Church Dust

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return”.

Not that long ago I recall saying those ritual words and applying ashy crosses to the foreheads of friends knowing these folk were well aware of their own mortality.  One had stage four cancer, and the other had just buried her spouse and was struggling with a terminal disease. Yet there they were, standing before me as I marked them as human:  humans from the humus, earthlings from the earth.  Mortal.  

This action – reminding them they would return to the earth – was an affirmation of what they had already grappled with.  What was different in that moment was the knowledge that everyone around them had joined them in those thoughts.  In that specific time and place, we all remembered we were little more than dust.  Although their arms bore the bruises of blood work and IV tubes… we all bore dusty crosses on our foreheads or hands.  We joined them in remembering who we were, as well as Whose we were.

Churches also get a bit dusty. Churches that were built for specific purposes and demographics find their purpose challenged as neighborhoods change.  Some adapt and find new purpose (sort of like what the March of Dimes did after the polio vaccine was developed!).  Others relocate either to reach a new mission field, or to flee a mission field they fear. 

Congregations die.  The Church does not.  

When we remember how tenuous our existence is as individuals and as a corporate body, we may also remember we belong to the Creator of dust and starlight.  Acknowledging our eventual death as individuals and as congregations helps us to remember that our purpose is not to live forever.  Indeed, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (F-1.0301).  From the most robust congregation filled with vitality to the church that struggles every day to survive… we are all dust, and we all belong to God.  We all bear the mark of the cross.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember that you….we… all belong to God.

Mirror, Mirror…

It’s hard to believe that this is Transfiguration Sunday… and that next Wednesday we remember that we are dust.  This time of year we engage in a form of spiritual whiplash: moving from mountaintop experiences to remembering our own mortality.  This time of year isn’t for wimps.  

As I move around this Presbytery, this plays out in other ways.  Many of our congregations are a mashup of moments when we experience the heights of our communal faith experience in worship, only to feel a complete reversal as we sit around the Session table and discuss the budget.  It happens in the other direction as well – with Session meetings being all faith-in-action, and Sunday morning leaving us feeling parched.

Of course, this makes sense.  Our congregations are also a mashup. We’re petty and generous, nit-picking and expansive in our love.  We don’t stand up to bullies and we encourage folks to burn-out.  We also encourage each other and find ways for folks to use gifts and skills.  We welcome the stranger and ignore them (sometimes simultaneously!).  We have a knack of bringing out both the best and worst in each other.  Week after week we offer the same inconsistency.  It’s a wonder we’re still around.  (Good thing we are fluent in this whole resurrection business, right?)

Given that church is made up of humans (and total depravity being our calling card) perhaps we should simply be grateful for those moments of grace?  Those moments when we feel that the Church really is about kin-dom building?  Should we be content with what we have, and not covet what we don’t?

No.  Although I don’t ascribe to the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian Perfection (google it!), I do believe we are the church reformed and always being reformed.  Whether that reformation comes from God or from our own desires for something better… we are called to challenge the status-quo and work toward the kin-dom.

So, where do we start?  How does your congregation move from good to great?  How do you move from inconsistency to a more consistent pattern of, well, being the church? 

It begins with a healthy dose of introspection and assessment.  It absolutely requires someone(s) from the outside letting you know what they see and experience. There are several solid tools available for this – including the Congregational Assessment Tool by Holy Cow Consulting.  There are other ways of auditing programming and organizational structure, but do know this is really hard to do (impossible!) without someone outside the organization letting you know what they see.  It requires someone you trust holding up the mirror for you and commenting that that particular style doesn’t work.

 If it would be helpful for me to come and hold up a mirror for you, just let me know. I’d only ask that you would do the same for me.

How…nice?

A few weeks ago I left an important meeting and when I got to my car and looked at my reflection I realized I had something stuck in my teeth.  After a brief struggle it was dislodged and after some forensic maneuvers on my part I determined that it had likely been there for hours.  I found myself wondering not just why that wee bit of kale had taken the road less travelled, but also why the many folks I had interacted with that day hadn’t said a word.  

I know there are many reasons we don’t say things to each other.  We might not comment on the spot on someone’s shirt (or the teeth thing) because there is a cultural understanding that we look beyond those sorts of things.  There are times we keep silent because we know that what we might say would make matters worse. 

There is another silence, however, that has permeated our culture.  It comes from worshipping the Idol of Niceness.  This is deeper than the whole “if you can’t say anything nice” mantra, because it really isn’t about concern for the other.  This idol represents our need to be seen as being “nice”.

The church is supposed to be nice.  It’s not supposed to upset the status quo, or talk about racism or blatant inequity.  It’s not supposed to choose sides.  The church supposed to be a place of tranquility where we don’t talk politics, or economics or world events (except maybe the Olympics… as long as we don’t get too political).   The church is supposed to be that place where we can find peace away from all of those conversations and debates.

This is where we get into trouble.  

This is where niceness becomes a form of idolatry.

I understand the desire for church to be a place not of this world, where we can find the energy and peace we need to tackle another week in this world.  I mean, isn’t that why we call it a sanctuary?  Here’s the thing…

In order for it to be a sanctuary, it needs to be a place of peace for all people.

It can’t be a sanctuary, if the only folks who can claim it as such look like me.

Jesus never asked us to be nice.

Jesus asked us to love. 

Those two ideas aren’t the same.

The Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse meets the day after Valentine’s Day.  We’ll hear a bit about the Poor People’s Campaign.  We’ll undoubtedly debate a few things.  We’ll tell each other if there is kale in our teeth.  We’ll be civil and spirited and passionate because we will love deeply.  We will hold each other accountable to our ordination vows.  We will not worship the Idol of Niceness…. but will instead worship Jesus the Christ.

If you can be there, I’ll look forward to seeing you.  If you cannot – please hold us in prayer.  Help us to speak the truth in love in all things.

Blessings –

Karen

The Idol of the Shoulds

I’ve been examining the idols on my mental shelf and have come to an interesting discovery.  Apparently, I have swapped out idols over the years.  Fame and fortune have been pushed to the side (perhaps due to the realization that neither were likely to happen) and have been replaced by the Idol of the Should.

You know this idol.  It often takes the form of a List.  It represents all of the things that we should be doing in order to be the person we should be.  If we were only able to complete the list, we know we would be happy.  Alas, worshipping this idol only brings about feelings of stress, guilt and incompetence.  

Organizations also worship the Idol of the Should. 

I first encountered this in one congregation where I distributed a survey regarding Adult Education opportunities.  I asked three questions:  1) what would you like to see taught?  2) what day/time would be best for these offerings and 3) would you attend a class if it were on a topic you were interested in and at a time you would be available?  Of the thirty respondents (a statistically significant number based on congregation size), nearly half indicated with great specificity the topics that interested them as well as the time they could attend…. but also stated that they would likely not attend.

In other words, they wanted their church to offer a Sunday morning class on the Book of Revelation, but they themselves would not attend that class.  They wanted to belong to a church that offered this… because they believed a church should offer this… but they themselves would not participate.  (Please feel free to swap in almost any other programmatic aspect of church life for “Adult Education” to get similar results.)

We worship at the Idol of the Should when we evaluate our current reality, but also when we remember our past.  “We should have pasta night, because we’ve always had pasta night.”  “The choir should sing that anthem for Palm Sunday, because we always sing that anthem.”   Each time we bow our knees to the Idol of the Should we find ourselves bound by expectations that are not always driven by our core values… but rather are motivated by a false sense of who we are, or who we think we are called to be.

You might be asking, are there some things an organization really should do?

Absolutely.   

It might be helpful to look to the foundational documents of the organization (for instance, in my denomination the Six Great Ends of the Church are a great starting point). Evaluating how much your current organization is in line with the original intent can be eye-opening. Of course there are times when the impetus for an organization is no longer in play (the March of Dimes is a classic example). If that is the case, are the core values that might translate to a new reality? What are the needs of the community in which you serve? What is essential in order for that to happen? These are the “should” you, well, should pay attention to.

As for me? I’m packing this particular idol away. I can see that the one behind it is the Idol of Niceness. Perhaps I’ll tackle that one next?

Which way do we go?

There was a University of Rochester study done deep in the bowels of the campus many years ago.  The researchers tracked the difference in how men and women processed changes in direction.  Men, it turns out, pay more attention to the metrics of distance and time.  Women are more attuned to visual cues. 

What this means is that (in general) if you give a man directions, you should focus on how long he should drive before making the turn, whereas women (in general) prefer to be told to make that same turn at the large green house.

We access our world in different ways and therefore, in order to communicate clearly we need to learn to speak both languages.

Isn’t it amazing we get anywhere at all?   And if communicating is difficult between individuals, think of the challenges facing organizations… or in my life, churches who hear things and process things in ways that are unique to their own cultures.  No wonder communication is a challenge!

Organizations struggle with metrics.  

My denomination recently rolled out something called the “Matthew 25 Initiative”.  One of my biggest concerns was how this could best be communicated to our congregations.   In many ways, this initiative is a counter to our old narrative of division.  This initiative points us in the same direction, regardless of whether we measure the journey in miles or in landmarks.  

I’m suggesting my churches keep the following in mind:

1) Think of this initiative as a set of compass directions, and not a travel guide. This initiative offers three different directions: congregational vitality, eradicating poverty and dismantling racism. It doesn’t offer a complete program to perform.

2) This is unexplored territory in many ways… and although there is a general sense of what we mean when we say “congregational vitality” each church has their own journey.  Consider that this journey has no indicators of mileage and no landmarks to navigate by…. which means we will all be a bit disoriented (and that is ok!).

3)  The destination will keep moving on the map – which is why these are compass directions (walk west!) as opposed to a definitive map (you’ve arrived!).  

4)  The joy of the journey is often found in the companions on the road.

And of course, it all begins with a single step.

Out with the old?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Lorrie Day Anson preach from the narrative lectionary (one of the perks of my work is getting to hear great preachers!).  The passage was a familiar one from the second chapter of Mark:  

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

Lorrie wove into her sermon a commentary by Angela Dienhart Hancock[1] that spoke about blending the new with the old.  Hancock points out that it is possible to apply a new patch to old fabric… if that patch is preshrunk.  As for new wine and old skins?  They can’t be merged, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful in their own ways.

Mind.  Blown.

As a society, we have assigned (random?) value to age.  Throughout the church, leadership paints with broad-brush strokes and makes assumptions that what is new is essentially good, or that what is traditional is what is true.  

What is needed is not a one-era-fits all mentality to congregational vitality, but rather a contextual analysis of what is working and what is not.

What is needed is an ability to put aside ownership of our traditions as well as idolatry of all that is new and shiny in order to discern where God is calling each congregation to serve.

There will be times when it will be necessary to apply a new patch to an old garment.  Done well, this can continue (and expand!) the ministry of that congregation.  There will be other times when the parable of the parallel usage is a better option – both new wine and old wineskins both having purpose but in different settings.

Of course, the process of contextual evaluation is far more difficult than either a) buying a drum set for worship or b) vetoing a drum set.  It requires leadership to deeply listen to folks in the pews, as well as those outside the walls.  It also requires an openness to the movement of the Spirit.  Where is God calling us to go?  Who is God calling us to be?  How are we doing at effectively spreading the transformative love of Jesus Christ?

Church, we know how to do this.  We regularly take that which is ancient and allow the Spirit to breathe new life into it.  We preach from a text that is 2000 years old, and worship a God who is Alpha and Omega. 

Let us do the hard work of being the church.  Together.

Blessings –

Karen


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=01/12/2020&lectionary=nl

Generative Work

This past Saturday, the Leadership Team of Cayuga-Syracuse met for a “Summit”.  Like many councils (Session, the Theater Board, C-Suite gatherings) our normal meetings are usually caught up in the fiduciary – or required – parts of our work.  Bills need to be paid.  Forms need to be filed.  Stuff needs to be voted on.  That work is critical to managing the life of the organization.  Sometimes we have time to do some strategic work, but not often. 

We’re managing an organization.  It’s time-consuming work. As a Presbytery?  We’re managing.   Just managing.

Leadership is the sweet spot between doing that fiduciary work, strategic planning as well as generative work.  When we are able to do all three, we are leading.[1]  If we’re not doing all three, we’re working only in a managerial capacity.

It can be helpful to understand the three different aspects of governance in looking at the questions they answer:

Fiduciary:  What’s wrong?  (Fix the problem, balance the budget…)

Strategic:  What’s the plan?  How will we do stewardship/worship this year? 

Generative:   What’s the key question?  Why are we here, and who has God called us to be?

In my experience, church boards often relegate the generative work to the brief Bible study or prayer at the beginning of the meeting… and then it often serves as a reminder that God is in the room, and not a push to ask deeper questions.  When we don’t engage with generative questions, our organizations can lose touch with who they are.  We forget our very purpose, and instead focus on maintaining the status quo.

I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to apply this to our individual lives. I know I would live my life differently if I spent more time asking the generative questions… and lining up my priorities with the answers I receive. Why am I here? Who has God Called me to be?

Interested in sharing ideas about how to spend time in the generative zone?  Or how to reframe questions that move the conversation from fiduciary to strategic or generative and how to time that?  Me too!  I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love to talk with others about this.  Join me for a “Salon” on Thursday, February 13th at 11 a.m.

Blessings –

Karen 


[1] Chait, R. P., Ryan, W. P., & Taylor, B. E. (2011). Governance as leadership: Reframing the work of nonprofit boards. John Wiley & Sons.

Ciao! Bonjour! Wie gehts?

You don’t know this, but I can speak several languages.

According to Duolingo, I’m well on my way to fluency.  This means I can ask “Does anyone know where we are?” in Italian, Dutch and German.  I have no doubt at some point this knowledge will be helpful.

Of course, the time it actually takes to learn a language is much longer than what the various sellers of apps suggest.  Fluency comes when we move beyond vocabulary into the difficult work of grammar.  Some studies suggest that what happens as we become immersed in another language is that our brains are “rewired”.  Some of our brains take longer than others…. but you knew that.

That promise of quick and easy results finds resonance in other areas of our lives.  The promise of speed is expressed in every drive-through and EZpass booth, diet plans and get-rich-quick strategy.  We want everything yesterday, and if that isn’t deliverable, we want it now.  

Congregations fall prey to this as well.  We implement new programs, websites and music and expect immediate returns.  Once we are convinced that there needs to be change (interestingly, the one thing folks complain is often done too quickly!) whatever change scheme we implement needs to create the desired effect immediately.

The problem is that often the only thing we’ve learned is to ask the question “Does anyone know where we are?”.  We’ve not actually learned a new language or a new way of being, but instead we’ve developed the skills to allow a reasonable facsimile of the required syllables to spill off our tongues.  It’s all surface and “eye-wash”, and that required brain rewiring hasn’t taken place.

Unless…

Unless the new language we are trying to speak is love.

What if the changes we implement in our churches is not to attract new members, but to help us love new members?  What if the language we learn is one where we listen to the needs of those outside our walls and to pray for those needs and address them as we are able?

It’s not our brains that need rewiring.  It’s our hearts.  “If I speak in the tongues of humans or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It’s not what we are doing, but rather why we are doing it.

Don't Look Away

I have several rules of engagement when reading online news articles.  One is to not read the comments, as they will almost always lead to despair and frustration with humanity in general.  The second rule is to never respond to those comments.  Ever.

See, I know there is danger in looking at things you don’t want to see.  It can change how you perceive the world.

Christmas day I read a piece by CNN reminding those who believe in the Christian narrative that Jesus was a refugee.  I looked at the comments.  I responded.  Here is what I learned:

1)  Those rules for online engagement (see first paragraph) are smart.  

2)  Many people who comment on articles do not actually read the article.

3)  People (myself included) are often more interested in proving how right they are than in learning from others.

I also learned that there are a number of folks across this nation who attend church regularly who have never heard the story of how Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled Herod’s wrath and sought refuge in Egypt.  (As an aside, the word used here in the Greek is pheuge…. which is the root word for the English refuge/refugee).

This story is important because it tells not only of the flight to Egypt, but it also bears witness to what occurred under Herod’s rule.  It speaks of the meaningless slaughter of innocents who were killed because they were Jewish boys of a certain age in a certain region (see Matthew 2).

This story is important because it continues to occur in various iterations in our time – be it the attack on Jews celebrating the last day of Hanukkah at their Rabbi’s home, the incarceration of people of color at disproportionate rates, the rising numbers of school shootings or the number of LGBTQ suicides.  Indeed, Rachel continues to weep for her children.

All too often we end the story of God’s incarnation with the shepherds wandering back to their sheep, or the wise ones showing up at the door bearing gifts and we look away from what happens next.  We look away from the refugees, and from those persecuted and grieving as we put away the decorations for next year and make lists of goals for the next year.  We prefer our Bible stories to be quaint and not filled with violence.  We prefer our faith to not challenge us, and we prefer that our faith not be challenged.

What happens in Matthew 2 is a startling reminder that there have always been unjust rulers and violence.  Grief and pain were not solved by the birth of Jesus.  At the same time it is a reminder that God isn’t distant from what is occurred. God Incarnate is in the midst of this madness as a child who fled persecution to another country with his parents.  Here we recall that Jesus wasn’t born into a world that looks like a Hallmark movie, perfect family dinners or calm and gentle nights. Jesus was born into a world of strife.  He was born into our world.

If you’ve peered over the shoulders of shepherds this Christmas, if you’ve looked in the manger… don’t look away now.  You can wisely choose not to look at the comments, but as people of faith, do not look away from the unfolding story of the incarnation. This is God in the middle of all of it.  This is God with (all) of Us.

Objectively speaking…

We’re two candles into Advent, which means that some of congregations spent this last Sunday talking about peace.  Of the four themes of Advent, it’s arguably the one theme that is easier to talk about than to enact (go ahead, argue with me… prove my point!).

Some describe peace as the opposite of war.  Others identify peace as a lack of conflict.  Martin Luther King stated:  “True peace is not the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”.  

“Give peace a chance.” – Lennon

“Let peace begin with me…” – Miller, Jackson-Miller

“All I want is some peace and quiet!” – Parents and Teachers.  Everywhere.

In The Anatomy of Peace[1], the authors offer that when we see others as objects (as opposed to human beings) we begin an escalation of violence.  In fact, beginning to see someone else as an object is an act of violence against that individual.  Another Martin (this one, Buber) distinguished between understanding others as either “I/Thou” or “I/It”, with the ultimate Thou being God.  

When we objectify others we categorize them (In-laws, Democrats/Republicans, Immigrants and Refugees, Israeli/Palestinian) and see them as that which occupies space and time, but do not see them as someone we are in relationship with.  We may see them in terms of their value to us as opposed to their value as intrinsic. Chances are good you’ve been on either side of this equation

Why is this important?  Because we who talk about peace cannot have peace until we bridge the gap.  

The words that have become the central themes of Advent[2] may have a questionable beginning, but they aren’t for wimps.  Words like joy, hope, love and peace challenge our way of thinking and being in a way that echoes the readings from the prophets and the promise of the Second Coming of Christ.  These are life-changing words… if they become more than just words.

In other words, Peace should be more than a nice idea on a banner.  It needs to be a life-changing way of seeing others in our families, communities, churches and world.

My challenge to you this week is to consciously choose to see everyone you meet as a person – complete with feelings, thoughts and agency.  Don’t see them as your friend, neighbor, spouse, child, waitstaff, clerk, pastor, etc. See them as THEM.  Bonus points this week if the individual you are seeing in this way is someone you’ve disagreed with.

Let peace begin with me, indeed.

Blessings –

Karen


[1] Ferrell, J., & Boyce, D. (2015). The anatomy of peace: Resolving the heart of conflict. Berrett-Koehler Publishers

[2] Loosely based on the lectionary readings, but codified by the Christian supply companies… the folks who sell bulletins, etc.  That’s right, they were a marketing tool.