Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for the Word-Weary Christian by Rachel Hackenberg is one of those books that makes you breathe more deeply just flipping the pages. I perused it in the dentist’s waiting room recently, and was so immersed that I forgot the sounds of suction and dentist’s drill wafting through the open door. No minor feat.
The book, with sections like “The Verb Became Flesh” and “In the Shadow of Wingdings,” is an invitation to explore the language of our faith in fresh and inviting ways, through impromptu poems, images and even doodles. I liked the section in which she likens Jesus’ words “my yoke is easy” with those elastic strings that tie her kids’ shoes together in the Target shoe section. Lovely! So much of the language of scripture relies on metaphors that aren’t immediately accessible to a non-agrarian, technological society. How can these words come alive again?
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have a prayer in our book of worship that we pray before reading scripture. It says in part, “O God, amid all the changing words of our generation, speak your eternal word that does not change.” Over the years I’ve grown dissatisfied with this prayer. Our lives our changing all of the time. Our God is improvisational, I believe. So I’ve added a phrase: “speak your eternal word that does not change and yet is ever new.” Hackenberg’s book helps us hold those two ideas in creative tension. Check it out here.
Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church is a new book by Robert A. (Bob) Harris, a friend and colleague in this presbytery. Since retiring from parish ministry, Bob has been working as a coach, helping pastors set good goals and move forward in ministry.
As the name implies, the book is aimed at pastors who have recently arrived in a congregation. It features an approach to getting to know the leaders and many in the congregation, assessing them as spiritual leaders, learning where the minefields are, clarifying expectations, and a host of other things. Bob served as my coach when I first arrived at Tiny Church and I’m thankful for his guidance in helping my ministry get off to a good start there.
But the book is not just for pastors new to a church; the book has a wealth of resources and ideas that can help pastors and church leaders.
Entering Wonderland is published by Rowman and Littlefield, who took over Alban Institute’s publishing arm. Check it out.
It’s a heavy time in the world.
Israel and Palestine… please let the cease fire hold.
Ukraine—still unstable, and I have a personal stake in this.
There are no Christians left in Mosul, Iraq for the first time in almost 2,000 years.
The children keep coming from central America, fleeing a level of violence and lawlessness (or even just poverty) we can scarcely imagine.
And those little Nigerian girls are still missing.
The globalization of the news means it all appears right in my blue room. I wouldn’t have it any other way. As David Wilcox sings, “there’s no ‘far away.'”
So like many of you, I do what I can, and I take my signs of hope and joy where I can get them. It is a privileged thing to be able to do that, to turn one’s attention elsewhere for a while. But I must. We must. Otherwise it’s too overwhelming.
So in that spirit, here are three things that brought some awesomeness to my life this week—Internet edition:
Serving communion to one of our members who’s in a nursing home. She wanted the five of us gathered to sing “On Eagle’s Wings”. We didn’t know the words, but no problem: Safari on the iPhone to the rescue. Best communion I’ve attended in a long time.
The discovery of Moms RUN This Town, a running club whose local chapter has a Facebook page. After 3 years of running solo and only occasionally with friends because of my crazy schedule, I now have access to groups of people in the neighborhood running early and late and fast and slow and everything in between.
This guy. Just this guy. You’re going to want to fast forward, but don’t. Just let it emerge.
Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs, still available at fine online retailers) has some great stuff in the works these days. There’s Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, which I featureda few months ago. Traci Smith’s bookSeamless Faith was also featured here recently. Coming next year will be a book by Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor who was defrocked after he performed the wedding for his gay son.
Anyway, here’s a little Q&A that will give you a sense of their book:
1. How did this book come about? What was the initial impetus to write it?
We don’t intend to imply that she supports the book, but we can kind of blame it on a heady cocktail of Unco11, insomnia and Sara Miles. We love what she does with Take This Bread, nailing down liturgical practice to concrete activity in the world, and we were brainstorming ways to do similar things. Sara Miles clearly articulates that her experience of communion was a call to feed her community, out of which grew their food pantry. It’s crazy to us that a church can celebrate communion, and talk about sustenance and welcome, and yet have starving people across the street, and whole populations who are anything but welcome.
So we came up with prayer, which to us was emblematic of this tendency. We pray to God to forgive us, and feel better without having to reconcile with people we’ve hurt, or who have hurt us. We praise God, but look down on people who don’t achieve success by our standards. We pray prayers of thanksgiving, but Christians are famous for being poor tippers, and we often fail to thank the many people who make our lives possible.
We went through a common liturgical structure, which is punctuated by various forms of prayer, and organized the book in that way. We picked the title Never Pray Again at first to be as attention-grabbing as we could, but by the end of the writing, we have a greater sense for prayer as being one among many spiritual practices, and in itself no more necessary than liturgical dance. Notice that the title isn’t stop-praying-because-you-are-doing-something-bad, because that is not our argument. It is our belief that you can do something so much better in following Christ which will naturally lead you to Never Pray Again. Ultimately this book is about how we are called to act, more than whisper things in love.
2. I can tell you all have the pastor’s heart. You are very clear at the beginning, “If this book is not for you, put it down.” Who is this book for? Who do you hope will read it?
We imagine people who struggle with the efficacy of prayer, or with the constant assurance from other Christians to just “pray about it” when things go wrong, will get a lot from this book. People who are open to progressive ideas and who want to be challenged in various areas of their practice will be challenged by this book, we think in a good way. People who are already consistent pray-ers will find many other resources and ideas that, we think, will only strengthen them. We also found that our crowd-funding efforts with the Never Pray Again coloring book caught the attention of a number of members of an atheist community, and people who heard about us from that community made up about a third of our backers. For non-believers, I think the challenge will be that this book is stuffed full of Biblical allusions, stories and quotes. So we’ll say things they agree with about prayer, but the challenge will be that the direction we go is deeper into Christianity, rather than away from it.
3. You do a good job building a positive case for a very active life of faith, and you spend less time critiquing prayer itself and why it’s bad. That’s a good thing–it makes the book ultimately more constructive and useful. But is it possible to “get to work” AND to be actively engaged in a life of prayer? Or do you see something problematic about prayer itself, as it’s currently practiced?
This question comes up a lot, and we anticipated it. In theory, one can be living an active practice of Christianity and also pray regularly. Many of our personal heroes were pray-ers (though many others were not). We make the case in the book, however, that there are plenty of situations where prayer can be an impediment to Christian practice, and as Christians in community we are surrounded by examples of this, and have impeded ourselves as well plenty of times. Aric said it really well, that if there is a situation where you can have a ‘good’ prayer life and ‘relationship with God’, but a poor relationship with other people around you, then you are deceiving yourself about your prayer life and relationship with God.
One thing we definitely want to challenge is that Christians must pray. Our experience is that prayer is presented as a panacea, and as such, it doesn’t work very well. We disagree that prayer is a sine qua non of Christian practice. So far we have found, unsurprisingly, that the idea of being Christian and not praying is challenging to a lot of Christians. But if we put all the Bible passages about how and what to pray in one column, and all the Bible passages about how to treat people in another column, we would find many things that are more central to Christian practice than prayer.
We also hear things like “Well, anything done for God is a form of prayer,” which might be true, but if everything is prayer, then does the word prayer mean anything? We don’t think so. In that case, we aren’t talking about the same thing. In Never Pray Again, we are talking about what people mean when they say something like “Let us pray.” What happens next is most often that we close our eyes, bow our heads, clasp our hands, or put them up in the air, and say words in our minds or aloud which are directed at God. This is what the word prayer means 99.9% of the time, and this is what we are challenging. And we are not merely saying ‘pray a little bit differently.’ We are saying that it is fruitful to at least consider that we Never Pray Again.
4. How do you understand the Sermon on the Mount in light of your book? Jesus has a lot to say about how we pray (in your closet, etc.), but he also lifts up the Lord’s Prayer as a template.
So, in Matthew, 5:1 through 6:4 is about things we talk about in the book at length. Matthew 6:5-13 is about prayer, and then we’re back to other concerns in 6:14 through the end of chapter 7. Interestingly, there is very little Jesus says about prayer in this passage, and this is the most he talks about prayer in any of the Gospels, as you pointed out. But the way he describes prayer is such that a person who prays regularly will look no different from someone who doesn’t pray at all, because he admonishes his followers to pray in secret. We think that this reflects Jesus’ concern that prayer can take the place of action – a concern we share.
So how is it that, for Christians, prayer is necessary, but the other things Jesus talks about are optional? Subversive blessing, being salt and light, fulfilling the Law and doing what’s right, extinguishing hatred and sexual objectification, truth-telling, integrity, nonviolence, loving enemies, giving to the needy, fasting, non-worry and courage, giving up certainty of food and drink and clothing, being non-judgmental – these are also things Jesus talks about, but they occupy far less of an average Christian’s time and energy than prayer, and few seem to see them as absolutely necessary to Christian practice. Why is this?
We have a challenging theory – Christians focus on prayer because prayer is easy. If on the one hand I can pray, and on the other hand I can be a homeless pacifist truth-teller who loves his enemies and judges no-one, prayer is the easy choice. And we wonder, with this focus on prayer, do we make ourselves feel better about consuming, hating our enemies, judging others and being hypocritical? Our experience is that taking prayer off the table, so to speak, leaves us bare to the fact that our practice is lacking, and that we use prayer to make ourselves feel better about that. Think about the criticisms of millennials of the church – that it is judgmental, exclusive, hypocritical, that it does harm to vulnerable people, etc. These are all instances where we are failing to live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount, including prayer, because we don’t focus on prayer in secret. We even push the Supreme Court to rule on prayer at public gatherings! Jesus would say don’t pray at public gatherings at all.
5. How has the book changed (or has it changed) the way you engage in prayer with the folks in your congregations? What fruit do you see or hope to see with your faith communities?
This is a more of an individual question, so we will answer individually.
(Aric) Writing and publishing this book has definitely changed the way I pray in and with my congregation in that it has forced me to address some areas of real hypocrisy in my life. Where the phrase “I’ll pray for you” had previously served as a sort of lazy stand-in for almost any expression of compassion, I now have to consider in each case what the best way to express my sympathy and solidarity might be. I find myself saying “I love you” a lot more and to a wider array of people, because that is what I really meant by offering prayer. The fruit I already see within the congregation I serve is people having to think through their reasons for praying. I have had many discussions with people about “why” they pray, which for most of them isn’t something they’d ever even considered. Prayer was just “what you do.”
(Nick) The collaboration and challenge of the book as an idea started changing me, which
I’m sure has influenced my own prayer life and that with my congregation. From that initial conversation the underlying challenge of directness asks more of me. Last night I was gathered with our college ministry, Disciples on Campus, for a final meal to end the semester, and we closed with group prayer, but we were also eating at a Mexican restaurant who had stayed open late to accommodate us. I found myself walking back into the kitchen (a few of the students even followed me) to thank our cooks, and server who stayed late for us before they could start to close up. Before this book I don’t think I would have taken that action.
(Doug) The process of writing this book, a year and a half of research and struggle and discussing and revision, has changed me a lot. It has given me a chance to think through my commitments more thoroughly, and has strengthened my sense of the call of the Christian life. My hope is that a big part of my ministry is encouraging people, and modeling as much as I can, not to let outward religious practices replace true commitment to living a Christ-like life. For me, it’s all about Isaiah 58, and that line of thinking has informed me from the moment I thought I might do ministry as a career.
Excellent responses, guys! I hope your book is a great success.
I ran a race on Saturday morning, the Fairfax CASA Run for the Children. Our church has gotten connected to this organization, which provides volunteers to support abused and neglected children making their way through the court system. It was a beautiful day for a run, and we had 8 folks from Tiny Church participating in the 8K run and 3K run/walk.
I love road races for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is that it gives me perspective on my competitive nature. I’ve always been competitive, which is strange since I’m not much of an athlete and never have been. So my competitiveness would come out in other ways: trying for first chair in the junior high choir, taking part in speech/drama events, and competing with the Academic Decathlon team.
A drive to improve and achieve can be an awesome thing. It can also be harmful to one’s self and one’s relationships. (Sometimes it’s neither great nor harmful, it just shuts down the fun. Just ask Robert about The Canasta Incident.)
But road races are a great check on competitiveness. Half a mile into any race and you get how ridiculous it is to compare yourself to other people. Yes, there’s a certain kick of motivation you get when you turn on the gas to pass someone. But how meaningful is that? For all you know, they’re nursing an injury, or just started running a couple months before. (Then there was the woman who passed me in my first half marathon wearing a T-shirt that said, “I just finished chemo three days ago.” Fierce!!)
I spent most of Saturday morning ten paces behind a guy who looked to be at least 75 years old. OK, that was a little depressing. Until I realized he’s a living reminder that I can keep doing this for the next 30 years, maybe not breaking any speed records, but keeping fit and having fun.
The drive has to come from inside yourself, and be directed internally.
You’d think the church would be a good model for cooperation and mutual support, especially among clergy colleagues. We are educated in a theology of call in which it’s all about “fit” and the work of the Holy Spirit. But it’s complicated. Search committees still look for certain traits, whether overtly or subconsciously. The deck is still stacked against women and people of color. Sometimes youth is an asset; other times the congregation wants “experience.” In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have cleared the way for LGBT people to be ordained, but it’s a tougher sell in many congregations.
And as church membership rolls continue to shrink and full-time positions decrease, there will be more and more contention for fewer and fewer slots. If you’re one of those folks whose livelihood is on the line, it’s natural to read those glossy Meet Our New Pastor brochures and think, “Why did they choose that person and not me?” We take vows to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry, but jealousy rears its snarky, catty head. All the time.
This stuff was on my mind as I spent time with The Well last week. We have “tall steeple” pastors and pastors of small churches. We have folks who’ve been open to a new call for a long time, and others who frequently get contacted by churches even though they’re happy where they are.
But just like the road race, it’s silly to think comparatively. There are too many factors at play. Several of our members are geographically limited because of their spouses’ jobs or other factors. Others have had the benefit of stay-at-home spouses who manage home life so the pastor can pursue a career more intensively. And then there’s the fact that many of us simply don’t want the kind of positions that others might clamor for. (God might surprise me, but I am having too much fun doing writing and part-time parish work to imagine going back to a full-time pastoral position.)
All that said, members of the Well have been in contention for the same ministry positions. This has happened at least five times in our six years together.
So far, we’ve weathered these situations well. We’re not perfect at this, and it would be hubris to say that we’re immune from the hurt or resentment that can come from being passed over, or the “survivor guilt” of being the one chosen. But we have learned some things along the way. Again, I offer our experience for the benefit of other colleague groups.
Transparency. Our norm is that if we find out another member is interviewing for the same position we are, we talk to that person. It’s tricky because we don’t always know, but we do our best. (Third parties who are in the know can help this along.) We picked this up from another group’s experience. One year they met and had a member of the group come down at dinner time wearing a suit and heading off to an interview. The next day another person came down, similarly dressed… and off to an interview at the same church.
Grounding. Within the safe space our group, we see our role as to build one another up when a tough call is wearing the person down, AND to keep the person’s ego in check when he or she starts to believe her own press. And outside of the group, we have that person’s back 100%.
Increased Accountability. We’ve started talking about how we can hold one another accountable to good self-care and boundaries. We have a check-in time at the beginning of every week, but it’s easy to gloss over the hard stuff. A member of the group suggested an intentional question to ask each person: Is there anything else going on that you need to tell us?
Discernment among Friends. When I was discerning whether to stand for vice moderator, I talked with members of The Well. All were helpful in making sure I was thinking well about the situation. And one person put it plain: Give me three reasons why you want to do this… and be honest. I am grateful to her.
I’m meeting this week with The Well, my yearly cohort group. I like to say that I laugh more during this week of “preacher camp” than I do any other week of the year. This year has been heavier than normal, with several concerns for friends, loved ones and ourselves. This has made the mirth all the more necessary and sweet.
Many colleagues have wished for their own preacher camp. This prompted me to write “Design Your Own Preacher Camp,” which has become one of my most popular posts. I stand behind those instructions, although they’re a few years old and some things have changed.
There are many different kinds of clergy groups out there. Some get together mainly to play, meeting in a beach house, say. That’s great, and in a demanding job like ministry, it’s not frivolous to do so. As for us, we’ve been called the “nerdy group,” and we wear the badge proudly. We play a lot, but we also each bring two papers about the upcoming year’s scripture texts that we share with one another and discuss. For me, it’s easier to justify an entire week away from family if I can come back with something that is going to make my job tangibly easier. And this year I’m returning with a head start on 30 weeks’ worth of preaching.
I know groups that have formed using our approach that are thriving. I know others that started out but didn’t “take.” I wish I knew everything that makes for success in a group like this—I really want such groups to propagate, as does everyone in The Well. We think it’s vital for the health of our congregations. So I asked our group for insight into why ours has worked for seven years now, and here are some things they cited.
Deep prior relationships. As it happened, we started out with two circles of friends that were connected to one another through a couple of key relationships. What that means is that nobody in our group knew everyone. But everyone had a strong connection to at least one other person. We invited people we knew well, not people we knew only by reputation.
The right amount of diversity. We range in age from young 30s to almost 50; we serve small churches and very large churches and everything in between. But we are all Presbyterian. And we represent a relatively narrow theological spectrum. Yes, yes: it’s very healthy to cross theological boundaries and be in dialogue with people who are more liberal or more conservative than you are. But this is not where we do that. That doesn’t mean we always agree. We push each other all the time. But that’s not the point of our group. The point of our group is support, accountability, and the scripture work.
A shared focus. Most of us are pastors. We do have a woman who works for a presbytery and another who directs a national network of churches, but all of us are passionate about congregational ministry, and that’s the glue that holds us together. I’m not saying our group wouldn’t succeed if we had chaplains or seminary professors among us. But our focus is on pastoral ministry.
Accountability. The papers we write are our price of admission. We all recognize that the minute we relax that expectation, we are sunk. Our group is so much more than the papers. But our group wouldn’t be what it is without them. Even if you don’t do papers, figure out what accountability you need. The group I mentioned above that gets together for recreation? Even they have an expectation: if you have two “unexcused absences” in a row, you are out.
Interminable but important conversations. We set aside time each year for good-of-the-whole conversation. This may be as simple as deciding where and when to meet the following year. Or it’s a time to work through whatever group dynamics have come up. I’m contemplating a separate post on what happens when colleagues are in contention for the same ministry position—it has happened repeatedly in our group of 18. The point is, stick with those conversations, even when they are hard (or boring). Accept what you can’t change, but name and change the things you can.
Adding people the right way. We’ve added people to the group twice, and each time we added them in a batch. Adding one person at a time doesn’t change the dynamic enough; adding two or three at a time shakes things up, but also makes us more mindful of inside jokes and communal norms we take for granted.
Inviting healthy people with healthy egos. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way. We are all wounded and broken in myriad ways, and we do not have all of our stuff together. But our group works because we all understand the value of self-care, and we do not rely on this group for therapy. Our group has a level of intimacy with one another—and we have been through some very tough stuff together—and there are years when one person leans on this group more than others. All I’m saying is, do not invite a colleague to join a group of this nature because “he is really hurting and needs something like this.” Find other ways to support that person.
Magic. There is an X factor to these things. There are cohort groups that have great people and do everything right (assuming there is such a thing) and just don’t gel. There’s some luck or grace at work here for sure. So don’t feel bad if your group doesn’t come together. Just keep trying and searching for the right fit.