interesting that both Dan and Debie referred to their times spent at different churches as periods when they “worshipped at,” not “attended” or were a “member of.” Dan then shared the six core values that now guide his personal life as an Episcopalian and his professional life as the founder of the Journey with Jesus webzine. These values raise complicated questions that deserve serious and life-long reflection. Though he did not have the time in his presentation to delve into them deeply, he wanted to share them with us. They are as follows: 1–Biblical fidelity; 2–Critical inquiry; 3–Cultural relevance; 4–Church focus; 5–Global awareness; 6–Ecumenical generosity.

Dan closed with one of his favorite poems in the webzine’s archives, a Celtic blessing.

The love and affection of the angels be to you,

The love and affection of the saints be to you,

The love and affection of heaven be to you,

To guard you and to cherish you. Amen.

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