A Prayer at Autumn's Return

Faithful God, as autumn's cooler air and abundant rains become more prominent around us, we make gradual preparation to welcome this new season. We shuffle summer items back into garages and basements to make room for what we need as cold temperatures determine how much time we spend outdoors and what we do while there. Some of us are already planning for the season after, whether by shuffling through boxes of decorations or making sure that shovels are within reach.

Many of us may also be preparing for changes in life seasons. Some may be preparing to bid farewell to a life's work, others may be downgrading living space. Some are still settling into school routines and others are dealing with the implications of a new diagnosis. Whatever changes are happening in our lives, you are helping us prepare, offering comfort and strength through your constant presence, letting us know that we do not face times of transition alone.

O God, whether we find ourselves in seasons of change or stability, we are thankful that you are guiding us through them. May this truth empower us in the week to come. Amen.

(Image source)

Five Things I Miss About Blogging

I've been blogging for almost 14 years. I started back in 2005, in the middle of what many may call this medium's heyday, which was roughly 2002-2009 or so (it might have actually ended sooner than that).

Obviously, I still blog. But my attitude toward it has changed, which perhaps reflects the larger shifts that this practice has undergone over the years.

It used to be that "everybody who's anybody" had a blog. For a while, it was one's primary method of sharing one's opinions with the world in an online format. Now many who used to keep one have moved on to other social media sites and share their views in different ways.

I admit that even I don't read nearly as many blogs as I used to. But there was something about what blogging used to be that I still miss and can't seem to be able to find in this internet practice the way that I used to.

Here are five such things.

1. The Camaraderie - The "blogosphere" used to be more of a community. Big sites like Salon and Patheos and others had networks and interactions, and there used to be things called "blog rings" that you could join for like-minded bloggers or for blogs with similar themes (some like the RevGalBlogPals are still flourishing). We'd regularly cross-polinate posts and comments and, over time, I found myself in little pockets of supportive communities.

But as blogging has waned, so has that sense of camaraderie. As mentioned, people connect online in other ways now. I've found a decent amount of people from those earlier days on Facebook and Twitter and interact with them there, but what we had at the beginning is gone.

2. The Personalization - Harkening back to the days of LiveJournal, blogs used to be more personal in nature, like keeping an online diary for the world to read. As more organizations and corporations and businesses adopted the practice, blogging became more formal in tone, and the information shared in posts became more about tips of whatever trade people were a part of and less of their personal lives. Some blog genres like "mommy blogging" kept personal sharing, but turned it into a professional brand. While such blogs had the look of those earlier days, at its heart was the promotion of a persona, which arguably is what most of social media is, anyway.

The point is that something of blogging's raw quality has been cooked away because everyone's trying to sell something now, including oneself. I've even fallen into this trap, having moved away from that same style of personal updates. As an author an occasional speaker, I feel that pressure as much as anyone else.

3. The Frequency - I could tell you about blogs that used to be updated at least several times a week. They were in high abundance, and I'd spend an hour most mornings going down my list of favorites to catch up on their latest insights. I can count those near-daily blogs on one hand now; many more have moved to weekly, biweekly, or monthly output.

It's understandable that this has happened. People may update their Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram daily or even hourly, and it's way more convenient to do that than to try pounding out a few paragraphs several times a week. Such writing takes time and effort, and after a while you just might not feel like putting in that work any more.

4. The Longform Writing - Which brings me to this. It's way easier to type a few sentences on those other sites than something longer on a blog. The attention spans of writers and readers alike have changed. While posts on these other places can still be thoughtful and deep, there isn't the same nuance and expansive explanation that blogging afforded.

Ironically, people who read Facebook posts and tweets, in my experience, have way less patience for understanding the writer's point in favor of outrage either in solidarity or in opposition. A blog post had more potential to develop a point than these more popular media can.

5. The Reading List - As mentioned, I used to have a list of blogs I'd check every morning the way others read the morning paper. A few of these are still writing; many others have moved on. Now I open Facebook and Twitter and am barraged by short pithy ideas or videos or pictures or memes or links to someone else's writing. We no longer share our own thoughts in detailed form online the way that we once did. Hell, I don't even feel like doing it the way that I used to.

But I miss when a lot more of us did.

Focusing in the Wilderness (book excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times.

Our lives are filled with things that distract us, that demand our attention, and that make taking on a regular routine of prayer difficult. And whether we admit it or not, whether we are proud of it or not, whether we would claim them or not, we each have our own ways of coping with the stress that fills our day. We each have ways to “get through it,” that help take the edge off.

We may tell ourselves that these things help us focus, but it may be more accurate that they help numb us, serving as brief moments of pleasure in an endless sea of anxiety. For one person it may be food, for another caffeine or alcohol, and for yet another spontaneous purchases or pornography or the internet. These may bring relief and focus for a moment, but many of our coping mechanisms, habits, and addictions can lead to physical, emotional, and spiritual sickness rather than health or wellness. What we might claim provides temporary clarity can do lasting damage.

Jesus faced his own set of distractions in Matthew 4:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11)
Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days. Let’s go right ahead and reject any attempts at over-spiritualizing this: the text says he was starving. The elements have worn him down, he is exhausted, his lips are dry and cracked, his limbs are weak, and his stomach feels like it is on fire from hunger. This is as far from being a fun time at summer camp as you could get.

We can also assume that he did not just sit in one spot for the entirety of his stay. We can picture him on an ongoing search for water sources, or taking shelter in caves during storms or the heat of the day. Did he pray? We can deduce that he did, given that he does so later in the Gospels. But given the context of his situation, such prayer might not have been for long stretches at times, or it could have been while on the move, and he observed it while always aware of the pangs in his stomach and the prickle of the weather against his skin.

But if all of the natural and biological struggles weren’t enough for him, Matthew tells us about three specific temptations that he faced. Let us set aside for the moment questions about who the devil or tempter is and instead devote our attention to what he is tempted to do.

In the first instance, Jesus’ adversary takes aim at the easiest and most obvious: he’s famished. The pitch starts with, “If you are the Son of God…” In other words, if you have this special relationship with and connection to God, you’re fully capable of feeding yourself. So go ahead and turn a few stones into a nice little meal for yourself. Jesus resists by quoting scripture, “[humanity] does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.” So far, so good.

The tempter then whisks Jesus up to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, and begins the same way: if you have this special relationship with God, go ahead and jump and God will protect you. Again, Jesus answers with scripture: “Do not put God to the test.” Okay, that’s two down.

We’re told about one last shot. This time the tempter presents Jesus with all the kingdoms spanning the world. All earthly power can belong to Jesus if he does one simple thing: he can bow down and worship this adversarial being. So much good he could do with this level of power, the difference he could make! But this final time, Jesus again answers with scripture: “Worship and serve only God, and no one and nothing else.”

We can parse out what Jesus is tempted to do in these three instances and find parallels to today. But notice the common thread that weaves through Jesus’ answers: all three times, he remains focused on God. No matter what comforts are offered to him as potential distractions, his attention doesn’t waver from his understanding of who God has called him to be and what God has called him to do. These opportunities that he has to use that calling for himself represent something other than that, and he refuses to be sidetracked by them.

Given these explicit examples, we could apply them to his entire time in the wilderness. Not only could he have been distracted by satisfying his hunger, testing God’s protection, or claiming conventional earthly rule, he also could have been so by finding other forms of relief from his 40-day sojourn through heat, cold, wind, rain, hostile animals, weakness, despair, boredom, and so much more. But if what we’re told is any indication, he remained focused on God no matter what else presented itself.

The distractions in our lives are constant, palpable, demanding, and draining. The ways we seek relief, self-medicate, or tell ourselves we have some semblance of control are just as numerous and their effectiveness may vary. How could we travel through the grind of our daily schedules with an understanding that God is with us every step of the way? What could change if we developed a focus on God at the expense of all distraction and temptation, moving through each activity prayerfully rather than frantically?

Just as God called Jesus to remain focused, so does God call us in the same way. Rather than hope for a free moment when we can try to give ourselves to a spiritual practice apart from the elements swirling around us, perhaps we should also think about ways to claim our time in the wilderness as a spiritual practice itself.

Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and electronic formats.

Vintage CC: How Your Church Can Attract More of Every Demographic Ever!

Back in August 2013 while having a moment when my frustration with all things church consultant-related was especially elevated, I wrote this sarcasm-drenched blog post. I'm still plenty burned out on a lot of the pontification that this entry skewers, but I'm at least at a point where I'm able to filter out--almost immediately, in many cases--the stuff that I find the most unhelpful.

Here it is, the sure-fire way to get more Millennials, GenXers, Baby Boomers, Men, Women, Families, Hipsters, those who have left the church, the "spiritual but not religious," and even maybe some atheists into your church! This is the blog post you've been waiting for! Are you ready? Are you sure you can handle the mind-exploding information I'm about to share? Only if you're completely sure, read on!

Take these simple actions to attract all of these coveted groups (and more! If I included the whole demographic list, there'd be no room for anything else!).

1. Include more liturgy. People are tired of the flashy stuff, the coffee carts, the praise bands. Give them something tied to a more ancient practice.

2. Include less liturgy. People are tired of the same dry routine every week. Spice up what your church offers by including something more flashy, like maybe a coffee cart or a praise band.

3. Really work on theology and Biblical literacy. So many churches don't teach sound principles and doctrine. They emphasize service way too much and harp on social justice without any grounding. People are hungry for good teaching, so make sure you emphasize this.

4. Really work on service and social justice. So many churches put way too much emphasis on right belief and doctrine, but don't do much in terms of helping the poor and striving for justice for those who are disenfranchised. People are hungry to make a difference in their world, so make sure that you're doing something that they can see.

5. Nobody cares that you're part of a denomination. Really, what does it matter that you're UCC, Methodist, Episcopalian? None of these designations matter. What matters is what you're doing inside and outside your walls apart from such things.

6. Really work on your branding. If you're part of a denomination, really strive to convey what that means. That designation can really help you define who you are, in addition to what you're doing inside and outside your walls.

7. Work on your social media presence. Learn how to use Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and other sites. Make them work to your advantage in engaging potential members. Online interaction and competence is very important.

8. Work on your face-to-face hospitality. Learn greeting skills, create welcome packets, and train people to spot and warmly welcome visitors. Make these actions work to your advantage in engaging potential members. Real life interaction and competence is very important.

9. Meet the "spiritual but not religious" where they are. Engage their stories and find out what's meaningful to them as individuals.

10. The "spiritual but not religious" are lazy and self-centered. Try to get it through their heads that community is more important than whatever gooey claptrap makes them feel good.

Or instead of listening to everyone's pontificating, scooping up every new book, sharing every new article, you could just pay attention to your own context, people, and wider community, and do the best you can to engage those around you.

A Prayer for Opened Ears

based on Mark 7:24-37

Faithful God, our ears are often closed to so much. We miss the needs around us because we're so preoccupied with our own desires. We don't heed the possibility of new things in our midst because we've become comfortably numb with what we've long been doing. We are unwilling to listen to your presence because acknowledging it might ask something of us that we're not ready to accept. Whether of our own making or due to complicating factors in our lives, we don't, can't, or won't hear what you wish to show us.

Our hope and prayer this day is that you take us aside to show us what we've been missing. Unstop our ears to your gifts. Speak your healing word of "Ephphatha" for us to be open to your speaking of renewing and grace-filled truths into our hearts. Through Jesus, show us what we've been ignoring whether in our own lives and in the lives of others so the movement of all your creation toward restoration and wholeness may take yet a few steps toward completion.

O God, may we be listening and attentive to the work of your Spirit within and around us. Amen.

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Book Review: Credulous by Andrea Lingle

The only problem with writing a church book right now is the church scene is a bit untidy. There is senseless argument and decline and bureaucracy. Now that it is no longer cool or assumed that a person would be in church on Sunday morning, there seems to be an impulse to explain why one still goes. But I don't know how to explain. I am moderately afraid I go out of habit. What interests me is, amid the clamor of arguments and definitions, a quiet pulse of hope that faith and spirituality can be resurrected toward a new way of joy and peace. If we could let go of truth and take hold of mystery, what would we see? If we could abandon our obligation for curiosity, where would we go? If we could see each other in the light of infinite abundance, what would we do? - Andrea Lingle, Credulous

Popular church memoirs released in the last decade or more seem to all have a few things in common. First, there is the season of doubt that sends the writer into wondering if a life of faith in general and involvement in the church in particular are worth holding onto. Next there comes the season of disarray, where the person explores questions, becomes disillusioned, strains friendships, perhaps switches political allegiances, and often begins to find a new and different path that makes sense. And then comes a fleshing out of what this path looks like, which may feature a new understanding of the world and a formal or informal faith group that one has found to help continue their journey after the last page.

To be blunt, many of these memoirs are from former evangelicals who began to feel stifled and dissatisfied by canned answers to complex scenarios, and who face pushback and even exile from the communities they trusted to shepherd them through such times of disorientation. But the third act is not necessarily uniform: some land in mainline denominational traditions, others find less structured gatherings, and still others are still searching or have concluded that they're better off on their own.

Credulous: A Journey Through Life, Faith, and the Bulletin by Andrea Lingle actually bucks this familiar script in several ways. Lingle is a self-described "life-long United Methodist," so the need or desire to migrate from one tradition to another will not be a feature. She comes from a pastor's family and has married a pastor, which has had a natural affect on her view of and place in the church in different ways over the course of her life.

This book also does not follow a linear timeline in recounting some of Lingle's experience with the church. Rather, she has chosen to structure it around the typical liturgical elements included in a mainline Protestant worship service: welcome, opening hymn, scripture reading, sermon, communion, and so on. With each chapter following this theme, they become a series of anecdotes, reflections about the larger world in which the church finds itself, and scriptural reflection.

As an example, the chapter on "Offering" moves from a basic description of how churches approach this part of the service to the author's love of cleaning her house to explaining how economics affects everything to how the kingdom of God involves all of life and connects us to each other. Lingle anchors these reflections in Jesus' parable of the mustard seed and Paul's call in Romans to bear things together as a community. The chapter builds upon each theme and ties them together in ways the reader might not see coming at the beginning but where it makes sense by the end.

Every chapter does this, moving in and out of the author's own experience--including especially her admissions that she doesn't always know if faith is worth doing--and connecting it to a larger need that the world faces and that the church is, however imperfectly, trying to address. She is one of those who has chosen to remain with what she knows and to keep loving it, because she's seen the truth it is trying to embody.

Not every reader might be familiar with the structure from which she borrows for this book's organization. Others might be familiar with it but also tired of it. Lingle moves between tired and hopeful, not to make the case that it's the most faithful or to critique it, but to show how it's one way to make sense of what the world and human faith community needs. She also reflects on how it's a way that needs occasional redeeming or refreshing, where we in these traditions sometimes forget why they matter, and that they still can.

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