Keep Your Church Alive

A friend recently lent me a fascinating and reader-friendly book entitled Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Without her recommendation, I would never have picked up this book because the title clearly emphasizes churches that die out. She advised focusing on the subtitle, which, of course, is the opposite emphasis—how to prevent the dieout.

This 2014 book, by the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, grew out of a desire to understand why so many churches that were once vibrant congregations have in recent years seriously declined and ultimately closed their doors and sold off their properties.

Whether your church is seeing a decline in its numbers of worshippers as the Sundays go by, or is still in the upswing of its church life cycle, this is a book that offers valuable insight into what keeps a church alive. Even though the choir and music ministers are still working hard and serving up beautiful music, even though the pastor still works hard on his/her sermon each week, there may be shifts occurring that don’t bode well for the future.

Rainer writes: “The decline is in the vibrant ministries that once existed. The decline is in the prayer lives of the members who remain. The decline is in the outward focus of the church. The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.”

That’s a lot of decline, but the problem is that each shift may be subtle and quite easy to overlook, even when it’s building on previous overlooked changes.

“More than any one item,” writes Rainer, “these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.”

Two fundamentals of critical importance are meaningful prayer (both individual and corporate), and actively caring for the surrounding community. No matter whether the church is on the upswing or the downswing, these two fundamentals make all the difference in whether the church is Christ-centered, likely to remain strong, and able to continue long-term to provide a healthy place of worship.

           

Community

I think I’ve discussed community before on this blog, sometime in its six or seven years of existence. There have been times, I’d have to admit, when I was a little hazy myself on the importance of community, especially in relation to the issue of spirituality. It’s a temptation for an introvert to focus her spirituality into avenues that are not dependent on the presence or participation of other people.

So, I was intrigued by how much my attention was drawn to, and has returned to, a paragraph in Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter.

The paragraph is presented as the public comment of a character named Burley Coulter (one of my favorite characters in the story), who is known for referring to residents of the village of Port William, Kentucky, as all being part of a membership. The paragraph reads as follows:

“Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, we are members one of another. The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work.”

We’ve all heard expressions of similar concepts: “We are all one.” “We’re all in this together.” “No man is an island.”  But somehow Burley’s statement about membership strikes a chord that the others don’t quite manage. The difference, for me, is between anonymity and known identity. Burley’s statement eliminates anonymity in favor of a sense of belonging. And with belonging goes a natural, mutual responsibility for the others in the membership. Even an introvert likes to know where she belongs.

So, what does that have to do with “everyday spirituality”? What comes immediately to mind is the passage in Isaiah 54, recorded in The Message this way: “Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big! Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep. You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family….” [This passage of Scripture also figured in the September 22, 2016, post.]

“Your growing family” is another phrase for your membership. The more deeply you go into your spiritual self, the more your spiritual world can expand the coverage of its tent to recognize others as part of your membership.

As Burley would say: Do you recognize your membership or do you don’t?

           

Faith: a matter of spurning the opposites

Marcus Borg’s Days of Awe and Wonder, is one of many books my friend Linda and I have read together to share the points that amaze us or help further our own spiritual journeys. The subtitle is “How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century,” so it’s no small task set for this compilation of Borg articles, sermons, essays, speeches, interviews, and lectures published posthumously.

Though a book like this offers almost unlimited starting points for a blog entitled “Everyday Spirituality,” I have continued to think about a small section of a sermon on faith delivered by Marcus Borg in 2005.

Four meanings are given to faith in the Christian tradition, says Borg. “Faith as believing” is the one commonly put forward—believing the doctrines of the tradition, believing that there is a God, believing that Jesus is divine, and so forth. Borg concludes that this meaning of faith is not only a modern distortion but absolutely impotent in our lives. “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable,” he writes.

So he turns to three other meanings that he considers more ancient and authentic. The first is faith as trust, faith as radical trust in God, which may have very little to do with where a person lands on the beliefs continuum. Here is the key for me: the opposite of this definition of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. This provides a sure-fire way to measure the depth of your faith.

The second of the ancient meanings of faith is faith as fidelity to a relationship, specifically a relationship with God. The opposite, therefore, is unfaithfulness. Borg writes that unfaithfulness has frequently been referred to as adultery; however, the prophets were not talking about sexual conduct, but rather about unfaithfulness to God. It’s hard not to think of the commandment here: You shall have no other gods before Me.

The third of the ancient meanings has to do with a way of seeing “the whole of that in which we live and move and have our being,” writes Borg. Is it hostile to us? indifferent to us? or is it the gracious force that created us and continues to nourish and support us?

These meanings may not be the usual “definitions” of faith we are given, but they seem practical for everyday life. The faith that enables me to see the whole in a way that sustains me is the one that is based in trust in God and faithfulness in my relationship with God.

           

Keep Going

A wonderful little book entitled Really Important Stuff My Dog Has Taught Me, by Cynthia L. Copeland, was among the last gifts I had given to my partner before her passing. The book is full of great photography featuring dogs, along with stories and bits of wisdom.

In reading through the book on Christmas Day, I came to this piece of instruction for life: “Keep going until you find your way home.” The story with the adage is about Mason, a terrier who found his way home despite two broken legs after a tornado hit his family’s home and carried him away.

Maybe getting carried off by a tornado isn’t so much different from finding yourself in grief or sudden loss. Like Mason, I am trying to find my way home. I mentioned to my spiritual director recently that one experience I’m having in dealing with the loss of my partner is I don’t know quite where I belong now. She pointed out that after many years of being a caregiver, I may be unsure who I am now that I no longer have the person I’d been caring for.

So my efforts to deal with grief are about trying to find my way home. I think Mason’s guidance is worth following: just keep going. And have faith that the right paths will open to lead where I need to go.

           

Making Your Life Vast

During my long stay in Florida, while my partner of 26 years was very ill and declining more and more each difficult day, I had two resources with me that became my main reading material for the quiet evenings. One was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on my Kindle and the other was the Bible in ESV (English Standard Version). One could argue that both made for somber reading, but both provided me with needed and appreciated solace.

Rilke’s Letter #8 seemed almost to have been written for my circumstances and I read it more than once. As for the Bible, I had settled on studying the book of Isaiah. Each night I would read from both books as a way to calm myself and try to get ready to sleep.

Isaiah and Rilke seemed quite unlike each other ordinarily, until one evening when it seemed to me that I was finding the same message in both. Rilke’s Letter #8 addresses how to deal with sadness and being solitary, especially when they come upon us suddenly. He wrote: “But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

After reading that from Rilke, I picked up Isaiah, where I happened to be in Chapter 54, and it told me: “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left….”

To me then and also now, these texts offer the same message: you must enlarge and expand your sense of your life, your emotional and psychic selves, so that they are vast enough to encompass and absorb whatever comes your way. Even something as devastating as the death of your partner. There will be no avoiding it, no shrinking away from it, no running away. All that is left is expanding enough, enlarging your tent enough, to accommodate it and let it be part of who you are.

My partner, Helene, passed away two months ago today, on July 22, 2016. I miss her more than I can say.

           

My “Marilynn Robinson” Phase

For a couple of months I’ve been reading almost nothing but Marilynne Robinson. I really discovered her work only because she was suddenly pictured on the covers of both New York Review of Books and Writer’s Digest in the same month. I figured that much publicity must mean something!

So first I picked up a copy of Lila, Robinson’s National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, published in 2014. Immediately hooked, I put myself on the waiting list at the library for Gilead, which won the Pulitizer Prize, and also Home. All three books circle and recircle the lives of two families, both minister’s families, in Gilead, Iowa. The books are not heavy on plot, so if action is critical to you as a reader, these are not the books for you. However, if you like excellent writing and coming to know the psychological makeup of the characters, you will love Robinson’s work.

My favorite of the fiction books remains Lila, and the appeal lies both in the life and mind of this wonderful character and in the theological tidbits that are dropped here and there. Here is an example, spoken by Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames, as he reads to her a draft of a sermon: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.”

The sermon continues (it begins on page 222), but this opening thought struck me as worthy of dwelling upon in appreciation for the gifts that come to us—perhaps not “out of the blue” but rather out of the future God has ordained for us.

           

Why Do You Pray?

The December issue of Christianity Today included a graphic entitled “Prayers of the People” that included 10 responses Protestants had given concerning their prayer life. The response with the highest percentage was “prayer for my own sin” – prayed for regularly by 51% of the respondents. Of course, you might have guessed that one, along with the 44% who pray for people in natural disasters.

But I found some surprises in the graphic. According to CT, 46% of people who pray actually pray for their enemies. Seems high but hopeful. Then, 20% pray to win the lottery, and that’s one number I would have thought might be higher, along with 11% for a favorite team to win a game, 9% to find a good parking spot, 7% to not get caught speeding, and 5% for someone’s relationship to end. Really?

I contrast this graphic with the introduction to a wonderful book entitled The Little Book of Prayers. The first sentence of the introduction asks this question: “How soon after humans stood upright and turned to the sky did they begin to pray?” Editor David Schiller poses the more commonly considered reasons to pray: to give thanks, to ask for answers, to receive, to give, for ask for help. Typical names for types of prayer include praise, petition, thanksgiving, and atonement.

Schiller offers another “universal quality” to prayer. I hadn’t thought that it was universal, but I hope it is. That is humility. He writes: “And in an age that could be characterized by its astonishing lack of humility, prayer offers a rare chance to put our inflated selves aside, and in the suddenly unburdened state that follows rediscover the things that really matter.”

Humility before God, regardless of the content of your prayer, seems like the surest way to build that crucial relationship.

           

Grace as a Second Wind

Anne Lamott, in her 2012 short book Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, offers this comment on grace: “But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.”

Grace is commonly defined as an undeserved gift from God. Lamott’s observation suggests that God, as the giver, always has a better idea than we do about what kind of grace we need. We may think we need clarity and resolution, but God gives us stamina and the strength to continue. We may think we need a different job than the horrid one we have now, but God gives us the patience and fortitude to manage to stay where we are a little longer and “bloom where we’re planted.” We may think we’d like a change in something fundamental about our partner, but, if we’re really fortunate, what we get is the grace to change something fundamental in ourselves.

Today, look at the second winds you’ve received in your life and take a moment for gratitude that God is in charge of grace and is a whole lot more astute than we are.

           

Grace

A friend in Indiana pointed me to the books of Richard Paul Evans, who is a skilled storyteller in the inspirational genre. I hadn’t read his work before, but he’s published a lot for a guy who is only 52.

I picked up his novel The Road to Grace at the library. The title page notes that this is the third journal of The Walk series. I’m sure I’ll look for more from him.

The story is about a man, a once-successful advertising executive, who has suddenly lost everything of value to him: his wife from complications following a riding accident, his business through the deceit of his business partner, and finally his home through foreclosure. He sets off on a cross-country journey on foot with nothing more than a backpack. Among the people he encounters is his mother-in-law, who follows him unrelentingly until she finally obtains his forgiveness.

The character has numerous insights along the way, and the one that has most remained with me has to do (as you might expect) with grace. Evans writes: “Grace sustains us on our journeys, no matter how perilous they may be and, make no mistake, they are all perilous. We need not hope for grace, we merely need to open our eyes to its abundance.”

The Bible repeatedly defines grace as God’s unmerited favor. We can’t possibly earn it, but it is there for the mere accepting of it.

           

First Reading of Cross Roads

My friend Linda lent me her copy of Cross Roads, by Wm. Paul Young, well known for his earlier book The Shack.

Young was enchanting in The Shack for how he presented the characters of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the same is true here, though we never see Papa God in Cross Roads. What we are told about Papa God, however, is “despite everything you believe about him or don’t, and by the way, almost nothing you believe about him is true … regardless, Papa God cares for you with relentless affection.”

Young’s story is one of personal transformation, as was my own novel, Dancing on the Whisper of God. In my story, the transformation occurs in the context of choreography, ballet, and musical composition. In Young’s book, the transformation occurs as a result of a medical emergency that puts Tony, the lead character, in the presence of divinity, including an extraordinary pipe-smoking fellow from Ireland (an angel, I presume) named Jack.

I’m going to read the book again to clear up my understanding of Jack, but I especially liked Jack’s reassurance to Tony: “You must remember, Tony, that there is not one good thing, or memory, or act of kindness, not one thing that is true and noble and right and just, that will be lost.”

And the things that aren’t good? We all have those in our lives too – what about them? Jack explains: “… God is able to transform these into … icons and monuments of grace and love.”