A Faith Geek’s Nightstand

Night StandYou can tell a lot about a faith geek from what’s on her nightstand. Looking at mine, it’s obvious I love to read and I read a lot of different books at the same time.

There are a few other items on my nightstand, many of which are reading-related. There’s a ceramic cup, made by a friend in college, but I’ve forgotten which one. (I had a lot of artsy friends in college.) The cup is filled with pens, pencils, markers, etc. because sometimes I need to write down a quote from a book or make a note about a book. I very rarely highlight or write notes in a book, as I was taught by the nuns in my Catholic schools to see books as sacred and writing in them a great sin.

I also have a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear, which my daughter gave to me. She’s married and lives in another state, but every time I look at my stuffed Pooh, I remember how we loved to read the Pooh book series together when she was little. My daughter inherited my love of reading and now works as a children’s librarian.

I have a lamp — actually, I have two lamps, although one is attached to my bed board. It may not be aesthetically pleasing, but good light is needed for all the reading I do.

An alarm clock is on the nightstand; in true faith geek fashion the alarm sounds like cathedral chimes. Thankfully, I don’t have to use it too often, as I usually work from home and have fairly flexible hours, which tend to be later in the day (or night). I have fibromyalgia and arthritis so I wake up, as my rheumatologist puts it, “feeling like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck.” I don’t hop out of bed in the morning, although thankfully my husband is an early riser. Every morning he brings me a cup of tea which I place on my electric cup warmer. The cup you see in the picture is from the Upper Merion Township Library, where my daughter works.

I recently bought a bigger basket for my nightstand. It is filled with screen cleaning cloths, earbuds, a prism magnifier, prayer beads, Post-it flags, a notepad, a leather book weight, and of course bookmarks. You need a lot of bookmarks when you read a number of books at the same time. One of my favorites opens out accordion style to display a map of Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings book series.

Of course I have a Kindle filled with books, too many to list. There are plenty of physical books on my nightstand as well. They tend to reproduce so I need to sort through them when they start falling off the nightstand or when my husband starts complaining, whichever comes first. The books presently on my nightstand, in no particular order, are:

 So now I think you know me a bit better after taking this tour through what’s on my nightstand. And yes, there are more books in my nightstand. How about you? What’s on your nightstand – care to share?

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Meet the Author Webinars

Information about PRC’s new Meet the Author Webinars program —

Practical Resources for Churches

hand-laptop-notebook-technologyWe are pleased to announce a new program called Meet the Author Webinars. We are inviting new and established authors of books with religious and/or spiritual themes to present a 30-minute webinar which will give a brief summary of their book and include a question and answer period for participants. There is no charge for authors to present a webinar and no charge for attendees.

Authors will need to prepare a PowerPoint or similar presentation and participate in a brief practice webinar. The use of a webcam is optional. We provide the software, which is GoToWebinar. We also provide an organizer for the webinar and technical support. We handle the registrations and will assist authors in publicizing their webinar.

The webinars are recorded and we will list them on our website. Authors are also free to publicize the link to view the webinar on their website, publisher’s websites, in emails…

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Palm Sunday Musings

Palm Sunday stained glass edited in CanvaI stood in my church’s parlor, just outside the door that led to the sanctuary. The Palm Sunday service was almost over and the congregation was singing the last hymn “lustily,” as John Wesley had instructed the first Methodists, their hosannas loud and jubilant. I listened with mixed feelings; I was thinking about two other Palm Sunday celebrations in another part of the world. Two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt had been targeted by terrorists and scores of people were dead or injured. “In the midst of life we are in death,” I thought, recalling the first line of a Latin antiphon.

The very nature of Palm Sunday creates ambivalence. We send our children down center aisles, waving palms and singing, and tell them we are celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on this first day of Holy Week. Yet this day is also called Passion Sunday and we know another kind of walk, the walk down the Via Dolorosa, is coming before the week is over.

But we know what happens on Easter Sunday, as Jesus emerges victorious over death, victorious over evil, victorious over earthly sufferings. In our churches on Easter morning, we celebrate and look forward to sharing in Jesus’ triumph after our time on earth is over. We try to keep the end in sight as we go about our lives, but it’s hard as we struggle with imperfect relationships, physical hardships, sickness, loss, and the headlines that tell us of humankind’s inhumanity.

To walk through this life is to practice a delicate balance. I remember in school when we read John Donne’s words: “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” I understood that as humans we were all connected, but if I were to mourn each time someone died, then I would be in a perpetual state of grief. Was I expected to never be happy in my life? Or was it possible or even permissible to carve out a bit of joy in a world with so much suffering?

Perhaps the problem lies in thinking that there is only one truth, whereas life is better represented by the yin yang, symbol of two opposite halves that together represent complete wholeness. We might recall the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two  Cities: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…” Or remember Jesus’ words in the 16th chapter of John: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

What I Learned from Bob the Cat

bob-under-the-coversWe let our son, who was 10 years old at the time, name one of the two kittens we were adopting many years ago. He decided on “Bob” which my husband thought was a “stupid name for a cat.” After a few months though, we couldn’t imagine Bob with any other name. They had called him “Kermit” at the shelter, because he hopped a bit when he walked. My husband thought something was wrong with his back legs but the woman at the shelter assured us that it was a temporary condition. It wasn’t, but Bob learned to pull himself up with his front legs rather than jumping onto places he wanted to get to. The procedure was comical at times and we could never call Bob a graceful cat.

Bob was a sweet cat, who considered humans warm furniture. When our family sat down to watch a movie or TV show together, Bob would enter the room, eyeing each of us in turn, trying to decide which person’s lap he wanted to settle in. Often he would rotate from person to person. He didn’t go outside so his life was rather uneventful, other than trips to the vet and a fall from a second story window once. My son had opened it without realizing there was no screen in it. I happened to be sitting in the breakfast room at the time, and watched a cat fall from the sky onto our back deck. It took a while for it to register that the falling cat was our Bob, but he just sat and waited patiently on the deck for one of his people to come to the rescue.

So Bob’s days were filled with food and sleep, pets and laps. He developed routines and didn’t like change. He slept at the foot of our bed all night. My husband usually has a bowl of ice cream right before he goes to sleep and leaves the empty bowl on his night stand. Bob always waited until the morning before going over and licking the bowl. On the rare mornings when there wasn’t a bowl on the night stand, he would just stare at the place where it should be in bewilderment.

My husband would then take his shower and afterwards put on a terry cloth robe. Bob would wait until he heard the water stop and then go to the bathroom door. He didn’t meow or scratch; he just waited patiently until my husband opened the door. Then he would stretch and put his front paws on my husband’s legs, which meant he wanted to be picked up and held. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that this time was my husband’s morning prayer time, but maybe Bob knew.

Bob’s love of sitting in laps or just cuddling made us slow down. I would look at him and wish I could be as serene as he was. Sometimes in the morning I meditate using an app called Calm. It takes effort to let my muscles relax and still my mind. For Bob, it seemed to be his natural state. So much of our time is spent taking care of our possessions, working to buy more possessions, finding room to keep all our possessions. Bob didn’t need much – just the basics really — food, shelter, and, of course, love. I often gave thanks to God for Bob and thought about the lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he wrote:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

A few months ago, Bob was diagnosed with kidney failure, a common condition in older cats. Two nights ago my husband and I had to make the decision to let him go rather than have him suffer. For almost 17 years, Bob looked to us for all his needs, but he gave us so much. Thank you God for animals, large and small. Thank you for Bob.

Why We Have Worship Wars and What to Do About Them

Think Like a FilmmakerI just finished reading Marcia McFee’s Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages. If you’re not familiar with McFee, she is a leader in creating and teaching about multisensory worship. I had the privilege of attending a workshop she led several years ago and seeing her create meaningful and memorable worship on the spot was something I’ll never forget.

For many pastors and worship leaders in traditional churches, the challenge is not so much creating sensory rich worship which touches many types of people, but in convincing some in their church to accept changes in their worship service.

In the last chapter of Think Like a Filmmaker, McFee explores the diversity inherent in the human family and how that means there will be a diversity of opinion about what should constitute the worship of God. In some churches this has led to “a small but vocal group threatening the ministry of the church by withholding their gifts and their presence if they don’t get their way.” McFee states that we need to find ways to help churches be blessed by diversity, rather than be broken down by it, as they plan worship. She compares worship to a potluck dinner, where everyone has brought a dish that they want to share with the community; however, not everyone will like every offering.

McFee suggests having people share with each other a moment in worship that was meaningful and memorable for them. Participants will see how these memories are varied from introspective experiences to memories of joyful exuberance and see that no story is the same. She believes anger over worship change is “an unarticulated fear of losing God.” This is more of a gut reaction rather than a reasoned one. Sometimes worship wars are actually about other issues in the church; worship is safer to argue about than these deeper issues. These gut reactions to change may also be related to our experience of God, our memories of church, ideas of what worship is supposed to be, as well as physiological, psychological, or political reasons. The physiological reasons are fascinating. McFee has researched these and states that:

“Primal Patterns” of energy…form the rhythms with which we move through the world…Some of us will literally, neuromuscularly, resonate with grandeur, others with meditative silence, others with celebrative and interactive worship, and still others with pulsing, driving rhythms. Because our reactions arise from our bodies, they feel so completely “normal” to us that we cannot imagine others feel differently.

Learning how we relate to worship differently can help us understand and appreciate our neighbor’s perspective and their varying needs for worship. Then we will hopefully be more open to diversity and innovation so that there is something meaningful for everyone in worship, as in that church potluck dinner. If you’re having worship wars in your church, I highly recommend you give Think Like a Filmmaker a read and take note especially of the last chapter where McFee gives her best pointers to deal in a healthy way with the politics of change.

Motivating preachers to give moving messages

Moving messagesWhen you consider how many hours of preparation the average preacher spends each week on their sermon, it makes the statistics of how little those listening remember quite disconcerting. Although some preachers are exploring ways to enhance their talk with interaction and a multi-sensory approach, there are still many who just stand up there and talk. Rick Bundschuh in Moving Messages: Ideas That Will Revolutionize the Sunday Experience has given preachers a tool to explore a better way of delivering messages that will be meaningful and moving.

Bundschuh lays out his argument for saying good-bye to the traditional lecture/sermon in chapter one, as he talks about the “guilty secret shared by many” of not being able to remember a sermon just a short time after hearing it. While realizing that his book may cause some to be angry or outraged, he describes the typical Sunday morning sermon as “an antique, malfunctioning mode of communication.” He then makes the case for experiential learning in worship, which is simply “learning something by engaging in more than a passive role,” which “actually changes behavior, thinking, and attitudes.”

Using Jesus’ teaching as an example, Bundschuh suggests a variety of ways to make preaching more effective. He also looks at how ideas are absorbed best when as many senses as possible are involved in the process. He then examines practical ways to put these suggestions into place during the worship service, such as making changes to the physical space where the congregation meets to encourage “greater community and connectivity” and considering how the service resonates with men, as well as women.

Other innovations suggested by Bundschuh include team teaching/preaching, inviting members of the church to contribute experiences, hiring a storyteller, breaking up the message into smaller segments, having a panel discussion, and having short video interviews with people. He also talks about using peer-to-peer interaction in the service through real-time polling and open-ended discussion questions for people to answer in small groups. Using objects involves people visually and also can involve their sense of touch. There is also information about using music, movies, and other media to inform, move, and inspire the congregation. Finally, Bundschuh suggests giving people tools, such as a provocative question, to invite conversation after the worship hour.

The final section is about how to introduce experiential worship in your church with the caveat that “the first thing is to recognize that you can’t please everyone…and that’s okay.” Bundschuh suggest wading in slowly by using a good story, photos and illustrations, video testimonies, simple polling, and objects. Special events, such as a Christmas Eve or Easter service, can be opportunities to try out some creative ways of giving the message. After discussing how to handle skeptics, Bundschuh then presents an example of turning the ideas discussed in the book into an actual message that will be delivered during a Sunday service. Preachers and worship leaders looking to help their congregation have life-changing experiences in worship should give the book a read and then use the ideas in their own service.

Let’s stop blaming Sunday school for killing the church

white churchChurch attendance is down in mainline churches and now even in evangelical churches. It’s natural that people are looking for reasons for the decline. One popular theory is that separating children and youth from the rest of the church by having programs for them (Sunday school) during the worship time has led to this decline. The book Let’s Kill Sunday School (before it kills the church) by Rich Melheim & Friends espouses this view and shares stories of churches which are transitioning to an intergenerational blending of education and worship (eduworship) on Sunday mornings.

I am all for this movement. I love the idea of all ages worshiping and learning together and I think the traditional worship service as it exists in many churches needs to change to become relevant to those with a postmodern mindset. However, I disagree with the basic premise that it is Sunday school which is the cause of younger generations no longer attending worship services or being involved in the organized church. Rather, I think Sunday school may be responsible, in many cases, for helping young people hold on to some semblance of faith. It is the worship service itself which is the reason most young people no longer attend church, more so than their time in Sunday school.

Let me clarify that I am talking about a quality Sunday school experience and the traditional worship service geared to adults where most people are spectators rather than participants. My children, who are now in their 20s, grew up in a church where they attended Sunday school on a regular basis. Each week they attended a Sunday school opening which was a mini-worship service where they learned prayers, the Doxology, and other parts of the worship service before going to age-graded classrooms. In the mini-service, they didn’t just hear prayers, hymns, etc. but were helped to understand them. They learned what it meant to praise God with all their senses. Once a month they attended the family Sunday worship service, which sought to reach an intergenerational audience. During the summer there was usually no Sunday school, so they attended the regular worship service.

In Sunday school, my children had friends and got to know their teachers. Through their relationships in Sunday school, they got to hear personally how others lived out their faith. They were able to interact, ask questions, and work on forming their personal faith. When summer came and they attended the traditional worship service, they sat in a pew and watched. There was very little in the prayers and hymns they could relate to. In Sunday school and in the public schools they attended, it was recognized that people learn in different ways, so learning was interactive, using different senses, and often fun. In church they had to be quiet and listen; the vocabulary was often beyond them and the words of the hymns frequently ancient and not understandable.

Those seeking the demise of Sunday school contend that the reason young people don’t want to attend worship these days is because they never got used to it, never got to feel a part of the rest of the church. I disagree with this. My children attended worship and considered the people of the church their “church family.” They are certainly familiar with worship and know what to do in the service. While thinking about this blog, I decided to ask my 28-year-old daughter if she agreed with me about Sunday school and the traditional worship service. Here is what she had to say.

I feel like all of my best memories from church came from Sunday school. We dreaded the days we had to go into the actual church (even when it was a “family Sunday”) and would do anything we could to avoid them. I believe when we were old enough to decide we actually would skip church on the family Sundays sometimes. So if there wasn’t any Sunday school we probably would have stopped going completely. And I think it’s because the things that happened in the worship services just didn’t feel relevant in any way to our lives. At least in Sunday school we’d watch contemporary movies that tied in Christian themes, and focused more on the meaning of being a Christian rather than the stories in the Bible. And I’d say one of the reasons why I don’t go to church now, or didn’t start going to church once I became an adult, is that worship services “still” don’t feel relevant to my life. I don’t get anything out of sitting in a building every Sunday morning singing ancient songs and reading from a book that frankly feels outdated in a lot of its morals and messages. It wasn’t a matter of me not being part of the church. I sat through services enough times that I knew how to “do church.” It’s just that I didn’t want to. It would seem to me that forcing kids into traditional worship is totally the wrong way to go about it. The opposite would be better, even if this idea is too radical for most old church goers – change traditional worship to better suit the needs of the newer generations.