Answers Will Vary

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I heard the whispers. I saw the quiet exchanges between the ones in the know. I watched this play out among the most powerful of my peers. They knew something and I was going to find out what that was. Information is power.

I waited.

I knew it was just a matter of time until one of them slipped up and told me what they knew.

Yeah. That’s right.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.

I mean, did they think I was born yesterday?


They gave in within an hour and I didn’t even have to ask them anything. They came to me as I sat in my converted office which doubled as a jungle gym what with us being in the second grade and all.

The secret was a good one! It. Blew. My. Mind. Each word they shared was better than the last. Ready for the secret?

The answers to the odd numbered math problems are in the back of the textbook. Just sitting there, waiting for us to use them. Talk about a #lifehack, this was golden.

Take a minute to catch your breath. That was a lot to take in.

As a kid who turned in every math assignment with several worn holes in the paper from my  baffled work that had to be erased and gone over again and again, this was music to my ears. This was evidence that I was obviously on God’s good person list with this piece of info! I was blissful.

I put this new knowledge to use immediately, finishing my math word problems assignment in 2.25 minutes, just a mere 27.75 minutes from my usual. Nothing suspicious here.

I marched up, handed that work to Mrs. Johnson and waited for her accolades. I was baffled when I saw her put that red pen to use. She handed it back with a big fat “0” at the top of the page. Looking back I should have likely been suspicious when most of the problems shared the exact same solution which was: “Answers Will Vary”.

Sigh. I may have peaked in the second grade.

There’s a joke meme that I have posted on my Facebook page in the past that reads “It turns out being an adult is mostly just googling how to do stuff.” Most people read the first three sentences when they search something on Wikipedia and that’s it. Most of us take in absolutely overly simplified explanations and act as though we have a PhD on the topic.

Seven-year old me just wanted the boring parts over with so I could get back to doing what I wanted to do. It was a very basic thinking pattern. Math boring; must stop. I can do that by copying all the answers in the book and move on from this moment.

This type of thinking makes sense in a seven year old, but far less sense in a 37-year-old. And yet when I was 37, I found myself wanting the quick answer while I was waiting to hear if I got a position I had interviewed for and very much wanted.

I turned to the internet like it was a magic 8-ball and knew everything. I searched online using this question: “Am I going to get the job?” And I searched this on several different search engine sites as though each may reveal more of my future… the things we do in lieu of feeling always surprises me.

I knew it was silly as I did it. The questioning allowed me to do something with all that nervous energy and I found it amusing. That was the payoff of doing this search. What it didn’t do, though, was yield a definitive answer or help me in anyway.

In my life, I have observed many times that the insistence of an immediate answer leaves me feeling empty when I get it. This is usually because I wasn’t asking the true question that would assist in meeting my needs. I was just trying to distract myself until I knew the outcome. It is a fear-based way of being for me.

Ultimately, the thing I was looking for most that day was an assurance that I was worthy of such a job and that I would be okay if I didn’t get it. Evidently the internet has yet to produce the self esteem and affirmation we long for, available by clicking a link. Give it a year. The internet has been busy with the election, after all.

I am a person of faith who has chosen to walk a Christian path. That’s never really varied for me, even when I lost a faith community after coming out as a queer, gender diverse person, I knew this was still my path. The way I understand and live into the call as a Christian has changed but my willingness to walk a Christian path has never wavered.

I spent most of my early life developing a belief system that I had all the answers and humanity needed me to tell them. I had the solution and they needed it. I have spent the last 16 years of my life letting that go and opening myself to the mystery and wonder that comes with living and being in the world, among each other, seeking love, seeking life, seeking Spirit.

When I do not have the answers, I get to do some things that are pretty great: I get to replace the closed-fisted certainty with an open handed wonderment. I get to hear your experiences and allow them to expand my sense of who God is and who we are in relation to God. I get to stop faking it when I just don’t know what to do with suffering. I get to be authentic and a person of faith.

I used to think that faith was the goal God laid out for me, as though the searching would give me an object to hold up and say “See what I got? Isn’t it shiny? Isn’t it amazing? I win!” Faith was to be obtained.

There was such a massive arrogance to how I thought about the role of faith and my call in that. A few minutes with me back then would have you asking, “Is it getting smuggy in here?” Yea. I brought the smug.

My faith was aggressive absolutism that I lived in as though I was waiting to get to the afterlife and say, “See, I told you!” I have learned that when the motivation is to be right the action I am taking is likely wrong.

Parables are the original word problems for Christians and none yield a direct answer. Jesus used juxtaposition regularly to get us out of the data and into the questions. Faith isn’t the ultimate answer to who God is and who I am to God. Faith was never the destination. Faith is the vehicle of how I get to live with you in the world and how I get to understand what love is and what love isn’t. It’s not to be obtained, it is for us to make use of in  our seeking God.

What a mistake we make flipping furiously to the answers. What a mistake we make thinking the supplied answer was ever the point of the work. What a mistake we make when we allow an answer to snuff out wonderment.

I have had such a sense of relief when I realized the whole point of this assignment of life isn’t in deriving the answer and arriving at faith.

Faith is the pencil.

Faith is the paper.

Faith is the eraser.

Faith is what we get to use to figure and wonder at the questions that come in living.

I want answers often, especially recently for this season I have lived in. Here’s where I hurt myself in that wanting of answers: when I mistake having a stark and clear answer for a spiritual solution, I am left empty. Answers aren’t all that filling or satisfying when I hunger for relationship with God and with others. When I can replace answers with wonderment my spirit is strengthened and bolstered. Wonderment is life giving.

I have found my most honest words and thoughts I have had when faced with life’s questions are on paper riddled and marred with my attempts, stained with all my tries and mistakes. That is the clearest evidence of my willingness to engage in the questions. Those questions are all the same in front of each of us. All the big life questions cut across all aspects of humanity no matter the culture or language. We are all grappling with making sense of the world around us. That’s the work. That’s the living. And I guarantee, if we really do the hard work, our answers will vary. They were meant to by design.

2 Ways to Make your Church Exits Less Attractive

by Kenneth McIntosh

Late last summer there was an article in the Huffington Post titled “Are you Fed Up with Church? 30 Million Say Yes!” The Writer, Patrick Vaughn, is a Presbyterian Minister and the article summarized the findings of research by Dr. Josh Packard. The full report by Dr. Packard is available from Group Publishing for $25.00. Vaughn’s article can be accessed here:

I wish I could say that I was shocked by the article, but I’m not. Other research—such as the Pew survey of American religious life– confirm similar results:

But the Huff Po article does more than report weal and woe; Vaughn pulls out two lessons from Packard’s study that can be helpful for congregations desiring to be an exception to the rule of decline. The study is basically an exit interview on a mega-scale, finding out why those who are “done” with churches (plus those headed for the exit at the time they were surveyed) are walking away.

Vaughn says, “the Dones are not giving up on God. They are giving up on an institution.” Parenthetically, this contrasts with my own first-hand observations (which are vastly more limited, and confined to my politically liberal college town setting). Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with the majority of people who’ve left my congregations, and the largest single cause has been loss of religious belief; people’s beliefs changed from Theist to Atheist or Agnostic, and they felt incongruent in a Christian worship setting. But again, this is apparently not the case on a larger scale national-scope survey; the broader majority left their churches while still identifying as believers in God.

The first major reported cause for being ‘done’ with church was failure to experience deep and meaningful community. The people surveyed wanted very much to be part of a group, where they belonged, were supported by others, and were connected to other church members in substantial ways—and they were largely disappointed by the lack of such experiences.

The second reason for the disappointment of the Dones was the failure of churches to engage them in activities that were of value to the larger world. While churches were eager to solicit volunteers, the content of volunteer activities was focused on institutional maintenance, such as committees, classes, work days and etc. that were purposed for the continuation of the congregation. In other words, churches were internally focused, rather than seeking to better their cities or planet.

This survey of those leaving churches can be useful for those of us still active in churches insofar as they suggest a dual focus of our energies. There are manifold aspects of church life, and proponents and enthusiasts of each aspect can make good case why more effort be expended in their sphere of interest (I recently blogged in this forum suggesting the neglected importance of contemplative spiritual disciplines). Looking at the big picture of Dr. Packard’s work, it behooves us to focus on two things:  building community, and encouraging participation in social action.

Efforts at building community within a church are sometimes disparaged as “social club,” with the insinuation that they are less valuable than “spiritual” or worship events. This survey suggests that they are, however, essential for continuity of healthy congregations. Worship itself can be re-designed to foster community; by seating people facing toward one another, inviting lay members to share the rites and symbolic actions of worship, inviting prayers from the congregation, framing the sermon as more of a dialogue, and so on. Likewise, all other activities of a church—small groups, classes, and even the dreaded committees—can be re-designed to facilitate fellowship. And activities that smack of “social club” such as dinners for eight, or amateur talent night, or microbrew tasting (for the hipster church) should perhaps be elevated to more valued status.

It’s good news for UCC churches that people wish to be involved in activities that better society. Our churches are premier social justice centers, and even our small congregations tend to be outward-focused. Perhaps we can refine this area of our expertise? Rather than simply posting meetings for the homeless, racial justice, refugee advocacy and so-on, make sure that every notice is an invitation with the clear message that newcomers are welcomed and encouraged to participate. And when mobilizing, make sure that new volunteers can be incorporated into ongoing projects with the least possible amount of hurdles to jump (accountability and safety are always paramount—but sometimes we have rules that are just unnecessary barriers for new participants).

In this age of church decline, it’s a valuable gift knowing that there are ways to make the church exits less appealing. By shoring up our ministries of community-building and mission, we can lessen the flow of members toward the exits and strengthen the Body of Christ.

Is It Time to Outgrow Magical Thinking in Regards to Prayer?

by Ken McIntosh

Shrine of St Andrew, Edinburgh, photo by Ken McIntosh
Shrine of St Andrew, Edinburgh, photo by Ken McIntosh

A few days ago I was chatting with one of my closest friends about the popularity of the movie War Room. That best-selling film tells the story of a woman who saves her marriage by prayer. My friend said “Isn’t that just magical thinking?” I agreed that it was—while reflecting that I don’t want to dismiss the idea of prayer and causality. Magical thinking is defined by Wikipedia as “the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which seemingly cannot be justified by reason and observation.” Increasingly, I find that my relations– both within the church and without– question the traditional understanding of prayer as a means of influencing reality. I share some of their concerns. Yet this discussion prompted me to think a bit more about what prayer is, and why I still practice it in the form of intercession.

Before reading further, be assured that I do not presume to prescribe anyone’s belief or theology. I embrace the UCC ideal that we have no tests of faith—only testimonies. I enjoy reading others’ theological ruminations –testimonies if you will. Whether I agree with them or not, I am blessed by all who voice or write their thoughts about God. I hope my own feeble musings might prove helpful in
some way.

Concerns over the ways that prayer has been misunderstood and misused

As I said, I share concern over the ways that traditional theism has perhaps misunderstood or misused prayer. Most obviously, the same people who wax eloquent regarding prayer also tend to embrace bibliolatry, hyper-literalism, prejudice, and rejection of science. Prayer is tainted by association. And prayer can actually be harmful when it becomes an excuse for inaction: what good does
it do praying for the environment, or for refugees, or for peace, if one is unwilling to spend time and money influencing the political decisions that foster these ills? Furthermore, prayers often seem directed toward “the Big Man in the sky”—too easily pictured as Michelangelo’s white-haired patriarch on the Sistine Chapel, an entity separated from the physical world.

It’s often pointed out that prayer primarily changes the person praying—and perhaps that is its efficacy. This is certainly true in my own experience. I’ve been driven to my knees hearing about an injustice, or seeing an image of suffering. Before I can rise again, something drives home my need for involvement. This leads me to the local government office to testify before a hearing, to deliver food
and diapers to a family in need, or to stand in lines protesting. Prayer does change things—and often the thing it changes most powerfully is me. But does it perhaps do more? Can we still affirm, rationally, that “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of”? (quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson).

Prayer and the nature of God

A common belief among UCC folks is “God is still speaking.” That keeps us on the forefront of the struggle for justice, and keeps us relevant in a quickly-changing world. As I thought about prayer recently, I had the very simple thought: “It does little good if God is still speaking but not listening.” Our wonderful dedication to justice and freedom—from Amistad to marriage equality—has come from a
long tradition that God is on the side of the oppressed, a tradition that hearkens back to the Book of Exodus. That Exodus event, in turn, is empowered by a God who hears: “They cried out …God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered his covenant…God looked…and God understood” (Exodus 2:23-25). What happened when God heard? God called Moses—and liberation began.

In much the same way, God spoke reassuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a turning point in the struggle for civil rights. As Dr. Julius R. Scruggs tells it, “King references the time during the Montgomery bus boycott when the bigots threatened to kill him and blow up his home. He retreated to the kitchen and laid his soul bare before God, praying for strength and guidance, and God sustained him then and through his difficult and challenging pilgrimage.”

If the only way that God ‘answers’ prayer were by influencing men and women to respond to his call, that would still to an extent fall under the criticism of ‘magical’ thinking: there is a cause (the cries of humanity for redemption) and an event (God speaks in response to their cries). Yet this action of God calling champions for love is a critical part of the legacy of the United Church of Christ.

My own belief in causal prayer comes from my understanding of God’s nature. I am a panentheist. Not a pantheist (where all is God) but a pan-en-theist (where the whole of physical reality is in God). As described in Acts 17:28 “In God we live and move and exist.” This also goes hand-in-hand with a process view of the Divine nature; God cannot be extricated from the flow of evolving consciousness in the universe. This means that I am indeed a part of God; Spirit indwells every person (and creatures as well); yet God also transcends flesh and matter.

If God then connects all that is, how can I pray without connecting to forces outside of my own body? I don’t pray to “The Big Man in the sky”…I pray as a part of the vast interconnected Reality that includes myself and reaches beyond the sum of the physical cosmos. And if that is so, then our prayers do matter. It may be “magical thinking,” but it still fits within a rational understanding of the nature of God and reality.

Inspiring words by a great theologian

I conclude with words from the late Walter Wink, who taught at Auburn seminary. In his book “The Powers that Be” he says:

“When we pray, we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House…rather, it is an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe. History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.”

So, as we work together for the Beloved Community…let us pray.

Kenneth McIntosh serves as Church Growth and Renewal Coordinator for Southwest Conference and also as pastor of First Congregational Church in Flagstaff, Arizona. He has his M.Div from Fuller Seminary and has been in pastoral ministry for over twenty years in four different denominations. He is passionate about spiritual practices, justice and Earth care. Ken is author of several popular books on Celtic Christian spirituality and a facilitator for Forest Church. He lives with his wife Marsha in Flagstaff and enjoys hiking, traveling and reading on a wide variety of topics.