Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pastoral Prayer for Those Seeking Peace

based on Philippians 4:1-9

Faithful God, we can't often understand what peace looks or feels like, but we know when we don't have it. In the hurriedness and uncertainty of our lives, we are unsure if we would even recognize inner comfort when it finally comes. We might be too distracted to notice it, or too worried that we will lose it, or too skeptical to receive it. The lasting peace that you promise surpasses our understanding; we long for it, yet don't know where or how to seek it for ourselves.

And so we bring our frazzled and frantic selves to you, happy to leave them at the altar yet quick to snatch them up again to continue the pace we're accustomed to. Perhaps if we at least offer our deepest struggles, it will at least open our hearts enough for your Spirit to speak gentleness to our weary and wary souls. We hear so often that you are with us, but we need to calm our racing pulses enough to get in sync with the rhythm of grace you are playing into our lives.

God of Peace, be with us. Guide, strengthen, soothe, make well all our bruised and cracked places. Show us again the way of love, for our sake and for that of others. Amen.

Image via Pixelbay

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Are the Misfits by Brant Hansen

If American church culture makes perfect sense to you and you fit in seamlessly, don't read this. Seriously, return it immediately, before you spill something on this book and can't get a full refund. Because this book is for the rest of us. In fact, it's full of nonstop good news for the rest of us: the misfits, oddballs, introverts, and analytical types who throw ourselves at God's mercy, saying, "Yes, I believe...but help me in my unbelief." - Brant Hansen, Blessed Are the Misfits

I've been a fan of Brant Hansen's writing for quite a long time. I can still remember my first encounter with his words over a decade ago: a blog post declaring that he and his family were giving up church attendance in favor of a different sort of gathering with other people of faith. At that time, he kept a blog called Letters From Kamp Krusty, where he sometimes poked fun at the strangeness of church culture, at other times tackled more serious issues such as acceptance and doubt, and at other times engaged in outright silliness such as singing (sometimes literally) the praises of toast.

What I always noticed and appreciated even in those earliest days was Brant's repeated observations that many Christian circles don't often know what to do with those who don't quite fit the mold. It's easy to welcome and accept and engage with the ones who seem well put together, those who carry themselves confidently or who are articulate about faith issues. It's more difficult to do so with the shy or awkward, those struggling with disorders or disabilities, the ones who dare to express doubts or questions.

In that sense, Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They're Missing Something is a culmination of what Brant has been writing about for years. The warning he includes at the very beginning (partially quoted above) names that he wants to speak to all those who have often or always found trouble trying to relate to fellow believers in traditional contexts or ways.

Much like the title, many of this book's chapters follow the model of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, declaring various groups of misfits "blessed." He addresses groups such as those who can't easily access their emotions, those who struggle with prayer, those who struggle with "imposter syndrome," skeptics, and those on the autism spectrum, among many others. Every chapter provides a combination of personal anecdote, scriptural insights, and assurances that one shouldn't feel so alone; that in fact there are many others wrestling with similar issues, and that God loves them all regardless.

Brant is quite open with his own struggles throughout his book. As a self-identified introvert, skeptic, and "Aspie" (person diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome), he weaves his own story into many chapters. This is not a memoir per se, but one of the reasons he wants to include and reassure many of the groups that he does is because he falls into them himself. He knows the issues well, and his form of self-confession and exploration allows the reader dealing with similar things to enter into what he shares more easily.

I found Blessed Are the Misfits a wonderful exploration of why so many don't feel like they fit into traditional church culture or ways of expressing faith. He helps show that such things don't mean they aren't or can't be loved by God. In fact, he says, we often see that Jesus tends to spend more time with the outcasts, the square pegs in the culture's round hole, who have been deemed unfit, unclean, and unworthy. As he has been doing for years, Brant wants to show that what was good news for Jesus' original audience is still good news for many who need it today.

Blessed Are the Misfits releases on November 28, 2017.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, October 09, 2017

What are Prayer Beads?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?, What is the Liturgical Calendar?

When most people think of prayer beads, the most common image that comes to mind with those familiar with the general concept might be the Catholic rosary. To be sure, this is the most popular rendering of this prayer aide, but far from the only rendering or possibility. But before we get to that, we should examine the use of prayer beads in general.

When we talk about prayer beads, we mean a series of beads strung together in a particular and intentional way, with smaller beads alternating with larger ones to make a pattern. In many arrangements of beads, there may be one smaller line of beads diverging from the circle while remaining connected and featuring a crucifix or empty cross at the end. This usually serves as the beginning and end point of one's time of prayer.

This practice involves running one's fingers slowly around the pattern, stopping at each bead to say the prayer associated with it. Any particular bead may serve as an invitation to say popular memorized prayers such as the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, or Jesus Prayer, or offer one's own petitions for people or situations for which one is concerned. The type of arrangement one uses and the Christian tradition one is most familiar with will influence the specific prayers the beads represent.

Since I think my reading audience is more non-Catholic in nature and because bead patterns other than the rosary might be less familiar, I'm choosing to give a Protestant pattern of prayer beads as an example.

These arrangements have a large cross with 33 beads total. Next to the cross is a large bead called the "invitatory bead" which, as the name implies, serves as our invitation to this time of prayer. Aside from this invitatory bead, there are four other large beads that in the overall pattern serve as the points of the cross; for this reason they are called "cruciform beads." In between the cruciform beads are sets of seven smaller beads, called "week beads."

Here's an image via Pinterest to help illustrate:

The possibilities for how you move around this arrangement are infinite. As an easy example, you may use the invitatory bead as a simple address to God such as "O God" or "Heavenly Father" or "Gracious Creator" or "Divine Mother" or whatever your preferred title for God is while praying. Each cruciform bead could serve as a time to say The Lord's Prayer or Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."). Each set of smaller beads could represent statements about God or Jesus from scripture, people you want to remember in prayer, or verses from the Psalms.

Different seasons of the church year might present opportunities for beads to take on other representations. During Lent a set of week beads could serve as a time to speak or remember Jesus' seven statements from the cross. During Eastertide, the four cruciform beads could be moments to prayerfully proclaim, "Christ is risen!" Advent could inspire use of beads to be traditional proclamations from Isaiah associated with Jesus, or during Christmas the cruciform beads could be a time to sing a verse of "Silent Night." While prayer beads provide a structure for prayer, they also invite creativity.

Here's one of many patterns of prayer that could be used with Protestant prayer beads.

Cross: In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Invitatory Bead: O God, guide me during this time of prayer.

1st Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

1st Set of Week Beads: Remember 7 ways God has been with you this past week.

2nd Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

2nd Set of Week Beads: Offer up 7 concerns you have for yourself or others.

3rd Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

3rd Set of Week Beads: Remember 7 people going through a hard time.

4th Cruciform Bead: The Jesus prayer

4th Set of Week Beads: Think of 7 ways you may need guidance or help this coming week.

Invitatory Bead: O Spirit, thank you for your presence.

Cross: In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Work consulted: A Bead and a Prayer by Kristen E. Vincent

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Small Sips Is on a Committee

God and our own reflection. You may have heard actor and evangelical figurehead Kirk Cameron call Hurricane Irma a message from God to repent (while, by the way, he was waiting for a plane to evacuate the area). Jon Pavlovitz has a response to him, and offers some thoughts on the relationship between our theology and our own personality:
Maybe we who claim faith should refrain from pretending we understand how this world works when it comes to faith and pain and suffering.
Maybe we should admit the mystery, discomfort, and the tension that spirituality yields in painful, terrifying times.
Maybe when people are being terrorized by nature or by the inhumanity around them, instead of shouting sermons at them—we should shut up and simply try to be a loving, compassionate presence.
Maybe we should stop trying to make God into something as petty, hateful, judgmental, and cruel as we are.
Pavlovitz says this all so well that I don't feel like I need to add much. If one's theological statements tend to be tone deaf to real human need, that's less "just speaking the truth in love" and more just an excuse to be a jerk in the name of Jesus.

He has a point. Carl McColman reflects on the relationship between contemplation and privilege:
Maybe this is more prevalent because I live in the south, but when I’ve spoken or led retreats in other parts of the country, it often seems that even there, the same types of folks keep showing up. Folks who, frankly, look and talk like me. 
Some of this may have to do with the demographics of Christianity in America. Contemplation seems often to be most warmly embraced either by liberal Protestants — Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so forth — or by progressive Catholics, folks who are familiar with the writings of contemplatives like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, or Richard Rohr. And since mainstream Protestants and liberal Catholics tend to be white, educated, and affluent… well, you get the picture.
I've been thinking about this point lately, that contemplative exercises tend to appeal to a certain demographic. Or, alternatively, a certain demographic tends to have the time and resources for such practices. Like McColman, this is rooted in experience more than any kind of statistical analysis, but it seems like a study would back this up.

McColman does go on to note that historically, these practices have had much more global appeal, in part because some of them originated in places far different than WASP America. Furthermore, he explores how contemplation tends to make one aware of one's privilege by nature of its call to self-awareness and reflection.

Why "dones" become done. On his Holy Soup podcast, Thom Schultz interviews Andrea Syverson, a self-proclaimed religious "done" who wrote a book about her experience.
She writes: “Maybe the Dones need a bit of rebranding. They may not be so much about being done with church as they are about coming full circle and realizing that it’s all done. God did it all for us! We can’t do anything to change that–not by building a church, not by going to church daily, not by attending a Bible study every day, fasting for 40 days and nights, not by any other holy, holy, holy means we can think of. God already did it all for us. It’s done. He simply wants us to be in relationship with him and receive his gifts.”
The interview is worth a listen. I'm putting her book on my reading list, too.

Partnership, Not Micromanagement. Jan Edmiston shares her thoughts on what makes an effective Church Personnel Committee:
1. Agreement on Why The Church Exists and a culture of working side by side to make the Church’s Mission flourish. The Church doesn’t exist to prop up the Pastor, perpetuate an institution, or ensure that the floor is always clean and the flower arrangements are always fresh. Jesus didn’t die for any of those things.
2. Authentic relationships based on trust and the reality that Church isn’t about us. If we trust each other, we can say pretty much anything (even hard-to-hear-things) and it’s not nearly as threatening. Because we are serving something greater than ourselves and it’s about That.
There are ways for people in the church to relate to one another that are constructive and productive for both pastor and congregation, and there are ways that are...not. When all sides are able to recognize that they're in this together and that they're meant to be partners in ministry, the church has a better chance of flourishing. When staff in particular hears that they are appreciated and supported, their mindset will allow them to do better work. A quality Personnel Committee goes a long way to helping this happen.

Obviously. Pie chart:

Misc. Jon Pavlovitz also gave the Nashville Statement the "plain reading" treatment, helping show that it's a simplistic, hateful gasp from a dying institution. Jan Edmiston again on the voices in our heads. Rick Chromey on how churches created the Millennial exodus through over-programming.