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.
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.
Mark 8:27-38 “Jesus asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’”
Who do we say that Jesus is?
In our finer moments, we declare the truth:
Jesus is the Messiah.
Savior of all. Shepherd and Friend.
Jesus is Lord of our whole lives.
Who do we say that Jesus is?
In our weaker moments, we utter deceptions:
Jesus is a magician who makes our problems disappear.
A superhero who rescues us from trouble.
Or, he is a nice man who lived once upon a time.
He is inoffensive, benign, sentimental, and dull.
A superstition. A wishful imagining.
A Sunday morning diversion who asks nothing from us.
Forgive us our feeble and false affirmations.
Empower us to answer the question with renewed energy and integrity:
Who do we say that Jesus is?
Love beyond love. Name beyond all names.
Hope beyond wishing. Eternal Mystery.
Word-made-flesh. Our Redeemer.
He lived and will live again.
We’ve been playing with the “journey” theme at Tiny Church this year, with a Journey to Jerusalem during Lent—people kept track of miles they walked, biked, ran, etc., then we plotted plotting them on a map in the fellowship hall. We are now continuing that journey for the remainder of the year, which you can read about at the end of this post.
Two Sundays ago we had a mini-retreat after church called Journey in the Spirit. I’ve read about neighborhood prayer walks, in which folks walk around a neighborhood and “pray with their feet”—being attentive to the needs, struggles and beauty in their own community and prayerfully considering how to respond. We can get so insulated going from home to work to church, etc., so getting us out of our cars and journeying on foot helps us see things differently. I heard of one church that did this and discovered a number of homes of elderly folks that needed minor repairs, yardwork, etc. So they became the church that does that.
We are not quite ready for this kind of prayer walk, but we took a step in that direction (pun intended) through this retreat. Here’s what we did—it was very simple, but meaningful I think.
After church we headed over to a church member’s house. Our hosts had prepared lunch for us in the slow cooker, but we opted to have snacks and eat later.
We began with a theme of questions. I had printed up simple questions on slips of paper and each person drew one and answered it. Easy things like “what profession other than yours would you like to attempt?” (Yes, that’s from Inside the Actors’ Studio.) Then I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s bit on “living the questions” and asked them to identify a question they were pondering right now. We did not share these aloud, although you could do that, depending on time and the group.
Then I talked a little bit about the idea of pilgrimage, and how when we go on a pilgrimage we often bring questions and discernment with us. I spoke about the Iona pilgrimage, in which people walk around the island and stop at various Celtic sites. I set the stage for the prayer walk by encouraging people to be open, to “notice what you notice and see what you see,” as a friend of mine likes to say. I didn’t suggest they complete the walk in silence but asked them to be sensitive to the other people they were with—some folks might have something heavy or deep on their hearts and not feel like being chatty.
Then we had our prayer walk. We started all together with an opening; I used many of the prayers in the pilgrimage section of the Iona Worship Book. During the walk I would go slowly to each stopping place, pause, and wait for others to arrive at their own pace. Then we had a short reflection, silence, or prayer, depending on the place. (Side note: Caroline and another fourth-grade girl came with us. This is a great intergenerational activity. The trail we took was not strenuous, so folks 80 and above came along. If you were to do this as part of a larger retreat, you’d want to plan something for people to do who aren’t able to walk.)
The church members’ house is right next to a park, and I had gone over there a few days before to walk the trail. Rather than come in with a pre-set idea of what I wanted to do, I let the trail guide me into the various stations. Here are a few:
1. The beginning of the trail was a threshold space. I talked about some of the threshold spaces in the Bible (e.g. the people in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land) and asked them to consider times they had started something new—to consider the feelings that came up in that experience, what they learned, etc.
2. There was a footbridge over a small creek. When we paused there I remarked on the fact that someone had to come along and build this bridge for us. I asked them to think about the people who had come before us, who had prepared a place for us. We offered up these names verbally as a practice of gratitude.
3. A decomposing log inspired us to consider the things in our lives that needed to pass away in order to make space for something new.
4. The path diverged into two paths—one went further into the woods and the other led out to the main road. I asked them to consider times they had chosen the harder path, and what that experience had taught them.
5. There was no specific destination, but our furthest point was a small creek, where I shared images of baptism, living water, etc. (Caroline and her friend put their hands into the water at this point—others were invited to do so!)
6. We completed the prayer walk on the road, which left the woods and went through the neighborhood. I reminded them of the walk to Emmaus, in which two friends journeyed together and Jesus came alongside them. I invited them to walk two-by-two and again, “notice what you notice,” and sense the presence of Christ with them.
When we got back to the house, we had lunch. Following lunch I read people Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way, a beautiful picture book which tells the story of seven generations of an African-American family, through slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and to the present. The image of quilting appears throughout the book, most notably in the beginning when slaves used quilt designs to share coded messages about safe houses along the Underground Railroad.
The mini-retreat was from 12:30-3, and unfortunately we were running out of time at this point. I had printed up simple quilt square patterns like these:
I was going to have people choose one and write, draw or cut out images to fill their quilt piece to represent their own journey—their own Show Way—or whatever they felt led to do with it. Instead I had people choose one and take it with them as “homework,” or at least a reminder of the patterns and designs that make up their own life in the Spirit.
Then we closed with communion. The communion liturgy leaned heavily on images of journey, the wandering Israelites, Jesus’ pilgrimage to the cross, etc.
And that was it! Very simple, but a lovely afternoon.
After suffering a devastating loss in the 400M, Brazilian runner Terezinha Guilhermina and her guide Guilherme Soares de Santana win the Women’s 100m at the Paralympics. Great photos there including this one:
So much to love about this. The guide had fallen in the 400 which cost them the victory, and you can see the joy here! Also love that this year, guides are also receiving medals.
What [researchers] found was that those adults who had been the least fit at the time of their middle-age checkup also were the most likely to have developed any of eight serious or chronic conditions early in the aging process. These include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and colon or lung cancer.
The adults who’d been the most fit in their 40s and 50s often developed many of the same conditions, but notably their maladies appeared significantly later in life than for the less fit. Typically, the most aerobically fit people lived with chronic illnesses in the final five years of their lives, instead of the final 10, 15 or even 20 years.
There’s some insightful discussion in the comments about whether the study says what it claims to say. An example:
What if those middle-fit people had been fit their whole lives and it was their youthful fitness that gave them the real benefit?
I’m going to keep being fit, just in case the article is right, and because nobody has invented a time machine yet. And also because I feel much, much better in every measurable way.
During the FB discussion about “God has a plan” (which helped inform this) a friend shared this blog post. I appreciate this critique from someone within the church:
It may not be immediately obvious, but when people offer these phases, these stock answers, it sends a clear and demoralizing message: “I don’t take your struggles seriously, and I’m not prepared to muster the theological depth to share them with you.”
This might be a harsh assessment, but this is a great problem, and worthy of such consideration. If you use these Christian platitudes, these unholy clichés in your care for your brothers and sisters, I urge you to carefully consider dropping them. If you find your friends using them on you, forgive them, then challenge them. Muster some courage and tell them you find those words to be theologically empty and pastorally cold. It’s the only way we’re going to grow and learn to struggle together.
I think there can be another, more benign message in these platitudes: I love you so much, and am so hurt that you are hurting, that I will seek to reduce the hurt any way I can. It’s just that platitudes aren’t effective in reducing the hurt and in fact can make things worse.
Not really new stuff here, but it’s good to be reminded (and help people who didn’t go to seminary to understand) that the New Testament we have is organized by genre rather than chronologically. And Paul’s letters were written earliest, before the gospels.
Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:
Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
The benediction from night 1 of the Democratic National Convention. This has been shared widely but it’s here in case you missed it. Excerpt:
Give us, oh Lord, humility to listen to our sisters and brothers across the political spectrum, because your kingdom is not divided into Red States and Blue States. Equip us with moral imagination to have real discourse. Knit us, oh God, as one country even as we wrestle over the complexity of how we ought to live and govern. Give us gratitude for our right to dissent and disagree. For we know that we are bound up in one another and have been given the tremendous opportunity to extend humanity and grace when others voice their deeply held convictions even when they differ from our own.
And my last link is especially for you church folk…