Archive for category Christian Civility

I decided to make a list: 20 actions to cultivate hope – Mary Hix

 

Mary HixLast Advent, in the midst of a family crisis, I did not feel hopeful. More like cynical and terrified, actually. But I wanted to find a way to practice or cultivate hope as part of Advent. Is it possible to practice hope when despair seems easier or more realistic?

Turns out there is a good bit of research about the importance of hope. Hope is NOT positive thinking, but changing my mindset was foundational in cultivating hope. Paul claims in Romans 5:4 that hope is the final good that comes from the character that suffering can produce. Huh? Character produces hope?

If character is doing and thinking the right things, even in the midst of terrible circumstances or deep fear, then perhaps undertaking specific actions could foster hope. Maybe this was worth a try.

I came up with a list of items and asked my family to help me stay accountable in practicing hope. I wrote down a list of action steps on the glass of the French door by the breakfast table. We each chose an item every day to practice and agreed to talk about our experiences.

This activity didn’t eliminate my fear, but I did feel hopeful that I was doing something. Maybe I could tweak my feelings. Maybe I could experience Advent in a new way. Maybe I could lighten my darkness. Maybe I could celebrate the coming of the Light of the World with a new appreciation for both light and darkness.

Maybe you can, too.

  1. Read a positive story about someone helping others.
  2. Call a friend who is hopeful or will make you laugh.
  3. Do something kind for a stranger.
  4. Give a compliment to every coworker today.
  5. Think of a different thing you are grateful for at every stoplight or stop sign.
  6. Journal about ways God has helped you in the past.
  7. Reframe one automatic pessimistic thought about a specific situation or person.
  8. Write a positive post card or note to someone.
  9. Reconnect with nature by taking a short walk, watching the clouds, listening to the birds, counting the stars.
  10. Adopt a positive breath prayer in the form of a simple, memorable phrase or sentence, and say it 10 to 20 times throughout the day.
    A few examples:  My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.  The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.   Abba, I belong to you.   Holy One, heal me.   I am God’s beloved child.   Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
  11. Decide on one goal for 2020. Write it down and think about action steps for that goal.
  12. Watch a funny cat or dog video on YouTube – really!
  13. Pray a sentence prayer all day for someone else.
  14. Visualize a happy image, place or situation for 30 seconds.
  15. Keep a list of all the positive things that happened today.
  16. Fast from TV, radio, or Internet news.
  17. Make Romans 15:13 your prayer just before sleep.
    May the God of hope fill me with all joy and peace as I trust in him, so that I may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  18. Engage in conversations about what gives people hope and what practices cultivate hope.
  19. Plant a winter bulb that will bloom inside and watch it grow.
  20. Tell someone a specific prayer need and ask them to pray for you.

A year later, my family crisis has passed. But in a world that seems dangerously out of control, I have other compelling reasons to commit to cultivating hope. Maybe you do, too. After all, as Paul points out in Romans 5:5, “hope does not disappoint.”

May we all find the truth of the power of hope during this Advent and throughout the coming year.

 

 

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The Simple Gift of Attention an Antidote to Abstraction – Gregg Jarrell

On a Tuesday afternoon, Dave knocked on the door. His weathered face was covered in tears, his head held low. Dave is gruff even on his most pleasant days, always edges and elbows. This day, the sharpness was gone.

“I’ve hit bottom today,” he told me. “I’ve lived a rough 50-some years, and this day is the day I’m ready for it to come to an end.”

His head drooped lower. The dusty porch floor caught his tears. Between his sighs, he kept talking; the series of misfortunes, still piling up, had all collapsed into a single Tuesday afternoon. I just sat there, useless except to provide cool water and a snack.

And two ears.

Dave laughed at one point. He was holding the children’s book that was on the table next to him, which he had been reading while I was in the kitchen. Johnny Appleseed. He read me a page that tickled him. “That’s the first time I’ve laughed in weeks,” he said.

Concerned for him, and knowing my own limitations – I’m a pastor, not a mental health professional – I offered to take Dave to a crisis center where they could help him get reconnected with himself and treat any physiological or chemical issues before he returned home on his own. When we arrived, we walked in together and exchanged a hug. I watched as he shuffled behind a nurse, down the hallway and into a treatment room.

“Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores.”

None of my actions was remarkable in any way. I just sat down and paid attention. And yet I’m aware of how rare attention is in this wired world. Attention is a gift, but I often withhold it, usually for reasons I cannot explain. That afternoon on my porch was an exception to the way I usually move about on my block.

I know I am not alone in this. The world constantly trains us into distraction. Buzzing, noise, notifications. “How’s that book?” my wife asks sarcastically, seeing the book lying open, face-down on the table as I stare at my mobile phone. Reading for a few minutes is not simple. It requires conscious effort – silencing gadgets, quieting children, hiding from the basket of clean laundry that needs folding. It is easier to drown in the distractions.

Sustained, uninterrupted attention is an unusual gift, both to ourselves and to others. It may be the thing that saves us. The moment of pure attention contains within it the possibility of a future worth having.

”Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace. It is the seed of a revolution, a break from the fantasies of distraction and the alienations of rumination. Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores. It makes us active creators of the world we want to live in, the one of justice and equity and beauty.

“An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine.”

The future we long for begins in the present – often on a porch, or maybe a park bench or perhaps around a kitchen table. Along the way, true attention touches every place. It especially touches those places where the concentration of wealth and power have isolated people from themselves and one another. In those places, neighbors are an abstraction at best, and enemies at worst.

Culture and policy begin to reflect the impulse against neighborliness as the powerful exert their will through political and economic institutions and willful blindness. The current trajectory of the United States, moving headlong toward human rights atrocities, is fueled by the abstraction of neighbors. In the soul deadened by excess, there are no stories worth hearing, no life that matters but your own. There is no porch, no park, no commons.

The only place that matters is the balance sheet. Nothing is sacred but money, nothing worth sustained attention but the making of it.

An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine. Paying attention to the details of the person nearby does not fix everything, but we won’t fix anything without that sort of careful attention.

Dave came back a few days later. He is better for now, but he is still alone. In a crisis, a trained professional will help. But for the mundane days, the ones where discontent simmers without boiling over, where folks stumble from one distraction to the next, what Dave needs is not a professional but a neighbor.

I suspect that is what we all need. The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves. They are the spaces where we pay close attention to the details – where the birds nest, how long the pothole repair took, when we last saw Miss Evelyn on her porch. Our lives get caught up in those places. We get rooted in them, and they sustain us.

Neighbors know you with a casual intimacy. They know your schedule, how you greet your kids when they get off the bus, what music you blast while cleaning the house, what color flowers you tend to plant. Those daily acts of noticing – of attention – make the world a bit more gentle. They help us to tell better stories about ourselves.

“The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves.”

A good neighborhood makes it easier to find someone who can tell you about the goodness of your story on the days you cannot see it for yourself.

Without neighbors, and without the careful attention that a good neighborhood encourages, people don’t know how to tell their stories well. A human needs to be seen, to be heard, to have a voice to sing in harmony with. For that, we have stories, and we have porches.

We have the choice to listen, and to live in the way of peace.


OPINION: VIEWS EXPRESSED IN BAPTIST N

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Hope – Suny Side Up – Rev. Susan Sparls

Here’s the thing that I hate about living in New York City: you can’t see the stars. Oh sure, you can watch movie stars sip their lattes in the hipster restaurants in Brooklyn. You can observe television stars through the glass walls of the talk show studios near Rockefeller Center. And you can see the Broadway stars on . . . well, Broadway.

But I’m talking about real stars. The kind that gleam from the sky. Sadly, those stars are hidden by the lights shining from the city. That’s why every once in a while, I have to leave the Big Apple and head to a place where I can actually see the stars. I need remind myself that they are still there.

Last week, I did just that in Dubois, Wyoming. There, at a spiritual retreat center named Ring Lake Ranch, the night sky exploded with more stars than I could ever have imagined. Pulsing overhead were constellations and shooting stars and the dazzling Milky Way that seemed to leap out of the sky in three dimensions.

There’s something about looking up at a sky full of stars that transports us past our tiny, limited worldview. To see the stars on the darkest night brings a sense of hope. In fact, I think finding hope is just like trying to find the stars in New York City.

Sometimes in life, hope seems so near and clear to us, like the stars in a Wyoming sky. But then, sometimes hope feels more like the night sky in New York City where the celestial light is dimmed. During those dark times, we must have faith that hope still exists, even though we can’t see it or feel it. It’s as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A few years ago, a dear friend of ours, Ed Charles, passed away. Baseball fans may remember Ed as a member of the 1969 World Champion Mets and one of the first black players in the major leagues. Ed used to tell the story of when Jackie Robinson came to Daytona Beach where he grew up. Ed and his friends sat in the segregated section of the park and watched Jackie play, and after the game was over, they followed Jackie to the train station, running down the tracks and listening for the sounds of that train as far as they could. When they couldn’t hear the train any longer, they put their ears to the track so they could feel the vibrations.

That train carrying Jackie Robinson gave Ed hope, and he held on to that hope as long as he could. We, too, must hold on to hope. And when we can’t see the light of hope anymore, then we must listen for it. And when we can’t hear it, then in faith we must hold on to the memory of it through prayer, meditation, or scriptures such as “Do not fear, for I am with you,do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

Hope is always in our hearts. It may not seem like it, for the world tries its best to beat hope out of us, but the operative word is “tries.” We might have to dig, excavate, search, and wait for it, but hope is there—and if we have faith, we’ll find it. It’s just like living in New York City where even though you can’t see the stars, you know in your heart they’re still there—watching over us, shining down on us, and lighting our way.

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media.
 

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Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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