Posts By Karen Chamis

This can still happen.

This morning has been full of kindness.

Not kindness received, per se, but stories of people who have tried to be kind to others. I’ve heard folks speak of cashiers at Walmart who have gone the extra mile. My inbox contained an email from someone who reflected on the kindness offered them while visiting a loved one in hospice.

My Facebook feed provided the reminder that a blogger I admire had published a book entitled “If God is Love; don’t be a Jerk”. Another friend reposted a story/poem from over a decade ago that I needed to reread: “Gate A-4”. In this poem, Naomi Shihab Nye tells the story of comforting an older Palestinian woman in an airport who believes her trip has been cancelled when it has only been delayed. Tears soon turn to joy and these two women of different generations wait together and share stories… and cookies. Nye speaks of how the cookies are soon spread like a sacrament around the waiting area, and how everyone there is dusted with sugar. In practicing kindness, the community as a whole is transformed.

I’m not doing the story justice. Read it here: https://poets.org/poem/gate-4  

It’s the end of this story, of all the stories this morning that make me weepy as they insist, in Nye’s words: “This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”

Kindness can still happen.

Anywhere.

I weep because I long for a world with more kindness. 

This isn’t mushy work, but empathy requiring vulnerability. It’s work that focuses less on establishing winners and losers. It involves speaking the truth in love and creating space for people to work through conflict. Kindness requires honesty and integrity.

I believe we are called to practice kindness in our marriages and families, in our workplace and schools… because ultimately, it is our kindness that defines and shapes our humanity. Not “random acts of kindness”, but kindness that wells up from our souls because that is who we long to be. These stories need not be momentary glitches in the psyche of humanity, or exemplary illustrations of the best of the best, but stories that reflect our core.

Kindness is not unique to Christianity, however when it is absent in my faith it is like a resounding gong or clanging symbol and there’s enough of that sort of noise in the world.

My prayers for us as we attempt to emerge from this pandemic is to learn again (for the first time?) what it means to be kind. 

May we create spaces that are dusted with sugar.

Ours, but not ours…

Last week I attended a virtual webinar presented by the historical society in Rome, NY about the failed “Florence Settlement”. In the late 1840’s, Gerrit Smith (a wealthy abolitionist) gave Stephen Myers property in northern Oneida county with the hope that a utopian community would be established for freed people who had escaped slavery. 

Unfortunately, the Florence Settlement failed. Historians lay the blame at the feet of the Fugitive Slave Act, but there are also indications that Stephen Myers and Frederick Douglass were chasing the same funds…. and although Douglass had originally endorsed the plan, he eventually withdrew his support. Gerrit Smith also abandoned the project, and some of his writings at the time suggest he was disappointed that Myers had taken the gift of land and had in turn sold it to others (albeit, for a modest cost).

The Florence Settlement is a short walk from the 10.5 acres we call “Rabbit Ridge”; a sweet meadow and woodlands that is now home to a wee cabin as well. During last week’s webinar I learned that our small acreage, with its stone walls and remains of a foundation, may have been owned by Brown – one of the initial members of the settlement, or one of his descendants who opted to settle close by. Long before Smith, Myers, and Brown, this beloved place was home for the Haudenosaunee and Oneida people. We add our names to those who have walked in these woods with hearts filled with wonder and hope and hold deep respect for those who loved this place long before we did.

My spouse and I refer to this property as “ours”, even as we know it really isn’t ours. The Psalmist reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof”. We’re blessed with the fruits of the land (in our case, some garlic, and LOTS of rock) but it isn’t really ours. It doesn’t belong to us, nor those who walked its paths years ago. It doesn’t belong to our daughter, or those who will follow her… all of us are caretakers; past, present, and future.

This thought fills me with awe.

It’s the same emotion that wells up when I enter a sanctuary.

It’s the same feeling I have when engaging with a community of faithful folks.

All these things do not belong to me, and yet for a moment I may share enough of myself with the land, church, congregation that they are mine and I am theirs. All of this, in essence, becomes OURS.

Years ago, I sat in a Session meeting and heard an older member make a comment about an action that had been taken. It’s telling that I don’t remember what the debate was about, but I do remember the conversation that followed. One Elder rose from the table in disgust and exclaimed to another “it’s NOT your church”. The accused sat silent for a moment and responded that they understood that this church belonged to everyone, and that the decision reflected that. 

Would the decision had been different if instead we focused on discerning what God wanted for the congregation, instead of our own desires?

The Great Poke

I’m a bit shy of any nomenclature that has the word “great” attached. 

Great, when used as an adjective, means above normal of average. Of course, we use also use it as an adverb (she played great!) but when we talk about stuff and comparing stuff we’re in the land of the adjective.

Of course, not everyone can be great, despite Garrison Keillor’s insistence (back in the day when I could listen to him and not cringe) that Lake Wobegon’s children were ALL above average; a claim that is statistically impossible. This is the other issue with the adjective great: for some to be above average, others must be below.

Now we have the “great resignation” or its new counterpart, the “great discontent”. Studies are showing that employers and volunteers are leaving long-established positions in droves. It’s great in the way the Great Depression was great: much higher than average.

Why is this happening? An article in Gallup’s blog “Workplace” suggests: 

“The pandemic changed the way people work and how they view work. Many are reflecting on what a quality job feels like, and nearly half are willing to quit to find one. Reversing the tide in an organization requires managers who care, who engage, and who give workers a sense of purpose, inspiration and motivation to perform. Such managers give people reason to stay.” [1]

Perhaps what is really happening isn’t resignation, or discontent, but the Great Poke.

Following previous pandemics, large social changes occurred. Not only literary masterpieces like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or the whimsy of Keith Haring’s works of art, but also systemic changes to public health, housing, and economic structures. 

After months of being in quasi-lockdown and the deaths of 4.55 million people worldwide (and countless dealing with the longterm impact of long-haul COVID) we should be re-evaluating what is important and powerful in our lives. We should be looking deep into the mirror and asking if this is the world in which we want to live, and how we wish to live in it.

For those of us that lead organizations, the question is that after we work out of the Great Exhaustion (it’s real, friends, I know!) will we remember our organizational mission? Will we remind ourselves of that sense of purpose, inspiration, and motivation… not to perform, but to be who we were created to be?


[1] https://www.gallup.com/workplace/351545/great-resignation-really-great-discontent.aspx

Intermission

I’m missing many things these days, including community theater. Although most folks easily identify me as a ham (hush!), it’s the backstage work that I really love. Something magical occurs when many talented folks lean into the work of creating a space where stories are shared on stage.

I love attending the productions I’ve worked on, but not for the show itself or even the final applause: I live for the intermission. As the final scene in the first act draws to a close and the lights come up in the house, the audience responds. At times there is a communal exhale, or the twittering of critiques. I’ve seen folks bolt for the door and others scan the program for additional information. Something happens during this time that suggests the audience will be different once the lights go down. The audience is part of the production at this point. They know what to expect and adjust accordingly.

According to the online etymology dictionary, the word “intermission” dates to the 15th century and was used to describe a lapse of time between events. It wasn’t used in the theatrical sense until centuries later. The rationale for an intermission in productions runs the gamut from the practical (see also: line at ladies’ restroom) to economical (popcorn!). Some psychologists have suggested that an intentional and expected gap in a performance allows for a mental “breather” – a chance to think critically about what has occurred before once again suspending disbelief and entering the world of the performers.

This summer has been a grand intermission, but I’m afraid the pandemic isn’t quite over.

As the fall approaches and our numbers continue to rise, we sit back in our seats a bit wiser than we were for the first act. Certainly, we have more information about the virus as well as tools to help us manage what comes next, but this has been only a momentary lapse in this global event.

My hope is that this mental “breather” has also allowed for space and time to think critically about what has occurred. We’ve changed. Our organizations have changed. It’s not just the simple technical movement to meeting online, but we’ve changed on an almost cellular level in terms of our connection with each other. We’ve shown each other both the very best and very worst of our natures as well as our resiliency.

Prayers for us all as the second act begins.

In other words…

Have you ever been sitting at your desk, attempting to come up with metaphors that describe your current reality and realized that every single image dates you as a late 50’s-something white female from New York State?

Just me?

The metaphors I’m working with are “broken record” or a reference to the film “Groundhog Day”. Lather, rinse, repeat? In other words: I’m on continual repeat.

The CDC has just recommended the use of masks outdoors for all folks in crowds – vaccinated and not. The Delta variant is a wicked thing that offers a viral load far higher than the previous variants, which correlates with increased spread of the virus. In other words: it’s time (again) to increase precautions. Vaccinate. Mitigate.

Each Session will decide the best course for the congregation they serve based on attendance, space, and risk tolerance, but ultimately each Session will make their decision on shared values. In other words: cue the sound of a broken record.

Values are those principles that an organization abides by. There are the aspirational values (what we hope we are), the perceived values (what others see) as well as the core values that form the foundation of all that we do. When a crisis hits, it’s the core values that are exposed. 

We see this in individuals all the time – this is the firefighter who runs toward the flame; the shop worker who spends additional energy to make sure the shelves are perfectly straightened; the wait staff who seem genuinely interested in serving. Of course, the reverse is also true. There are folks who are in positions and vocations where their values are not in alignment with the work they do (and someone is always miserable when that happens).

When there is a crisis (for instance, a global pandemic) an organization’s actual values are on display for the world to see. For churches there is the additional challenge of developing and supporting values that are in alignment with those of scripture.

What values are guiding your decisions regarding the continuing COVID crisis? Are they resonant with the Good News? How are you communicating those values with those within your community… as well as outside the church walls? In other words: Are you who you say you are?

Who are the helpers?

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. 

These words by the Rev. Fred (Mr.) Rogers resonate deeply with folks because they ground us in grace. It’s a profound statement of hope that reminds us that in a world of hurt, bravery and generosity remain. Love will always rise up against fear and hate.

These last almost eighteen months have shown us faces of the helpers.

They are the respiratory therapists, the doctors, chaplains, and nurses… the EMTs and hospital staff. They are the folk that kept food on our shelves and kept the water running and the electric on. The list is almost endless.

The list of scary things, unfortunately, also appears to be endless.

Other helpers have stepped up these last few weeks and days. Images of pilots, flight personnel, and our military providing transport for refugees; firefighters battling flames in California; rescue workers in Haiti and now those states recovering from Hurricane Ida.

It’s not just a world of pain… it’s a world in pain, and it has caused me to reflect on where the church is in the midst of all of this.

Are we the helpers?

I know that our local congregations have responded to the pandemic by finding ways to provide help for their neighbors. They’ve built beds for children, created food programs, and provided care and comfort for those who are hospitalized. Our congregations have actively sought justice for Black lives and have challenged leadership to confront our complicity in climate change. As a Presbytery we’ve donated funds to assist individuals who face eviction as well as provided support for incoming Afghani women. Nationally, Presbyterian Disaster Service provides relief both locally and globally.

Are we the helpers? Does the community outside our walls see us as such? Do we see our own work and ministry in that light? What would it look like if the answer to both of those questions was a resounding yes?

Prayers for all those who are being helped, as well as those who rise up in love to the challenge of helping.

The theology of Zucchinis

I first learned about the theology of zucchini in my first Call in Attica, NY. The lesson came in the form of a bag of zucchini on the back porch and was followed by subsequent gifts found in my office at the church, and the back seat of my unlocked car. I learned that summer why folks in rural areas locked their doors… and it had nothing to do with fear of crime.

A theology of abundance is built on the trust that regardless of what is going on in the world, there will always be enough to share. In contrast, scarcity states that regardless of what is going on in the world, we will always need more than we have. 

There are scores of examples of abundance in scripture. Think of the garden, manna and Jesus suggesting we consider the lilies. I’m hard pressed to think of times in scripture where a theology of scarcity is lifted, indeed, it seems to be the antithesis to the cross.

Note that the theology of abundance assumes relationships with others. I may not have all that I need, but my neighbor’s situation is different and the next thing I know, there’s zucchini on my porch as well as a shoulder to cry on.  There is enough, not just because I’m enough… but because WE are enough.

As Walter Bruggeman points out, this isn’t something that is Republican or Democrat, this is something that is Jesus.[1] It’s central to our ecclesiology (theology of the church) in that we proclaim that the church is to be the community of faith, trusting God alone, even at the risk of its own life.[2] This is what we do. We care for one another, and somehow that’s enough.

Sometimes what we have is not an abundance of good things to share (time, talent, zucchini, treasure) but just the opposite. As I’ve returned from vacation I’ve received calls from colleagues and congregations that are dealing with an abundance of… well, the polite word would be “stuff”. Some of our churches are dealing with a world of pain right now. As a connectional church, we share together in the work of bringing healing and wholeness to one another. 

I’m not asking you to leave your doors unlocked. I’m asking you to unlock your hearts, your wallets, and your calendar to share what you have with those in need. If you share, we’ll have enough. Together.

Blessings –

Karen


[1] https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/

[2] F-1.0301

Helpmates

I’m not sure who needs to hear this today, but you are enough.

You, as our Creator God has called you into being, are enough. There is nothing more you can do to make you more worthy or acceptable to our God… you are enough.

Of course, there is room for improvement. You can pick up your socks, recycle more, eat less processed food. You can work on your relationship with others, especially when it comes to giving (and receiving) forgiveness. That list of things you need to work on, however, is not related to your validity as a Child of God.

You. Are. Enough.

This, my friends, is very different from believing you are Everything or that old “God only gives you what you can handle”.

The trap is there for all of us, but my hunch is those of us in church leadership find it easier to believe that we need to be everything before we can ever be enough. We measure our worth on the number of individuals who depend on us, or the achingly long list of “to-do’s”. We push through pain in the belief that this was what God had intended for our lives. We will pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps and soldier on because that’s what God wants.

One of the first stories in the Bible is the creation of humanity. If we could read the story in Hebrew we’d delight in the puns (well, I delight in puns… but that’s me) as the author speaks of “the human” (ha adam) who is brought up out of the earth (adamah). The story continues with the creation of someone who will be a helpmate for the human – and the word that is used to describe helpmate (ezer) is the same word that in the rest of Hebrew scriptures is used to describe God. 

We are not meant to do this life alone. Our very foundation is the very being of God, but we have been given helpmates. They are amongst those in our closest circle, our pastors, our therapists, our coaches. WE are not meant to be Everything. We can’t be Everything. 

We are enough.

There is no weakness in finding helpmates. It doesn’t mean we aren’t good enough, or strong enough. We are created to need one another, and God has provided us with the gift of community. These next few months may be more difficult than we can imagine, and I believe we are not meant to do them alone. 

May God be with us all… and may we each be there for one another.

What’s a Karen to do?

Today someone asked me what it was like to be named Karen at a time when that name has become synonymous with women who have a reputation of complaining to the manager. Apparently, my name has slipped in popularity from #4 the year of my birth to #1784 in 2021. Almost one-third of that loss occurred in the past year.

There are some things that are beyond our control.

I’ve contemplated going by the initial K, or perhaps adopting an arcane sign as an homage to Prince. Mostly I’ve learned to live with it. Sure, it’s not ideal, and I’d be fibbing if I told you I wasn’t looking forward to the time when this was all memory, but it is what it is. 

We do this, don’t we? We assess what is beyond our control and we move beyond it. We ask God for the wisdom to know what is ours to work on and what is not, and we do the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt. 

It’s not just what we decide to do that matters, however. It’s also why and how we do it.

As a Karen™, I could reinforce the image of my brand and yell at those who poke fun at my name. I could opt to absolutely ignore it and go with my middle name (although when I changed that from Ruth to Cronenberger, I killed that option). Or I could figure out ways to live with it. I’ve chosen this option (although I do reserve the right to complain when it is warranted!).

The rise of the Delta variant suggests we are entering a new phase of the pandemic. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to have a summer of easing back into our communities followed by a fall season that looked more like 2019 than 2020. We’ve planned family vacations, choir anthems, and have stocked our shelves with coffee for fellowship hour. We are ready to return – desperately ready.

Some things are beyond our control…. but we do have some ability (and responsibility) to choose how we respond. 

This is not the same as last year. Then we had a bit more clarity about what needed to be done. This time around it seems there is less agreement about expectations and willingness to tolerate risk. Some of our congregations have plans in place to return to virtual worship once a particular threshold is met, others plan to continue with hybrid worship for the foreseeable future. Some congregations are ready to live with it. Each community makes choices based on their own specific context and risk tolerance levels.

My prayer is that the conversations and debates that we are having around pandemic strategies occur at a level deeper than discussing which windows we leave open. What we do and how we do it says so much about who (and Whose) we are. As you look back on the last 16 months, what have you learned about the values of your congregation? What has surprised you? What would you change? What have your actions said about your congregation’s priorities? What would your neighborhood say about your congregation during this time?

There are always things beyond our control, and at the same time there are always things you can control.Focus on the latter before you complain to the manager.

If it would be helpful to talk things through – I’m back from vacation on August 16th. You remain in my prayers.

What lies beneath.

When we moved into our current apartment we were informed by our downstairs neighbor (a gem!) that there had been a leak in the roof that created a torrential gush of water that moved through our second-floor apartment to the ground floor. Walls were damaged, floors were soaked: it was a mess. Maintenance repaired the roof, tidied up all the impacted apartments and all was well.

Actual footage!

A month or so after moving in, we noticed a pervasive mildewy smell in the kitchen. The new maintenance guy couldn’t locate the source at first, but he finally discovered it and replaced the impacted wood. A water stain on the ceiling in the adjacent bedroom (my office) was also noticed but deemed to be harmless.

In the movie version of this story, the music would begin to sound ominous.

There is a closet in my office that we open so rarely, our keyboard sits in front of it. It’s filled to the brim with the sorts of things we don’t use on a regular basis: decorations, tools, and sundry craft supplies. Three weeks ago, I opened the door, and the smell was powerful. The black stains on the ceiling told the rest of the story.

What followed was several maintenance folks looking at it, a promise that roofers have been called, sealant sprayed on the offending surface (that lasted a few days before the black bloom returned) and my sealing the closet off with plastic sheeting and tape.

Stuff like this happens all the time, doesn’t it? 

How deep we go in terms of addressing a problem depends on our understanding of the situation as well as our resources. A major roof leak probably required bringing in professionals to not only seal the roof, but to make certain the space in-between was completely dry, but I also appreciate that this sort of armchair appraisal is much easier than making decisions that impact a bottom-line. The challenge is that some things need to be addressed or they will reappear – and often at times of stress.

Over the last fifteen months, the stress of the pandemic has surfaced other older issues in congregations and in society. Conflicts that were buried, misconduct that was ignored or hushed, and unresolved problems with leadership are beginning to break through to the surface. These old problems must be addressed. Replacing a few boards (or board members?), may have worked once or twice but will not solve the issue. Painting over the problem may have worked in the past, but an organization that keeps secrets will find it difficult to preach truth.


Disclaimer: the danger in using real-life, real-time anecdotes is that it 

a) borders on the narcissistic 

b) suggests you don’t get out much and 

c) invites folks to offer assistance.

I’m hoping (a) isn’t true even if (b) certainly is. Please don’t worry about (c). I think things are now progressing appropriately.