Creatures of Hope

On Monday nights a small group of us have been watching a series of short films based on the book “America’s Unholy Ghosts”. Smack dab in the middle of a stream of information regarding the church’s complicity in systemic racism, the author answered a question regarding the future. He stated that he understood there was a distinct difference between hope and optimism.

Something clicked deep in the recesses of both my brain and my heart.

You see, I’m a creature of hope. It’s part of my DNA, my faith-structure and my wiring. Hope is intertwined not just with faith, but also trust. For me, hope is the dependence upon the Divine and belief that regardless of what today or tomorrow brings… God remains in the middle of it.

Optimism, on the other hand, seems to be linked more to our own actions. These may not be the standard definitions that have been blessed by Saint Webster, but they do tease out in my mind how I can be both filled with hope… and yet feel despair. I can fully have my hope and trust in God and feel like the world is going to heck in a nicely decorated handbasket.

Cool, right? The problem with my sussing this out for myself is that it also comes with the realization that although there is nothing needed from me in regard to hope (God is God, and that’s enough!) when it comes to optimism?  Well, then….

Our own optimism is closely linked to that of our neighbors. As long as my neighbor is hungry or fearful, that confidence that today will be at least as good as yesterday is unreachable. Our choices impact the lives of others, as does our inaction (for instance, it isn’t enough for me to not be a racist, I need to be an anti-racist). What we do, who we are, impacts the whole. 

The church has a dual role in pointing toward that hope we have in God while also working to create communities where our actions reflect the kin-dom of God. This is not passive work, but requires action grounded in the intent to build that kin-dom. We have a responsibility for this work that is part of our calling… and closely interconnected to that hope that we feel. The good news is that, as always, we never do this work alone.

I’ll continue to be a creature of hope but becoming more optimistic begins with my own actions in response to my siblings. Today is a new day filled with hope, thanks be to God. Will it be filled with optimism? That’s up to what we do next.

Mantra

When my daughter was a tiny thing – full of energy, opinions and fire – a female friend pulled me aside and offered me a mantra to breathe whenever I had reached my maternal limits. I’ve offered those words in turn to other mothers of will-filled daughters. This mantra is offered not as advice, but as a blessing: “Strong child; strong woman”.

In the last week another mantra has been on my heart. Again, I find myself sharing it not as advice, or an attempt at reframing the events of the last week, but rather as a blessing: “We have work to do; we don’t do it alone”.

At this time a week ago I sent out a letter to all of our churches calling us to prayer. Unfortunately, our fears played out on our video screens as we watched people push through barricades and into the Capitol.

The Capitol is not just an important building. We as a people may disagree vigorously on political issues but it is in this building over the last two centuries that those debates have been negotiated and distilled into laws we all agree to uphold. What occurred last week went far beyond the breaching of a building. 

We have work to do; we don’t do it alone.

I know of three Presbyterians who bore witness to the events that day. 

  • One was Representative Andy Kim of NJ (and a member of one of the churches in Elizabeth presbytery) who spoke of his heart breaking as he helped to clean up the trash in the rotunda.  
  • Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died in service to his country during the riot had been a member of the Trinity Church near New Brunswick, NJ prior to his relocation to the DC area.
  • Read Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben, the first female clergy to serve as the chaplain to the House of Representatives calmed those who had hunkered down in fear with prayer and presence as she moved from place-to-place reminding folks they were not alone.

We have work to do; we don’t do it alone.

Our callings may be different than those of our siblings in faith, however, we are all called to serve. The work may seem insurmountable in a time of pandemic, racism and fear… but it is our work, and we do not do it alone. We do this work alongside other Kims, Sicknicks and Kibbens and we do this work in the presence of God.

Pushing back.

I write this on Epiphany, a day filled with images of stars. Some congregations have taken to the tradition of handing out “star-words”. The intent of these words isn’t some weird version of a Presbyterian fortune-cookie, but rather an offering of a word for reflection in the year to come. It’s a spiritual discipline– look for this word as it manifests in your life as the new year unfolds.

I pulled a star-word last year (Steward) and I’ll confess, I did see it rise up in my work with y’all this last year. It is not, however, the word that I would use to describe my year.

That word is…. Ridiculous.

As the world spun more and more into the horrible chaos of multiple pandemics, I found myself responding not with grief, not with beauty, but with creating things that were whimsical and ridiculous. I knit chickens and wreaths bedecked with toadstools, hedgehogs and owls. I cross-stitched curse words on fine linen. I even created a felted 3-dimensional representation of a mouse autopsy. It was as if I used my creative energies to push back at the absurdity of what was happening with creativity that provoked laughter.

It strikes me that this is also the work of the church. In a world on the brink of chaos, we offer the Logos/Order that is the Word. During a pandemic where social isolation becomes the norm we have found new ways to reach out to each other. We counter the evil and the injustices of this world with what is true and noble, right and pure, lovely and admirable. We hold before the world a mirror that shows not just humanity’s depravity but also how the transformative love of God redeems that reality. We push back against that which is evil, and when we find ourselves faltering, we hold one another close until we can.

Pastor Elizabeth Lyman serves as the Transitional Pastor at Pebble Hill. In her recent letter to her congregation, she quoted Neil Gaiman’s New Year’s prayer for 2020. This is the snippet that grabbed at my heart: 

Hold on. Hang on, by the skin of your teeth if you have to. 

Make art — or whatever you make — if you can make it. But if all you can manage is to get out of bed in the morning, then do that and be proud of what you’ve managed, not frustrated by what you haven’t.

Remember, you aren’t alone, no matter how much it feels like it sometimes. And never forget that, sometimes, it’s only when it gets really dark that we can see the stars.

Holding on with you…. 

Karen

Uncomfortable Epiphanies

Greetings on this Epiphany – when we commemorate the stories of wise ones who were sent by one King to find another and find a humble child. This word Epiphany which began with its roots in the Greek meaning “apparition” has come to mean a sudden insight often provoked by simple things.

Honestly, it’s not a bad word to describe the last 9 months or so. 

How something so humble as a virus can lay low something as complex as human civilization has provoked many epiphanies. Many of us are seeing the injustices in our systems. Others are finding large cracks in the structures of our churches. These moments of aha! are not always pleasant and seem to demand of us a course correction. Like those magi who found themselves moved to worship and then moved onto another path… we also are finding the need to seek other roads.

Another uncomfortable epiphany has been discovering our country is on fragile ground. Although the guardrails of our democracy appear to have held up in the courts, the court of public opinion is willing to march on Washington to demonstrate otherwise. There is fear for what comes next. 

We can’t ignore this as a church. We’ve agreed to be guided by our Confessions… and if you haven’t recently read the Barmen Declaration, you need to do so now. The church has faced the King of Judea in many forms, and we affirm the faithful response is always to seek the Christ, worship, and return home by another path. 

This Epiphany, I’d ask that we all return to the manger for a bit. Let us bow in worship. Let us lift our voices in prayer. Let us pray for our nation on this day when protestors assemble in Washington, D.C. Let us pray for our churches that their response may be faithful. Let us pray for peace that is rooted in justice. 

Will you pray with me?

Joy in the middle of it.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;

Six wings! I don’t think I could manage with two!

This advent hymn has been with me for the last few days. Unlike the usual earworm (think Baby Shark), I’ve welcomed this melody into my daily life. If you’re not familiar with it, imagine a single voice singing a tune that evokes the image of monks walking silently through ancient halls. The music is hauntingly beautiful and brings up a sense of deep longing for me. The lyrics by Gerald Moultrie are rooted in a chant that dates back to the third century that was sung as part of the offertory.

The line that I find myself putting on repeat is “Ponder nothing earthly-minded….”

Pondering earthly-minded things is my gig. From concern about whether or not the gifts I’ve ordered will arrive in time for Christmas to worrying about how our congregations are faring during this COVID-season, these days seem to be deep in thought and anxiety. Beyond this worry-work, I find my mind casting about to what life will be like six months from now – what will be our newest struggles and opportunities? How will I respond – how will WE respond – to this new world that continues to be unwound?

I am the Queen of Ponder, and although it has led to gray hair, some digestive distress and an odd rash or two, I quite like thinking about everything from the yarn choice for my next sweater to the patterns that exist in our lives together.

This hymn doesn’t ask me to stop my pondering (the word suggesting not just thinking about something but engaging in though deliberately especially before coming to a decision… thank you Webster!). No, these lyrics that echo in my bones in this season of expectation do not ask me to stop this work but rather to refocus it. It’s not the pondering that is a problem, but what I’m giving this pondering energy to: “For with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.”

When I allow myself to put aside for a time the worries and anxieties of this world and to focus for just a bit on the King of Kings yet born of Mary and to allow the mystery to touch me… if ever so briefly… I understand why the end of this hymn dissolves into angelic alleluias. Even in the midst of incredible uncertainty, fear, and death there is joy. I find myself able to join the six-winged seraph in the chorus. It’s here that I realize/remember that it’s not about me, it has never been about me and that fills me with both release and joy.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim, with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

As we move toward the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday, or the Sunday of joy, I pray that you’ll find time to ponder and in your pondering find joy.

This year will be different. Again.

I’m determined to not lose the game. I’ve been on high alert since Thanksgiving evening and have carefully curated my choice of streaming music. Some years I’ve lost early in December which, although disappointing, brought a certain amount of freedom. Other years I’ve been frustratingly close.

The game likely began simply enough – I imagine a few friends were comparing notes regarding their least favorite Christmas songs and decided they’d create a game to avoid listening to one of them. Over the years it morphed and developed various rules. Parodies were considered exempt due to the “blurred lines rule”, and ambushing others went from being part of the game to being discouraged to eventually being ruled out of order. There are regional differences to the rules as well as the times allotted for the game.

Isn’t this how traditions begin? A simple thing, which is fun and often a bit ridiculous becomes central to our experience. Years from now, my descendants may wonder why “The Little Drummer Boy” isn’t in the family song book, and someone will remember the game. Undoubtedly you have your own traditions – the way certain decorations are hung and what food lands on your family table during this season. These small things are the ways in which we create our own microcultures; a place filled with symbols that help us to remember who we are. Rituals including grandmother’s turkey platter and dad’s light display; church pageants and even avoiding hearing the Little Drummer Boy until it’s actually Christmas help us to mark the holiday and make it our own.

Usually, the biggest challenge to our holiday traditions comes with the transitions that are also part of our lives: newlyweds may argue over ham or goose for Christmas dinner and with the death of the patriarch there is some confusion at the table trying to figure out who will carve the beast. We manage these challenges with tears and debate, just as surely as we welcome the other changes that come with marriages and births and new friends welcomed to the table.

This year will be different. 

In these pandemic times we’re adapting our traditions as best as we are able to accommodate smaller tables and fewer options. We’re already grieving not gathering in candlelight to hear the story and to sing words that have become sacred. We wonder if it will feel like Christmas. 

Years ago, a young pastor was faced with a similar challenge. The organ had been damaged and would not be available for Christmas Eve, so he asked someone to write a piece for two voices and guitar. This decision wasn’t just non-traditional. At that time, guitar had not been approved for worship, so being the crafty church leaders that they were, they elected to offer this new hymn at the very end of the service. This beloved hymn was created because two people of faith realized that they could not celebrate Christmas in a way that had been the tradition of their community…. and they found a way to still bring meaning and joy to that night. The result, Silent Night, has been a gift to all of us for over 200 years.

Like Gruber and Mohr who wrote Silent Night, we will adapt to this difficult new reality out of necessity. We figure out how to tell the Christmas story on Zoom or Facebook, and we will sing beloved carols in our pajamas. We will do this because even though the world has changed, our Savior has not.

Nothing can stop us from singing at the manger (although… not the Little Drummer Boy until Christmas Day… that’s the rule). 

The Away Message

On Sunday afternoon I will activate the “away message” on my Presbytery email, and it will remain activated until the end of November. I’ll be spending two weeks of vacation working on my dissertation, baking and crafting and maybe constructing an interior wall at our cabin. It’s such an amazing thing… I hit the right buttons, and PRESTO! I’m in vacation mode!

I crack myself up.

The reality is that it always takes me days to get in vacation mode, and given the limitations of this COVID season, I won’t have much of a change of scenery to help that along. I understand the deep need we all have for sabbath – both on a cellular level as well as one embedded in our covenantal relationship with God. Plenty has been written about its importance, however, I find it far easier to read about sabbath time and embrace the theory of time away than to practice it… perhaps because the actual practice of sabbath for me is work?

There’s also the conundrum of exactly what sort of sabbath I need at this time. I will be abstaining from work, but I know what my soul really needs is to take time apart from the regular babble of news chyrons and social media; to step away from that stream of voices for just a bit so that I might remember who I am (and Whose I am).

This is really hard for me. For folks who have worked with the Enneagram, I’m a 7 (with a 6 wing) which means I suffer greatly from FOMO (also known as Feelings Of Missing Out). My theme song is “What did I miss?” from Hamilton. It’s bad.

Why is it so difficult to do what we know will bring us renewal and life? It’s not just a challenge that we face as individuals who know what we need to do in order to be healthier in mind, body and spirit. This challenge also faces congregational leadership that know the changes that need to be made and yet choose instead to debate the paint color for the parlor. We avoid doing what we need to do not because we are lazy… but because we are afraid of what we will lose in the process. 

Am I willing to lose my ability at quick political banter (aka “snark”) by stepping away from the news reels for a few weeks? Will I lose my sense of what is happening in this Presbytery if I step outside for a bit? Absolutely, however the sabbath mandate is clear and the risk of not taking this time apart is actually greater than my ignoring this call.

What are you afraid of losing? What is the thorn in your side? Is it worth the risk of keeping it? (See you in a few weeks!)

Family Resemblance

The family I married into has strong genes. At gatherings of the Chamis clan there is no mistaking who carries similar genetic code. There’s some hint here and there of other families and their stories (my daughter absolutely has my mouth) but generally you know that Chamises come from the same stock. Our daughter looks so much like her father that when she was born good friends arrived at the hospital to greet our new arrival and asked Bill if he was certain I was the mother.

Note graven image

It’s like the time when the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked him about taxes, and Jesus responded by asking for a coin. Now, he may have done so to see what was in their pocket (or, rather… whose pocket the Pharisees were in!) but when they showed him a graven image of Caesar instead of the local imprint of wheat… they showed Jesus who they most resembled. 

Jesus then responded to their question about taxes. The word he used wasn’t simply “give” but “give back”. Give back to Caesar what belonged first to Caesar (and if you think Jesus didn’t get political, consider what these words implied during a time of occupation!)

I write this the morning after the election and like many I find myself wondering what the results say about our own family resemblance. What does this election say about what drives us as a people and what does it say about Whose we are? I think about our churches here and throughout the country that are unpacking the impact of this on their communities and wonder at the work ahead. How do we even begin to relate to one another…. let alone believe that we are related?

I think we do so in part by sharing the family story. We tell the version where Jesus and his parents were refugees and fled the wrath of a tyrant. We tell the story of how he addressed the powers and principalities of his day (and got all up in the politics of what was happening) and how we broke down walls in the ways that he broke bread. We talk about how he spoke about the oppressed and we don’t leave out those stories that are uncomfortable.  We tell the version of the Gospel that doesn’t gloss over the sacrifice and the crucifixion to get to the chocolate bunnies and the egg hunt.  We preach Christ.

We make this story OUR story… because it is in the telling and the hearing that we are challenged to resemble the one we claim to follow, and then as disciples we call others to join us at this work and in this fellowship.

As I post this the results of the election are still unknown but the work ahead of us is clear. Let us begin by remembering Who we belong to, and work towards resembling that side of the family.

Prayers for us all.

Scruples

Several years ago the Presbyterian Church did a deep dive into scruples. If you missed it, the gist of the nationwide discussion was how to provide clergy an opportunity to declare if they had scruples regarding the Constitution of the PCUSA. The idea was that they would be able to state their scruples up front when being examined by the Presbytery. This would provide transparency as well as the ability for a pastor to attend to their own conscience.

You’ve got to love a denomination that provides an opportunity for someone to say, “I disagree with this” and still be accepted by the larger body. Bonus points for us deciding to use a word like “scruples”.

Part of the discussion regarding scruples was to determine if there were some lines that could not be crossed. What were the essential tenets that were, well, essential? As a church we are encouraged to practice mutual forbearance in those areas that are “scruplely” (my word), understanding that “there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” (F-3.0105). You’ve also got to love a denomination that uses a phrase like “mutual forbearance”.

This moment in our nation feels like a battle over essential tenets without the benefits of a bonus word.

I’ve seen friendships fall apart over the last few months, and the conversation goes like this:

            “You can’t vote for A and say you love me”

            “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both”

            “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence”

            “Friends can have a difference of opinion… right?”

What’s happening here is that one person believes this is a conversation about scruples, whereas the other individual believes this is about essential tenets. For one individual this is about philosophy (or theology) for the other it is about the direct impact this will have on their lives. It’s hard to have a conversation about something when we can’t even agree what the conversation is actually about. One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place. 

Both. Grieve.

By this time next week the election will be over and the waiting for results will have begun. Regardless of what the result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee. We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom. 

Here’s the thing… you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of essential tenets on the denominational website. There’s no checklist, but we do have the Book of Confessions which is a witness to the Reformed faith. We may not be able to walk around with a list, but we can agree to how we will talk about difficult topics together.

My suggestion?  Listen deeply enough to understand if what you are disagreeing about is a scruple or essential. Listen deeply enough to hear not only WHAT is that line in the sand for the other, but WHY it is a “bridge too far”. You may not find agreement, but do not fall into the trap of discounting the other’s belief as non-essential (only they know what is essential for them). Finally, do not ask them to lay aside something that is essential in order for you to be more comfortable. Understand that your essentials deserve the same level of care, but know that you may need to model that behavior first.

These next few weeks and months (and years) require us to be the folks God has called us to be, and to serve not just the church but also the world with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

Ear, ear!

When my usually sweet cat’s whiskers move forward, and the shape of his muzzle becomes square I know he’s had enough play and our next interaction may involve something sharp. Our interspecies communication isn’t at Dr. Doolittle levels… but it works for us.  Mostly. We don’t share a common vocabulary, but we do have a language of sorts.

Language is such a remarkable tool. With words we can express emotions, describe beauty, build each other up and tear injustice down. Words help us to inspire, comfort and sometimes amuse. I’m the sort that appreciates not only a good turn of phrase but also feels that puns are an artform (your mileage may vary).

Of course, words are only part of our communication toolkit. We convey our thoughts using body language and grimaces, and pitch and tone have a place here as well. We also communicate with silence – from that meaningful quiet that occurs between grieving friends to the “silent treatment” offered to those who have tread on our last nerve.

Language can fail us for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there is a dissonance between what we are communicating verbally and our actions. I’ve thought for some time now that it would be helpful to have a dictionary that provided definitions alongside appropriate behaviors. A church that describes itself as friendly on the website but ignores the folks that have been visiting for weeks is a potent example reminiscent of one of the great lines in the Princess Bride when Vizzini says “inconceivable” for the nth time and Inigo responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes language fails because we choose to not to hear. Language only seems to work when there’s a willingness to hear and understand, and I have learned that I ignore my cat’s communication of his annoyance with great peril.

In this season, it is all too easy to pay attention to presidential debates and Facebook pages that are teeming with miscommunications. I wonder what would happen if we focused instead on the conversations happening just outside the walls of our churches. What are the deep fears and concerns (and joys!) spoken about around the dinner table, or at the conference table of the office on the corner? Where are hearts breaking… and does the church have the capacity and the desire to hear those stories? Do we have the words (or the Word?) to respond?

Let those who have ears to hear….