Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: Desperately Seeking Spirituality by Meredith Gould

I have a new book review up at The Englewood Review of Books. This time around I review Desperately Seeking Spirituality by Meredith Gould. An excerpt:

Early in Desperately Seeking Spirituality, Meredith Gould writes, “Annoying reminder: spiritual awakening is a process, not a one-time enlightenment event” (7). There is so much to this quote that captures the book’s essence.

First, “annoying reminder.” You will not find here the typical air of reverence, awe, inspiration, and peace that characterizes most books on prayer and spiritual practice. As Gould notes from time to time and as the title indicates, spirituality is not a simple thing to nurture and pursue and it can and does feature moments of confusion, frustration, and irritation.

Read the rest at the Englewood Review of Books.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Pastoral Stewardship Prayer

based on Psalm 119:97-104

O God, how we wish we could make your presence and purposes our meditation at all times! We come to this time of prayer with so many good intentions about service to you and to others, about generosity to our neighbors and to those most in need. We tell ourselves so often that this is the day we will be more committed, more faithful, more gentle, more hospitable, more open to your guidance.

But then life happens. Bills are due. A parent or child is sick. We have deadlines. We have obligations. We get cut off in traffic. We're actually approached by a person we thought we'd be ready to help. And our resolve begins to deteriorate as we realize what you are really asking of us.

One meditation to which you call us is to be good stewards of our gifts, to manage and share what we have so that others may be blessed. But again, the demands on our lives create complications and we wonder about the most faithful way to proceed. And so we quickly settle back into old routines hoping that tomorrow will be finally be different.

Giving God, may we be as beneficent with others as you have been with us. We ask how to share of ourselves that will build up your realm in a world craving kindness and new life. May this be our meditation each and every day. Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2016

What Is the Examen?

For many years now, I’ve believed that most churches—particularly those in mainline denominations—have many untapped spiritual resources at their disposal that have gone ignored or dismissed for a variety of reasons. This could include but is not limited to an overemphasis on intellectual faculties, minimization of the role emotions play in religious experience, and a conscious decision to prioritize mission, service, and social justice over personal spiritual development.

I certainly would not say that the use of reason and pursuing justice are not important. Quite the opposite, in fact. I would say, however, that many are not able to recognize the role that spiritual practices both classic and modern could play in strengthening and empowering one’s awareness of God’s presence in these activities, and the potential that they have to help ground people of faith in a sense that what they are doing is not for its own sake but because God is calling them.

So I have decided that, rather than complain about this (which I have done here and elsewhere quite extensively, including in my book), I would provide an introduction to such practices with an invitation to the reader to consider taking one or more on for themselves.

Today, we focus on the Ignatian Examen.

Ignatius of Loyola developed the Examen of Conscience for his Spiritual Exercises. Out of the four “Weeks,” that is, phases, of his Exercises, the Examen is introduced early, during the First Week when the focus is on one’s own sinfulness and need for God’s love.

There are actually two versions of the Examen, called the Particular Examen and General Examen. The Particular is meant to address a certain sin that the observer is aware of and wants to correct, and Ignatius proposes a set of steps whereby he or she practices it several times during a given day in order to address it.

The General Examen might be more well-known and widely practiced. Ignatius originally meant it to be observed prior to making Confession and receiving Communion, but it is often adapted as a standalone exercise.

There are five steps to the General Examen:

1.     Thanksgiving – Expressing gratefulness to God for benefits, gifts, and blessings received. This could include ongoing experiences of fortune such as one’s family or job, or specific happenings during a particular day such as help from a friend. This step is to recognize the goodness in one’s life and to take time to be thankful.
2.     Confession – Asking God for an awareness of sinful thoughts or behavior, and for the strength and help to reject them. This may include a negative attitude toward someone or certain acts of commission or omission. This is a time to name one’s imperfections and own up to moments of ignoring God’s presence and activity.
3.     Review – Taking time to remember the events of a given period of time, beginning with thoughts, then words, then deeds. One gives an account to God and to oneself how he or she interacted with the world. This step usually assumes that the Examen is being observed at the end of a day, though it isn’t required.
4.     Forgiveness – Having confessed sins in Step 2 and remembered the day’s events in Step 3, the observer asks God for forgiveness for wrongs committed, remembering that one ultimately is beloved by God.
5.     Resolution – Having confessed and asked for forgiveness, the observer resolves to take on new habits and attitudes with God’s help to correct past thoughts and behaviors for the future.

Several things here must be acknowledged and clarified.

First, some readers may react to how “Catholic” some of this sounds, which is often a convenient way for many non-Catholic Christians to dismiss spiritual practice. Many of the classic practices did originate in Catholic traditions, as Christianity did in fact exist prior to the Protestant Reformation. These practices are ancient, well-grounded, and deeply rooted in time-tested tradition and have many benefits for Christians of any persuasion so long as they are open to the process.

Second, readers may bristle at the prevalence of sin language in this practice. The Classical Liberal theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries moved toward rejecting such terminology in favor of viewing humanity as basically good, and such thought continues to prevail in certain corners of Christianity. A quick internet search or a half-hour’s worth of cable news shows us a world steeped in violence, discrimination, misunderstanding, and selfishness, which incriminates individuals, groups, and systems alike. “Sin” still serves as a powerful and useful theological word in such a reality. Why mince words with God or oneself?

As mentioned, the Examen may be best observed in the evening as a way to review the day’s events; to give thanks for the good and to fess up to the bad, and to discern how God was a part of it all. It also helps us to consider how God may show up in the day to come, and how God may best be served given what may be possible.

This last point is how one may begin to integrate such a practice into one’s dedication to mission and social justice; to ground that dedication in one’s faith. And it may inspire the observer to use one’s God-given gift of reason both in reviewing and considering the day ahead. This is how such such practices help assimilate the spiritual self into the rest of one’s life, centering it in God’s presence.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

You're Allowed to Laugh in Church

I have a new post up at the UCC's New Sacred blog titled You're Allowed to Laugh in Church:

My church has enjoyed a little bit of fame recently.

It started when I had an idea for our sign that would acknowledge the season and make light of how a lot of grocery stores, restaurants, and coffeehouses serve “pumpkin spice” flavored drinks and confections this time of year.

There it is to the left: “Now Serving Pumpkin Spice Communion.” It’s a churchy spin on the autumn flavor craze, baked in with a slight commentary on how excessive and absurd said craze can get.

And yes, it’s a joke.

Read the rest at New Sacred.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Small Sips Typed "The" and Deleted It

Meditate before mediate. I made that up. Pastoral ministry brings its fair share of anxiety, from busy and diverse days to parishioners unhappy about some aspect of your performance to arguments in committee meetings to a million other things. Carol Howard Merritt acknowledges this, and proposes several small exercises to center and focus before delving into the latest fray:
•Sit down, close your eyes, and breathe. Your breath may be choppy. That’s okay. That’s fear. Keep breathing deeply. Remember that your breath is spirit. God’s Spirit animates you. Wake up to God surrounding you and embracing you. 
•I typically imagine one of two things, at this point. 
1) You are rising above the chaos. Somehow, try to transcend time and space. Look down on the conflict. See how small it is? See how little difference it will make if you win or lose this? Imagine how large your calling is in God. Now look with compassion on the people involved. Think about what has wounded them. Why are they lashing out? Keep breathing and keep rising above it. 
2) Imagine a stream. There are leaves floating on the stream, pulsing down the river. Think about the fear that is gripping you. It feels giant, like a mass of things crushing you. But try to imagine one thing. Put that one thing on the leaf. Imagine it floating down the river. Now, think of the next anxiety inducing thing. Put it on the next leaf. Watch it float down the river. Keep on doing this, as you breathe deeply.
It's embarrassingly easy for pastors to get so caught up in their own and others' anxiety that they lose sight of what grounds them, or the nature of their vocation. These are two small ways to remember. I myself make it a point to pray before a phone call or meeting I know will be difficult, even if all the prayer consists of is, "God, please guide whatever is about to happen." Even that one sentence helps center me for the time to come.

Related. Jan Edmiston reflects on the importance of clergy taking what she calls "thinking days:"
If you’ve ever been on a silent retreat, you’ll know that it takes a couple days to figure out how to be silent without a racing mind or (for me) excruciating smart phone withdrawal. Do I stare into space? Do I take a nap? Do I pray? Do I talk to myself? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. 
And then the brain cracks open. 
As the world continues to be a Ceaselessly Noisy Information Fest, one thing the Church can still offer for all people in all places is quiet space. If a used car company is open to offering Thinking Days, surely we who are in the spiritual life business could do the same.
I've heard of these before, and I think I even know a few colleagues who observe something like this. Every once in a while I'll take a morning to stare off into space in a coffeehouse, or an hour to just sit in my office to think and pray over what's happening. I still have my practice of wandering empty sanctuaries, although it's not nearly as frequent as it once was.

I've always found times like these to be worthwhile. They can jump-start my thought process on a particular issue that needs addressed or new energy. Sitting in silence has produced more than one moment of inspiration over the years I've been in ministry.

For me personally, a "thinking hour" is more effective than a "thinking day." But mileage varies.

I can still use "just" when I pray, though, right? Rebekah Simon-Peter names two words growing churches don't use:
I’d like to delete the words just and simply from church vocabulary. They’re dishonest. I know; I used them way too often as a pastor. As in, “To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, all you have to do is simply give your life to him.” Or, “To join this church, you just have to come to a new member’s class.” Or, “Just give what you are able.” Or, “To be on this committee, we just need you to attend a monthly meeting.” 
I used those words because I was afraid to scare people off. I wanted them to dive in, unafraid. Like the old Alka Seltzer commercial, “Try it, you’ll like it.” Here’s the trouble. Just and simply are indicative of a low expectation culture. One that practices mediocre grace and doesn’t bear much fruit. Jesus didn’t have much use for trees that didn’t bear fruit. Or churches that were lukewarm.
She follows this up by naming three words churches should use more: expect, vision, and try. As she argues, they're more direct and encourage a culture of greater commitment.

I appreciate her points about the church likely being the most optional activity on many people's to-do lists, and how even the smallest shift in how we speak about what we do could alter perceptions about the nature of the church and what we're called to do together.

So, calling them lazy and selfish won't work, then? Kaya Oakes reflects on the increasing demographic known as the "nones," and what may or may not appeal to them about religious affiliation:
The mistake religions often make of guilt-tripping them about adherence while ignoring the work they are doing to bring about social equality reduces them to statistics rather than trying to understand what their way of thinking about as “God” really means in a post-religious era. 
Some emerging religious leaders like Rev. William Barber or Rev. Osagyefo Sekou offer a new understanding of morality that is intrinsically linked with social justice, which might appeal to religiously unaffiliated people seeking a greater meaning in these troubling times. But more often than not, what religion is offering looks deeply unappealing. Hokey “young adult” ministries, clunky social media, static notions about gender, deeply skewed perceptions of sexuality, out-of-touch clergy with political axes to grind, and little to no evidence of religion as a meaningful presence in their daily lives do nothing to lure back those who have left. 
If religions are still asking what they can do to bring the religiously unaffiliated back, the better question might be this: what can religion do without them? Because all evidence points to this conclusion: they are not coming back, and given what they’re being presented, why should they?
I posted this link on Facebook and subsequently had a great back and forth with some colleagues regarding the possibilities for the church in light of studies like these. One suggested that "nones" are a mission field that holds quite a bit of potential, and that we pay attention to God's activity in the lives of those disinterested in religious involvement; to be ready to welcome those back who choose to come back.

My hope is that more in the church frame this in terms of being a mission field and in terms of God's presence and calling. A term I still like from my evangelical days is "seeker," which is a positive, hopeful, engaging sort of term that still has a lot of undriven mileage as mainliners and others think about and engage with these groups. Certain other popular narratives regarding how boring and lazy they are won't be so effective.

Accurate. Yep, this is how it breaks down:
Misc. Carol Howard Merritt again on stewardship opportunities many churches may be missing. PeaceBang points out how terrible starting a correspondence with "Dear Ones" is. If you aren't reading Aaron J. Smith's thoughts on mental illness, you should be. Bekah Anderson on "inspiration porn" and why it hurts. Thanks to Susannah DeBenedetto for this review of Coffeehouse Contemplative.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

World Communion Sunday Prayer

based on Luke 17:5-10

God of all creation, we can look out at an endless ocean or attempt to count the evening stars and begin to understand how vast your universe is. It is often difficult for us to imagine places a hundred miles away, let alone other countries, and yet today is a day to remember how connected we are to disciples in places so much different than our own. Like grains of sand on a beach or leaves on the autumn trees, so too are your many followers in nations the world over. They strive to follow you where they are just as we do here.

We give thanks for the table you have set for us, and the gifts of peacemaking and forgiveness that we find here. The pieces of bread and sips of cup that we share symbolize something so much bigger, beyond what we can fathom or control. They are your gifts given, and our gifts to receive. And we remember that they are not only for us, but for people in faraway places whom we will never know or meet but who have been called and accepted just as we have. For this we are grateful, and prepare to go forth yet again to live graciously.

World-making and world-loving God, through Christ you show us that an amount of faith as small as a mustard seed can make an amazing difference. As we have tasted a small sample of your presence at this sacred meal, we return hoping to offer even a similar-sized gesture to those in need. We remember our fellow believers all over seeking to do the same. Amen.