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.

           

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.

           

When Life Gets Away from You

On the first day of this month, my partner took a bad spill and ended up with a fractured radial bone in her left wrist. It took only one look at her arm to know that the break was a bad one and the bones would have to be set. We went immediately for X-rays, and the first doc who saw her was actually more concerned about the possibilities of concussion from the bump on the head than he was about the wrist. But the orthopedic surgeon could be dissuaded from surgery only when she learned about my partner’s five heart stents and the blood thinner she regularly takes.

So, purple was chosen for the cast color, and Christopher, who applied the cast, turned out also to be in charge of setting the broken bones. At the last possible minute before the cast turned to stone, he grasped the wrist and squeezed with all his might, expertly aligning the bones for healing.

Since then, I’ve been my partner’s left arm, helping with dressing, helping more with the dogs, doing more in the kitchen, doing her hair every morning and washing it every few days, etc. These may be labors of love, but they are labors nonetheless and they have pressed in on my available time for things like writing regular blog posts.

The question is: what do you do when life gets away from you. First, it’s a stretch to claim that my life has gotten away from me; I have simply become busier. But second, it’s been a good exercise in examining how to pursue everyday spirituality in situations like this one.

I’ve found that when patience seems to be in short supply, prayer is not. I am reminded every day that patience is Item #4 in the fruit of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control] (Galatians 5:22-23). These nine gifts are our birthright when we choose to be children of God, and it helps to bring them to the surface in our lives when we repeat the verses over and over from memory or reading aloud from Scripture.

My everyday spirituality has also been enhanced by continuing my meditation practice. When I sink into the chair to begin the twenty minutes of absolute quiet, I know that I know that all is well in my world.

This has been a painful break for my partner, and it hurts to see her in pain, even after more than two weeks. The cast will be on a while yet and if the pain is lessening, it is doing so at a very slow pace. Meanwhile, I can make it part of my everyday spirituality to look for and find the ways to be helpful.

           

Nudgings of God

My novel Dancing on the Whisper of God starts with a predawn “whisper” experienced by a choreographer in San Francisco one morning in 1993. Several people have asked me about this whisper: Was it supposed to be a actual, audible voice? Was it meant to be the voice of God? How believable is it that the Divine Spirit might actually “talk” to people?

This reminds me of something Wayne Dyer said once (and I think he may have been quoting Lilly Tomlin): “Why is it that when we talk to God, it’s called prayer, but when God talks to us, it’s called schizophrenia?”

Well, there’s no schizophrenia in my novel, but there is a fair amount of communication from God. Do I think that God talks to us in actual, audible voices? No. Was the whisper in the book meant to be the voice of God? Yes. How believable is it that the Divine Spirit actually talks to people? Very believable, but the vehicle of the communication can be any number of things.

All of us have had the experience, when something goes wrong, of saying, “I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that! Why didn’t I listen to my intuition?” Or maybe we are thinking of buying something, and there’s a peace we feel in our hearts about the decision. Or maybe someone calls you on the phone and as soon as you hear their idea, your belly gets uneasy. Or maybe it’s a flash of insight offering a resolution to a problem you’ve been having. Or maybe it’s a nudging one day when you’re going through your mail, and you’ve ignored a dozen different requests for charitable giving, but then comes one that you just feel compelled to respond to. Or maybe you have a dream that gives you, in symbol form, the exact answer you were seeking.

All of these, I would say, are “whispers” of God. The King James version of the Bible calls it a “still small voice” [I Kings 19:12]. The NIV calls it “a gentle whisper.”

Where in your life have you been receiving the gift of a nudging from God? Have you learned to pay attention?

If you are in or near Seattle, above is your invitation to a reading from Dancing on the Whisper of God set for April 30. I’d love to see you there! If the link at the top of this post isn’t working, visit: www.dancingonthewhisperofgod.com.

           

Dancing on the Whisper of God

This blog site has offered very short reviews of a number of books in the past two years. This time the book is mine! Dancing on the Whisper of God is a novel just published by Trafford Publishing. The website for it is www.dancingonthewhisperofgod.com – where it can be ordered from the publisher, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

It appears on the surface to be a story about ballet, but ballet is the vehicle for a story about emerging faith. The story centers on a choreographer who receives a divine word: “We are going to make a new dance and the theme is prayer.” The choreographer is not a religious man and knows nothing about prayer, but he is compelled not only to try to create the ballet, but to do so in the mere 63 days he has before opening night of the new season. On top of that, the ballet will require commissioned music.

You will see on the book’s homepage (link above) that endorsements are cited from Kent Stowell, Founding Artistic Director and emeritus principal choreographer of the Pacific Northwest Ballet; Valerie Lesniak, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Spirituality, School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University; and Rev. Dr. Kenn Gordon, Spiritual Leader of the Centers for Spiritual Living.

I’d love to hear from YOU think of the book!

           

Practicing Silence – Part 1

“Prayer as Crucible” is the name of a chapter by Sarah Coakley in a book entitled How My Mind Has Changed: Essays from the Christian Century. The book was edited by David Heim, executive editor of Christian Century. Sarah Coakley is a professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge and a priest in the Church of England.

Almost anything about prayer catches my eye these days because in about two months my novel on the subject will be published by an independent publisher.

Coakley describes her essay as “an account of how prayer—especially the simple prayer of relative silence or stillness—has the power to change one’s perception of the theological task.”  There’s something to roll around in your mind!

I agree with her understanding of the prayer of silence because this was my experience too. Like Coakley, I came to a quite deepened relationship with the divine through the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM). She calls her TM experience an “experiment.” Mine, which started in 1992 and has continued since, was more deliberate but the results have been similar. She writes, “the impact was electrifying.” I usually understate it as “the single most important thing I’ve ever done.” But I like her words that the prayer of silence has the power to change one’s perception of the theological task.

Of course this begs the asking of what the theological task is. If theology literally means “study of God” and is understood as meaning the study of the nature of God and religious belief, then the change in my perception that came about through TM was the realization that what I most wanted (to feel close to God) is not only possible but a gift God wants for me to have. Therefore, the theological task, as I see it, is falling into relationship with God.

Sitting in silence as a regular practice is the ticket.

           

Spiritual Practices – Surprising Possibilities

I’ve been listening to a CD of the Rev. Dr. Kenn Gordon speaking at the Center for Spiritual Living (CSL), Seattle, last August. Based in Canada, he’s the Spiritual Leader of the Centers for Spiritual Living. His talk in Seattle was about living in our purpose – but what most struck me were his comments on spiritual practices.

Dr. Gordon described spiritual practices as “vital” for living in purpose, but he quickly explained that he wasn’t necessarily talking about meditation or prayer or any of the usual things we tend to think of. Here’s how he defined spiritual practice:

“Whatever you choose to do: mowing your lawn, looking in the mirror and seeing yourself, playing with your children or your grandchildren – anything that awakens God within you, that can bring you back to the realization and the recognition that you have a vital purpose in this thing called life, that you play a part, and you’re part of a mosaic that is unfolding to the benefit and beauty of Eden itself.”

His phrase “anything that awakens God within you” is the best definition for spiritual practice I’ve ever heard, and it shows how wide the range of possible activities is.

It takes vigilance and a willingness to continually remind ourselves and to return again and again to the path of our purpose, said Dr. Gordon. And if we trade it away in order to “be right,” in order to fit in, in order to “have our level of pissedofftivity satisfied,” then we’re trading away our peace, abundance, joy, love, and light for the smallest thing.

If you have occasion to hear Dr. Gordon speak, don’t pass it up.

           

“Thank You” as Sufficient Prayer

The renowned 13th century theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart is credited with the statement: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

On Thanksgiving and the other 364 days in the year, remember to give thanks. It’s the only prayer you need pray.

Happy Thanksgiving!

           

Who’s an Author?

Rob Eagar posted a “Monday Morning Tip” this morning making the claim that there is no such thing as an author. Sort of a provocative way to start a workweek for us writers! Here is an encapsulating line from his post: “It’s not the act of writing that makes someone an author. It’s the act of someone else buying what you wrote.” Okay, that’s pretty provocative too.

It appears to be a reality of publishing today – regardless of the route by which your writing reaches print – that writers have to do their own marketing. This is viewed as daunting to most of us, but for some of us, it’s a world of promise. It hearkens back to the words of wisdom most of us heard repeatedly in our youth: “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” I don’t mean that major publishing houses can’t do marketing well; just that these days they tend to devote their marketing funds to already established writers.

Maintaining regular spiritual practices can help with the marketing process in more ways than one. First, of course, staying deeply in tune with your spirituality fosters a state of calm for approaching the task. Second, spending regular time in silence helps to clarify in your mind avenues that will be helpful to you and those unlikely to be. Third, and probably most important, frequent prayer keeps you connected with the knowledge that you do not have to go it alone.

So, move forward in marketing what you have written, and become an author – by Rob Eagar’s definition or anyone else’s.

           

Clarity

Yesterday an episode of Bones included an observation that went something like this: “It’s a barbarity that clarity is such a rarity.”

Since much of my delight comes from words, I stopped paying attention to anything else in the show and devoted myself to rolling variations of that sentence around and around my mind.

But apart from the clever sounds, the message hits home with me because of the importance of clarity in our spiritual lives. It’s tough to have clarity these days, with so much in the way of images, sounds, and messages coming at us nonstop. We have to find a way to be still long enough to process what’s come in, determine what’s real and meaningful, and absorb what is of value while discarding the rest. Clarity, once we get to it, enables us to know our own opinions, to say what we really mean, to be who we are meant to be. Many of us rely on our spirituality to bring clarity to the rest of our lives.

One avenue to clarity is meditation, the kind where you quiet your mind for long enough periods to come to rest in the cosmos of your soul; another avenue is prayer, the kind where you take your time and say out loud everything – everything – that’s on your heart and then listen to what response there may be. A common avenue is journaling.

Whatever your method, arriving at clarity makes your entire life work better. The rarity of clarity is a barbarity.