A Prayer for Honest Asking

based on Mark 10:46-52

Faithful God, we sometimes have trouble saying what we mean. For fear of being a burden to others or of coming off as too needy or dependent, we avoid asking for help or dance around what we want hoping that others will pick up on what we need. We've become conditioned to think that, given enough time and enough chances, we'll be able to fix our problems on our own. Either out of stubbornness or felt expectations, we go along with what we think we must do, attempting to ignore how this approach often only does more harm.

Through Jesus, you ask us point blank: "What do you want me to do for you?" You invite us to speak our concerns plainly; to share the deepest desires of our hearts without reservation or hedging or worry of rejection. You repeatedly remind us that you love us too much to avoid the hardest questions and most desperate circumstances that we are facing. Rather, you enter into our lives to enact healing or forgiveness or renewal or rest, whatever it is that will bind up our wounds in whatever form they may take.

O God, may we always endeavor to be honest with you. You have made this life too precious to do otherwise. Amen.

(Image source)

Vintage CC: St. Francis and Doctor Who

This post comes from February 2015. With the premiere of the newest season (and the newest lead) of Doctor Who earlier this month, it seemed like a good time to revisit these thoughts on the TARDIS and the church.

"Wherever we are, wherever we go, we bring our cell with us. Our brother body is our cell and our soul is the hermit living in the cell. If our soul does not live in peace and solitude within this cell, of what avail is it to live in a man-made cell?" - Francis of Assisi

I've been thinking about this quote from Francis quite a bit lately. Part of the reason he's remembered so much for his connection to nature is that he was always out in it, out wanting to commune with the world rather than spend all his time in a monastery room. We don't need a cell in a special building, he said. Our own bodies are our cells. They go places, as they're meant to do. They interact and connect and bump into others. We ourselves are a sacred room in God's great big monastery. And we should seek comfort within ourselves in order to rest peaceably there.

We carry our cells with us. They're always present, not to retreat into but to live within comfortably.

So naturally, that got me thinking about Doctor Who.

The Doctor has a special ship called the TARDIS, an amazing piece of Time Lord technology that looks like an old-time British police box on the outside, but is much, much bigger on the inside. Not only can it travel through space, but it can travel through time as well. "Anywhere you want," the Doctor is fond of telling his companions. It can go there with a few buttons pushed and switches flipped. Any planet or country, past or future, the TARDIS can take you there.

But as incredible as it is, the TARDIS is not to be sat in idly. It contains a vast expanse of rooms and capabilities, but its true purpose is to get you someplace where you then leave it behind for a while in order to explore where it's taken you. Don't worry, it'll be locked. It's safe. People rarely tend to take advantage while you're away.

Now, here's another trick that this ship has up its sleeve. Even when you wander away from it, you're still connected to it. Some of its powers go with you as you poke around the brave new world in which you've landed. It translates alien languages in your head. It sometimes gives its travelers the ability to heal or to stave off threats. Even though you've left it physically, it goes with you.

The Doctor and his companions carry the TARDIS with them.

So of course, this brings me to the church.

Those of us who serve established churches usually find ourselves working with a faith community with a set of assumptions about what the church is. Even the word "church" usually connotes something specific, that being Sunday worship. When you say you're "going to church," you usually mean you're going to worship. That phrase is for that particular event, not the Tuesday committee meeting or the Wednesday Bible study or the Saturday service project. When you say you're going to church, you mean the Sunday morning moment where you sing and listen to a sermon and pray and give money.

The word "church" also usually means a place with stained glass, classrooms, a fellowship hall, offices, and a steeple. Most in established faith communities speak of church as a physical place to which you go to do a specific set of activities. And this physical place needs attention and time and a great big set of budget line items to maintain it.

Now here's where we remind each other that the church is more than that building. There's even a Sunday School song about it: "the church is the people" and all that. But aside from singing that every once in a while, how good are churches at living it?

We are in a time where life in the church isn't what it used to be. Budgets and membership are shrinking, people are finding other things to do with their Sunday mornings besides "going to church." The whole practice of going to a place for even a few hours a week seems like a big daunting production for some families.

So how might we think about "church" in a new way? How might we think about ourselves as individual cells in God's great big monastery, in which we pray and are at peace with God and ourselves? How might we think of the church as more like the TARDIS, a community outpost that is always with us and empowering us even when we are apart from it? How can the church be a place that takes us to amazing new spiritual places when we are together, but is still with us the rest of the week when we're apart?

There's no easy answer. But if we start imagining, God might help us come up with some great possibilities.

Holy Creativity

Whenever we take one of the kids to a doctor appointment, I'm always fascinated by one feature of the rooms in which patients are invited to sit. Each room--as well as the waiting room, hallways, and elsewhere--has a piece of art much like the one to the left, made by an elementary-age child.

Whether painted or drawn, these pictures always have a small paper next to them noting the artist's name, age, school, grade, and the year that it was made. So, for instance, this cat picture was made by an 11-year-old in 5th grade in the year 2000.

The point of fascination for me is that somewhere in the world there is now an almost 30-year-old person who may or may not realize that something they drew in elementary school is still hanging in a doctor's office, seen by dozens of people every week.

Aside from that, this picture hangs in this room for another purpose: to bring comfort to scared patients. Visiting the doctor can be frightening for adults, but perhaps moreso for children. So these pieces of art help bring something familiar, something created by someone close to the patient's age, to comfort them in a strange place where they might rather not be.

One could say that the purpose of any piece of art is to inspire, provoke, or invite a response. Most art isn't just for art's sake. Rather, it is to be shared and received, to provide comfort, joy, or challenge; to give voice or call attention to something that many may wish to overlook or didn't realize was happening or existed.

In other words, most acts of creativity are in the service of something.

Unfortunately, the church has not often been at the forefront of creative thinking. There have been many instances throughout its history when it has discouraged creativity rather than encouraged it, and times when it has gone to great lengths to stifle or squash it rather than call for more of it.

Many in the Reformed tradition of which my denomination, the United Church of Christ, is a part, abolished stained glass windows. Originally conceived as a way for people who couldn't read to learn the stories of scripture through images, many churches post-Reformation thought they were too distracting from the Word preached. Just as one example.

And yet, the Bible is full of creativity. The texts that Christians claim are filled with creative moments that should inspire us to our own.

Genesis 1. God creates the heavens and earth and even takes a day to sit back, rest, and enjoy what God has made.

Genesis 2. Adam is given an active role in the creative process by getting to name every living creature as they parade in front of him.

The Psalms, many of which are attributed to David and which span the spectrum of human emotion in expressing feelings of gratitude toward God or calling God out during dark times when it doesn't seem like God cares.

What we usually call the "wisdom writings." Where Solomon and others in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon observe what life is like and share them with others.

Jesus was very creative. He'd often tell these stories called parables where he'd pull from people, objects, and experiences in everyday life to tease people's minds into thinking about the new way that God calls us to live in the world.

Each of these acts of creativity were in the service of something.

As one further example, we meet a Syrophonecian woman in the Gospel of Mark whose daughter is sick. Jesus has gone to great lengths to try to hide from people. He's been healing and teaching, and interacting with large crowds for quite a while and needs to recharge for a bit. So he hides out in a house where nobody can find him.

Except this woman has been watching. She's used every bit of creativity she has to track him down because she knows, she trusts, that he has the ability to heal her daughter. So she barges in to where he is staying and she makes her request.

As mentioned, Jesus is tired and doesn't really want to be around anybody. So he responds to her by saying, "It's not right to take what is meant for children and throw it to the dogs."

(In case you missed it, Jesus just called a woman of a different ethnic and religious background a dog. We could and should pause to think about that.)

But the woman has no time. She may have just been called a dog, but in reality she is a lioness looking out for her cub, so she claps right back by saying, "But even dogs eat scraps from the kids' table."

Something about this creative and persistent response brings Jesus to himself. Whether he now fully realizes how he's been treating this woman or whether he recognizes the depths of her faith causing her to persist in this matter, he responds, "Okay, your daughter is healed. Go home and be with her."

The woman's creativity is what caused this entire episode. First she probably had to be creative in finding Jesus, and then she had to be creative in responding to his insult. And her creativity is in the service of love for her daughter, as well as justice for people who need help no matter their background.

People of faith are called to holy creativity. We should more readily break the Church's historical tendency to discourage it and instead use it in service of what we're called to do and be in the world.

That includes mission, where we assess the needs of our neighborhoods and then brainstorm responses to them.

That includes worship, where we think about what engages people and make changes that may be new while also remaining faithful.

That includes fellowship, where we think about how people gather and what people gather around now, and think about what that looks like in and around the church.

Christians are called to holy creativity, in the service of God and one another.

Making More Space

I have a new post at the Shalem Institute blog, entitled Making More Space.

An excerpt:

A few years ago, our trusted MacBook of a couple years finally refused to turn on again. At that time we didn’t immediately have the resources available to purchase another one, but each of us—my wife and I—needed a working computer to get our work done. So we settled on a temporary solution: we each bought cheap PC laptops from Target, reasoning that we could make do with them until such time as we could get something of better quality.

Read the rest at the Shalem Institute blog.

But First, Breathe

I've contributed a guest post at the blog Defy the Trend for a series on "Drishti," a concept of focusing on one point in order to deal better with the bigger picture.

My entry is titled But First, Breathe.

An excerpt:

Shorter, faster breaths signal a certain loss of control of the moment, in turn depriving my body and mind of the oxygen that it needs to function. From there, the cycle only worsens: the more I forget my breathing, the more my mental and physical states work against each other, and the more my reactions to the moment are based on stress rather than a true sense of what is happening.

Read the whole thing at Defy the Trend.

An Order of Healing for One with Mental Illness

Greeting

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, Jesus our Healer, and the Holy Spirit our Comforter.

Sentences

God invites us to bring forward our need for healing, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, as God is concerned with the well-being of our whole selves. Through Jesus we encounter a God seeking to redeem our dis-ease for greater peace of mind, body, and spirit for this life and the life to come.

Personal Sharing

[The one seeking healing is invited to speak their need. This may include a time of silence, prayer, or sharing their experience. In turn, the need may include relief from illness, mending of relationships, or a better understanding of God’s presence, among other possibilities.]

Assurance of God’s Presence

With sighs too deep for words, the Holy Spirit prays with us, knowing our deepest longing and pain. Though at times our condition may make it too dark for us to see, God is with us both in times of rejoicing and in times of despair, bringing consolation and love to our weary souls.

Order for Anointing and Laying on of Hands

[The specifics of the therapeutic context or preferences of the individual may preclude the use of oil or physical touch. You will want to be aware beforehand whether one or both of these parts are permitted or desired, and skip ahead in the liturgy accordingly.]

Blessing of Oil

Faithful and healing Spirit, we ask your blessing on this gift of oil, that the one receiving it may find relief in mind and body. Through this oil, communicate to us anew your care and concern for the health of our entire selves, and grant us a new sense of your closeness to us.

Act of Anointing

May this oil be to you a sign and seal of God’s healing presence.

Act of Laying on of Hands

[Name], I lay my hands upon you, praying that the disquiet that you feel in mind, the restlessness you feel in body, and the uncertainty you feel in spirit may be made gentle by the grace of God who is ever with you and ever loves you. Amen.

Prayers of Intercession

[The one presiding over this order may offer their own prayer, keeping in mind the concerns raised during Personal Sharing. This time may include an invitation to the one seeking healing to offer their own prayer before or in lieu of concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.]

Blessing

May the God of restoration and hope fill you with peace, granting you strength and comfort in your journey of spiritual health and mental wellness.  May you always feel companioned as you walk this path. Amen.

Practical Help for Church Members with Mental Illness

In recognition of Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 7-13), I'm pleased to share this guest post from Aaron J. Smith, blogger at Cultural Savage and author of the new book Cultural Savage: The Intersection of Christianity and Mental Illness

How do you help someone with mental illness?

How do you reach out when they withdraw due to depression? How do you deal with the hyper-anxious mind that can become paranoid? How do you love the people in the pews and pulpit that live with mental illness?

Mental illness is a reality in the world, and that reality includes the church. There isn’t some magic shield that keeps people who trust in Christ safe from this illness of the mind. Mental illness is the reality for one in five Americans. So, count out five people in your church registry. One of them is likely to live with mental illness.

So, back to my original question: how do you help someone with mental illness? If our church has so many people who live with mental illness, what are some practical ways you can reach out and offer aid? And they, we, need aid. Living with mental illness is sometimes crippling. Often, it is a miracle we make it through a day. Other times, we might be ok, but don’t believe that we are cured. Mental Illness is a beast that comes and goes, stalks us, devouring us at times and hiding in the shadow’s other times.

You can help though. You can help us survive, thrive, and feel loved (which is something we often feel devoid of).

First off, you have to show up. You have to be present if you want to help, and you have to keep being present. You can’t get tired and give up, get busy with life and forget about us, or simply decide it’s too much to deal with. I suggest you don’t do this alone because being present is exhausting. So, do it in community. Find a close group of people that can commit to being present in the life living with mental illness. Do it as a team, as a family. Be present no matter what. It’s going to get messy, hard, and downright ugly. But please, don’t give up. We need to know we’re not alone, even when our brain lies to us.

While you’re present, you can do things. Normal, everyday things. Cook us food. Clean our house. Do laundry. These tasks may seem insignificant and small, but when mental illness take a bite out of our head and heart, these things are insurmountable. We can hardly take care of ourselves let alone a house. And kids and spouses need you too. Shouldering the burden of household chores while trying to care for the ill person is a heavy load to carry. So, take the kids out to the park for a playdate. Send the spouse out for a night with friends. Help them cook, clean, and care for the home.

And care for us directly. We need treatment, and often that includes therapy and medication. When we are in a crisis though, when the illness is raging, and we are weak, we can’t reach out for help. Making the phone calls to therapist offices, checking insurance eligibility, getting a referral to psychiatrists, all of this can be near impossible when we are deep in depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Now, there are some things you can’t do due to privacy laws, HIPPA, and clinic and therapist policies. However, don’t let that deter you from doing what you can. Maybe it’s making initial phone calls. Maybe it’s filling out forms for us to sign. Maybe it’s taking us to the emergency room when things are bad. Whatever it is, do what you can. You don’t have to fix us. That’s not your place nor is it your responsibility. But you can help us.

The best thing you can do for us is to be a friend. Don’t get sick of our relapses, but also don’t think of us as only our illness. We’re still humans who laugh, tell jokes, enjoy movies, and who can come over for dinner. Make us feel wanted, liked, loved. We are your neighbors, your fellow church citizens, believers, just like you. Don’t treat us like a charity case or a pariah. Treat us with the dignity that is due the Imago Dei. Show us the love you would want us to give you. Put hands and feet to loving your neighbor as yourself.

Now, a word specifically for leadership.

Don’t tell us how to get better. Stop preaching that anxiety and depression can be overcome through prayer and faith, that this is a spiritual issue and not a physiological one. If you want to speak about mental health, talk to us first. Hear our story’s, not for some sermon illustration but because you are giving pastoral care to your congregants. When you counsel people, know your limitations and when you need to refer to a mental health professional. Be aware, educate yourself, and stop preaching the victorious life that is everything happy when some of us with deep faith can’t experience life like that this side of the new creation. Be the pastor we need, not the pastor you think you need to be.

These are a few ways to practically help those of us with mental illness that is in the church with you. There are more, and I encourage you to talk to those in your congregation who live with mental illness and ask what they need. That is the best way to love them specifically.

And love is what we need.

(Aaron's book, Cultural Savage: The Intersection Between Christianity and Mental Illness, is available on Amazon in paperback and electronic formats.)

Book Review: Anti-Social Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan

I have a new book review up at the Englewood Review of Books. This time around I reviewed Anti-Social Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan. An excerpt:

“The problem with Facebook is Facebook.” That is the title of the introduction to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s extensive writing on the effects that social media has had on the world, on individual cultures, and on individual people. And yet, positioning Facebook as a problem rather than an aid or benefit to social interaction, personal connection, gathering around mutual interests, and political activism might be a hard sell for the millions of people who use it around the world every day. As you might imagine, Vaidyanathan is up to that task, and presents his case in methodical fashion.

Read the rest at the Englewood Review of Books.

Film Review: The Road to Edmond

Whenever a novel, movie, or TV show sets out to tell a story related to faith, these works tend to fall into one of two categories.

The first category is the one that is very up front with the audience about what it wants to do. This tends to include explicit dialogue where two or more characters have a bald theological discussion, usually with a lot of insider language involved. Sometimes the story justifies this by one of the people happening to have a seminary background (think Mack in The Shack), or they just luck into it because the writers just want them to say certain things (pretty much all the main characters in Left Behind). Whatever faith-related point the people in charge want to make is usually at the expense of the story, and the result is an inferior and pedantic piece of art.

The second category allows the story to lead the way, where the spiritual side of things becomes more embodied in what the characters do. The recent Martin Scorsese film Silence, as well as the classic book on which it is based by Shusaku Endo, is an example of this. Yes, the main characters are Jesuit priests, but the messages both versions explore are presented in such a way that they don't clock the viewer or reader over the head. There is no point in a film like this where the priests sit down and basically say, "Here's what you the person watching or reading this should take away from what we're doing."

I went into viewing The Road to Edmond with some degree of hope that it would be more like the second category than the first. I cannot say that it succeeded. I can't even say that it lived up to being the type of film it presents itself as. But I can say that it has its moments despite itself.

We first meet Cleo (Nathaniel Welch), a youth pastor in an evangelical church who is informed right at the start (via email!) that the governing board is giving him a two-week leave of absence due to a yet-to-be-revealed misstep. Within 30 seconds of receiving this notification, he's off on a bike trip with a backpack, sleeping bag, and fishing pole.

Unfortunately for Cleo, this ride is curtailed when he stops to rest at a country store and his bike is run over by a beaten up white van driven by Larry (Tripp Fuller, a co-writer of the story and familiar to some as a podcaster and author on themes related to progressive Christianity). Larry basically embodies most characters that Jack Black played in his younger years: an untethered schlub who speaks with a stoner drawl, the perfect foil for more straight-laced serious Cleo. Larry doesn't exactly apologize for running over Cleo's bike, but he does offer him a ride. It takes Cleo only a moment to get over his indignation about this series of events: he climbs into "White Lightning," and our plot is set. All of this, by the way, happens within the first 10-15 minutes of the movie.

Both men's stories begin to leak out in small portions as they ride along: the root cause for Cleo's suspension is a doctrinal issue that also has real consequences for someone under his pastoral care, while Larry is on a quest to the city of Edmond to make peace with a family issue. Each man's story gets a particular treatment, and I think that this is where the trip the film wants us to take hits a rocky road.

Cleo's issue, the movie decides, is going to be the cause of explicit theological conversation placing it firmly into the first category mentioned above. As soon as he divulges that he's a youth pastor, Larry pounces with a series of questions and provocations, which he puts down and picks up again for the next hour or more. The setting for this is in the van as they ride, and then a two-day layover that the pair experiences by a river when the van stops running. Whether sitting around a campfire or next to each other in the front seat, the two trade comments about the nature of faith, what some churches require for people to feel included, and how far-reaching God's grace actually is. The subplot of this part of the movie is Larry also trying to get Cleo to loosen up, chiefly in the form of provoking him to swear, drink, and smoke pot.

The longer these two spend together, the more Larry's story begins to take over. The film pretty much forgets about Cleo's issues for a while as we learn more about who Larry is, where he's going, and how he seems to know so much insider lingo when it comes to church life. (It's also notable that Larry's Jack Black tendencies also fade the further into his story we travel.) Cleo becomes an observer for a series of tasks that Larry needs to undertake as part of why he's on the road to begin with, at least one of which feels incredibly shoehorned into the narrative even though it serves as a big reveal for Larry's background.

By the end, Larry completes his quest in a satisfying and definitive fashion. It's an ending that does well in communicating the emotional depth of his struggle to find peace for himself, embodying something of the second category of faith depicted in film. It's a beautiful moment, and I was genuinely impressed with Fuller's acting during that scene.

Cleo's story, on the other hand, seems to continue past the credits. He may have some clarity about his path forward, but we're not as sure in part because we spent so much time the second half of the movie with Larry.

Those looking for a more progressive film that explores faith issues in explicit fashion will find what they're looking for in The Road to Edmond. The conversations between Cleo and Larry are often very straightforward and could provide fodder for discussion. Unfortunately, the story structure sometimes suffers for the sake of these points.

For example, I could have done with less time of the two drinking and pontificating by the river without any forward movement. This lag in the narrative also means more time for Larry's antics, which started to grate before the movie started focusing more on his journey.

Likewise, Larry could have made a few less stops on his pilgrimage in order to move things along. The aforementioned shoehorned scene could have served the movie better if there'd been less of these other pauses and if presented as his other main purpose for travel on the way to where the final resolution happens.

Unfortunately, the film didn't make those choices, and the story is a little more meandering than it needs to be. In fact, there are many times when the movie can't really seem to decide what it is. Is it more Cleo's story or Larry's? Is it a bare theological treatise or a tale where the spiritual aspects are more incarnate in the characters' actions?

One thing for sure is that it is an exploration of progressive faith and the toll that more conservative forms have taken on people over the years. In that regard, there is something in The Road to Edmond for individuals or groups to talk or think about.

(I was given free access to an advanced copy of this film 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.)

The Spiritual Practice of Shutting Up

Many people have a certain idea of what prayer is.
Call and response. Prayers of unison. Joys and concerns. The Lord’s Prayer recited.
Words spoken aloud, usually to petition God for a certain sense of presence or activity on behalf of God’s people.
Maybe there are a few token beats of silence, but most faith communities this side of the Quakers speak much, ask for much, state much about what they believe in prayer.
We tell God what we hope for; we share with God our deepest longings for parts of the world, for loved ones, and for ourselves.
Fortunately, more and more praying people are discovering listening as the other important element of prayer.
We can’t always be doing all the talking. After all, even though the pinnacle of the campaign has long passed, some people still like to say that God is still speaking.
The writer of Ecclesiastes claimed there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. But when we bring our anxious selves with urgent needs to God, it can take quite a lot of effort to quiet down long enough to hear what God has to say.
Thomas Merton wrote of how easy it is to be distracted in prayer. We approach God in our spiritual hunger, clamoring to hear a Word, and yet our subconscious attempts to submerge us “under a tidal wave of wild and inane images.”
And yet it is unavoidable that this happens, and we are tempted to give into the distraction and abandon the exercise altogether. We may even be thankful for the distraction.
After all, what might we risk hearing from God if we really were quiet enough to listen?
This works not just with prayer but with people. Have you ever felt a need to stay involved in a conversation by clamoring to think of what to say after the other person is done speaking? In doing so, have you really been listening? What would happen if you really were listening instead? What part of their story are they sharing with you, and why? What could you be learning about the world from what they’re saying?
Our society seems to be short on listeners nowadays. Thanks to how much more interconnected we are through various forms of media, there are many more voices aching to have their stories heard.
Really, the voices were always there, but for many in recent years this is their first chance to share their experience. They are stories of indifference, exclusion, dismissal, abuse, rejection, and suspicion. They are stories that many still would rather talk over than hear; to overlay one’s own story in an attempt to disprove or downplay what is being shared.
Sometimes distractions work to our advantage, because they keep us safe. They keep us from hearing things that are unpleasant; that will upset the foundation of our worldview.
If I can’t hear it, then I can’t absorb it.
If I can’t absorb it, then I can’t consider its implications for what I knew before. 

If I can’t consider its implications, then I don’t need to do anything.
If I just talk long enough and loud enough, I’ll be safe. If I submerge myself under a tidal wave of wild and inane images, all shall be well.
And yet, what if we listened more intently? What if we practiced the spiritual discipline of being quiet long enough to hear the stories of people different from ourselves? What if we allowed the experience of another to take root within us and break through the hardened shell of what we think we know?
It may be that the person inviting us to listen to their story is the one through whom God will have something to say to us.
On Sunday mornings before the scripture reading, I invite the congregation to listen for the Word of the Lord. The same Word that speaks to us through the witness of our faith ancestors also speaks to us through the experiences of our fellow earthly pilgrims.
What might we risk hearing from God if we really were quiet enough to listen?
(Originally posted at New Sacred; Image via Wikimedia Commons)