Monday, May 30, 2016

May 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for May...

1. I read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed this month. I heard Ahmed at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April, during which he did a brief reading. I was intrigued enough to pick it up. This story follows Adoulla, who is advanced in age and the last of his kind as member of an order that hunts evil creatures. Incredibly weary of battle and the world in general, Adoulla is pulled into a conflict with a more powerful force than he has fought before, which involves the Khalif that rules the land and an expanding group of rebels with a charismatic leader. There were elements of Firefly and Star Wars that drew me in, but the world Ahmed establishes is fascinating all its own. I enjoyed this debut novel and look forward to more.

2. I also read Glorify by Emily C. Heath this month. Heath explores progressive Christianity's need to reclaim its center as a movement rooted in faith and discipleship, rather than solely action or results. Heath encourages progressive Christians to consider the theological grounding of pursuing important service and justice goals, and reflects on how these result from seeking to follow Jesus as opposed to tacking on the theology as an afterthought. It's my sense that my generation has been introducing an entire movement of seeking to get mainline denominations to-recommit to their core as Christ-followers, and this book gives an overview on why that is important.

3. We finished the second season of Daredevil this month, which first introduces Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, as he runs roughshod through several New York gangs. Even as Daredevil finally helps take him into custody, he learns enough about Castle's background to see that there's more behind the scenes than he first knew. Along with this appears Elektra, a former lover and fighting partner who enlists his help battling a mysterious group of ninjas called The Hand. One theme of the season is how stretched between multiple commitments the title character ends up becoming, and there come some difficult decisions as events develop. At times it felt like there was too much going on for the viewer as well as the characters, but overall it was an enjoyable season.

4. I'm a little late to the party, but this month I finally listened to (and watched) Beyonce's new album Lemonade. This album has made waves the past few weeks for several reasons: the release came as a surprise, it was accompanied by an hour-long film featuring powerful artistic visuals, it has a strong socially conscious message centered on the lives and experiences of black women. This is not "Bootylicious/Single Ladies" Beyonce. This work is incredibly eclectic and rich both musically and lyrically; expressing the full range of human emotion. The presenting issue on this album is a troubled relationship, but repeated closer listens reveal that there are deeper themes at work concerning identity, pride, courage, and freedom. Here's the trailer for the visual version of the album, as full videos of it are hard to come by:



5. I've been listening to and enjoying Art Angels by Grimes this month. I first heard "Flesh without Blood" a month or two ago and finally sat down to hear the entire thing. Grimes is solid pop-rock with electronic elements woven in. It can be peppy and upbeat as in "California" or "Flesh without Blood," quirky/primal as in "SCREAM," or more reflective and airy as in "laughing about not being normal" or "Life in the Vivid Dream." Here's a mashup of two music videos from Art Angels:

Friday, May 27, 2016

Shalem Blog Post: A Willingness to Explore

I've written a reflection for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation entitled "A Willingness to Explore:"

With just a few weeks left in my seminary career, my wife and I moved off campus and into an apartment a few miles away. We figured that it would be easier to have that step taken care of before graduation, so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to find a new place to live later. It proved to be a good move for us, and we began settling into our new living space in the Valley Park area of St. Louis.

Having been barred from keeping pets on campus, we were eager to find a feline friend to help warm our home, which we did in the form of a black-and-white cat that we called Eve.

Click here to read the rest.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Vintage CC: The Meeting

While reflecting on how writing fits into my sense of life and vocation, I ran across this post from September 2014. I occasionally imagine an interaction with my 3D reflection regarding some sense of who I am. Doing this has produced several of my favorite pieces, and has been a helpful exercise in discernment.

The opening of the door causes a small bell attached to the frame to jingle. The scant number of patrons and workers remain fixated on their own tasks and conversations. I gently stomp some of autumn's excess moisture off my shoes before moving further into the room, navigating around a few tables to reach the counter.

The barista, a younger woman with a lotus tattoo on her wrist and a streak of red in her dark hair, greets me with a soft smile and asks, "What can I get you?"

I look up at the chalkboards listing the options, glancing out of the corner of my eye to spot the one with whom I am meeting. I just go with a simple mug of the house blend. After I pay, I make my way over to the table by the window where my partner sits by himself.

He's dressed simply, a grey turtleneck sweater over dark blue jeans. His black peacoat is draped across the back of his chair. It's all familiar to me as I remove my own coat and similarly arrange it on my own seat. I sit across from him, nursing my mug as he does his. He doesn't acknowledge me during any of this, preferring to stare into the black liquid in front of him.

I am content to wait, choosing to study his face in the meantime. His glasses help to mask modest circles under his eyes, betraying a fatigue that I'm sure I'll hear about when the time is right. His hair, which I once knew to be dark brown, now has hints of white sprinkled on his temples. He is young, but these features reveal his worries and responsibilities.

The silence persists for a while longer as the acoustic version of a Regina Spektor song starts playing over the speakers. This of all things seems to be what brings him out of his revelry.

"A while ago, somebody told me that I was a good writer," he begins without looking up. "It was a silly thing I was doing at the time, writing stories based on a wrestling character I'd created. E-fedding, they called it. I was actually considered one of the best storytellers on that website for a little while."

He takes a sip of coffee before continuing. "Eventually, I didn't want to write like that any more. But I took the feedback to heart, and started writing in other ways. I figure, hey, I just started my career. I should write about that, use the internet to process my first years, connect with others, all that stuff."

I nod. I know this story. But he wants to tell it, and I want to see where he's going with it. He takes another sip, running his thumb across the rim to catch a wayward drip afterward.

"It was great for a long time. A long time. I kept getting feedback, even got myself some notoriety here and there. That was a little freaky. But I liked it. I figure hey, I gotta keep this up. I gotta keep my audience. Keep writing, keep contributing to the conversation, blah blah blah. Once I stop, they disappear. And then what?"

He notices a couple walk past the window, and this breaks his monologue for a moment. He takes another sip and I do the same. Something the barista says to another customer causes him to turn partially around, then he faces back toward the table. For the first time, he looks up at me.

"At some point, doing stuff the same way gets old, you know? Writing the way I did...I don't need to write that way now. I'm on my second gig, I'm not the new guy on the block any more..."

He trails off, as if trying to find how to phrase his next thought.

"It's like...it's like that Beckett quote. 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' You know? I write, I want to stop, I keep going, because I really don't want to stop. You know? That's, like, the nature of a discipline. Right?"

He falls silent for a time, savoring a few more sips, noticing people passing by the window. Finally, his gaze focuses back on me.

"It's ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, I think I complain about this every few weeks, don't I? 'I don't want to, I want to, I don't, I do.' You get tired of it, I get tired of it. On and on and on it goes. And what changes? What do I end up doing about it? I can't not write. I can't. I have to."

He holds my gaze for a few moments. I wonder if he actually wants me to respond. My mind races to fill the silence as he leans back in his chair. He raises his glasses so that they sit atop his head and folds his arms. I try to buy myself time by taking another sip, watching the window, playing with a cuticle on my left hand.

Just as my mouth finally starts to open, he leans forward again, still looking directly at me.

"There's so much out there, man. Books, music, having kids, the church, this new spiritual direction gig. What am I complaining about? Seriously. I should just suck it up, because that's what real writers do. So if I want to keep pretending to be a real writer, I have to keep going."

I nod, stifling a laugh.

"I dunno. Even the most dedicated ones feel the need to just sweep all their papers and stuff off their desks, right? Be all like, 'the hell with this, I'm gonna go raise pigs,' or something. It happens to all of us, whatever it is that we do. But then the next morning we wake up, make the coffee, and go back to work."

My lips start to move, but he keeps going.

"Well, whatever. Sometimes I just need to hear myself talk it out, you know? There's a lot more to write, a lot more words. Back to work, back to work..."

His voice trails off as he looks back out the window, nodding to himself. He starts tapping his finger on the table. Both these actions become more intense the longer our silence lasts. The traces of a smirk form on the corner of his mouth.

For as long as we sit together, he doesn't say another word. I finally make it to the bottom of my cup. He just keeps watching the street, tracing his mug handle with his finger. I stand, don my coat, and walk my empty mug back over to the counter, where the young woman gives me the same polite smile as earlier. I open the door, once again tripping the bell. He still sits and watches, though what he notices is known only to him.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Prayer for Trinity Sunday

based on John 16:12-15

Faithful God, we know you in many forms. We feel a warm breeze, look up at the glow of the moon, or watch a bird flit its wings and see your goodness at the heart of all created things. We experience moments of forgiveness, kindness, and transformation and remember the particular calling you issued through Jesus. We come to moments of clarity, reassurance, and courage, and sense that your Spirit has given these gifts to us. In moments like these, we sing, “holy, holy, holy” to mark the sacred ground on which we stand.

We each bring our own needs for such moments today. We may be seeking reconciliation with a neighbor. We may be wondering at how you are present in illness. We may not know how you are able to love us as we strive to rectify our injuring another. We may be feeling a pull toward something bold, but lack the ensuring confidence to take that first step. In these times, we seek the manifold faces of your presence to guide us through.

O God, we celebrate the gifts that you freely share, and the many ways you reveal them to us. May we be as generous with others as you have been with us. Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Sacraments Aren't Virtual

Centuries ago, theologian and Protestant Reformer John Calvin stated that a church is marked by two things: the presence of faithful preaching, and administration of the sacraments. Wherever people participate in communal hearing and interpretation of God's revelation and share together at baptism and communion constitutes "church." That's all such a gathering required.

To me, this definition is pretty simple and offers itself to broad application. If these are the only two required marks of church, we could engage in them in a wide variety of settings. One doesn't necessarily need stained glass, steeple, pulpit, font, or altar for such things. Preaching and the sacraments can happen in places as diverse as homes, pubs, coffeehouses, hospitals, parks, airports, and campgrounds, among many other possibilities.

In recent times, people have been exploring how church could be expanded to include online gatherings. One example from my own tradition is Extravagance UCC, which has established itself as a virtual church for several years now.

I respect the innovation of such faith communities. I believe that community can and does happen online. I've experienced it in many ways over the years, both related to faith but also related to popular culture, sports, and other common interests. I've seen people offer support to one another both through online encouragement and information sharing, as well as beyond that to real-life connection and offering of resources.

Given this, I see no reason why an online community couldn't be considered a church, at least in the sense that one can share in similar support. Streaming sermons and worship, chat room or Skype Bible study, sharing prayer concerns, direct deposit offerings, and sending resources via mail or in-person meetups are all possible through virtual churches.

But the one thing that such churches are unable to offer: the sacraments. But as it happens, the Church of Scotland is at least entertaining the notion:
For centuries the key Christian sacraments of baptism and communion have symbolised people coming together in one place. 
But under potentially radical plans being considered by the Church of Scotland, the rites could be administered online for the first time in a move to redefine the idea of a congregation in the internet age. 
The suggestion, to be debated by members of the Kirk’s decision-making General Assembly which meets in Edinburgh next week, stems from initiatives such as streaming services to enable housebound parishioners to join in despite being unable to be physically present. 
A paper presented to members of the General Assembly drafted by the Church’s Legal Questions Committee suggests re-examining issues such as voting rights at congregational meetings to people joining remotely. 
But it goes on to argue that it is also time to go further and create what could effectively amount to virtual congregations, by allowing “access to the sacraments” for people are not “physically present in the congregation”.
The term "virtual sacrament" is an oxymoron. By their nature, baptism and communion make use of tangible, visible, tastable elements to communicate an experience of God's presence and grace. Water, bread, and wine embody something in baptism and communion that require firsthand participation in order to receive their full effect.

Sacraments are about incarnation. When we are able to feel water running down our forehead or as we rise from the baptistery, we have experienced a sign of cleansing and new beginning that baptism signals. When we chew or sip and swallow at communion table, we experience a real sense that we are participating in a meal at which Christ presides.

A virtual version of these acts takes away some fundamental element of what they are: a remembrance, re-experiencing, an outward practice that manifests an inward reality. 

As much as the internet has expanded the possibilities for community and support, the sacraments do not lend themselves to be substituted in an online space. As sign-acts that require tangible elements for what they communicate, at least one limitation of online church seems to have been reached.

According to Calvin's definition, then, does that mean these spaces can't truly be considered churches? I think that's an open question. It could be that virtual faith communities need to keep thinking creatively about how to administer the sacraments with integrity; that allows participants to experience them as they are meant, whether in occasional in-person meetups or other options not yet imagined for this new frontier in church organization.

Maybe the Church of Scotland will surprise us with an answer. I'll hold out hope for the possibility.

But you can't be baptized or receive communion through a computer screen. That's simply not how they work.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Prayer for Pentecost

based on Acts 2:1-21

Spirit of grace, we strive and strain to discern your movement among us. We confess our frequent bewilderment at what you are doing; our attempts to confine your inspiration to match our own comfort. We fool ourselves into thinking that we're able to bottle fire, only to be thrown into confusion when you escape our feeble trappings to show us possibility more vast than we can imagine.

Days of Pentecost don't bring simple explanation or description. Rather, they bring chaos by way of a new word not previously heard or known. Yet by that same word comes clarity, vision, a way out of rut and routine. We are startled out of worn paths to bold new  dreams propelled by divine power and to new life given by holy breath.

By your Spirit's presence, give us a fire for sharing good news and bread for the journey. And by that same Spirit, empower us to share in your dream of a refreshed, redeemed world. Amen.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Summer Reading

I'm always reading something. Along with music, books are my biggest and most constant pop culture indulgence. So to me, having a reading list just for summer seems kind of strange because I don't confine reading just to three months out of the year. Plus I'm not a student--at least for the moment--which is what the concept seems to assume.

But I like books and I like lists, and lately the stack has been getting nice and tall. So school break or not, here's what I'm planning to read this summer:
  • Idiot Psalms by Scott Cairns
  • Short Trip to the Edge by Scott Cairns
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  • Strength for the Journey by Renee Miller
  • Glorify by Emily Heath
  • Ex-Patriots by Peter Clines
  • Jacaranda by Cherie Priest
Poetry, a few memoirs, theology, spirituality, and a bit of sci-fi/fantasy. What's on your list?

And if you're stumped for something to read, can I make one suggestion?

Monday, May 09, 2016

Pastor, and

Most pastors aren't just pastors.

In addition to their primary vocation of serving with a church in ministry, many pastors tend to take on additional roles that help round out their sense of calling.

Some pastors are also speakers. Or authors. Or workshop leaders. Or spiritual directors. Or professors in higher education. Or leaders on denominational boards. Or chaplains. Or advocates in justice or charity organizations. Or professional musicians.

And that's just to start.

Pastors serve in these additional ways for a variety of reasons. They may love local church ministry, but also find that they have gifts to be used in other ways, or more fully, outside of that role. They may feel called to more than one vocation (as really, most are) and seek not only to integrate them but also fulfill each in unique ways. Some need to take on other work because they're in a pastorate that can't pay them enough, even though they still consider it their primary calling. And, cynically, some seem to use pastoral ministry as a sort of "homebase" for one or more of these other roles to which they give a preferred amount of time and energy.

To be sure, the world needs these other roles, as does the wider church. They serve as a complement to what one does in the local church, even lending additional insight to what we do the majority of the week. We become ambassadors of both our local church and the Church Universal as we reach out to something bigger, be it the community or denomination.

Being a pastor is an incredibly involved profession on its own. I celebrate those who devote their talents to it alone due to its great physical, emotional, and spiritual demands. For some, it is enough.

For others, we can't not answer the call beyond this single role. We must write. We must speak out. We must teach. We must sing or play or paint or dance. As much as this additional work benefits others, it also feeds us, satisfying an itch to do more according to our passion and gifts.

And let us not forget other vocations entirely: those that are in our homes rather than out in the world. We may be pastors and writers, pastors and professors, pastors and administrators...but we also may be pastors and spouses, pastors and partners, pastors and parents, pastors and caregivers, pastors and siblings, pastors and friends. We are called to personal relationships as much as to those we know in our professional and volunteer roles. Our time, energy, and attention is needed close to our hearts as much as out in the world. Our souls and those of others are in need of feeding in ways other than our public functions.

I've been on my own rollercoaster ride being a "pastor, and." At first, I was a pastor and husband, then a pastor, husband, and father. These three roles alone filled my days and, to my shame, I haven't always had them in the right balance to each other. Along the way, I've also been pastor and spiritual director, pastor and blogger, and pastor and denominational leader.

Nowadays, I am pastor and husband, father, spiritual director, writer, Committee on Ministry chair, and lay ministry instructor. It is enough. Actually, I've been discerning lately whether it's too many. I'm always thinking about how much time I'm giving to each, and which must decrease so that others may be given the attention they deserve. A few of them are irrevocably intertwined and enjoy primary consideration, while others go on and off the shelf as appropriate.

Making time to be a pastor is in itself a challenge. But to be a "pastor, and" demands much more. Are we being faithful with what we've been entrusted? Do we have our ratios of time and energy in the proper balance? Are we giving too much of ourselves to our additional work at the expense of our congregation; to our congregation at the expense of our loved ones? Have we taken on more callings than a particular life season can bear? Where for us is that sweet spot where everything is in its rightful place?

Most are called to be "pastor, and." People besides those in our congregation need us to share who we are and what we can do.

But we must share well.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Small Sips Wants You to Read the First One

If you read nothing else in this post, at least read this one. Emily Heath reflects on the current crop of "bathroom bills" being considered in many states, and shares their own experience of suspicion, discrimination, and fear:
Here’s what happens. I walk up to the bathroom, with it’s picture of a woman in a dress, and I push open the door. Sometimes it starts there. A woman is coming out and she looks at me, looks up at the door, and looks confused. I push on anyway. Sometimes she will helpfully say, “I’m sorry, sir, this is the women’s room.” I have learned to say, “yes…I know” and keep walking without waiting for a response. 
I use the bathroom as quickly as possible. I don’t know what the supporters of bathroom bills think trans and gender non-conforming people are doing in there, but I can assure you it’s not exciting. In fact, I can testify that most of the time we get out as soon as humanly possible. Then I wash my hands, carefully avoiding the mirror-reflected gazes of the woman next to me. I say nothing, unless something is said to me. And then I leave. 
I am lucky in that the worst that has ever happened to me in a women’s room is that I’ve been embarrassed. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. One was pulled out by force by a man who believed she was going to harm his wife. He had thought she was a man. Other friends have come out to find a someone standing with a police officer who then demands to see their ID. And I’ve certainly thought about how to best defend myself if someone gets violent. Everyone I know who is gender non-conforming has had those thoughts.
Oftentimes, when people want laws passed based on fear, they reduce those affected to caricatures and stereotypes, quickly forgetting that these affect real human beings whose experiences are vastly different than what one knows. Unfortunately, it seems that the push to ask about or explore these stories is fairly small, given how strongly some wish for laws like legislating bathrooms to be implemented. I am glad not that Emily has had this experience, but that they had the courage to share in order for people to understand a little better.

Hindsight is important. As Benjamin Corey celebrates the completion of his doctoral studies, he looks back to list five things he would have done differently in seminary along the way. This one especially resonated:
4. I would have focused more on the process, and less on the finish line.  
So much of life tends to be lost when we focus on the destination instead of the journey. Looking back I realize there were many times that I was so focused on the end result, that I cheated myself out of joy that only occurs in the process. 
Learning to be fully present– not living in the past or hyper focused on the future– has been a life long struggle for me. I’m slowly starting to get a grasp on it, but my years in seminary would have been enhanced had I learned to do this sooner.
I clearly recall a spring day near the end of my seminary studies where I felt grief over the realization of these years almost being completed. It was one of the most stretching and formative seasons of my life including many experiences beyond the classroom. I am fortunate to not have the same regret listed above. But this is a good list for anyone currently in or considering the seminary journey, as it provides encouragement for what students should do during their time that won't lead to this ruefulness later.

More than a disease. My New Sacred colleague Chase Peeples shares thoughts on his encounter with a teen wrestling with depression, and how we are not defined by our illnesses:
Sometimes theologians speak of the “true self,” “inner light,” or “divine spark” inside of us to describe that piece of us made in the image of God. That “real” self, as opposed to the false selves we show the world or mistakenly believe are legitimate, is our identity given by God. 
To be human is to have trouble discovering that “true self,” but some of us have an additional complication in our search for who we really are, because we struggle with mental illness of one degree or another. That warped view of reality which is filtered through depression or another type of mental illness sure seems real enough, but God works though medication, therapy and relationships to help us discern who we really are and how good the world can be.
Certain segments of Christianity don't deal well with mental illness. They don't understand it or even make the attempt, and have little to offer beyond platitudes like "just pray harder." It's important to take the suffering of those like the young man mentioned above seriously. Beyond that, churches and pastors must actively join a network of care that includes other providers and methods including what Chase mentions.

Reason #9: no regular coffee. Carey Nieuwhof lists eight reasons why churches don't break the 200 attendance mark. Today I'm thinking the most about this one:
6. Too many meetings. I led a church with a grand total of 50 people in attendance. We had 16 elders. Overall, the church was in evening meetings 2-3 times a week. Why on earth would a church that small need to meet that often? I eventually repurposed most of those meetings to become meetings about vision and reorganization. We also cut the number of elders down. Now, although we have a much bigger church, I’m only out one or two nights a week (and then mostly for small group). If you’re going to meet, meet on purpose for the future. Free up your time so you and your team can accomplish something significant.
My church is working through a similar repurposing to give teams much more flexibility in having to meet, encouraging them instead to communicate in other ways to accomplish goals. It's still in process, but I agree that the meeting/activity ratio of many church groups can get a bit lopsided.

Let's read one more post featuring a list. Karl Vaters lists five changes that may already be happening in many churches. Today I'm mostly thinking about this:
2. The Way People Give Is Changing  
When earning patterns change, giving patterns change.  
By every account, people in their 20s today don’t just give less than people in their 50s give. They’re giving less than people in their 20s used to give. And people in their 50s (and 40s and 60s and more) are giving less than they used to, as well.  
Because of this, churches must figure out two things: how to do more ministry with less money, and how to find opportunities people want to give to.  
As an example, in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations there was no faster way to get people to give than to launch a church building program.  
Not today. People in my kids’ generation are more likely to respond by asking “why should I give my hard-earned money to help you build yet another church building?”  
But they will give directly to people with needs they can relate to.  
The successful church of the next generation will erect fewer (and smaller) buildings, but meet more direct, hands-on needs.
My church has just begun a capital campaign, and the team in charge of the campaign has already heard rumblings from younger families along these lines. So we're trying to address it in creative ways accordingly. But even if we make it through this having convinced enough people to give, the long-term truth of this might still be something many churches will need to engage.

Good Lord, yes. Another New Sacred colleague, Brittany Caine-Conley, reflects on how we can't get church right. After so many articles insisting that there's only one preferable way to worship and purporting to speak for what all Millennials everywhere want from a church, this was refreshing:
There is no right way to worship, no formula to figure out social justice or small groups or spiritual renewal. 
We can fall prey to shiny idols with finish lines and all the answers, or we can sit at the intersection of pain and possibility, inviting the Spirit to shake us to our core and envelop us with a chaotic peace. 
Stop looking for answers. Let church be the question. Let church be the journey. Let the Spirit come and deconstruct the institutions and buildings we’ve constructed to contain the truth. 
Love your church, and hate it sometimes, too.
My first few years of ministry were jarring because I wanted so badly to be perfect in my role and I wanted the church to be perfect in everything it did. In some ways, I can't imagine that I was fun to be around at certain points because of it. But once I finally let go of the One Way We Should Do It, I had a much better experience of exploration, leadership, and attentiveness to the Spirit's direction.

Nowadays, I'm much more able to do what Brittany encourages: to love the church for what it is, and to occasionally get annoyed and fed up with it, too. An institution run by humans is bound to fail and falter, and accepting that a certain amount is built into the mechanism can be quite liberating.

Misc. Jan Edmiston on letting people be themselves in worship. PeaceBang on prayerfully engaging in ministry. Aaron Smith on there being no rules to adulthood.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Five Ways to Support Authors

It's now time for another edition of "Jeff thinks he knows what he's talking about when it comes to writing." In this episode, I try to put into words some of what I've been thinking about regarding the fun practice of promotion since publishing my book a month ago.

The initial support has been fantastic. Many friends and loved ones helped get the word out about Coffeehouse Contemplative by sharing links to Amazon (where it's primarily available). I don't have as large of a built-in reader base as others, so any sort of support like this certainly helped. And that got me to thinking about general ways I've tried to support fellow authors and artists who aren't superstars and who don't have a large mechanism behind them getting the word out about their work.

So I compiled a short list of basic ways people can help lesser-known authors. Sure, part of this is self-serving because I'd love for my own stuff to have a larger reach. But this is also the sort of thing I've done for others, too.

1. Buy their books. File this under "duh." The most basic way to support an author is to purchase their work. And I don't just mean on Amazon, although the way some publishers do it that may be the primary or only way you can find certain books. In my case, I get a certain percentage of each sale regardless of where you buy Coffeehouse Contemplative, whether through Amazon or elsewhere. So it might personally feel good to go directly through the author or publisher website for online purchases, but it might not matter in regard to royalties. The only real difference in that sense might be if you buy the book at a reading or speaking event where the author has copies available. Regardless, simply buying the book helps. Again, duh.

2. Word of mouth. Did you like the book you read? How about telling someone else about it so maybe they can like it, too? This includes recommendations on social media platforms like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, but it also includes that old-fashioned practice of speaking words to another human being based on their tastes and/or circumstances. Whether you think someone simply would like it or you think it'd be helpful for them as they go through a particular season of life, telling someone about a book is an easy way to be supportive.

3. Sharing on social media. I mentioned this above, but I figured it could also use a standalone bullet point. You might tell particular people about a book based on their situation, but telling all your online friends or followers that you liked a book is yet another easy way to share news that a certain work exists for their (hopeful) enjoyment. I see this as different from "word of mouth" because you won't personally know the ins and outs of what all your social media connections like, but you're putting it out there for their consideration.

4. Write reviews. I don't pretend to know how this works, but leaving reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads helps boost the signal on a book. These sites have super secret algorithms that keep track not only of what readers buy, but what they take the time to rate and write about. The more reviews, the more indication to their computers that the book should be promoted in Recommendations and other places. Even a middling or unfavorable review accomplishes this, because you took the time to say something. How about that?

5. Invite them to speak. Are you part of a book club or some other setting where an author's book somehow applies, e.g., religious organization, job, social club, support group, non-profit? Maybe during your next meeting, fund-raising event, leadership retreat, or continuing education workshop you need a speaker, and the author would be perfect! Of course, clear it with whomever you need to first, but reach out to the author, offer an honorarium, set out a table for their book, and bring them in.  Then others might hear for themselves what hooked you to begin with, buy a copy of their work, tell a friend, leave a review, and the cycle continues.

Again, these are five of the most basic ways to support authors you like, especially the 98% who don't have huge built-in platforms. If you like something, buy it, promote it, share it. Every little bit helps.