Posts By Karen Chamis

For ALL the Saints….

This Sunday is All Saints Sunday.

In preparing to lead worship at one of our churches, my heart is filled with the names and faces of those who have gone before me. The teachers and preachers, grandparents and prophets, friends gone too soon. There are also poets and writers, composers and painters, none of whom I’ve ever met face-to-face but who have impacted my life and touched my soul. There are those saints who have yet to rest from their labors. Colleagues and peers, family and friends, the guy who let me take the choice parking spot at Wegmans even though I’m pretty sure he got there first. 

Presbyterians lean into a theology where all are saints, and all are sinners. There’s no test, no pre-requisite for being named a saint (and some might therefore suggest there is no accounting for taste). We acknowledge all the saints… recognizing that at the same time all are sinners. We therefore have no roster of saints, but a continuum of folks who are continuing the work of discern God’s call. 

Those who know me probably aren’t surprised that I’ve long acknowledged (and at time heartily affirmed) my role as sinner in this world. Somehow, it’s harder for me to claim saintliness. Not because I find it hard to be good (hush!), but because there seems to be inherent responsibility linked to that title. Saints aren’t just good people – they are good because of their connection with God, and their work is to help others make a similar connection. It’s a bit overwhelming, if wonderful.

Saints are those folks at my home church who prepared juice and cookies for the primary choir, or who led the youth group lock-ins. Saints served on the committees that no one wanted to serve on, or who climbed up on the roof to check the shingles. Saints prepared chicken salad in ginormous amounts and taught sign-language to songs. I’ve met saints in subsequent congregations who have ironed the communion cloths for one table and had fed the hungry at another. They’ve visited the sick and bereaved and have faithfully picked up the wreaths for the doors of the church every year. They’ve helped lead worship, and they’ve sat in the pews… and snored in the pews. I can’t possibly be amongst their number, and yet I am. 

We all are. 

Grateful for all the saints – those who rest from their labors, and those who seem to see no end in sight! Grateful for you.

What keeps me awake at night…

The last week or so I’ve been traveling for both work and pleasure. Somewhere between the good conversation and good (okay, incredible) food, I managed a few quick looks at email and social media. Somewhere in the latter I remembered a quip that I cannot find again… but it has continued to wake me up in the middle of the night. 

I can’t attribute it. I can’t quote it exactly, but somehow that doesn’t lessen its power to get under my skin and to agitate my thoughts. I know it resonates with a quote by Antonio Gramsci (Marxist philosopher) but within the context of the church*. 

It’s the sort of statement that makes me think of all the energy we put into established programs, and to mourn our fear to invest in that which is risky. It makes me wonder if our fear of grief (saying goodbye to what is known and uncomfortable) might somehow be transformed into joy for what is awkward and new? I ponder what would happen if the death of time-honored traditions occurred not because we lacked the energy to continue but out of a conscious choice to create space for whatever is next?

It’s the sort of statement that makes me take a hard look at the metrics I use within my own life. Is survival the same as success? Should my life be measured in how many widgets I own, or how many followers I’ve scored? Do we know we are doing it “right” because we have big buildings, budgets, and butts in the pews? Do my metrics stem from my faith or my worry of being measured by the world?

It’s a statement that makes me question the underlying values of the PCUSA, the Presbytery, and our local congregations when we start to talk about how much time we have left. I heard a colleague of another PCUSA governing body speak with concern about an endowment that might only buy them another 13 years at their current draw-down rate. I immediately thought of churches that are measuring their own lives in a fraction of those numbers. 

Neither scenario feels in sync with the One we claim to follow. The One who gave up everything, including his own life.

The Gramsci-ish quip went something like this: The tragedy is not that the church is dying, but that the church isn’t allowed to be born.

If this statement keeps you up at night…. know you have a friend willing to talk about it with you.

*Discovered Gramsci not during my philosophy days at Buffalo State but in the book “White Too Long” by Robert Jones. I did find a reference to Gramsci’s quote in a Presbytery Facebook post and believe it triggered my remembrance of the troubling statement above. (Also happy to talk about this book with anyone interested!)

When to Appreciate

I said I was an ideas person. I didn’t say I was a GOOD ideas person.

Perhaps I would have been better off if I had floated the idea with the good folk at Hallmark. These same folk created Clergy Appreciation Day in 1992… but to their credit, didn’t start selling the associated greeting cards until 2002. Unless you talk with Jerry Frear, Jr., who will also claim founding this day to thank clergy (this after he spent time in prison for fraud associated with his dot-com business).

Should we have a day/month set aside to thank clergy?

There is a sound biblical basis for showing appreciation for one’s pastor. In several of his writings, Paul encourages churches to show respect and to pay those who work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17) and to allow pastors to do their work with joy (Hebrews 13:17). 

Paul, however, says nothing about a rendering a Starbucks card or providing a cake after worship, nor does he suggest this happen on a particular day.

If you’ve celebrated your pastor this past week (2nd Sunday of October is the official day… although the entire month is designated for Clergy Appreciation) don’t despair. It’s not heresy. In fact, it is kind of… nice. If you’ve not celebrated your pastor (or if you are among those clergy who have not been gifted with a card) that’s okay as well. The truth is that although cake is always appropriate, there are other ways of showing appreciation that don’t cause a sugar-rush:

  1. Observe your pastor’s sabbath time and allow them to keep it holy.
  2. Let them know when a sermon resonated with you.
  3. If your pastor has been with you for six years or more, encourage a sabbatical. The Board of Pensions has just started offering sabbatical grants up to 4K for clergy (including interims!). 
  4. Make sure your pastor has time for the things that bring them joy.

Ultimately, shouldn’t there be a day for everyone? What about Single Parent’s Day, or Food Service Workers Day? Or better yet, perhaps we could show appreciation for all the people we interact with throughout the year by showing them respect and kindness?

Put that on a card, Hallmark!

Death Throws (aka unpacking stuff)

Moving is the only inspirational fodder I have these days. It’s been weeks since I’ve watched a video or read a book, or even knit. Every day is filled with painting walls and unpacking boxes. The latter has been eye-opening.

Culprits

The first time we moved was a professional job. Burly men gently cradled possessions into stiff boxes which were then moved 400 miles away. I recall the long unpacking period, and the shock at unpacking a box containing the kitchen garbage can… still filled with garbage. 

This time around, we used movers for the heavy stuff. We called in a team of guys the day after the move to haul off the furniture that didn’t make the cut. Most of the boxes we packed and moved ourselves.

My ritual of unpacking a box begins with seeing if the person who packed it was gracious enough to give a nod to its contents (I need to add here that Bill religiously marks the boxes. The lettering may be illegible, but they are marked!) The rite continues with removing item by item and either putting the object where it belongs or staring at it wondering why on earth it had been packed in the first place. 

Why would I pack dry erase markers for a board that had been discarded AND that were also dried up and no longer usable? Those markers were packed into a box (purchased!), and then carried that box to the new place (gasoline!)… to toss it. It ends up in the same landfill, but after costing precious time, money, and mental angst. Everything is dust, says the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Obviously, the author of that text must have moved frequently.

I know why I keep things. I might need them. They bring lovely memories of another time. They make me feel like I am prepared. They comfort me.

There are multiple organizational books out there, from Marie Kondo’s advice to keep only what you love to Swedish Death Cleaning (it’s a thing. Honest!). The presence of these on bookstore shelves attest to the difficulty we have in tossing stuff. Churches are notoriously bad at this. Every church I’ve served has at least one closet (room, garage, basement) loaded with stuff that should have been discarded years ago. Every church I’ve served has a calendar that deserves the same treatment.

Of course, churches don’t move all that often. There are exceptions to that rule (looking at you, South Valley, Arlington, and Kenmore Pres!) but in general, we hold our rituals in the same place as our fore-parents. We do so for the same reasons we keep our stuff… memories are triggered, and we are comforted.

Two and a half years ago, the Church moved in a significant way. We moved online and into people’s living spaces. We may not have taken the time to critically eye the contents of our boxes. Now that we’re back in the space where we know comfort, there’s likely even less desire to see what in those boxes should be tossed.

I’ve stated previously that I don’t know what God has next for the church. I do know that God continues to be in the middle of everything, and trust that regardless of the effectiveness of our churches… God will continue to be God. 

I’m less convinced that God will use the stuff we’ve had in the back of that Sunday School closet (or the annual ‘whatever’ that no one has a passion for anymore) to move hearts. I’m also not convinced that holding on to anything makes us nimble enough for whatever our next Call is. What I do know is that a whole bunch of energy is being expended on holding on… to dust.

Do be do be do…

Poor Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy features the Prince of Denmark contemplating death and suicide. He compares the nobility of hanging in there as opposed to a quick (merciful?) death. His quandary is due in part to not being certain of what happens after death*. Regardless, he sees the option as either one thing or the other. To be, or not to be. That, he believes, is the question.

To be, or not to be…

Either black or white. Either death now, or death later. 

As congregations see a steady drop in membership and a steady rise in the average age of members, Hamlet’s question is whispered in coffee hour and in the parking lot after Session. 

To be? Or not to be? It’s a false dichotomy. Let me fix it:

To be, or not to be… or to become.

As people of the Resurrected Christ our options are never limited to death now or later. As those who worship the One who destroyed the sting of death itself, the question cannot be one of when to die, but rather how we choose to live.

Churches DO close their doors. However, there is a difference in whether a congregation simply waits out the inevitable or chooses a legacy that continues the gift of that congregation. The difference isn’t just semantics. It’s intent.

Consider the following examples:

Saints Preserved Presbyterian intends to continue “to be” and has focused all its energy on their building and the care of the existing congregation. They have partnered with a childcare center that will provide much needed funds to pay their bills. They will continue in this fashion until the last member turns off the light.

Saints Alive Presbyterian intends to become a new creation. They have decided to work with the presbytery to sell the building to a group that will provide an entrepreneurial kitchen for folks in the community as well as an adult day care facility. Following the sale of the building, Members have agreed to meet monthly for coffee but to also channel their energy into other local congregations.

Both churches close their doors. In the second example, the church and congregation are not dead but rather live on in a new way, and with new purpose. They have become a new creation.

Everyone dies in Hamlet. Only Horatio lives to tell the story. In the first Act (and in apparent contrast to the black and white philosophy offered by Hamlet in his great soliloquy) Hamlet says to Horatio: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Where is the church headed? God only knows. Fortunately, we believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can begin to imagine as God creates a new creation in our midst. Our work is to discern how God is calling us to partner in that work.

* Shakespeare may be commenting on the Reformation here – does purgatory exist, or do the reformers have it right? His interaction with Ghost (his father?) suggests the former, but as a student at Wittenberg he was likely taught Protestant theology. Don’t you love trying to read stuff in context? (Yes, I am a geek).

Thankful for the “extras”!

We are moving!

We’ve recently purchased a sweet little condo near Syracuse’s new Salt City Market and are in the process of painting, patching, and purchasing items for our new home. After years of apartment gray and taupe we’re leaning heavily toward deeply saturated colors. Although we’ll be keeping several old furniture pieces, we’ve invested in a gorgeous mission style settle (to be delivered sometime around Easter). 

My version of the Holly Hobby House!

Lest you think we’ve become entirely too fancy; I also spent a good part of a day off assembling our latest furniture haul. If you’ve never assembled IKEA (or IKEA-adjacent) furniture, you’re missing out on… something. 

It feels like I’m participating in an old family tradition. My Dad put things together – from Heathkit radios to bicycles. The only time I knew my father to become seriously frustrated with a do-it-yourself construction project was the Holly Hobby House (my little sister’s big gift that year) that he attempted to assemble one Christmas Eve. He spent the entire night figuring out how it was possible for Tab A to be inserted into Slot C, and in the end I believe the solution involved a whole lot of tape. That dark night of the soul is why subsequent years Santa got extra cookies.

Dad would rejoice when he found leftover parts after putting together a project. For him, these were a bonus. They were screws that could be used in a future project or a small piece of wood that might find service elsewhere. He’d declare: “Look! Bonus!” and grin. These parts would join other misfits in old Velveeta boxes on a shelf in the basement and would often find new purpose.

Although I think this optimistic attitude MIGHT have had some connection with the aforementioned Holly Hobby House disaster… I believe there’s something to be said for his optimism. These additional parts didn’t quite fit what he had assembled, but they were treasured and utilized. It wasn’t a reason for panic or fear that something had been missed, but instead was seen as a potential gift.

They are like the new person who comes to church and who brings gifts that don’t quite fit what we’ve done before. They are the folks who have new ideas and vision for how we might continue to be (or become!) the church. All too often, instead of rejoicing at the opportunities, we see them as weakening the project we call the church. They aren’t seen as a sign of the promise that God is always doing a new thing in our midst, but a threat. And so, we don’t find places for their gifts or new vision, but instead school them in how things are traditionally done ‘round here.

I get it. Last week, when I found extra parts while assembling our new hall tree I reacted with full-blown panic. This wasn’t a situation with a solitary remaining screw, but rather many extra bits. I feared the very structure of this new piece of furniture was in jeopardy. After the initial anxiety, I checked out assembly diagram booklet which stated that these were provided to allow for other variations in assembly. The hall tree could also be a bench with a shorter back, or the bench could be assembled separate from the tree section. It was designed to be changed and reformed based on the needs of the user.

If the church is going to change (and we proclaim that we are always being reformed) then we need to overcome our fear of what is new and different as an existential threat. They may very well be exactly what we need in order to be reformed yet again.

What is the mission?

There’s been a change in my apartment complex. New folks moved in over the summer, and this fall there is an increased number of school buses that are trying to navigate the parking lot. I’ve taken to drinking my morning cup of coffee as I watch the buses drive by and try to imagine what’s going on in the heads of the children on their way to school.

Some of those faces are undeniably excited. It’s a new year – filled with the promise of new friends and activities. Other faces are a bit less enthused, and I find my heart filling with empathy for these young folks. I’ve been there. It’s not easy.

What I can absolutely guarantee is that NONE of them are contemplating the overall mission of a public-school education and the impact it will have on their lives. Why would they? It’s not their job. We have teachers, and administrators, and boards that help to shape the work of the school so that the mission of education might be accomplished. 

Who establishes the work and mission of the church?

In our tradition, that work is shaped by the various councils of the church (Session, Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly) as guided by our Constitution…. which ultimately finds its direction from scripture. Jesus is clear about what our mission is. 

I’ll confess, I’m not always certain we’re as clear on that subject.

Recently, members of this presbytery were invited to participate in a survey. This survey was also given to the other four presbyteries (Lake Erie, WNY, Genesee Valley, Geneva) that are in conversation about who we might collaborate in the future. 

One of the questions was “What does your congregation need to do effective ministry”. The image above is a word-cloud of our responses… note that the larger the word, the more often it was used. Some of the words are difficult ones: struggling, replaceable, and floundering. Others are hopeful: cooperating, renewed, engaged, and nurturing. 

For me the disconnect is found in the larger words. 

What we seem to be saying is we need more members in our pews to do effective ministry. We need pastors. We need people. I understand that in order to maintain the ministry that we’ve created over the last decades we need folks to serve on committees and to sing in the choir, and to preach from the pulpit. But… what if our mission isn’t to find new members so that we might have an effective ministry? What if our mission is to reach out to folks with the transformative love of Jesus Christ regardless of whether they join us in the work of this ministry?

New folks with kids moved into our apartment complex this summer. Are they needed for the mission of the church as the survey suggests… or is caring for them the mission of the church? Leaders – what do you say?

One Book to Rule Them All

I’m a list sort of person.

I maintain a bullet-journal that I fondly refer to as my One Book to Rule Them All. Within its pages is a running list of stuff that needs attention, and these are triaged accordingly. If there’s a little bullet point next to an item it’s normal priority. Little arrows to the left symbolize the item needs to be placed on a long-term calendar. A star next to the listed item suggests urgency.

Crossing stuff off my list makes me giddy.

I conducted an experiment in which I put the book away for a few days. Y’all need to understand that this is pretty big for me. Even my days off from work I have stuff planned – knitting projects with due dates, seeds that need to be planted, and movies I’ve wanted to see.

The result was not the relaxation I had anticipated. Instead, I discovered a persistent need to mentally re-invent my list… re-creating my list in my head. At one point I remembered something that I was certain had not made the journal, and I found a piece of paper and jotted it down. 

Right. I created a baby-list.

Some folks might suggest this obsession is fully in line with my being an Enneagram 7. It might also be rooted in some concern about my family history with Alzheimer’s. My hunch though is that much of this is due to a work-history of juggling many tasks along with being the type of person who loves spontaneity and improv. My lists help create space in my brain to allow for greater joy. Lists on paper means I don’t have lists in my brain. Theoretically.

I hold all the above to be true for me, but at the same time I acknowledge that life isn’t about getting things done. The things that I value the most are rarely on my list of things to do… because they are the sorts of things that are unplanned. If crossing items off my list makes me giddy… these moments bring me deepest joy. 

It’s great to cross stuff off my list, but without the other stuff? What’s the purpose?

Methinks churches run into the same challenge. We do all the things we are supposed to, and there is comfort in that. We check off all the boxes and yet it sometimes feels like we are just going through the motions. When that occurs, our energy drops and so does our joy. We become, well, works oriented. Get it done (especially if you can get it done like it’s always been done!) becomes our mantra. (The pandemic didn’t remove the list, it just rearranged it a bit.)

What might you do to make space for those things you truly value – that which brings you joy – to occur? If it would help to talk through this… don’t hesitate to call.

I’ll put you on my list.

Regrets

I’m gutted by recent acts of gun violence.

In the midst of my own grief, I find myself wondering if I’ve done enough as a pastor, mother, and citizen to find a solution to this epidemic of violence. I grieve their deaths. I also grieve the many times I’ve kept silent. 

I’ve served a purple church – a church that has individuals that are both conservative and progressive. It was really nice. There was much talk about how we were able to welcome all to the Table and how incredible it was that in spite of our differences we were united and loved each other deeply. I learned that I could preach a sermon that deliberately walked a fine line. There were times when I was blatant about my own understanding of how scripture should inform our actions… only to have folks from both sides of an issue hear completely different sermons. 

My deepest regret as their pastor was not providing an opportunity for folks to go deeper in their relationship with God and with one another and to really listen to each other…. and to hear one another’s fears and concerns. I regret that we avoided hot topics because I was afraid we’d lose folks, and fearful for how that would impact us.

I encouraged the congregation that I served to worship at the Idol of Niceness.

We worship a man who didn’t value his own survival more than the lives of those whom he loved. How can we as the church be worried about our own survival more than the lives of others. 

Just what are we really worshipping? 

Abiding

I use this wonderful phone app called Pray As You Go (https://pray-as-you-go.org). It’s a lovely mixture of music, scripture, and guided meditation that on a daily basis reminds me of who I am, and Whose I Am. It’s provided by the Jesuits, and so from time to time there are readings from what we Reformed folk understand to be the apocrypha… but hey, it’s a free app, and listening to the occasional deuterocanonical text reminds me that we’re all from the same vine if different branches.

Which, interestingly enough, was today’s reading. Vines, branches, fruit… pruning. In John 15, Jesus uses the illustration of a grapevine to help the disciples understand the importance of being deeply connected to the branch in order to thrive. 

The word Jesus uses (meinate) is in the plural. This abiding is not to be done by individuals, but by a group. It’s not a suggestion, but an imperative. We are called to abide.

Abide is a weird word in English. The top three synonyms for abide include: accept, stand for, and tolerate… which doesn’t exactly work for this verse. The better translation in this context is to remain, or to dwell. We are called to dwell in Jesus just as Jesus dwells in us.

This past week there have been two mass shootings. One in Buffalo at a Tops, the other in a Presbyterian Church in California. The first shooter is a white supremacist who acted on his belief that Whites are being replaced by Blacks. The latter shooter is Chinese and his victims Taiwanese, and his actions reflect a conflict that began between those two nations after the second world war. Both men acted from a place of hate.

Jesus calls us to abide.

Not accept.

Not tolerate.

Not wait or to bide our time.

The lovely English voices on my phone app this morning asked the question: “What does it mean to you, to abide in Jesus and for him to abide in you?”. In the wake of these two racially motivated shootings I wonder what it means for the church to abide in Jesus. Not accepting. Not tolerating. Not biding our time… but actually being the church of Jesus Christ.

The lovely English voices continued their gentle questioning: “Right now, do you identify more with the withered branch, or the fruitful one? Talk with Jesus about this. What does he want to say to you about your abiding?”

Good questions. Hard questions. Important questions.