Here are five blog posts I found interesting over the past week and might be worth pondering. These five posts are in no particular order.
I took a break from my Follow Friday posts during the season of Lent . . . . and then some. I return today with the blog of a dear friend of mine, Sarah Wastella’s She Offered Them Christ. Sarah is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church and says that the name of her blog comes from John Wesley’s charge to “offer them Christ,” which Sarah takes seriously. “Christ is the center of my ministry,” she says, “and I chose to de-emphasize my name by referring to myself only in pronoun. I would be pleased to know that my legacy will not be about me, but the things I did for Christ, to honor the Lord, and further the mission to make disciples.”
And She Offered Them Christ is very much about making disciples. Even if it was an accidental creation. Sarah explains:
In February 2011, I was given the website as a gift, a place to put my sermons online. At that time I was preaching less than once a month, and I had other products of my theological reflections, which I refer to as ponderings, that I started to post. It was never my intention to start an online ministry or have a daily post presence. That grew over time as people started to tell me that they use my posts for their daily devotions. That really rocked my world; it humbled me, but also challenged me to continue to provide new content for consideration and for growth.
A large part of Sarah’s blog is devotional material. She says that after posting daily for a few months, she missed a day or two, and people noticed. As she stated above, it is challenging to provide new content on a regular basis. For Sarah, her devotionals, such as “Praying for our Enemies, Bullies, and Opponents,” cite a specific passage, a brief meditation on that passage, followed by a prayer. The formula works well. “I tend to write devotionals,” she said, “when I come across a passage that really strikes me, or when I have an insight about it that might be impactful for someone else.”
These ponderings are the result of Sarah’s own theological reflections. At times they may come from experiences in pastoral ministry or from personal events, “such as raising a young child, or struggling with disappointment,” Sarah says. On Sundays, she tends to post prayers. Her regular Sunday morning responsibilities in worship include prayer, and she may from time to time post that prayer that was offered in worship on her blog. The prayers have a connection with the liturgical calendar and/or events of the day.
It is without doubt that Sarah’s posts, devotional, prayer, or otherwise, come from a place of prayer. “All my posts result from prayer and Scripture reading,” she says. “I feel the presence and the movement of the Holy Spirit in what I write, and I hope that others do too.”
In the midst of prayers and devotionals, Sarah occasionally writes about church polity. When she does, like in a recent post “Breaking Discipline: Accident or Willful Disobedience?”, Sarah does not join a team. She raises her own voice, which is not unlike the voice in the desert, calling for each “team” to see or hear the other perspective. She is not concerned with stirring people up, as much as she is concerned with encouraging the people of God to see another way in which Christ calls us to think, reason, reflect, speak, feel, or act. Sarah tends to ask us to consider our mission as the Church in the current debate, and how we will faithfully respond. This is what she says about that:
I write about church polity when I feel that I may have an alternative way of looking at it, or articulating it. I do not think we need one more voice on this side or that side of whatever hot button issue is going on right now. Usually I feel the urge when I find myself inundated with it online and through social media. I do not comment on everything, because I do not have something of use to say on everything.
Sarah admits that when she writes such a post about church polity, it is a little uncomfortable. “Those are the posts,” she says, “that make me hold my breath and wait to see what the response will be.” Sarah does not write about church politics very often because she feels like her pastoral voice would get lost in the politics.
I think that if I spent all my time posting about politics of the church or the secular world that people would start to ignore the things I have to say about the rest of our lives. I can turn people off, and I want Christ to get us excited to mature in our faith. When I do post about those topics, it seems to be more impactful because it means that I really have something I felt I needed to say, rather than just my constant reaction. I think I say things that others think but do not say, or struggle to articulate. I do not want people to blindly agree with me either, but consider what is being presented, what Christ might have to say to illuminate it, and draw their own conclusion after theologically reflecting on all sides.
It is statements like that, that it is obvious that Sarah’s blog is a tool of discipleship. Sarah says, “My writings tend to be less evangelical, and more about pushing us to go deeper in our spirituality, looking at things from a different vantage point, but still well within the lens of Christ.” Because that is the case, Sarah is careful not to be a stumbling block to her readers. While some of her church members read her blog, she doesn’t write solely for them. “I do not write for my church members,” she says, “although some of them have discovered it and follow it.” She goes on to say, “I see this as a wider ministry to the greater Christian community.”
As a blogger, I am always interested in other bloggers’ writing process. Sarah tells me that she typically writes in the evenings, “when things calm down in my household.” Sarah takes time to think about what is impacting her and what struggles she is going through, or the struggles that she sees around her. “Some of my most well received posts have been reflections about traumatic events in the community, such as a rash of suicides and violence,” she says.
Sarah composes a post – a prayer, pondering or devotional – and then lets it sit. She comes back to it later to make sure she still feels called to share it before she publishes it on her blog. “No matter what you read on my site,” she says, ” rest assured it was created and shared in concert with a lot of prayer and Bible.”
I write as a hobby. And from time-to-time, I write about television. And as such, I read blogs about television. I like to read what others think about TV shows that I watch or shows that I’m not watching that I might want to try out. About once a week before I go to bed, I use my iPad to read and search blogs. In one of the weekly rituals, I stumbled upon a blog about the now classic television show The Golden Girls. Yep, the original you got a friend in me Golden Girls.
The blog is called The Golden Girls Reviewed By. Each post is about a different episode of The Golden Girls, reviewed by a particular kind of person. Like a theatre critic, Jane Austen, or the Smoke Monster from Lost. If you are going to recap episodes of The Golden Girls, this is the way to do it. It is written by Robin Hardwick, who graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me about her blog.
Robin mentions that The Golden Girls can suck you in. You forget how good the show was. And having watched a few episodes in my time, I have found it to be true. And if you have ever caught a Golden Girls marathon on television, you know what we’re talking about. Robin’s creativity shines as she reviews/remembers these episodes, one season at a time.
Where did you get the idea for the blog? How did you come to it?
Golden Girls was in my pop culture lexicon as a classic, but I never watched it in its heyday. As a pop culture enthusiast, I was a bit embarrassed it was something I had never seen.
When I was home sick one day I decided to give it a spin. I watched about sixteen episodes in a row that first day. I know everyone loves it for the nostalgia factor, but I didn’t realize it was legitimately funny. Not corny, but seriously hilarious. There has never been something like it since- a sitcom centered on women’s lives and of that age.
Then there’s the fashion. Oh, the fashion. The eighties was a wonderful and perplexing time for clothing.
What’s your process like?
It’s pretty simple. I take screenshots as I watch each episode and then think about how I want to structure the review. I knew I didn’t want to just recap the events of the show. Most fans have seen every episode multiple times, so they don’t need a play-by-play. I wanted a way to highlight the amazing, ludicrous or unbelievable parts of each episode so it would appeal to someone’s memory of that episode but with a different way of interpreting it.
How do you discern from what perspective you will review the episode?
I try to not over-think it. I have a bank of ‘personalities’ I’d like to use at some time, but I try to see what comes to mind after watching the episode. I also use some things that are relevant to current events that happen around the time I am writing it. It’s a good exercise for me to try out some different ideas and ways of writing that is pretty free-flowing, many of which are more abstract then the typical writing I do.
I first met Andrew Taylor-Troutman in a seminary classroom. We were both students at Union-PSCE, now Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. I have this image of Andrew sitting in the chapel in Watts as I preached (if you want to call it that) during a chapel service. The Central America travel seminar group was leading worship one week, sharing about the experiences from the trip. I was sharing about our week in Costa Rica and how we experienced God.
That image of Andrew sitting in the old pew listening intently to what was being said and shared, pondering in his heart these things, has stuck with me through the years. Andrew ponders. And his pondering has led to writing beyond a blog. Andrew has two books published sharing his ponderings, Take My Hand, and most recently Parables of Parenthood. Andrew’s published works are both connected to his vocation as a pastor.
Andrew started journaling while in college, but started writing five to six days a week while in seminary as a spiritual discipline. He says:
I used to wake up early just to write! I found that there was a great convergence between my classes, which I wanted to articulate but wasn’t really appropriate for assigned papers. So I needed to carver out some extra time.
Andrew attended a travel seminar in 2008 to Ghana. One of the requirements of the seminar was to submit a journal. While he thought what he turned in was the typical, customary musings of a seminary student, the reaction from Andrew’s professors was extraordinary. “They were extremely impressed,” he recalls, “I wasn’t really thinking about publishing then, but their support did leave an impression on me.”
On Being Published
Re-reading my journals, I began to notice that my musings were connected with my Sunday sermons. In other words, my reflections on the events of Monday through Saturday were informing my work on Sunday in conversation with the biblical texts. This is the idea behind Take My Hand. I was fortunate that the publisher, Wipf & Stock, happened to be looking for practical theology.
Parables of Parenthood is really a Bible study, written in accessible language for a wide audience, that is explained in part by anecdotes from my family life, kind of like sermon illustrations.
Adam McLane is one the most prolific youth ministry writers, consultants, and educators out there. Adam is a partner at The Youth Cartel. He blogs at AdamMcLane.com. Adam started blogging in May 2004 on Blogspot. But he was writing quite a bit before he started blogging. He says:
Really, I started journalling in 1993 as a junior in high school. I was living in Hanau, Germany and my curmudgeonly old english teacher made us keep a journal. The habit stuck and I’ve written a little bit nearly every day since.
In 1994 Adam started his life online with AOL. Remember AOL? He used the old dial-up 14.4 baud modem to connect to chat rooms and forums. As a student at the Moody Bible Institute he wrote a paper for his Personal Evangelism class about establishing a ministry online. His vision was a presence to discuss faith and build relationships with people all over the world.
His professor, Dr. Mike McDuffee gave him an “A.” His encouragement to keep going was really what got Adam started on this path of building relationships online, something he continues today. On his bio page, he states, “I love connecting with blog readers.” He also states that is avaiable for rent.
When he really got started with blogging in 2004, he stated his purpose this way:
Mostly as a way to share with myself, just what is going on. I’m not going to use this as a platform for anything else but . . . Well, whatever I feel like posting. Quotes. Golf scores. Youth Group talks. Carry-over rants. Interesting articles. Stories about the kids. Whatever I want!
The main purpose of the blog was to be an outlet for Adam to express himself. “I just had things I wanted to say,” he says, “and write that weren’t about my job. And I found blogging a great outlet for that.” He writes about a wide range of things, from gardening to college sports to photography to youth ministry to Haiti to whatever matters to him at the moment.
As a pastor, Adam was heavily influenced by Ray Pritchard. Ray was Adam’s pastor during his undergrad years in Chicago. He and his wife Kristen were in a church with other young couples. One of the ways Ray connected to his congregation was through his blog. “I felt like I could connect to Ray better as my pastor because of the transparency his blog provided,” Adam said. Ray was on the cutting edge of this medium. The church had “Ask Pastor Ray” forums and an internet broadcast in the late 1990s. Adam recalls, “I wanted to be a blogging pastor because he was a blogging pastor.”
One of the other reasons that Adam started his blog was because he had more to say than he could share on an internet forum. “I didn’t like that I had a thought but it was only read or talked about by members of the forum I posted it on,” he says. The blog became the place for those thoughts to engage a broader audience.
Adam blogs a lot about social media. One of his most read (and most commented) posts was about SnapChat. He originally wrote the post for about six moms who had asked about the picture taking social media app. At the time it was not on his radar, but he promised that it would be. A few months later he was asked about SnapChat by another mom via Facebook.
With that little bit of interest, he sat down and the wrote the post. As of earlier this week, the post has been read about 4,000,000 times since August 2013. And the feedback from the post has been overwhelmingly positive. The post has been shared more than 450,000 times on Facebook and about 5,000 times on Twitter.
Most of the feedback that matters to me has been from young women who had been exploited by a man they trusted to share images. They have been thankful that I’m sharing the truth about the dangers and I’ve been able to share with them that they are image bearers of God, more important than an image shared in a moment.
Blogging about social media is important to Adam because the medium allows youth to introduce a third life: “a life lived mostly online.” This third life, combined with their school life and their church life, is another way to represent Jesus everywhere we go and with everything we do.
Using the example of the SnapChat post, which wasn’t religious in any way. In that instance sharing something important that has helped lots of people was good news to them. My friend Morgan Schmidt says in her new book, Woo, that this action is Gospeling. When you share something is good news, it’s God’s good news even if it isn’t exclusively about good news. All good news belongs to God.
Adam’s love for teenagers and love for the tribe of youth ministry is a main motivator for why he writes about social media, teenagers, and youth ministry.
Due to the growth of his ministry, Adam has gotten a little bit more strategic. “Writing,” he says, “is like any other artistic expression, sometimes its hard and other times you’ll be gushing with things to write.” Yet, Adam does not have a stringent plan. His goal is to have at least five full posts per week. Sometimes it may be less due to his travel schedule or it may be more if there is something that is particularly inspiring.
The “what to post” usually comes to Adam in the mornings. There is no formula or trick to blogging for Adam.
Being transparent, sometimes I have to write things for my blog as an obligation. Like if it’s a book review for a friend or a post that’s tied to a project I’m doing. I find those ones to be the least natural for me and are the hardest to write.
His process is pretty simple. As ideas come to him, he will write them down on scraps of paper or record them in Evernote. Most of his writing gets started in the morning. And it starts, as he says, with “the kettle to make coffee, and stare at an empty screen.” He says that about 75% of the time he wakes up knowing what he wants to write about. About 20% of the time he consults his scrap pieces of paper or Evernote. And about 5% of the time he will go over to google.com/news to search for something that is of interest to him.
His target is 500 words a post, “though,” he says, “I usually go over.” He goes on to say, “I give myself about an hour from start to finish. And I just write my ass off.”
Adam’s final thoughts is great advice for other bloggers and writers: “It’s not magic. It’s just like any craft, it gets easier and you get better at it over time.”
I have a confession. I don’t always come up with my children sermons on my own. I know, I know, what a disappointment. Sometimes, though, the well is just dry! Yeah, there are books and some websites that are helpful. But, I have found one blog that has been incredible. I may not always do what this blog suggests, but it does help get my creativity flowing when that well is dry. I may not use every idea on it, but it is so creative that it may inspire one of my children sermons.
I’m talking about Dollar Store Children Sermons.
It’s video blog by Pastor John Stevens. John is the pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, ELCA in Oregon City, Oregon.
The blog began about a year – January 2013. John shared with me how the blog got started:
One of my hobbies is sleight of hand magic, and so using that, I created a blog called Magic316, back in April of 2011. I would use a magic trick and connect it to the lectionary texts, much like Dollar Store Children Sermons. It was a fun idea, but as you can imagine, limited to its audience.
It was doing the Magic316 blog that John began to think about how he could still have fun and reach a larger audience. He was in a Dollar Tree looking for something, like cheap candy, when he noticed a luggage tag. The tag read, “I’m Not Yours.” As he recalls, “It seemed like a perfect fit for a children sermon, crossing out the ‘Not’ and going from there. That was the beginning.”
John uses things you can find at a typical dollar store to be the object lesson in a children sermon. Oh, and for all the preacher types out there, it is lectionary based. I wondered how often he is at a Dollar Tree in preparation for the blog. “About an hour or so, give or take,” he told me, “When I first started the blog, I would spend more time in the Dollar Tree.”
Sometimes the ideas come from being in the Dollar Tree and sometimes they come from the lectionary texts themselves. When he first started, John would buy about $20 worth of stuff from the dollar store, which, let’s face it, is a lot! But, John learned something quick about the Dollar Tree. The store “turns over a lot of its stock,” he said. “For example, I have a very cool ‘Message in a Bottle’ that has a children sermon all over it, but I didn’t use it in time, and you can no longer get it from them.”
As a result, John keeps his prep for the blog to about a month in advance. If he finds a seasonal item (like the Funky Glasses children sermon), he will use the item on the blog as soon as he can.
After he got going with it, he would spend a morning looking through the upcoming lectionary texts and writing down one word themes. Then, he would brainstorm objects that might connect to the one-word themes. And from there, he goes to the Dollar Tree to find objects that might work. “Sometimes,” he tells me, “I will see something that just says, ‘I am a children sermon,’ and I pick it up for later.”
One of the coolest things that has happened to Dollar Store Children Sermons is that it is now linked to textweek.com (special thanks to Jenee!). Because of this connection, which is where most people get introduced to the blog, John keeps at least a few Sundays ahead of the game. “As of this interview,” he said, “I have videos posted up through February 9th.” He will typically do three to five videos in one sitting and they get posted in that day.
So, my preacher friends, for those who are looking a few weeks ahead or the night before, you can find a useable children sermon at Dollar Store Children Sermons.
When I was I kid I would always sit down to “read the newspaper,” like I was a little man. But what I was really doing was going straight to the comics section. I couldn’t wait to see what Charlie Brown or Garfield was up to. Who doesn’t like the comics?
And who doesn’t like John Wesley?
Okay, well, maybe not as much as we like comics. But my buddy Charlie Baber has found a way to make the Wesley Brothers something we can’t wait to catch up on. Charlie does a weekly comic strip called Wesley Bros. He takes the historical figures of John and Charles Wesley, the famed founding brothers of the Methodist movement, and puts them in modern situations.
Before he felt a call to full-time ministry, Charlie had always wanted to be a cartoonist. “In High School,” he recalled, “I drew monthly comics that were published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and I made comic books that I would print and share with my friends at school.” He would then do editorial comics for his college paper. “And then I began full-time ministry and stopped doing art entirely for almost 10 years,” he remembers. He goes on to say:
As I was anticipating getting ordained last summer, I sensed that something was deeply missing from my life. It seems dumb to say there was a comic-shaped hole in my life, but I really have found great joy restored in my life and in my ministry just because I’ve picked an old passion back up into my regular life.
Charlie first had the thought of using historical church figures in modern situations in a comic while he was a student at Duke Divinity School. “I doodled in class,” he said, “when I should have been taking notes, but never made time to pursue it.”
Last April, Charlie decided to start Wesley Bros. And it’s perfect! He is able to introduce an amazing number of historical church figures while still maintaining two primary characters. And it doesn’t hurt that as an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, Charlie just happens to know a lot about John and Charles.
I was curious about Charlie’s process. When you read the comics, you will notice that he is able to include a lot of historical and theological details, while keeping the characters in a modern-day setting. I asked him where he gets his inspiration every week:
I usually jot down ideas when they come to me. I do a lot more research into church history and John and Charles Wesley now that I do this comic. I read Wesley’s sermons, I read histories of Methodism, Wesley’s journals, Charles’ hymns and the stories behind them. If I can find irony or humor in what I read, I scribble out ideas and get started.
But sometimes, something crazy will happen at church and the comic strip becomes a way to address it – or make fun of it, whichever comes first. A historical story or reading a commentary on something modern can be other triggers to what Wesley did or said. Charlie shares one example:
For instance, I read a commentary on the myth of redemptive violence in Star Wars and it reminded me of Wesley’s “Calm Address to the American Colonies,” so I made a comic where that tract was paraphrased into a Star Wars scene. Yes, I am a nerd.
Charlie always begins his creative process with a handful of ideas. He begins his process by typing out a preliminary script early in a week. “If there’s a lot of history or theology to convey,” he told me, “I’ve got books open all around me and I research very closely to make sure I’m not grossly misrepresenting history.” If there is a cultural anachronism, he will do some research on that (and he thanks Google and Wikipedia!)
He then will sketch out any new characters he might have until he has a look that works. This is followed by going to the drawing board where he pencils out the whole thing: boxes, text, and pictures. “Sometimes I ink a few panels before penciling the last ones just to get a better feel for the balance of the whole,” he says of the process. It will take him up to six hours of drawing time a week. This is usually done during his kids’ nap time. Charlie says he takes the time he does because he wants the pictures to be interesting, and that includes adding backgrounds and textures.
When he first started he had no direction. He was inventing characters that were based on actual people and forming their personalities based on his own reading of history and what he thought might be funny. As a result, John Wesley is a little bit hipster, “because,” as Charlie says, “those guys are so persnickety and particular.” Charles Wesley, on the other hand, is a little bit more sloppy and fun because he is the creative poet.
“My first few strips tried to tell major Methodist story lines in one strip,” he recalls. The comic strips covered things that Charlie thought most Methodists would know or needed to know. This included the First, Second, and Third Rise of Methodism, the Aldersgate Experience, and the fire in the Wesley home.
And if you read Wesley Bros you will notice that Charlie runs a few series of extended plot lines. He knew when he started that he wanted to do an extended series on Sophy Hopkey, because well, there is all that ridiculousness. “It’s actually a lot easier for me,” Charlie says, “to do a long series like that because one idea flows out of the next.”
That may be why the George Whitefield series lasted for two months. “I thought the Whitefield series was important to tell because it conveys the beginning of field preaching and evangelical revival, as well as an important split in early Methodism,” says Charlie. He goes on to say:
It’s filled with tons of theology, America’s first celebrity (George), and sermons and hymns were used to tear each other down. That series really allowed me to go to creative places to visually tell stories in ways I had never thought of doing when I first started out.
Wesley was heavily influenced by so many historical figures, Charlie has made a point of casting some of those characters in the comic, putting them into dialogue and debate with Wesley. He does the same with those whom Wesley has influenced.
And what’s next for Wesley Bros?
“I am hoping to do my next series (maybe beginning in mid-February),” he tells me, “on racism in the church, using Wesley’s tracts against slavery and several key African-American Methodist figures to tell that story.”
I love to read. I always have multiple books lying around and in the process of reading them. I was always reading as a kid. I kept up with the Berenstain Bears and Little Critter. As I got older, I was amazed at the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse. When I buy presents for children, it is usually a book because I want to share the gift of reading.
In Otara, New Zealand, there is a greyhound and a library that are helping kids love to read. It is a pilot program at the library there. Reading dogs have been used for some time to help encourage hesitant readers to become more comfortable with reading in a non-judgmental way.
The blog, Reading with Roo, shares how Roo, an adopted racing greyhound, helps children become more literate. The blog has great information about the pilot program, as well as showing evidence of the program at work: children reading to Roo from Roo’s reading sessions.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 17% of adults in the world are not literate. The same reports show that 122 million youth are illiterate globally. Reading with Roo is just one, small way in which change is occurring.
Let’s face it, the more we read, the better we get at it. Reading has a lot of other benefits though. It’s a great way to exercise our brains. Reading is a much more complex activity than some other things we might choose to do. It also helps improve concentration.
Reading is a great way to teach about the world. The first traveling I ever did was through books. And I think it made me a better one. I learned about others through books, creating empathy for people who are different from me. Reading can also improve one’s vocabulary (I’m still working on this one.)
Reading can also foster imagination, which leads us to getting creative when seeking solutions to big problems. Like bringing a greyhound named Roo to a library to encourage kids to be readers.
Read. It can change the world.