When Church Becomes Contentious

Churches, we want to believe, are happy, fuzzy places where everyone is loved and valued.  That’s what we preach and teach.  That’s what most of us expect from the church as well.  But sometimes, churches become very contentious places.  When that happens, it’s hard to focus on the church’s basic missions of ministry and spiritual growth.  Often, even the most active church members end up dropping out – feeling betrayed, hurt, and even demeaned.

When I was a teenager, my family attended a Methodist church that became a battlefield.  A small group of people tried to run off a much loved pastor, then another group tried to run off a much loved music director.  My father was chairman of the “hiring and firing committee,” and our phone often rung off the wall with vitriolic complaints against church staff.  The experience marred my fledgling spirituality for years, and for a long time, I was too scarred from the experience to attend any church at all.

When church communities become contentious, everyone suffers.  Even those not in the line of fire (like teenage girls with no dog in the hunt) end up disillusioned, angry, and suffering from at least some form of grief resulting from the experience.  Those directly involved surely suffer devastating emotional blows, and people who tend to them or find themselves cleaning up the emotional and spiritual fallout often end up depressed, angry, or burned out as well.   Membership and attendance usually drops like a brick.  Worthwhile ministries are neglected or lose funding and support.  Everyone loses, including those to whom the church hoped to help.

In my humble opinion, the source of my much contentiousness in church communities is the attempt by a few individuals to exert their power and will over others, with no regard to the feelings, opinions, or worth of others in the communities.  These individuals become convinced that they are right (about whatever the issue happens to be), and no other opinion will be tolerated or even heard.  Those with other opinions find themselves ignored and marginalized at best, insulted and kicked out of the church community at worst.

We all know this is not what the Gospel is all about.  This is not at all what church communities should be, no matter what your theology might be.  And attempts by sinful church leaders to establish their own little fiefdoms are antithetical to everything Jesus preached and taught.

If you find yourself the victim of church contentiousness, it’s hard to know where to turn.  Some of us “take a break” from church and leave for a long or short time until we feel healed and ready to try participation in church community again.  Some of us find sources of spiritual growth on our own or commune with the trees, birds, and other nature wonders.  (Birds and squirrels generally don’t argue with you, which is comforting to those of us burned by church feuds.)

If you find yourself wanting to create a church community in your own image, please remember that this is not what church is about.  It’s about, in fact, surrendering your will to God and keeping the needs of others first and foremost on the agenda.  Everybody really does matter, and everybody’s opinions really do matter.  The church includes you, those you don’t particularly like, and even those people you really can’t stand.

And if you find yourself the victim of such contentiousness, please remember that healing can take place.  It may take a long time, but redemption and resurrection are also what the church is all about, too.

Cynthia Coe is the author of Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us and the novels Ginger’s Reckoning and Runaway Kitty

Good Friday in the Garden

This is an excerpt from my book, “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us,” now available in paperback and Kindle at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.   

The Garden is where Jesus was buried and resurrected to new life.  This is what happens in a garden.  The dry, seemingly lifeless seeds from the harvest of the past are buried in the earth.  We wait for something mysterious to happen under the earth, out of sight, and fueled by water and air.  Then we rejoice in the new life that springs up in front of us, growing into a beautiful flower or nutritious fruits or vegetables that will give us joy and sustain our very lives.

What happens in the Garden IS the story of the Christianity.  Death becomes new life, despite a seemingly hopeless state of affairs at the beginning of the process.  We proceed in faith that something will happen despite our inability to see anything hopeful happening at all.  How this all happens is mostly a mystery.  But eventually, a tiny sprout of new life pokes through the soil.  This new life is fragile and might wither.  But with careful tending and protection of this new life, the plant will grow tall and strong and give us the life-sustaining nutrition we need so much.

By resurrecting in a Garden, perhaps Jesus shared with us his best teachable moment.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to draw our attention to the garden, once and forever, urging us to look – really look – at what happens in the garden.  In his resurrected form, Jesus was first thought to be the gardener.  Perhaps the role of the gardener – the cultivator of God’s creation, an expert on the process of gardening, someone who pays attention to what is going on in the natural world – is a  role we might explore as we seek to cultivate and grow our own spiritual lives. 

We often feel most at peace in the garden. Perhaps it is this peace that Jesus sought in the Garden of Gethsemane before his death on the Cross.  Perhaps it was the awareness of all life – ending, beginning, and continuing on, through all our human births and deaths – that consoled Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or helped him confront worldly temptations in the wilderness, immediately after his Baptism and in preparation for his public ministry.

This peace in the garden and in the wilderness is something we can have in our own world today.  This peace is often right outside the door, a place of solace and quiet available at all times.  The natural world can also be a place of spiritual growth and development of wisdom, if we only step outdoors and pay attention in quiet and solitude, listening to God with our hearts. 

Easter Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of “Earth our Garden Home: Creation Care Lessons for Children” and “Wild Faith: A Creation Care Curriculum for Youth,” both available in paperback and Kindle editions. Considering Birds & Lilies is now available at http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU. All of my books are included in Kindle Unlimited.

 

Considering Birds & Lilies – An Excerpt from my new book

My new book, Considering Birds & Lilies, is now available in paperback and Kindle editions at this link: http://amzn.to/2rjWSnU.

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.”

From “God’s Garden,” Dorothy Frances Gurney

How many of us have found peace, serenity, hope, and a sense of God’s presence in a garden or in a place of beauty in the wilderness?  This sense of spirituality while spending time in nature is nearly universal among humans, both in times past and in our own time.  We often hear friends and neighbors say that the mountains, a beautiful canyon, a vegetable garden, or a forest filled with trees and wildlife is their “church.”  Even those attending church regularly may express a need to go on a hike, work in the garden, or just relax in their backyard as a spiritual need which the walled-in church building cannot meet.

The spiritual need for time in nature is real. Humans feel better, think better, and are emotionally and physically healthier after spending time outdoors.  Time in nature is good for us.

As Christians, our stories are deeply intertwined with nature.  The Bible begins in a peaceful garden where all is right with the world (for a time), then follows Moses into the wilderness as he encounters a burning bush, then on to the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness and encountering God’s grace for survival.  They arrive in a fertile land of milk and honey and seek to establish a home.  After a time of exile, a time in a valley of dry bones, John the Baptist arrives out of the wilderness to announce a new era of good news.

Jesus quickly retreats to the wilderness of the desert as he begins his public ministry and often retreats to a quiet place in nature for reflection, prayer, and time with God.  His final evening as a free man is in a garden, and his resurrection takes place in a garden as well.

Despite these deep links with nature, modern churches have all but lost their connections with the natural world.  Look inside most churches, and the only greenery you will likely find are flowers placed near the altar.  There might be a little-used outdoor chapel on the property.  A couple of flower beds may be part of the typical mowed and artificially fertilized landscaping.  Otherwise, the church property may show no sign of connecting – much less embracing – the natural world that feeds us spiritually and physically.

Time in nature is for everyone.  No matter how athletic, outdoorsy, or comfortable with dirt and insects you may be, you can find a sense of peace while spending time in just a part of the natural world.  You might find this sense of peace while hiking the Appalachian Trial, but you can also find a sense of peace and spiritual comfort in your backyard garden or city park.   Nature speaks to everyone, wherever they are.

Copyright 2017 Cynthia Coe.  All Rights Reserved.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming new book, Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us.  Follow this blog or follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sycamorecove/  for news of promotions and upcoming releases. 

Blessings, Cindy

Christian Nurture in the 21st Century – About this Book (And What has Changed – or Mostly NOT Changed – Since I Wrote this Book)

I wrote Christian Nurture in the 21st Century back in 2003, in response to lots of social changes I saw that the Church had not adjusted to  – working women who no longer had time to volunteer for church work, ever-increasing demands on children’s time, and parents who had never learned the basics of the Christian faith themselves.

In my book, I advocated for high quality, professional efforts in the ministry of Christian formation.  I suggested that we pay teachers, train them, and take this ministry seriously if the Church intends to survive.  I also strongly advocated that the Church focus on the basics and use modern teaching methods and knowledge to provide quality adult formation, meeting adults where they were in their lives with timely, relevant resources. 

What’s Happened in Children’s Christian Formation

At the time the book was written, I headed up a formation ministry that served 185 children between the ages of 3-12, almost all of whom attended regularly.  Within a couple of years of writing the book, most of the conservative church members had left my parish, and this number dropped to one child at one point. That number has gradually crept back up, but it will almost certainly never be the robust program it once was.  The aging population of Episcopal parishes has taken its toll as well.  With the average age of parishioners going up and up, the number of children attending parishes will, of course, decrease.  I think efforts to restore the old Sunday School model of formation are pretty much in vain.

On the brighter side, Episcopal schools and camps seem to have picked up steam.  In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen the local Episcopal school grow from a tiny start-up into a large elementary school, along with a middle school and pre-school – all with daily chapel services and a weekly religion class led by a seminary-trained chaplain. Clearly, there is a demand for quality educational programs led by paid professionals. 

Episcopal camps also seem to be popular and well attended.  I think their success addresses several social trend I discussed in my book – the lack of time during the week, increased homework, weekends filled with extracurricular activities, but too much free time during the summer.  Parish VBS programs also seem to retain their popularity, likely for the same reasons.  I’m glad to see these summer programs flourish.

As far as resources go, we’ve seen some new initiatives to provide high quality curriculum resources to Episcopal parishes for little or no cost.  I’ll give a lot of credit to Episcopal Relief & Development for providing the Abundant Life Garden Project and Act Out resources digitally and for free.  I think the success of these programs and others like them showed that if quality, flexible content is provided, teachers and formation leaders will enthusiastically use them. 

I’d love to see more new initiatives to provide resources to address issues people actually face on a daily basis.  It’s now possible to provide resources quickly and at very little production cost.  (You can now publish an e-book or a paperback book for free.  Believe me, I’ve done it.)  I’m aghast that development of resources by the mainstream Episcopal publishers continues at glacial speed.

Adult Christian Formation is Now DIY

One of the reasons I went into Christian formation was the huge transformative change the church’s adult programs had made in my own life.  The vehicles of this transformation were small group Bible studies I attended in my late twenties and early thirties.  I had an opportunity to ask questions, share my story and my journey with others, and get wise advice and guidance from others. 

But sadly, these groups at the end of the 1990’s were apparently the tail end of the small group adult Bible study movement in the Episcopal Church.  By the time I graduated from VTS in 2003, these groups had ended.  With the exception of an Alpha group here and there for newbies, there were no study groups for adults.  Did I offer to start or lead one (or several) myself?  Oh yes.  My offers have yet to be accepted.  The few adult study groups that exist are attended almost exclusively by seniors and retirees

So here in 2017, I really wish I had friends my own age in the Church (locally, not just on Facebook), but I don’t.  I truly wish I had some sort of support group or study group I could attend.  But there isn’t one.  No, I’m not going to hang out with women my mother’s age to attend the only programs that meet during the few times my schedule is free.  And I’m no longer willing to give up my family time in the evenings, either.  That leaves Sunday mornings, but I look at the few groups meeting on Sunday morning, and they look like either self-serving info-sessions (e.g. “stewardship”/ how to give more money to the Church) or topics that simply don’t interest me.

Yet my own formation continues.  All of us continue to change and grow through the years.  These days, my formation has taken on a much more quiet, meditative character.  I take walks in nature with my dog, do yoga, write in my journal, or knit as my daily spiritual time.  I’ve found myself using these old-fashioned things called “books” to help guide me through my continuing spiritual journey.  They cost very little and arrive on my doorstep with a couple of clicks on my laptop. Formation has become do-it-yourself for me – and likely for many people.

In this time of vast change, I look forward to what happens to the Church in the future.  In the meantime, I’m mostly content with DIY formation.  It is what it is.  What happens next will certainly be shaped by social changes which started decades ago – changes the Church simply hasn’t adjusted to yet. 

Christian Nurture in the 21st Century is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at this link.  The book is also available through many online book sellers and distributors, including Amazon’s worldwide affiliates.  This book is included in Kindle Unlimited.

***Important Note:  The Kindle edition of this book will be FREE on January 14-16 ONLY.****

 

 

Wild Faith – About This Book

Making a direct connection between spirituality and the natural world is new for some of us.  And sometimes, we need a field guide when discovering or exploring a new feature of the natural world.

In my book Wild Faith, I’ve tried to provide a practical, “hands-on” field guide to exploring the deep connection between spirituality and nature.  For some people, this connection is obvious.  For others, you might have suspected that going outdoors and finding spiritual peace must be connected somehow, but you might have not quite put your finger on how nature and spirituality is connected.  For yet others, you might have previously thought of “spirituality” as something you only did in church buildings or via other more “traditional” routes.

While working on this book, I discovered that the connection between nature and spirituality is actually quite ancient and well established.  Moses found his calling while out in the wilderness by himself.  Jesus went out for a wilderness experience in the desert immediately after his Baptism.  Early Christians, the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” found deep spirituality by leaving the cities, leaving their church communities, and going to live in the wilderness by themselves or in small communities of like-minded spiritual seekers.

I’m currently working on a book about this deep connection between nature and faith – and how it is more relevant today than ever.  But in the meantime, I invite you to take a look at Wild Faith, a collection of prayers, liturgies, meditations, and activities to help you lead young people in discovering the link between faith and nature for themselves. 

To download the Kindle edition of Wild Faith, please go to: http://amzn.to/2fyTiy5 .  (If you don’t have a Kindle e-reader or tablet, you can download the Kindle to your laptop or other device; it’s free as well, easy, and quick.)  A print edition of Wild Faith is also available of this book and available through Amazon, B&N, and other distributors. 

Please visit my website, www.sycamorecove.org and “like” my Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/sycamorecove/ . 

Blessings, Cindy

Spirituality in the Wilderness – A Practice of Early Christianity, More Relevant Now Than Ever Before

In my book Wild Faith, I encourage people to get out in the woods to work on their spiritual lives.  Seemingly, this is a rather new idea.  In my years of teaching Christian formation, most programs I encountered involved “programs” set up inside church buildings.  With the exception of church camp programs, the idea of simply going outdoors by yourself is not one of the spiritual disciplines the church has encouraged in recent times.

But in reading up on the history of ancient spiritual practices, I find that going outdoors to be by yourself in relative silence is actually a very old and revered spiritual practice.  In fact, the early Christians who were most serious about their spiritual lives were the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” who left the city, went out into the wild, and lived very simply, quietly, and either alone or with a few other similarly-minded souls.

As I work on an upcoming book on Faith & Nature, I’m wondering if this practice of going outdoors by yourself for “alone time” will become more the norm than the exception of Christian spirituality.  With all the constant, unrelenting disruptions and interruptions of all our devices, I’m wondering if all of us need a little time in nature (if not the wilderness) to clear our minds, relax, and unplug.

Here are some of the books I’ve just finished reading as I write this new book:

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  This little book is an oldie but a goodie.  As always, Nouwen says a whole lot with only a few words.  Highly recommended.

Brett Webb-Mitchell, School of the Pilgrim: An Alternative Path to Christian Growth.  This book tells of the history and nature of pilgrimages in Christian spirituality, with vignettes of his own pilgrimage experiences.  Excellent.

Peter H. Gorg, The Desert Fathers: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism.  I read this for a nice history lesson on the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  It’s a good little paperback for church history nerds.  (Translated from the German, and no my computer doesn’t do umlauts.)

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  It took me a long time to get through this book.  It is excellent, but it is slow going.  The author combines his primary topic with a parallel story of his mother’s slow death in a nursing home, which I wasn’t expecting and (quite frankly) didn’t appreciate.  As a mountain girl, I did appreciate Lane’s inclusion of the forests and mountains in his discussion of “fierce landscapes.”  This book would be terrific for a seminary course on this subject, but for more casual readers, I really liked Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints quite a bit better.

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.  I read this for devotional purposes, but I found it had quite a bit of wisdom on spirituality in nature as well.  Isn’t it funny how we often stumble upon exactly what we need to read, without even trying?

Stay tuned for news of my new book!

Blessings, Cindy

Preparing for Advent: Favorite Resources

One of the busiest and most stressful times of the year fast approaches. Christmas shopping, parties, children’s holiday programs, and numerous other end-of-the-year gatherings make the holiday season fraught with running around, anxiety, and feeling pulled in six different directions.

A great way to take time out from all these busy-ness is to spend a few minutes each day with a little book of devotions.  Sometimes a few minutes of peacefulness, quiet, and time to ponder what really matters in life goes a long way.  Advent – the time of preparing for Christmas – can become a time of truly preparing ourselves for new beginnings and new perspective on our lives and our challenges.

Here are some little devotional books for use during the Advent season:

Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas (Franciscan Media, 2008).  This little book is a terrific introduction to Richard Rohr’s theology, as well as a delight to those who are already fans.  At $3 for a paperback copy, this little gem is affordable for teacher gifts or other tokens of appreciation and support.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J. M. Nouwen (Liguori, 2004).  This compilation of excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s work is a wonderful introduction to his books, as well as a nice collection of short devotionals – each with a scripture passage, prayer, and suggested action item.  About $12 in paperback only.

Advent with Evelyn Underhill (Morehouse, 2006).  The ultimate pre-Christmas gift for mystics.  It can mystically appear on your e-reader for about $10.  Hallelujah!

Advent and Christmas: Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton (Ave Maria Press, 2010).  This is an excellent introduction to Merton for those not already familiar with his work.  There’s material for five weeks, designed for small groups (but can be used by individuals as well).  Plenty of references to other Merton works and other authors as well.  Print only, $5.95.

Ann Nichols, The Faith of St. Nick (Barbour Publishing, 2012).  This book is great for family devotionals or a short bedtime story with children during Advent.  These devotionals are focused on the “real” St. Nicholas and provide inspiration, thoughtfulness, and some early church history on a child’s level. This book appears to be out of print, but the Kindle edition is only $3.99 as of this writing.

Blessings for the pre-Advent season, Cindy

Favorite Books on Faith

As I have struggled with my own hard questions about faith (and often finding myself on the fringe of the institutional church), I’ve found the following books most helpful in letting me know that others struggle and question and sometimes feel on the fringe, too.  These books might also be helpful by showing us how many of us feel, whether a part of a church or not.

All of these books are very accessible and easy, engaging reading.  All are in paperback and in the $10-$20 range, available online or in stock or available by ordering from the major bookstores.

Julia Cameron, Answered Prayers: Love Letters from the Divine (2004).  This is a book of short, one-page prayers – but from God to you (not the other way around).  This is one of the most affirming books I’ve ever read and good to digest in very short bites, perhaps as a daily meditation aid.  I also recommend Cameron’s many other prayer books.

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (2000), Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2006), and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (2007).  Anne Lamott is a trip, pure and simple.  For starters, she has blond dreadlocks and is anything but a typical “church lady.”  She chronicles her struggles with faith, everyday life as a single mom, and the life of her anything-but-conventional local church.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (2007) and An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (2010).  Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and rock star preacher who takes a break from institutional church life to explore faith in other settings.  An Altar in the World presents spirituality in simple, everyday acts of real life.

Sara Miles, Take This Bread (2007).  I can honestly say this book changed the way I think about things.  Sara Miles is a war correspondent and cook who had a conversion experience while taking Eucharist for the first time after stumbling into an Episcopal church in San Francisco.  She then went on to start a hunger ministry – serving the hungry food off the actual altar in her church. She now has several other books in print, also recommended.

Blessings on your own spiritual journey,

Cindy Coe