By Eddie Pipkin
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the “dog days of summer.” Metaphorically speaking, they are the hottest, most humid, most energy-sucking and lethargy-producing days of the year (and an actual calendar stretch officially designated as July 22nd through August 22nd, when Sirius the dog star rises into the sky just before the sun, and the Greeks and Romans warned that “fevers can arise and even catastrophe”). True that. And if the tail end of every normal summer has its slow and challenging season, the latter half of summer 2020 is shaping up as the Marmaduke of dog days. But such days and such seasons are what discipleship pals and accountability partners are for: we’re here to boost your spirits, offer hope, encourage you along the way and point you towards spiritual well being!
Pity the poor parents who thought they were going to get a break by sending those delightful children off to school on a regular schedule. They need your support, and those delightful children need your support, too, as well as continuing meaningful engagement as they continue to adapt to a whole new way of getting educated. Everybody’s coming to terms with the realization that we are in this new normal for the long haul, at least into early 2021 (read more at “We’ve Hit a Pandemic Wall”). If you’ve got teachers and administrators in your congregation, they need your prayers and blessings. Ditto for medical personnel. Let them know they are not forgotten as they continue their weary battle. It’s too easy too get too used to all this.
Author Jennifer Senior, noting the trouble that we’re having getting to sleep and the one in three adults who are showing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, cites a mental health expert:
“People often think of trauma as a discrete event — a fire, getting mugged,” said Daphne de Marneffe, author of an excellent book about marriage called “The Rough Patch” and one of the most astute psychologists I know. “But what it’s really about is helplessness, about being on the receiving end of forces you can’t control. Which is what we have now. It’s like we’re in an endless car ride with a drunk at the wheel. No one knows when the pain will stop.”
That’s why we are going to need to be particularly sensitive for the mental health needs that will become more prevalent in the weeks ahead. We are not mental health experts (although we far too often dabble in that work). But we are spiritual health experts, and we can provide healthy outlets for expressing needs and fears. We can provide desperately needed connection. It’s the perfect time to help people think about their general spiritual well being and the commitment to spiritual disciplines that will help them stay strong even when weary. I highly recommend Dr. Candace Adams’ Spiritual Wellness Journey virtual workshop on September 14th. It focuses on finding personally rewarding, best-fit practices for deepening our regular connection with God. Let’s face it, we are not very good at thoughtfully diagnosing our spiritual wellness. We need help. We need guidance (from a supportive, non-threatening, expert source).
Now is the time to dig deep and help the people in our congregations pray, rest in the Word, worship, and serve. Not just by reminding them that these things are important, but by inspiring them to remember that they are essential. We do this by modeling these practices in all our virtual (and for some of you now, live) gatherings and by giving meaningful, varied options to practice them.
For instance, prayer for teachers right now is not the sweet seasonal moment of acknowledging their value and seeking blessings for the upcoming school year that it traditionally is for most local churches. It is a serious invocation of divine intervention in a time of high stress. Consider ways you might pray:
- Specific directed prayers during worship (not just the “bless the school year” variety) for teacher safety and sanity. Specific prayers for parents who are struggling. Specific prayers for kids.
- A virtual prayer wall. Use online resources, especially social media, to allow teachers to post their own names and prayer requests that others might actively pray for them.
- Challenge congregation members to text encouragement to the teachers they know.
- Have clergy and key ministry volunteers call teachers and other educational professionals in your congregation to pray with them directly.
- Partner seniors who are isolated at home with families with children for prayer and other interaction – it’s a great time to go retro and have pen pals, for instance, or drop off little surprise gifts at the doorstep to one another.
Times of stress are, likewise, great times to be reminded of the value of reading and sharing God’s promises. The Bible is full of tales of God’s people persevering through epic dilemmas and challenges as great as those we face in this moment. Continue to find creative ways to share the hope such stories communicate:
- Use social media to encourage people to share verses and stories that are helping them get through this time. Challenge them to be as specific as possible. Such sharing helps the person who shares as well as the person who receives. A robust sharing system also takes the pressure off clergy and staff to feel like they have to come up with something inspirational every single day.
- Read more Scripture! Even in our worship services, we tend to share a couple of passages (max!) from the Bible. Let’s lean into God’s Word more. Show different people from different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, and cultures sharing the Word.
- Offer some easily accessible Bible study resources. Now is a good time for struggling people to want to dig deeper – give them the tools (and make sure you have different levels of options, especially for beginners).
- Give inspirational mini-studies. From Facebook to TikTok, share a brief, inspirational Bible moment, devotional, or meditation.
- Write Scripture verses where people in the community can see them: on your sign, in chalk, on posters, in secret notes slipped into unlikely places.
Service is still a challenging opportunity, but a profound need. Keep thinking up those creative ways to keep people connected:
- Here’s an example of a ministry of cupcake deliveries to seniors. A Johnson City, Tennessee congregation had to cancel its annual special dinner to over-75-year-olds, but they didn’t just throw in the towel. They chose to pivot to a creative alternative:
“Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we focused on what we can do,” said the Rev. Michael Lester, associate pastor in congregational care and counseling.
On July 28, about 30 volunteers delivered cupcakes and cards to 220 members throughout their city. Instead of sharing the love with about 100 older adults who could make it to a dinner at the church, a team including children, youth, young adults, and staff reached more than twice as many people at their own homes.
- Here’s an example of a robust technical outreach ministry to help seniors get connected – even those seniors who declined to get plugged in during the initial months of the pandemic have come to realize that this is going to be a long term now normal and are now coming around to the idea of virtual engagement. (I had a lady in a small group I lead who had declined until just this past week to meet virtually with us – now she’s acquired a new device and a new habit, and she loves it – she needed some help to get to that point).
How are you maintaining healthy practices to boost your own spiritual well being? And if you are a leader, how are you helping the people in your congregation consider their own spiritual well being and take action to find balance and harmony? How are you finding new ways to inspire, connect, support, and serve as the dog days weigh us down?