How I Know Grace

By Matt Lang


Five years ago I was ordained and installed as the minister of First Presbyterian Church of Des Plaines, IL. I was three months away from my thirtieth birthday and I assumed, of course, that I was at the beginning of a long and successful career. Like most seminarians, I was uncertain about a life in the church, but many people encouraged me to go into ministry. I was recruited by seminaries, I got a full ride. I was told that, given my intelligence, my experience so far, my leadership, and my “gifts and talents”, I would be able to write my ticket.

After one year I began to dread Sundays. After two years, I was done.

I looked for other churches. I would go for in-person interviews, but get turned down. Then I stopped getting in-person interviews. Then I stopped getting phone interviews. Then I stopped getting any reply at all. After a dismal return to the non-profit world, I decided to take a break from ministry, at least professional ministry. My break has now lasted almost as long as my ministry and I can’t help but feel like a prospect that washed out when he was called up to the big leagues. I have sympathy for Bill Pulsipher.*

It all left me feeling far away from God. Not angry at God - it wasn’t important enough to be angry about - just distant, like God and I didn’t have much to say to each other. I was tempted to walk away from the church all together, but two places have kept me connected, if only in practice: the Hesed Community Cooperative, an intentional community in which I live (and which is a non-professional ministry, of sorts), and Wicker Park Grace.

Actually, I shouldn’t say “if only in practice”, as if practice is inherently empty, as if it is void of any real meaning. Practice gets a bad rap in Protestant circles, with our emphasis on belief. We put belief up here (and I’m making a motion up by my head) and practice down here (and now I’m motioning around my waist). We insist that our actions should flow from our faith claims, and any actions disconnected from such claims can be dismissed as mere ritual. But it was the practice and ritual of going to church that kept me connected to the church and to God when I just wanted to leave.

I was the dad who went because he knew it was important for his kid to go. I was the guy who just wanted to sit in the back and be left alone. I went because it had kind of become a habit and most of my friends went. I went because, sociologically, I knew it was important to belong to a group. I went because it gave some kind of shape to my week. I went for all the reasons evangelicals say you shouldn’t go. Yet because I went, and went through the motions, and prayed and sang and ate and drank even though, deep down, I didn’t really believe that I had any kind of relationship with God or Jesus. I was religious without being spiritual. I stayed connected to people who felt connected to God and through them found my way back to a place where I believe God might have something to say to me, and I to God.

It is the people, the flesh and blood people, and the food, the real food, and the chairs, and the tables and the paper and the songs and the prayers and the smells and the physical act of coming together as physical bodies in a physical place that are important to me. That is how I know grace.


* Bill Pulsipher pitched in the major leagues, off and on, from 1995-2005. He was a highly regarded prospect when he signed with my beloved New York Mets. Though he pitched during six seasons with five teams, he only won thirteen games.



Welcome, Kristin!

Kristin_RiegelHello! My name is Kristin Riegel and I am second year student in the Master of Divinity program at McCormick Theological Seminary. I grew up in rural Western New York but spent summers and most in Minnesota with my mom’s family in Minnesota.

Growing up, ecumenism and religious plurality were subtle but central parts of my life. In addition to being baptized in a Methodist church, attending a Baptist youth group in middle school, and being confirmed and active in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) church, I was blessed to learn and talk about God, faith, and life with my extended family, which includes Quakers, Catholics, Humanists, Atheists, Jews, and agnostics.

When I began attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 2006, my subtle interests in religion and personal questions and struggles with God, love, faith, and grace bubbled up and overflowed through my involvement in the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL).

Working with the CRSL, I facilitated compassionate multifaith conversations as a member of the Macalester Multifaith Council, organized Christian covenant groups where intimate community could be formed and questions asked, and lived in the Hebrew House on-campus. Although my academic work focused on race, gender, sexuality, and the media, my passion for exploring what it meant to be a person of faith and questions about God’s grace and love was soon matched by a call from God to continue this faith journey by going to seminary.

Throughout high school, college, and now seminary, community has always been central to my life. I deeply believe that God calls people to gather together and to gently hold one another in love and with compassion.

I am excited to be joining the Wicker Park Grace community this year and learning from and with the community. I was moved by hearing about Wicker Park Grace’s abundant hospitality, deep seeking and sense of the Spirit, and focus on fellowship; I look forward to experiencing these things first-hand. My hope for this year is that I will be able to contribute to helping to build up and deepen a community grounded in God’s love, grace, peace, and compassion.



Making Wicker Park Grace: The Motion Picture

By Brandon Sichling

I’m always fascinated by creatives’ tautologies. Bob Dylan is always talking about what he “can’t relate to.” In the commentary of Capote, Bennett Miller constantly comments on making a scene “informative.” In making WPG:TMP (isn’t that hip?) I found myself looking for a theme to present itself. I tend to enjoy a more extemporaneous filmmaking experience when I can afford it, but it does require finding cornerstone around which I can build a piece.

I can’t say I was surprised to hear people say over and again, Wicker Park Grace is “different.”

In doing the interviews for the movie, I tried to get people to just relax and talk to me, since I find that most people are equal parts uncomfortable and interesting in front of the camera. I would ask what they liked about WPG, and the answers invariably had to do with our uniqueness.

In our minds, this singular personality isn’t just about how we worship, although that’s a big part of it. Nor is it about eating together afterwards, but that’s important, too. What brings us together as a community is the fact that we are a community expressing itself through its processes.

I had a lot of footage of us placing candles in sand, a ritual of ours evoking some pretty powerful symbols of light and God’s minute knowledge of each of us. Intercutting those candles while Rebecca talked about praying for us during labor or Virginia thrilling at the rebirth of her creativity in making hats for the babies reminded me that it makes sense God should know us as he knows each grain of sand: we, the body of Christ, know each other.

I personally wanted to explore how we experience that Body through communion. In putting together footage of people serving each other, I found myself thinking about the doctrines I’ve seen attached to this practice, the sundry ways I’ve experienced it.

I’ve taken communion individually, as a congregant, served by clergy, but I wanted to explore our method because it makes the most sense to me by best expressing the nature of the body of Christ: we are unified in our community and are all empowered by God to serve. It’s a really wonderful way of bringing people together.

What I discovered is that what makes this community so special is the very thing the Bible tells us will set us apart: our love. The bread we break together (as adored by Brian and Ellie) shows us not only as a community cooking for each other, but also happy to sit down and talk to one another like a family (minus the passive aggressive allusions and unwillingness to wash the dishes).

Our theme for communion, Bread and Wine recalls the music so special to Allie and Rob. Allison loves to draw and listen to Rob’s music, which he realized in talking to me that he gets to compose without restriction or worry; both are artists who know we will support them in their endeavors.

Those struggles of self-creation are what we encourage at Wicker Park Grace. I was once told “the most important thing about you is what you think about God.” Listening to my church family talk about what it is we do and how we do it, I realized WPG goes further.

I summed it up with Sarah’s comment that we need to use the gifts in our community for each other to serve God. We are teaching ourselves the love of Christ as the Spirit guides us, so that the most important thing about Wicker Park Grace is how we act on our thoughts about God.

These thoughts are changing, becoming different and more unique as a community’s mind and those of the people within it, but that is what sets us in motion. We are set apart by coming together.

(You can watch Brandon's video about Wicker Park Grace, here.)



Sharing My Gifts

Nick Croston

My memory on this is admittedly a little bit fuzzy. I can identify my very first invitation and visit to Wicker Park Grace almost to the day. For the life of me, though, I can't remember just when I turned into an official volunteer caretaker of the Chicago spiritual community. I can't remember any details about the day I first showed up an hour early, ready for the service, only to be told it started an hour later. It was really more of a gradual development. I began helping out around on occasion, placing things here and there. I eventually turned into the official water boiler, and I spend much of the immediate hour before the usual service now setting up the chairs, making the tea cart look halfway presentable, and lighting the candles.

Nicks Lights

As long as I've been attending Wicker Park Grace, most - probably all, in fact - of the attendees have been very keen on the idea of giving back. Giving back has never been an idea that irked me; it is a belief which was drilled and pounded into my head from my earliest days in Buffalo. My problem at Wicker Park Grace was not about whether or not I should contribute, but just HOW to contribute. At the time of my first invitation, I had been out of work for a couple of weeks. While I found another job soon enough, that job was more of a desperation gig. I did not expect to be identifying myself with it for over two years. I certainly didn't expect to be almost completely destitute at the time of its end. Monetary contributions were obviously out of the question. 

I did the only thing I really could do at this point; or, at least what came instinctively to me: I reached back to my blue collar, Buffalo kid roots. My contributions to Wicker Park Grace come strictly in the form of manual labor. While many people don't really get the chance to see me perform, I say quite proudly that the welcome comfort and familiarity they experience when they walk through the door is the result of my hard work. My contributions play one of the most important roles in setting the atmosphere for the evening services. The warm atmosphere of Wicker Park Grace is the result of a lot of ongoing trial and error work. 

While I don't believe in any gods, one of the stories from the Gospels that always resonated with me was the story of the old woman and the two copper coins. Growing up in a Protestant Lutheran church, the moral of that story was that this woman, who had almost nothing to give, still reached into her scrap pile in order to give those coins to her Synagogue. Give up those coins, and when you are left with nothing afterward, donate your time and talent. That extra pre-service hour is my personal donation of my time.

My volunteer work, however, has become more of a personal expression than even that. In person, I have developed a special knack for saying the wrong thing at the absolute worst time to people whose viewpoints are on the other end of the solar system. While I don't actually intend to offend people, I often do appear as rude, crass, and angry even to some people who have known me for years. The labors I perform for Wicker Park Grace have become a way for me to express my gratitude to them for aiding me when I need help, listening to my inane rambling, and generally being willing to endure my worst offenses. My servitude is the one way I can say thank you without risking slandering anyone. It's difficult to accidentally insult someone by making iced tea or putting someone's chair in place. 

That covers the time portion of my contribution. When the Simple Living Group was created in April 2010, I was tasked with providing the documentation. While my talents as a photographer and filmmaker aren't nearly as developed as my writing, I humbly took up this opportunity to share my talents in order to spread the idea of  urban gardening. My pictures and films have received a lot of positive feedback, and I'm proud to have contributed to this cause through those mediums because I've always loved them. 

When the time comes that I will be able to contribute through other means, I intend to. But even then, I don't plan to surrender my volunteer work. It is the best possible use of my time and talent, and so much a part of my personality at Wicker Park Grace that I can't imagine not doing it. 

All too often, when people hear the words "please contribute," the instinctive question is "Great, now how much is THIS going to cost me?" There is more to contribution than simply signing a check, and seeing contributions as obligations is missing the point. Contributing is about making a sacrifice for something you truly believe in. It doesn't necessarily mean breaking the bank; it is more about believing in something so much that you're willing to to provide support through any means possible. There are many people who have had their lives changed at Wicker Park Grace, and those people have found many different ways of making contributions. Some donate, some partake in planning, and some create groups to focus on specific issues. Contributions take a multitude of different forms at Wicker Park Grace, and acting as a caretaker and documentarian is my way of giving back.

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