Mitigate the weirdness. Maximize the welcome.

Often when I’m in church on Sunday mornings, this little video clip from Poltergeist plays in my head. Why? Because I’m trying to imagine what the experience would be like for someone who has never been to church. At times, I think they must be silently screaming in their heads, “What’s happening?!?!” Or something along those lines, or a little more “colorful.”

Take for example, communion. Try very hard to imagine with me what encountering these following scenarios would be like if you had never been inside a church ever.

Churches “serve” communion a variety of ways. COVID has even brought us the disposable all-in-one-juice-and-cracker-crumb combo. If you had never taken communion, had no clue what it was, and one of these was handed to you as you walked into church, what would you think? Some sort of really chintzy snack?

If communion is being served the “traditional” way, that’s just as confusing.

“Traditional” can be small trays of little pieces of bread or crackers or wafers passed around, followed by trays of little cups of juice. Sometimes the cups are glass and need to be returned, sometimes they’re disposable. Also, sometimes the trays are passed from person to person. Other times the ushers never let go of the trays. Don’t dare try to make them let go, either!

If the traditional way is “intinction,” this means everyone goes up front, takes a piece of bread (or whatever), dips it in the juice, and then eats it as they walk back to their seat. All without napkins being offered.

While most churches seem to hold communion only on the first Sunday of the month, some do it every week. In one church I visited, following the weekly service, everyone gathered in a circle. In the center was a table with a tray of hefty chunks of bread and little paper cups of punch (not Welch’s grape juice!). Everyone helped themselves, then stood back in the circle and “partook,” first of the bread and then of the punch. There was a lot of chewing.

For Catholics, it’s wafers, real wine, and an entirely different process.

Is your head exploding yet?

I’m not going to cover consubstantiation and transubstantiation, but let’s look at some of the other lingo around communion.

Scripture talks about bread and wine, not juice and crackers. It also links the bread to the broken body of Christ and the wine to his blood. Communion is also referred to as a “supper” and a “feast.” Petite cups of juice and a piece of a cracker is no dinner.

For those of us on the “inside” the symbolism is profound and moving. For those who are clueless, it’s all confusing and somewhat gross. Even macabre and a little nuts.

Cue the video clip! I can imagine church newbies wondering what they have gotten themselves into.

Let’s move to music related to this theme.

“Being washed in the blood” is a common and, honestly, weird phrase. Yes, it’s totally scriptural. But cut off from context and sung in front of curious but clueless visitors, it’s just weird. I’m not the first person to point this out.

Recently a newer song that I wasn’t familiar with popped up in a service. It included these two lines that were projected on the large screens up front:

Thank You Jesus, for the blood applied
Thank You Jesus, it has washed me white

What? “Washed me white?” Okay, before you throw stones at me screaming “Woke!” think about it. You and I understand the context around these words. But how would you feel being a person of color, not familiar with the theology, clueless about the fuller meaning of the song, having these words plastered in front of your eyes while all the mostly white folks around you sing, sway, and clap their hands? You might be wondering when the white pointy hats and robes were going to come out.

Once more, cue the video clip!

I looked up the song. It came out in 2021 and five people are attributed as writers. All five are white. I’m guessing a person of color would have suggested slightly different lyrics. Still, church worship leaders ought to be sensitive to these kinds of issues and, perhaps, choose a different song or edit the lyrics.

At least offer some context. Before singing the song, someone could read Isaiah 1:18 that says, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Then offer a half-minute exegesis, explaining how our sins are paradoxically made white (forgiven) by the shed blood of Christ. Sure, the theology here could be a sermon series, but it’s possible to convey enough information in a short snippet.

Conclude by encouraging those who have questions to seek out the pastor and others who are happy to talk to them. And be sure to point out where these people can be found after the service.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a move in the right direction. It shows caring and respect toward guests. And it doesn’t at all water down the Gospel, which I am not advocating.

Let’s be honest. Anyone, regardless of skin color, not familiar with these practices and concepts will be baffled.

My point is simply this. What is familiar to those of us on the inside of church is completely foreign to those outside. When those outside come inside, we need to be respectful, courteous, and sensitive.

If you have ever been to a foreign country, having a translator to help you navigate was a real blessing, right? Or when visiting a different region of the U.S., having a local explain the community customs is always helpful, enhancing enjoyment of the area. That’s how we need to help visitors who come to our churches.

When guests come in the front doors of our churches, they need to be greeted with kind, attentive people ready to patiently provide information and guidance. From the front of the church there needs to be regular and clear explanations about what is happening, why it’s happening, and how people are expected to participate. For those of us in the pews or chairs, we need to pay attention to those around us and be prepared to act as translators.

We must do all we can to reduce the awkwardness for those who are clueless. Otherwise, they’ll feel stupid and left out and will leave the church never to return.

Every church has its quirks. Think about yours. Imagine how these quirks look and feel to the uninitiated. And then come up with ways to mitigate the weirdness and maximize the welcome.

2023 Freelancing So Far: A Look At The Numbers

A freelance writer is not simply one thing. By that I mean there are a variety of writing outlets a writer can pursue. One is to write for periodicals, both online and in print.

Just for fun, that’s what I’ve been doing the past couple of months, aiming specifically at the Christian market. I think I spent as much or more time researching these markets than I did writing!

I got a print copy of the 2023 Christian Writer’s Market Guide and have been working through it. This is a handy reference listing online and print periodicals accepting freelance submissions.

The guide is a semi-hefty 450 pages and a little over an inch thick. The section I focused on, Christian periodicals aimed at adults, runs from page 125 through 183, just under 60 pages.

Missing are the great old magazines such as Eternity, Moody Monthly, HIS, Christian Herald, Discipleship Journal*, and so many more. They’ve all gone kaput. So have a lot of old denominational standards such as the Pentecostal Evangel.

*Trivia: I had an article under consideration and was working with the editor
on a rewrite when Discipleship Journal closed. It was heartbreaking!

Of the 95 adult periodical listings in the Writer’s Guide, about a third offer no payment or just subscriptions. Of those that do offer payment, most offer low-end remuneration. Some indicate they pay but not how much. Only a handful are on par with the secular market.

At least one or two periodicals listed have apparently gone out of business since the Writers’ Guide was published. Several use only writers associated with their specific denomination, some use only women writers (being aimed at women), and there are other restrictions that eliminated several as markets for me to pursue. For instance, a few are based in Canada and one I submitted to indicated they are only interested in Canadian writers.

Some are little more than unprofessional, thrown-together emails or are otherwise not worth considering. The seem a little sketchy.

Since roughly February 1st, I have submitted 42 items to 23 publications: Nineteen of those items are new poems. Twenty-three are articles or devotionals ranging from 400 words to 1700 words each. Of these prose pieces, some are new and some are reworkings of existing material.

Of these, 7 items have been accepted: 1 essay/letter to the editor, 1 poem, 1 three-part article, and 4 devotionals (to the same source). Five items have been rejected. One was a poem that I edited to fit their length requirements and it was subsequently accepted. Four were other poems, three of which have been resubmitted elsewhere. One I decided to shelve for now.

So far, I’ve earned $120 and one subscription (valued at $60 per year).

I don’t know the status of 29 items and may not hear for months. In fact, given that these are unacknowledged email submissions, I’m not even sure they were received. I really appreciate the publications that offer Submittable or Jotform submission forms.

Waiting, for me, is the hardest part of this. It can be brutal. But, now I wait.

In the meantime, I will turn my attention to a couple of other more involved writing projects. And just keep writing!

Ah, the writing life!

Rebuilding at 70+

A Florida man’s home was flooded and destroyed last year after Hurricane Ian passed through his town. NPR reports, “He doesn’t have insurance or the means to hire help. But, he says, he’s a retired builder and can use his tools and skills to do the work himself.”

“The bad part is I’m 70 – I’m old,” says Robert Walker. “When I was young, this was no big deal. Well, now, I work 20 minutes, sit 5. It’s a big difference.” 1

I hear you, Robert. I’m still processing turning 70 last year and moving rapidly on. The last time my age threw me for a loop was when I hit 64, and that was because of the Beatles. Will you still love me? Will you still need me? Anyone? I was 15 when that song came out. It’s said McCartney wrote it when he was only 14. Now, me 70 and him 80, we know the answer, more or less.

My wife, BethAnn, and I had to move last year and it wasn’t easy. One payoff was an office for me, something I hadn’t had in seven years. I put up shelves and unpacked my boxes of books over several weeks, like Robert, working 20 minutes and sitting five. Or more. I can get out of breath just thinking about doing something.

Afib, hiatal hernia, tarsal tunnel in both feet, and on and on go the ailments. The mortal body is not our friend as we age. And then there was that freak accident with a drill that delayed my shelf building. But that’s another story.

I often think back to when I was just out of college, freshly married (the first time), and working with my then brother-in-law building houses. I could take full 4 x 8 sheets of half-inch plywood and toss them up onto the rafters of a framed roof. One after another. And then climb a shaky ladder to nail them in place. No big deal. I was king of the rafters.

Now I can barely lift a box of books. Or lift a stack of books out of the box.

I’ll turn 71 this year whether I want to or not. Not! I would prefer to dial it back 20 or so years, at least as far as my body and health are concerned.

Knowledge? I’d like to keep that so I could truly appear wise beyond my years. At least for a time.

One thing I definitely wouldn’t want to change is who I’m married to now. It took a few remedial courses in the school of hard knocks to find BethAnn. She’s pure gold. Man oh man! God’s grace is a real thing and embodied in her. We’ve been together since 2009, married in 2010. I’d really like some more years with her.

In the meantime, I’m doing some rebuilding of my own. Not because of storm damage, but merely moving on to what’s next as I navigate this thing people call retirement.

Like Walker, I’ve got tools and skills, too. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m working to move back into more freelance writing. (You may ask, haven’t you been freelancing? Yes and no, but mostly no. Since I entered the “real” workforce in the 80s, most of what I’ve written has been for the companies and organizations I’ve worked for.)

The writer’s market, as we freelancers call it, has changed a lot since I published my very first freelance piece way back in the 70s. It was in a now defunct Assemblies of God publication for teens. Some 50-plus years later, the freelance landscape is vastly different. A little alien to tell the truth.

One thing apparently has not changed. Rejection. It’s still as common as ever. You pour your heart and soul out on the page, email it off to an editor. And pray. Hoping it doesn’t come flying back — hours or weeks or months later — with a thanks-but-no thanks message. Or, worse, some “tip” from a green, barely-out-of-college editor for improving it. What do kids know?

As Bruce Springsteen said, “I’m old. I take a lot of things in stride. [But y]ou don’t like to be criticized.” 2 He’s 73. He gets me.

In the 80s I knew a different Robert Walker. Bob was my boss for a few years and taught me a lot of good stuff about writing, editing, and Christian journalism. I was the editor of a monthly magazine for Christian booksellers*. Every time copies of a new issue landed, he called me into his office. Page by page, he flipped through a marked up copy, pointing out various problems and goof ups. Fun times.

As my tenure extended I spent less and less time in his office. I guess you could say I paid attention and applied the lessons he taught. It was capped off one day when he walked into my office, tossed a letter on my desk, and said, “This is really for you.” It was from Ken Taylor — of The Living Bible fame — praising the changes and improvements I’d made to the magazine. I was stunned.

I’d show you the letter but it got lost somewhere along the way. Aging brings a fair amount of unwanted and unforeseen losses. Things and people vanish, places are left behind. Donald Hall heading into his eighties wrote in an essay, “I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses….” 3 Later, approaching 90, a birthday he just missed, Hall referred to aging as a “carnival of losses.” 4 Perhaps the older one gets the more entertaining it is? It seems to be for those watching you age.

The losses do add up. Although there were some far earlier that still sit high in my memory. Like the friend from college who didn’t return one fall. He drowned over the summer, his presence erased just like that. And a grandfather who passed on the day my son was born. And the ongoing loss of my son, who is alive but has chosen to be incommunicado for decades, who has a wife and kids I’ve never met. A sustained loss, yet I still hope.

Lately, favorite musicians, actors, actresses, authors — the array of public people one kind of grows up with providing a sort of cultural context to our lives — have been dropping, as one friend lamented, like flies. It’s always a little shocking since their music and presence on screen or in print persists so it seems like they are ageless, still with us. But they are not. They are as mortal as we are.

Losses are inevitable in life. Every year we age forward we lose something of what and who we were. Judith Viorst wrote an excellent book, Necessary Losses, published in 1986, that explains this clearly. The subtitle says it all: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. (I would’ve added the word Up at the end.)

With animated Elsa I say, let it go! Let it go! And move into what’s next. The model for this is found in faith. Paul lays it out clearly when he quips “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” We are new creatures always becoming.

Yet, as things change, some sameness remains. There is continuity. Once a writer, always a writer! It must be so since the urge, the necessity, the irrevocable need to write presses steadily on my heart and mind. I am a writer whatever else has fallen away.

And so, along with Robert Walker of Florida (who, admittedly, has a far more daunting task than I), I am rebuilding, in a sense. Researching what’s out there where writing is needed and wanted, where I can send my jotted musings, learning who might benefit from the talent I’ve accrued over the years, sending out “feelers” and spreading the word. I have the skills and tools to do the work, and the Holy Spirit to sustain me in the endeavor.

With the Psalmist I can say, “I have been young, and now am old, yet” I’m still here. I know how to write.

If you’re an editor, email me. 😉


  3. Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty (2014, Mariner Books).
  4. Donald Hall, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

*Postscript:3/10/23. My friend, Randy Petersen, shared with me that his dad, William, “invented Christian Bookseller magazine.” Randy explained, ” In the 1950s he was working for Christian Life mag in Chicago and taking journalism classes at Northwestern. For a school project, he had to create a new magazine. With the Christian bookstore market booming, he decided to do a magazine for that industry as his project. He showed it to Bob Walker, the CL publisher, who loved it and made it happen.” You can learn more about William here: Obituary: William J. Petersen (Publishers Weekly).