The mustache of hope.

This is my husband sporting his “mustache of hope”.

Normally a beard and ‘stache kind of guy, Bill agreed to adapt his facial hair for his role as Horace Vandergeld in “The Matchmaker”. CNY Playhouse was able to stage only one weekend of the show due to coronavirus, but the cast was encouraged to continue practicing their lines with the hope that at some point they’d be able to complete their run of the show. Bill took this as his cue to continue his “lip caterpillar”.

The mustache of hope was born.

Earlier this week the spouse and I have talked about the mustache (which as you can see had its own zip code) and our daughter’s upcoming wedding and had come to the agreement that he would shave it prior to the wedding. Understandably this decision came with great sadness. This mustache was far more than facial hair, it was a reminder of the joy and hard work that were part of pulling together a production with colleagues. It was a hairy symbol of hope. 

Yesterday we learned that a fellow cast member had just died of COVID.

It was a terrible reminder that this virus is not just a long intermission before life returns to normal. This pandemic has forever changed their families, churches and theaters as we mourn the loss of over 500,000 lives. 

Life cannot be what it was…..as much as we might hope for it. 

It can, however, be something worth hoping for, and so, we do not lose heart. 

Prayers for us all as we negotiate these difficult times.

Lent in a Year of Sacrifice

I write this the morning of Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent. The jokes about giving up watermelon during this season seem less funny than they did last year. Somehow recycling New Year’s resolutions as Lenten disciplines doesn’t have the same allure. Perhaps this year we’ve seen enough sacrifice and reminders of our own mortality to last us several years of Lenten practice.

For many of us Lenten sacrifices have been… sustainable. It’s rather odd considering that at the end of this season we share the story of Jesus whose sacrifice was the antithesis of sustainability. Oh, I know that the forty days of Lent mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, but we also weave in the story of Holy Week into our Lenten observations. It’s not just forty days of Jesus being hungry enough to be tempted to turn rocks into bread: this wandering eventually leads to Jerusalem and the cross. 

We know what happens the Sunday after that Good Friday – which may allow us to gloss over the sheer magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. I’ve wondered in previous years if the knowledge of imminence of Easter means that we don’t feel the need to literally pick up our own cross and follow in those footsteps. Why sacrifice when you know it all works out in the end?

This year, however, seems different.

This year the sacrifices leading up to this holy season have been significant. Not all have lost family or friends to the pandemic, but we’ve all lost the ability to gather casually and to hold one another close. Talking about giving up chocolate (or watermelon) seems to trivialize those who have said goodbye to dying loved ones via Zoom. Pointing to a year without indoor dining or having to share cramped home quarters with a newly minted “work at home” spouse as sacrificial acts minimizes the sacrifices of others who have had to negotiate far more challenging situations.

Lent is weird this year, and yet the story leading to Jerusalem and the cross remains the same.

I’m not sure what comes next for us… or for the church. What I do know is that sacrifice doesn’t look the same this Lenten season and it somehow parallels the call to risk everything for the Gospel. In the midst of a year of discomfort and grief the thought of entering into six weeks of focusing on discipline and sacrifice seems daunting at best. And yet, deep within my soul there is a hunger for this work and not just because Easter is at the end of it.

It feels like this is the work we are meant to do.

Of Productivity and Dust

Next week we mark the beginning of Lent with ashes on our foreheads and the words reminding us of our dustiness in our hearts. Those words resonate this year more than others – and not only because of the number of lives lost due to COVID; they serve as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of our lives.

Early last fall I quoted Dr. Aisha Ahmad who offered a helpful observation about how individuals in disaster zones hit THE WALL at around six months. The idea was that this somewhat sudden inability to work, play or even cope was normal. Her prescription for this was to not attempt to push through, but to rest with the knowledge that THE WALL was temporary.

That was six months ago. Which suggests… we’re due.

Her more recent tweets (yes, I’ve become a fangirl) offer a slightly different reflection this time around. She points to how her university offered a “pandemic productivity” seminar which was then cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances”. She then proceeds to critique the culture of productivity during a pandemic.

Dr. Ahmad’s theory is that we’re all living in this “uncertainty vortex with a thousand moving variables that affect what we can and cannot do each day”. This high rate of variability means that there are days when we have the illusion that we’ve got this. We can be highly productive, forward-moving individuals (and dare I say churches?) in spite of a global pandemic: We are WINNING at this. Of course, variability being what it is, there are also days when we can’t find our way off the couch.

Ahmad suggests that there are no “tips and tricks” to work under the level of uncertainty that we are all dealing with. She also points out that being productive in these circumstances is less about merit than it is about privilege. 

Her words are akin to a thumb placing ashes on my forehead reminding me that I am dust.

We’ve talked ourselves into believing that that being unproductive during a season marked with death is some sort of moral failure. It’s this sort of theological trap that makes us believe that those who succeed in life (an in a pandemic) are those who have been blessed by God. It’s the other side of the prosperity gospel – two sides of a very ugly coin. 

Perhaps as we move into Lent we might take on the discipline of accepting grace. What you can and cannot accomplish during this time is no indicator of your worth: you are not the sum total of what you are able to get done in a pandemic. Perhaps we might also consider the Lenten discipline of extending that same grace to others. 

Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are God’s.

It is enough.

Test

We the People?

If you want to see folks engage in a debate like young dogs going after an old soggy sock, just mention that the United States is a democracy. Suddenly folks that have taken any political science or philosophy course spring to action debating whether this country is a democracy or a republic of the federal constitutional variety.

Presbyterians sit back smugly and remind their sparring partners that the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence was the Rev. John Witherspoon (Presbys from NJ get TWO points) and that much of this country’s political organization is rooted in our own polity.

What this debate often misses is that regardless of the structure, this form of government relies heavily on the people… all the people… to make it work. Yes, we are at our root representational (those Elders in your church are elected by you and bear the responsibility for the mission and ministry of your congregation) but y’all need to know who you are electing and remain engaged by reading those Annual Meeting reports in order to ask those good questions that hold all leaders accountable.

In the same way, we the people need to remain engaged in the political structure of the United States in order to maintain those democratic values we hold dear.

What happens when the people become disengaged? Consider the following definitions of other forms of governing… and see if they are familiar forms within national or church politics:

  • Oligarchy – a small group of people who have control
  • Plutocracy – governance by the wealthy or powerful
  • Monarchy – two forms, constitutional and absolute -both focused on the sovereignty of an individual
  • Dictatorship – where a ruler or small group have complete control

In church governance there is also congregationalism… which is where each individual congregation has its own authority and may be a part of a loose association of like congregations (think states rights on steroids).

If our system is going to work it is going to require all hands on deck to question, volunteer, wonder and support. That democratic value of “for the people, by the people” only works when there are people willing to do their part.

When I’ve asked folks why they are Presbyterian I have often heard that there is a deep respect and love for a system in which there isn’t “one guy in charge”. The challenge for us all is that in order to have a system where power is shared amongst many… there must be many who are willing to hold that power.

I invite you again to this wild ride we call Presbyterianism.

What comes next?

“What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own
Awesome, wow!
Do you have a clue what happens now?” – King George III, Hamilton

Although Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote these words for King George III to sing on stage following the success of the American Revolution, sections of these lyrics keep buzzing in my brain as vaccines are distributed. That tunnel is still frighteningly long, but I do believe there is a light at the end of it.

What then? What happens when we’ve been freed from some of the restrictions that have become the norm this past year? What will we keep from this experience?

It’s easy to get caught up in deserted island dreams… thinking about all the things we’ve missed that we will do once life goes back to normal. It’s becoming increasingly clear that those dreams may be unfulfilled because our context has shifted significantly. History suggests that we either adapt or…

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle makes the case that every 500 years or so there is some event that changes the context so significantly that the church responds accordingly. Given that the last significant change was the printing press and the Reformation… we’re due. Tickle writes that the result of these changes is “the Church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.”

If y’all aren’t cleaning the attic, you need to start. Now.

Time to lean into not just the physical cleaning (although I do know of several congregations that are taking advantage of this season to physically purge the church closets of all sorts of things) but also the organizational overhaul that will be essential in the months to come.

What will you keep… not just from our pre-COVID lives, but from this new reality?

What needs to be tossed, and who will do that work?

Do you know how hard it is to lead?

Where do you begin? It’s possible to approach this Marie Kondo-style (if it doesn’t spark joy, toss it!), but that assumes that joy is the metric by which we measure our work together. I believe that where we begin is in determining the essential values of our organizations and holding up our activities to that light. What from this COVID-era resonates with those values? What about the patterns of activities and behaviors prior to the pandemic are in step with who you say you are?

Of course, King George ends his bit repeating an earlier line: “you’re on your own”. You’re not, you know. We do this work together and with God. Let me know how I might help.

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?