Posts By Karen Chamis

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.

The Age of the Antsy

It was only a few months ago that I found myself longing to turn to my favorite news sites and to read something other than COVID. Today I’m reminded of the warning to be careful what you pray for. 

Haiti. Cuba. Lebanon. South Africa. Iraq. From presidential assassinations to political uprisings, it feels as if these parts of the world are on fire. Closer to home, dentists are saying there has been a marked increase in teeth grinding and general practitioners have reported an uptick in chronic stress related illnesses. 

All of the above are perhaps not directly related to the pandemic, but it wouldn’t take much to find a causal relationship between the two. Speaking of relationships… there is no doubt this has also spilled into our relationships with one another as well. Divorce rates may have dropped during the pandemic as people clung to one another, but experts expect a surge as we re-enter our new reality. The “great resignation” suggests folks have had months to examine their commitments to work and volunteer opportunities and will take the next few months for rebalancing. It’s as if the world has gone topsy-turvy.

I anticipate things will be a bit antsy these next few months within our congregations as well. The time we’ve spent away from our buildings may have raised questions of value and purpose and power. We’re questioning anew not just what we do as the church, but who we are.

Don’t run from those questions. 

These last 15 months of doing something differently have taught us much about what it means to be the church… if we are willing to take time as leadership to digest that information. Don’t miss this opportunity: God willing, it won’t happen again.

Trust the Process

There are a few axioms that are part of Presbyterian canon. “Decently and in Order” is perhaps the most beloved, but there are others that work their way into the common work we do. I’ve always been a fan of “Frozen Chosen”, until a good friend pointed out that in his experience we were becoming “Awed and Thawed” (the jury on that is still out!).

“Trust the Process” may be for me not so much a statement of known truth as it is a prayer. The “Process” is the agreed upon means to get from one place to another. Because of our constitution (both parts!) we aren’t constantly reworking the larger processes. We elect folks who make decisions and ask them to do three things – to bring their very best gifts, to listen closely to the others at the table, and to discern the movement of the Spirit. 

When it works? When it works you know you are standing on holy ground. It’s a shoes-off moment. There is a feeling of hope and confidence and a deep joy that is not dependent on the nature of the decision… but in the knowledge that the decision was well-made. How I hope you know this joy, even when the decisions are difficult.

When it doesn’t work, my hunch is that it isn’t because the process failed us, but because we failed the process. There are so many ways we sabotage our work together:

  • We lean on the same leadership. Perpetually.
  • All the leadership looks the same
  • The real decisions are made in the parking lot
  • The pastor calls the shots – whether they want to or not
  • There are voices at our meetings other than those elected to be there
  • We focus on what we want for our church… and not what God wants for God’s church
  • We hold grudges and construct turf wars
  • There’s an agreed upon process… and then there is the one we follow
  • We fill seats on our boards instead of looking for folks with gifts
  • Leadership training is relegated to a few hours
  • We’ve tweaked the process to accommodate our context to the point where it is not recognizable

Of course, there are times when our process is broken. It’s fitting that we have a process to correct our process, no? We reform our Constitution constantly… even now there are Presbyterian siblings who are crafting overtures to our General Assembly for that very purpose.

All these processes exist for one purpose – to assist congregations in bringing the Good News to the communities in which they serve. May you know this joy as well!

Without a doubt?

I’ve recently become reacquainted with doubt.

Years ago, I learned to not fear doubt… we all have doubt from time to time. I hold fast to Tillich’s understanding that doubt is not the opposite of faith, rather it is a component of faith. In other words, I have doubt, only because I have faith. What is amazing is how those two things can coexist in my brain.

What am I doubting these days?

All sorts of things. From my wisdom to plant a garden prior to erecting a deer fence to a variety of decisions that have me questioning my sanity. One of my favorite memes is the quip: “Everything in life happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is that I made a bad decision”. Doubt, at least for me, tends to run in cycles.

One of the reasons we Presbyterians center our polity on mutual discernment (via a representational democracy) is because it doesn’t negate personal doubt, but rather complements it. When an Elder brings to the Session table concerns (or doubts) about a decision, those concerns are heard and weighed against other inputs. We listen to one another’s wisdom and doubts and passions… and we listen for the Spirit breathing through them. God uses the doubts of one or two sitting at the table to refine a proposal and make it more sound. I’ve seen this happen at the meetings of Session and Congregations as well as with a body as large as our General Assembly. Certainly, God uses our faith… but what an amazing thing it is when God uses our doubts as well.

We continue to minister in a time where there is so much unknown, and undoubtedly(!) a fair amount of doubt. The pandemic has waned, but there continues to be lingering concern that it may not be done with us yet. Some church members cannot wait to return to regular in-person gatherings, whereas others have found worship from their couch to be a better fit. We discuss and debate topics that just two years ago weren’t even on our radar.

So much uncertainty. So much doubt.

Remember Tillich. Doubt is a component of faith. 

Might we use our doubts to be more faithful in our decision-making? I imagine if we were to do that, it would require us to listen deeply to those who express their concerns. It might mean putting aside our own certainty so that we could hear the voice of the other as clearly as possible. It would require us to be silent for a bit, and to listen for the Spirit speaking through the doubts and concerns of those we disagree with. It might be incredibly holy. It might look an awful lot like church.

Come doubt with me. Come share this faith.