Pleasin' Season

I knew we were deep in it when I overheard a man wearily talking about the three different types of stuffing he was preparing for Thanksgiving (let the debate about stuffing vs. dressing commence!).  His plan was to make something to please his new mother-in-law as well as his father.  The final stuffing was his own preference, or as he referred to it, a “dealer’s choice”.

Many of us are hard at work pleasing folks this time of year.  From gifts to cards… even where we decide to spend our holidays can be geared around the needs and desires of another.  To please someone is to satisfy their needs or desires, sometimes at the expense of our own.

Churches get into the swing of ‘pleasing’ as well.  I recall several pastors who have said to me over the years that during this season they try to have something for everyone!  In my last church, we came up with the idea of doing a holiday hymn sing prior to the Christmas Eve service so that on that night, everyone’s favorite carol could be sung.   

There is nothing wrong with pleasing others… unless it is making you miserable.

That guy with the stuffing seemed regret his decision to make three variations of the same dish.  The woman at Target buying a ton of plastic for her children didn’t seem as jolly as that task would warrant.  There were some Christmases when this pastor barely had the energy for Christmas Eve, let alone a full hymn-sing.

Pleasing others can be exhausting.  Of course, the opposite isn’t healthy either.  Those who work to only please themselves become mean and embittered.

It is no accident that during this “Pleasin’ Season” we tell the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Dicken’s Scrooge is a model of someone who initially only pleased himself.  At the end of the story he figures it out, and his life changes not because he wants to please others, but out of an abundance of spirit.  Scrooge on Christmas morning is an image of generosity which is in stark contrast with someone who is focused on pleasing others.   The difference between generosity and pleasing folk is, well, as different as stuffing and dressing.  

As you go about Advent, and as you prepare for Christmas, are you seeking to please others?  Or are the gifts you give and the time you spend offered out of your own joy?

Wishing you generosity and joy this season!

It’s all in the family…

The other night I was visiting with church leadership and the perennial debate came up.  No, not the one about playing Christmas hymns during Advent… the one about whether the church is a business.

Is it?

Certainly, there is a business like aspect to being the church. There are often employees, budgets, buildings and boards.  We could argue that our product is one of service; offering to those in the community an opportunity to worship, much in the same way a theater offers shows.

But Jesus didn’t pray “Our Boss… who art in heaven..” and Paul referred to us as not as work colleagues, but as siblings in Christ.  If anything, the church most resembles a family – a dysfunctional, quirky, much-in-need-of-grace family.  

That doesn’t mean we should throw our budgets, policies and procedures out the window, any more than a family should forgo keeping the checkbook balanced and the chore-chart on the refrigerator.  Even the best of family systems rely on best practices.  Some even place their behavioral contract and/or mission statement on signs inside their home.  Several families in my last congregation had this sign hanging in their kitchen:  “In this house… we are real, we make mistakes, we say I’m sorry, we give second chances, we have fun, we give hugs we forgive, we do REALLY LOUD, we do family, we Love.”

How we understand the nature of the church frames our expectations of the church.  

How we understand the nature of the church frames our expectations of the people in the church.

How do you see your church?  Is it a family, a fellowship, a business?  How does that frame change how you see those next to you in the pew?  How does that shape your understanding of those outside the church walls?  

As the writer of Ephesians states:  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Let us be so.

Blessings,

Karen

Watts the question?

“What happens if this doesn’t work?”

It’s a good question.  The statement under the question is “this isn’t going to work”. It’s been used in our family (generally thought, not spoken) whenever Dad jury-rigged something that had cords.  Dad was trained as an electrical engineer, which is far different from being an electrician.  The man would test if a wire were live by licking his fingers and touching it.  Yes, he’s still with us, wonderfully, amazingly so.  Perhaps more amazing is that most of the time, what he wired DID work.

“What happens if this doesn’t work?” is a question I hear in my visits with folks around the Presbytery.  The question is generally in reference to my position, which is held together with duct-tape and approximately two years of funding.  

Of course, most congregations aren’t strangers to the question.  They ask it of themselves as they Call a new pastor, or make adjustments to an already lean budget.  

It’s a good question.

It’s the wrong question.

The question we should be asking is: “What happens if this DOES work?”

If this does work… will more lives be changed?

If this does work… will God’s kin-dom* expand?

If this does work… will more children be fed, more folks have housing, more people experience justice and mercy?

If this does work… will it mean that more people experience the transformative love of God?

In the Book of Order (part of the Presbyterian Constitution) there is a section that states:  The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life. (F.10301).  If we dwell on the “what if it doesn’t work” question, we will find ourselves paralyzed and concerned with sustainability.  Everything is dust, my friends.  

The better question leads us back to ponder whether or not our decisions help us to be a community of faith.  It’s a question that begs us to lick our fingers and touch the bare wire to see if it is live… and to see if it is life-giving.  Try it at your next meeting… you may find the results to be empowering or even shocking!

Blessings –

Karen

To toss, or not to toss..

They are packing up my stuff.  Our stuff.  Our apartment.

Don’t you wish you were me right now? No?

I’ve retreated to the local coffee shop, because our small apartment in Rockville, MD feels even smaller now.  It’s filled with boxes of dishes, books and Gerald and Mo, the movers.  Later today the truck will be loaded, and tomorrow it will arrive in Syracuse.

Gerald in particular is interested in talking about what he’s finding.  At first it felt awkward, answering questions about why I have a miniature wooden chicken coop and why there’s a picture of Bill and I dressed up in 18th c. clothes (were you pretending to be Betsy Ross or something?), but as time went on I appreciated how gently he cared for our stuff, and began to understand that this is what he does for a living.  He boxes memories.  His questions are his way of making his living… alive for him. 

It brings to mind the quote from MLK Jr., ““If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Of course, it’s possible that I’m romanticizing his work.  It may be that this is simply his way of getting through another day – hearing stories of the things he’s wrapping in paper.  For me it’s been a wee bit of ministry.  Each question by Gerald provokes a memory for me.  Each question creates another question in my mind: “why am I keeping this?”  In the end, isn’t this all just vanity and dust?

Not today.  Today, this is the stuff of memories.  

There is a line between worshipping the past and honoring it.  I think of Moses and the Israelites moving for forty years and think there must have been at least one person in that crowd that grieved the yarn stash they left behind.  Each move I make I’m challenged to go full Kondo* and lovingly leave things in places where they will spark joy for others.  Moving challenges us to determine what has value. 

It begs the question – what would happen if our churches had to move?  Certainly, the folks at Isaiah’s Table could answer this, as could those at Arlington Presbyterian (who have just moved into their new space!).  If you had to move your church, are there things you’d leave behind?  If you had your own Gerald asking questions about the oddities he found, would your stories of those items justify their need to be lovingly wrapped and put in boxes?

See you back in Syracuse.  And, if anyone needs boxes….

Blessings –

Karen

* Kondō, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Ten Speed Press.

Thou Wast their Rock

As we approach the end of October, thoughts turn to whether Skittles are the better catch, or if Snickers are still king (duh!).  Turns out, the answer to that question is different based on your generation.  Apparently, I show my age even in my candy preferences.

Generational studies abound.  Painted with broad-brush strokes, and generally offering a nod to outliers, they help us understand what makes those folks who grew up in different contexts ‘tick’.  There are several excellent authors who help churches to understand what the different needs of Generations X, Y (also known as Millennials), Boomers, the Silent Generation, etc.  These studies focus on attitudes and actions, and help congregations understand who they are trying to reach.

Sociologists (and others!) study generational cohorts because out of all the predictors, age is the one that offers the most reliable predictors in terms of attitudes and behaviors.[1]  

Churches (in my experience) generally engage in generational studies because they are concerned about dwindling numbers in the pews (and in the offering plate).   We study the next generation, because we fear there will not be a next generation in our churches.

I’m not arguing that is a bad thing.  I will suggest that the motive might be an issue (let’s put in a coffee bar in the back of the church so more millenials will come… and then lead our committees is not the best motive).  Certainly, the art of translating the Gospel into the language of the people is a concept that existed before Generational Theory was postulated and it’s important.

I would argue is that the reason why the church wants to reach the next generation is the bit that needs to be sorted out first.  It’s not to increase our numbers, but rather to share the transformative love of the Christ, right?

Perhaps we need to not only look forward to who will follow us in the great parade of faith… but to look backward?  How did we get here?  Who are the saints before us, and what did they do that made their faith so persuasive?

“Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might”.

Looking back in my own life, I am thankful for the saints who went before me to taught me about Jesus in how they lived their lives.  Preachers, teachers, but also grandparents and great-grandfolk, neighbors and shopkeepers who made decisions based on their faith and sometimes even made that connection for me.  They showed me in their actions that their faith was important to them.   It wasn’t the old “in our family, we go to church on Sundays because that is what we do” sort of thing.  It was more “in our family, we go to church on Sundays because this is who we ARE”.

What if the key to reaching the next generation is how we live our lives?

What if the key to reaching the next generation is how the church lives its life?

Regardless, I’m grateful for the many, many generational cohorts that have proceeded my own (I’m officially on the cusp… but identify as Baby Boomer, if you want to know.  But you knew that when I opted for the Snickers bar, didn’t you?).  For all the Saints… who from their labors rest…

Blessings, 

Karen


[1] https://www.people-press.org/2015/09/03/the-whys-and-hows-of-generations-research/

Don’t Panic

The last few days I’ve been in Baltimore with other Mid-Council leaders.  It was a few days of all of us asking hard questions about what a Presbytery is and what it does.  Amidst keynotes, workshops and informal conversations with colleagues who are wrestling with similar challenges and opportunities I heard stories of our Church.

In the middle of that there was a brief conversation with someone who quoted from “The Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy”.  I’m not going to attempt to summarize the book (impossible!), but the words “Don’t Panic” are written on the cover of the Guide because it looked “insanely complicated to operate” and to “keep folks from panicking”.

Right.  

Those were the words I needed to hear.  J. Herbert Nelson preached similar words at the Mid-Council Gathering.  He reminded us that although we may not know where the path may take us, we know that Jesus knows.  

My hunch is this resonates with a number of churches in this Presbytery. My hunch is this resonates with a number of us, period.

The world is a whirlwind right now.  Between glaciers melting and the posturing of global leaders, we’ve got families in need of food and housing and issue of injustice all around us.  The harvest is great; the workers are few.  More than of few of us (individuals, churches) are feeling compassion fatigue.  It’s nothing specific… it’s a conglomeration of everything that makes life seem inherently insanely complicated to operate.  It’s all too easy to panic.

Now, the words “Don’t Panic” isn’t exactly written on the cover of our Holy text… and within the covers are all sorts of stories of faithful folk who did just that (panic!).  But the words the Resurrected Jesus speaks to the disciples in that Upper Room echo the words Douglas Adams penned.

Peace be with you. Don’t panic.

There is much work ahead for all of us – Cay-Syr Presbies and all the rest.  We know, however, that our God remains in the middle of it.  What is our only comfort in life and in death?  That we are not our own.  That we belong, body and soul, both in life and in death to our faithful savior.  

What’s your sign?

No, I’m not asking for your astrological sign… I’m curious about what sort of placard you carry every day that lets folks know who you are.  Perhaps you wear a hat that proclaims your affinity for a sports team, or maybe it is the car you drive.  It could be that perpetual smile on your face, or the way you ignore folks that make you uncomfortable.  What are you saying to the world with what you wear, how you speak and act?  Does that outward manifestation resonate with who you really are?

Part of what has prompted this rambling is that one of our churches, the Robinson Elmwood United Presbyterian is changing their sign. This new outward manifestation of identity is no small thing, but I also know that this congregation has done some good work in discerning who they are as a congregation.  I laying odds that the outward sign will match what is going on inside the doors.

We know that when our outsides match our insides we are perceived as being authentic.  This rings true for congregations as well as for people, and for the sake of the Gospel, we need to be who we say we are.

Our denomination is encouraging congregations and presbyteries to adopt the Matthew 25 initiative.  This initiative asks that we focus on at least one of three areas:  congregational vitality, confronting structural racism and addressing systemic poverty.  It’s hard to argue with the urgency of these issues, and yet I’ll confess to some hesitance in signing on with the initiative.  My concern is that, for the sake of the Gospel, we need to be who we say we are.

Talk, especially as Presbyterians, is cheap.  Let’s be fair, talk is cheap, period. How often do we say one thing, and do another (h/t to Paul)?

If we take on the bold vision of Jesus and actively work to end systemic poverty and break down structural racism we need to be prepared to act sacrificially.  Are we willing to set aside our time, talent and treasure for this work? What about our privilege?

 If we say we will do this.. .and we don’t, what is the sign we are showing the world?

Convoked

And, just like that… I’m Installed for service and use!

If you missed the Installation, please check out the pictures and videos that Sarah our Communications Guru has put up on <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FCayugaSyracuse%2Fposts%2F1358500734299652&width=500&quot; width="500" height="650" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowTransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media">Facebook.  You’ll hear wise words offered by colleagues and friends who poked and prodded, but also lovingly reminded us of our mutual accountability to one another.  This Installation wasn’t about me… but about US (I’m not sharing the chocolate, however*).

All of the activity of the past weekend has had me thinking (again) about how individuals collaborate in ministry and what it means to be church.

  • Church is messy because it requires collaboration.  
  • Church is difficult because it requires us to trust others.  
  • Church is frustrating because the wisdom of our goals is often foolishness to another.  

Yet participating in this messy, difficult and frustrating work is some of the most rewarding work any of us can do.  When we collaborate, we are called out of our egos and fears and find that we have been convoked to do this work together.  This convocation of folks is at the root of the Greek word ekklesia – or church.

To be convoked (it’s a word, I promise!) as the Church means to let go of our own way, and to find our collective way together.  It requires not just trust in God but in each other – which is a radical world-changing sort of love.  To be convoked as a Presbytery is to find ways to encourage that radical love in the communities we serve.  We are connected for service and use!

As I make my way around the Presbytery, there are two themes emerging.  One is a deep desire to be convoked – to collaborate with our Presbyterian siblings and to be in deep partnership with each other.  The other is mistrust for the Presbytery and a concern for being hurt by our siblings.

This tension is real.  This tension is also, I believe, integral to who we are called out to be.  The community we desire is not because of who we are… but in spite of it, and it is a witness to the transforming love of Jesus.  

The Installation is complete.  Now we are connected for service and use.  Shall we take the risk to deepen that connection?  I’m game – heck, I’ll even share my chocolate.

Blessings –

Karen

*Shannan Vance-Ocampo offered the Charge to the Presbytery, but she gave ME chocolate.  Nice how that worked out, eh?  No, really… I’ll share.  

Coaxing the Connection

I’ve successfully moved into our Syracuse apartment after six fine weeks of hotel living (shout out to the folks at the Candlewood Suites at Carrier Circle – it’s a bit worn around the edges, but the staff are top notch!). The cat will move in with me after MidCouncil later this month, and the spouse and furniture are due to arrive the first week in November. Whew!

Rereading the first paragraph, I realize I need to modify the adverb in the first sentence. There are still a few lingering issues with my move…. and I’m looking at you, Spectrum. Cable and Internet are part of our rental package, but setting up the account and the installation of equipment is the purview of the resident. I dutifully called Spectrum, set up my account and was told where to pick up the equipment. In all fairness, they DID ask if I wanted to have a technician bring the boxes and install them, but I’m my Dad’s daughter, and knew I was up to the challenge.

You know where this is going.

After several hours of struggling with cables and calling technical support (three times! three different answers!) the assemblage of geeks discerned that I had done everything correctly, but that the problem was with the coax cable in the apartment itself. And so, on Wednesday of this week, I will be entertaining angels in the form of an Installation Technician.

Later this week, I will be the one Installed. I’m amused by the parallel.

Some things you simply can’t do on your own. Even though you might possess the technical skills (I did it right, I’ll remind you!), when it comes to any sort of connection – Cable Network/Router, Church/Pastor, Resource Presbyter/Presbytery – there needs to be good effort on both ends in order to make the darn thing work. Sometimes, you need some help getting something installed properly.

There are several definitions of “Install” provided by Webster’s. In the case of a pastoral installation, we usually use the definition that is similar to “induct”. Given my experience this past week, I think the other definition is more apropos: “to place in position or connect for service or use”. That’s the purpose of the Installation service this Saturday. Both parties – Presbytery and Resource Presbyter – will be connected for service and use. Of course, I’m the one being Installed for service and use. I get that. But it’s meaningless unless we’re connected. I’m so incredibly grateful for all the ways this Presbytery has reached out and done the sacred work of connection and encourage you to continue in doing so.

This Saturday, I’m bringing in a few folks in addition to the Administrative Commission who will help with the Installation. Think of them as a Godly Geek Squad of sorts. I’ve invited them because of their expertise in this work… as well as for the joy I know they have for MidCouncil work. Like the Cable Guy, they will bring their own gifts and coax our connection (see what I did there?) to each other. I’m grateful for each of them.

Enough about me. How about you? Where are you currently plugged in and connected? Is the connection (to your faith group, family, spouse, friends and God) functioning at full capacity, or does it need some coaxing? If the latter, let me encourage you to find folks with the technical expertise who can help with those frayed relationships. If you need help finding that assistance, holler. I’m here to serve.

P.S. The Installation Service is at 2 p.m. on October 5th at First Presbyterian of Cazenovia.

Fleabag

I’m attempting to write this without spoilers. If you haven’t seen the now Emmy award-winning Fleabag, you may need to see it. I don’t know. You do need to know it’s awkward. It’s not the sort of series I’d recommend to my mother (sex, nudity, adult language warning inserted here), but there is something about this show that continues to poke at me.

The protagonist (played brilliantly by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a woman with absolutely NO filters trying to cope after significant loss. Her life choices are… interesting (see adult content warning above). Here is a woman whose name we never learn (Fleabag) and yet we’re invited into her thoughts and deepest memories as she breaks the fourth wall – sharing those thoughts with the audience. She creates chaos and drama wherever she goes, and the spotlight follows her.

She demands to be seen.

When a character (and what a character!) in the second season actually SEES her, she disassembles a bit, but eventually finds some semblance of peace. The final scene at the bus stop, where she turns to walk away? That final gesture? It gives me such hope.

Here’s why this series continues to poke at my thoughts: consider the many ways in which Jesus really saw those with whom he interacted – the woman at the well, Mary and Martha, the Thief on the Cross and those who were blind, lame or possessed. Jesus saw them. He didn’t casually look past them, or mumble a question about the wife and the kids. He saw them for who they were, and in that seeing, there was healing.

I believe that one of our roles as the church is to SEE people. It’s also the reason I sometimes find visits to churches frustrating. I’m greeted (maybe?) but not actually seen. Once folks figure out my place (Hello, I’m your new Resource Presbyter!) there’s a subtle change in stance because I’m now a known quantity. My professional self is SEEN. One of our deepest failures as the church is to not see as Jesus did. We know there are others in the pews, some of them lifelong members, who have never truly been seen by another member of that church, and we rationalize that they are okay with this reality. Heck, many of those who are unseen may believe that as well.

It’s difficult work, this seeing. It requires vulnerability on the part of the person with the eyes. Seeing another means knowing that persons pain and fear as well as their joy. It requires time and patience (and sometimes, a bit of stubbornness). For the person being seen it requires vulnerability fortified with trust.

If it were easy, the world would be a kinder place. To really see someone is to begin to love someone.

As I continue to learn my role in this new place and new position, I believe some of what I am called to do is to SEE congregations. We so easily applaud that which is easily seen – mission trips and great worship (those physical manifestations that are easy on the eyes) – but just like individuals, I believe entire congregations can also feel unseen and forgotten. I have no doubt that some congregations prefer being unseen… but I also have no doubt that that is not our calling as a connectional Church.

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth he writes: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Fleabag, in the end was fully known… and my prayer for her is that she shall also know fully the ability to love and be loved. It’s my prayer for all of us really, individuals and congregations.

For my part? I see you, church. Or, at least, I’m trying.