Un/Familiar territory

We’ve been here before.

Oh, the terrain is a bit different and certainly some of the obstacles are new, but this isn’t exactly unfamiliar ground.  We can’t gather together… that’s a bit new.  We can’t bring casseroles and share hugs of comfort.  We can’t sit shiva with each other or hold hands in prayer.  It’s different, but it’s not new.  We’ve been in this dark valley before.

This is why we’ve told the stories from one generation to the next –

Stories of Exile.  

Stories of the Passover told around the family table. 

Stories of the disciples in disarray and despair following the crucifixion.

Stories of the early followers of Jesus meeting together in spite of the fear of persecution.

Stories of the Great Depression.

Stories of victory gardens and air raids.

We’ve been in this dark valley before.

We respond… with courage and creativity and a new openness to being adaptive.

We respond… with a sense that we are in this together, even as we must remain physically separate.

We respond… with hope.  Even though we know the worst is yet to come, we know how this story ends.  Easter follows Good Friday.  We’ve read the end of the Book.  

Love Wins.

We’ve been in this dark valley before.

And just like before, God is with us.  Our Rock and our Redeemer.

I call Poppycock.

Easter Sunday isn’t about a full church.

It’s about an empty tomb.

For far too long the Church has been co-opted into the belief that more is better.  We have been guiled into following the metrics of society in attempting to identify what has value, and that value is based on what is bigger.   A close sibling of this way of measuring worth is the prosperity gospel: if you are blessed, you are rich.

I call…. poppycock.

Is it a wonderful thing on Easter morning to see the church filled with folks in their finery – new hats and spiffed up shoes?  Is that morning made beautiful with lilies and trumpets and the congregation bellowing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today?”

Absolutely.

But that isn’t the goal of Easter, but the byproduct of the empty tomb.  

It is helpful to remember that the One who occupied that tomb, who lives and reigns forever and ever, is the same One who told us: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Let this Easter not be about a full church.

Let it be full of compassion for the least of these: consider how you might reach out to those in need at this time of fear and dis-ease.

Let it be full of forgiveness:  use this time of isolation to reach out to those who have wronged you, and those whom you have wronged.  Find ways to forgive and to be forgiven.

Let it be full of justice and mercy: pay attention to those who are wronged by the systems that are in place and use what privilege you have to work toward justice.  Write.  Call.  Connect with those who are making a difference.

Let it be full of hope.

Confused Cats

My cat is confused.  Although I’m often working from home, my spouse is usually at work.  These last few days he’s been home.  The cat seems content enough – the birds have begun to sing again, and neighbors still walk their dogs outside our window (for his amusement), but there is confusion in that furry little brain.

I get it.  I’ll confess to some confusion myself.  This all seems so surreal. 

My news feed is filled with numbers of tested, and the numbers who have died; borders closed and shops shuttered.  I hear that life will be ‘disrupted’ for months.  The situation is more than fluid – it is torrential.  It feels sometimes like a swift-running current that will sweep us all away.  

For this moment I’ve chosen to focus on the things that haven’t changed.  

We still have one another.  This new reality provokes us to find new ways of connecting with each other – keeping a physical distance has increased the urgency to be more deliberate in our connections.  I take heart in hearing how church folks are checking in with one another, and how the role of Deacon is one we’ve all begun to claim.

We still have the church.  For decades the focus of being the church has been morning worship, but in this new reality we’re finding not just other ways of worshipping… but also new ways of being the community of faith.  Churches are reaching out to their community to find ways of providing food for school children, and extending the support network for seniors.

We have God.  My prayers have been filled with descriptors like Rock, Fortress, Redeemer, Immutable, Refuge and Strength, Unchanging, El Shaddai (evoking mountains), Alpha and Omega, Everlasting One… for if the change around us is torrential I need to remember the One who is my foundation.  Our foundation.

If there is any way that I can help you navigate these waters… please do not hesitate to reach out.  We’ve always been in this together (that has not changed!) but the reality of those words seems somehow more vital and more true today.

Praying for us all…

Karen

Being the Church Without Walls

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. – Jeremiah 29:7

Background

As Covid-19 continues to spread, faith communities around the world are making adjustments to how they worship and work in order to protect their members as well as the communities they serve.  In addition to modifying how we worship and encouraging good hygiene amongst those who gather, we also need to minister to those who are at home.  As people who are accustomed to gathering around tables, breaking bread and sharing the peace, conversations about virtual worship seem foreign.  Those with compromised immune systems may find themselves in exile in their own homes for weeks at a time.  How shall we respond?

Framing

Developing ways of connecting with those who are quarantined or who are socially isolated may also teach us ways of reaching out to those who shy away from church walls.  Experiments in virtual worship, education, mission and outreach may offer deep insights into how we might be the church in this century beyond this present crisis.

Ideas

  • Provide a conference call (audio/video or both) that connects members, especially those who are in social isolation or quarantine on a daily basis.  Use this time for individuals to check in, voice their needs and pray for one another.
  • Choose your platforms based on your needs. If your community values the sermon, streaming on Facebook makes sense.  If they value the prayers of the people, the interactive nature of Zoom or other videoconferencing is a better option.
  • Consider posting sermon resources (articles, links to appropriate stories, etc.) on your church’s website or Facebook page as way of engaging members in scripture.

Resources

www.zoom.us offers free hosting for up to 40 minutes/100 people.  Several members of Cayuga-Syracuse attended an online meeting/training about how to utilize Zoom for worship.  A recording of this meeting will be available soon, and a link will be posted on our Facebook page as well as in the e-newsletter when it becomes available.

Shareable resources are available via subscription.  If there is interest in the Presbytery providing these resources to churches, please contact Karen (kchamis@cayugasyracuse.org)   Check out resources for children at www.illustratedministry.com; visual resources at sanctifiedart.org (wonderful for worship!).  Looking for videos… check out https://www.worshiphousemedia.com/producers/423/salt-project.

Share your ideas with your siblings!  How are you discovering new ways of reaching others virtually?  Contact kchamis@cayugasyracuse.org to share your story.

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