Posts By Karen Chamis

You can do this hard thing.

I’ve recently discovered the music of Carrie Newcomer. I know, I know… so many people I trust have recommended her to me and I’ve not paid attention. I’m late to the party, but it’s not because I haven’t received multiple invitations!

These last few months I’ve been listening to her “You can do this hard thing” on repeat.

The song begins with the image of a young person attempting to do math, and hearing the encouragement of another who says, “You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy I know, but I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.”. Other images are introduced, each being followed by the chorus. 

I weep each time I hear it. There is something about having someone acknowledge that the work is difficult combined with the promise that you have what you need to accomplish it that task. It’s the voice of a good parent, a good friend… and I believe these words resonate with the Gospel as well.

The bridge of the song includes a variation of Art Berg’s “While the difficult takes time, the impossible just takes a little longer”. There’s wisdom in knowing the difference between the two as well as wisdom in discerning what we are being called to do. 

In other words, I embrace that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, but I’m not convinced that Christ is calling me to do all the impossible things… if that makes sense?

As we emerge from the pandemic (I’m still holding my breath… and wearing a mask!) re-entry may be harder than we thought. There’s such joy at gathering in-person, but there may also be lingering anxiety…. which means we will need to be doubly gracious. No doubt we’ve also learned a bit about our work as the church, and that will bring up further questions (and debates!). It’s been wonderful extending the possibilities of virtual worship to those previously excluded, but are we willing to look beyond the occasional awkward moments as cameras are moved and sound is adjusted? These can be hard (but not impossible!) discussions at a time when all we want is that experience of joy.

Some congregations are facing more difficult… if not impossible questions. The first step is discerning if these are indeed the questions we should be raising. Staffing changes, shifts in mission emphasis, questions about the viability of church buildings – impossible things? Or are these questions whose answers will take a bit longer to resolve?

You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy, I know… but I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.

Prayers for us all as we approach all the hard and impossible questions. If I can take this journey with you, please let me know.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #7

Dear Friends,

Over the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, I’ve shared what I believe to be misconceptions of the church. Undoubtedly, I missed a few, but Pentecost is around the corner, the Wind is picking up, and there are other things that deserve our attention. Seven weeks of someone suggesting you are a bit off base is quite enough, right?

Ecclesiastical Misconception #7 – We are not enough

I love sitting around a table with church leaders and meeting them for the first time. These are individuals who are giving of their time and talent in a volunteer capacity and who often arrive at the table after a full day of responsibilities. If it is an evening meeting, some have chowed down on supper in the car, or will have it waiting for them to microwave when they return (or they will sneak bites during Zoom). From the very beginning of the church, God has called folks from a range of backgrounds and experiences and it is downright humbling to sit at the leadership table with them.

Sometimes it’s also puzzling. 

It’s almost as if there is a disconnect between what church leadership does in their day-to-day lives and what gifts they share at the table. It’s not exhaustion or over-extension (although there is no doubt that is real), but it seems in some cases as if all that life experience is checked at the door because they feel that it has no place in church leadership. 

It makes me wonder if that unseen barrier works both ways. If folks aren’t bringing their lives to the leadership table at church, are they bringing their faith to the other tables they encounter every day, such as the boardroom and supper table? 

I believe the church has been given all it needs to do the ministry it was called to do in this particular place and time. We are enough – because we do not do this work alone. We are enough when we bring our whole selves to this ministry because we’ve all been given different gifts.

In his article, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity[i], Walter Bruggeman tackles a theology of scarcity from an economic stance stating that there is always enough if we share. I believe Pentecost pushes us to live into a theology of abundance that is not only economic but reflects the fullness of our lives. We are to bring everything to the work of sharing the Gospel. Not just our wallets. Not just our Sunday selves. The whole sum of who we are.

Isaac Watts, the great writer of hymns captures this perfectly in the final verse of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love, so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”.

As the Spirit continues to blow through our churches and our lives… may we remember by the grace of God we are enough.


[i] Brueggemann, W. (1999). The liturgy of abundance, the myth of scarcity. Christian Century116(10), 342-347.

Ecclesiastical Misconception #6

I’ve addressed this misconception previously:  (Here!) – but it’s a song that still needs to be sung, so here goes…

Ecclesiastical Misconception #6: The Church is a Business

I believe we become confused because there are things in common between businesses and churches (spreadsheets, budgets, etc.). Yet, the same folks who assert that the church is a business would likely never say the same about a family, and yet many families I know have budgets. There are others I know that SHOULD have budgets, but that’s for another day.

This argument on my part was countered once by someone who stated that the difference was the presence of employees… that having employees is what made something a business. Ironic in that I knew the young woman who was currently his babysitter and being paid quite well for her efforts. I know (I hope?) he’d never consider his family a corporation.

A better, if not perfect metaphor, is to describe the church as a family. Certainly, it’s the metaphor underlying the scripture where Paul refers to us siblings. Some denominations even lean on that imagery in how they title their leaders (Father/Mother and Brother So-and-So).

Does all this matter?

It does in that one of the implicit goals of a business is to remain in business… something which doesn’t work well with the sacrificial understanding of the church spreading the Gospel even at the risk of its own life.[1]

It does in that how we see ourselves as a body changes how we see those next to us in the pew as well as those outside the walls. All too often the undercurrent of evangelism is not the hope of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ but instead the desire to bring in more energy/money to sustain our own fellowship.

It does in that there are things family will do for one another – things that family will put up with – that show that the grace of God is the bottom line. Businesses often can’t afford grace, family depends on it.

Next time you find yourself sitting in a pew (may that be soon!) think about how you are connected to those around you… as well as those outside the doors. Business partners/clients… or family?

May grace abound.


[1] Book of Order, F-1.0301  “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.”

Ecclesiastical Misconception #5

Doctor Who travels throughout space and time in something called the TARDIS[1]. If that weren’t marvelous enough, it is actually bigger on the inside than the outside, thanks to the inside existing in another dimension.

Ecclesiastical Misconception #5 is the belief that the church is the opposite, i.e., that we are smaller on the inside than we appear. Certainly, if you were to take a measuring tape, you’d find that the inside dimensions of any building are smaller than the external dimensions, however the church is not a physical building (if the last year or so has taught us anything… it has taught us that!)

We CAN be bigger on the inside than we appear, and yet we continue to make decisions as churches that limit who we let in. There have been times in our history where those limitations have been clearly defined  – including balconies for Blacks and blocking the ordination of women and LGBT folks – but there are other limits that we place upon the church that keep us small. 

Today we limit the church by making choices that favor the preferences of the folks already in our pews. Let’s say your church worships on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. but you learn that the community outside the doors would prefer worshipping on Sunday nights at 7 p.m.  One argument against starting a second service is that it might “split our community”. Of course, if you consider the folks outside the walls as members of the community, it could be argued that the community is already split into those who attend… and those who don’t. 

We tend to make decisions based on the needs of the existing congregation in part because we know them (because we ARE them). We need those reliable saints that already give of their time, talent, and treasure to continue giving. Why would we choose to jeopardize their offerings? Why should any organization risk the ninety-nine givers to reach out for the one outside the fold who is either a “none” or “done”?[2]

Yes, I know. It doesn’t make sense. It’s foolish. It’s sacrificial. It’s being the church.

When we make decisions based on the existing/giving congregation we are settling for a congregation that is exactly as it appears: smaller on the inside than it is on the outside. When practice the spiritual discipline of asking how our decisions might exclude those outside our inner circle from participating, we can become so much bigger than anyone could have imagined. Even if we end up not changing out time of worship, we may discover our hearts are also a bit bigger than they first appeared as well.


[1] Time And Relative Dimension in Space

[2] “Nones” are those who have no experience of church; “Dones” are those who have had experience within the church and for one reason or another, are DONE with it.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #4

Several years ago, I spent an hour with a couple who were foster parent for two small children. The amount of energy released by those two little ones during our visit caused the foster parents to glow with what I’m guessing was probably nine parts sweat to one part joy. Our conversation turned to the children (how could it not?) and I remarked how deeply I appreciated the ministry they were doing in the form of parenting. 

These foster parents talked about their ministry to care for these wee siblings as their own until their birth parents were able to safely care for them. For a time, they were theirs and treated as their own. In an attempt to be profound, I made some comment about how they were doing all of this work for these children on behalf of all of us (i.e., “society”) and therefore on some level, they were really “our” children.

I was gently corrected. “We’re not doing this because these children belong to society. We’re loving these children and giving them a safe place because they belong to God”.

Dang. Nothing like having folks preach to the preacher.  

It’s even better when I can use my own “foot in mouth” blunder to help frame yet another misconception of the church:

MISCONCEPTION #4a: IT’S NOT YOUR CHURCH

We get tripped up with the limits of language with this misconception. If I’m inviting someone to the Chicken BBQ (or, better yet, worship!) at the church where I spend hours every week, I will likely say something like, “hey, my church is having a BBQ… why don’t you come?”. This is grammatically correct, if theologically askew. On some level, we know the church doesn’t actually belong to us, but there is a relationship there, which gives me the right to use the first-person possessive.

We run into problems when that first-person possessive becomes actually possessive. We will sometimes counter that with making it the plural possessive “our” (profoundly showing that we know the church collectively belongs to all of us) leading to…

MISCONCEPTION #4b: IT’S NOT OUR CHURCH

We are stewards of this incredible collection of God’s children – caring for their needs, working for justice, teaching, preaching, baptizing, evangelizing – but we need to understand that we do so not because the church is “ours”.

The church universal has long debated the language of Matthew 16:8 in which Jesus says “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Step away from the debate about apostolic succession and look at the use of the possessive.  It’s not our church.

Those foster parents loved those children mightily with the understanding that using any sort of possessive was complicated. In the same way, we love the church and in serving fully we also glow with that nine parts sweat to one part joy. It’s not our church, but we will love it as fully as we can.

I don’t know what will happen in the next few years in this church I serve. I am fairly certain that the church that I have known all my life (“my” church) reached a tipping point some time ago and we’re just starting to pay attention to it. I grieve as congregations conclude their ministry, and as certain programs and mission are deemed unsustainable… but at the same time I hear the words “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”.

God is still in the middle of this. What emerges may not look anything like OUR church, but it will be the church of the Living Christ, and that will be enough.

Ecclesiastical Misconception #3

We are just about halfway through Eastertide and an exploration of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve been focusing on some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the church. Today’s misconception?

#3: VALUES MAY NOT CHANGE, BUT WHAT IS VALUED DOES

I have a few memories of my great-grandparents. Charles and Minnie McLaughlin lived in Buffalo and married at the turn of the last century. He was an electrician, as were almost all of the McLaughlin men who followed. I remember his stamp collection and how Great-Grandma made him keep his limburger cheese in the basement. I treasure this “running light” from his Pierce Arrow car – a light that my dad retrofitted at one point into a sconce for our kitchen. At some point I’ll continue the tradition of futzing with it and rig it with LED lights so we can hang it on our off-grid cabin up north.

I love showing it to folks and asking them what they think it is… and thus far, everyone has been surprised to learn it’s an auto part. I keep it, not because it’s cool (although it is!) but because it reminds me of the relationship I had with this man who smelled of limburger cheese.

Here’s the hard part. When I die, that light is not coming with me.

What’s even harder is that when I’m gone, I’m pretty certain this funky hunk of brass and glass will end up on eBay.

You see, my daughter has no connection to this oddity of mine because she never knew her great-great-grandfather except through my stories of him. She’s engaged in gathering her own stories and mementos, and to ask her to carry this after I’m gone devalues the reason I’ve kept it. I hold on to it because it reminds me of a treasured relationship, not because it has much intrinsic value.

Organizations have similar challenges. We have traditions that have created relationships of deep value… and when there is no one to continue the tradition, we feel grief. When I’ve spoken with folks about why they value these traditions, it is always about the herculean tasks that were accomplished in uniting for a common purpose and the relationships that were formed. The stories they tell are about the people who were engaged in the activity and the joy that comes from serving together.

When the next generation isn’t willing to pick up our treasured traditions, it’s not because those traditions didn’t have value but because some of what was valued cannot be transmitted to those who follow us. We share the same values (meaningful relationships, communal activities that create change, etc.) but that is no guarantee that we will treasure the same expressions of those values. In the end, I want the next generations to experience the relational aspects of being in community with one another and in relationship to God… but I’ve come to realize that doesn’t mean they will do the same things in order to get there. 

The hardest part of all of this is understanding that our very way of doing church may be like my great-grandfather’s running light. Oh, it can be updated and rewired for a bit, but at some point, it loses its meaning.

Jesus said he would build his church and not even the gates of hell could stand against it… but I’m starting to understand that church may be very different than the church that I’ve helped to build. And so, for now, I’ll continue to dust the lamp and remember the smell of limburger cheese and wonder in both grief and amazement at the church-yet-to-be.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #2

The season of Easter (it’s not just one day!) continues, as does an exploration into the world of ecclesiology – or the study of the church. I’ve chosen to use these great fifty days to explore some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the current church. Last week’s misconception focused on our perceived need for young folks. Today’s misconception?

#2: THE MYTH OF SUSTAINABILITY

I’m sitting at the Session table of the Saints Preserved Church and they are discussing the budget. From the looks around the table, they’ve done this dance before. Shoulders slump, fingers doodle and no one looks anyone else in the eye. Finally, someone gathers up their courage and puts “that which shall not be discussed” on the table. They need to make changes, because their current ministry model is not sustainable.

The silence is deafening. 

The silence is defeating.

This is what ultimately happens when we worship sustainability.

When we hold on to the myth of sustainability, we ask the wrong questions. We query whether there will be enough funding (or people) to continue a task and our concerns center around existing programming and projects (with a few bright exceptions). We wonder if we can sustain that which we have come to value.

Something different happens when we switch our focus from how to sustain current ministry to questioning if this is the ministry we’re called to do in this time and place. 

We focus on sustainability because to question whether or not we’re doing the work God wants us to do is a far harder path. It’s more difficult because it demands we get our own notions and priorities out of the way and we intuit that the answer we hear may ask much of us. Our first question needs to be if God is asking us to do something, with the follow-up questions then become those of implementation.

For those of us with business acumen, this makes absolutely no sense. For anyone who has attempted to establish a budget or plan a building project this is utter nonsense. You begin with what assets you have in hand and then strategize what you can do. This way of doing our work together may seem backward, until we remember that it’s not our work that we are doing.

I’m sitting at the Session table of the Disciples of Jesus and they are discussing his upcoming ride into Jerusalem as well as his death. They argue that his plan is not sustainable. They are correct. There is nothing about the cross that is sustainable. It is foolishness. 

Let’s ask the harder questions. Let’s pick up our own cross and follow on this seemingly unsustainable journey. Let us be fools for Christ.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #1

Eastertide has begun. The Great Fifty Days, that season between Easter and Pentecost was used by the early church as a way of continuing the faith formation of new Christians. The common lectionary turns to the Book of Acts where we read the stories of those first followers of the Risen Christ. It’s a great time (see what I did there?) to talk about the theology of the church!

In that spirit, over these fifty days let’s explore great myths and misconceptions of the modern church:

#1: OUR CHURCH NEEDS YOUNG FAMILIES/YOUNG PEOPLE

Rural, urban, suburban; tiny churches to cathedral status; this is a central worrying theme. It often comes up when churches are in pastoral transition (we need a nice young pastor who can bring in the young families) and when churches want to talk about transformation. 

Diving deeper into the conversation, I’ll hear concern about the future of the church without the presence of younger folks. The old pattern of adult children returning to church after their children have been baptized is no longer true. For the first time in a century, the proportion of Americans who are church members is below 50%.

The response is the same – our church needs young families/young people!

We need them because who will do the work of the church when we’re gone?

We need them because financially this model of doing ministry is unsustainable.

We need them because it causes us grief to think that something that has had such meaning in our lives is not valued in the same way.

We. Need. Them.

There’s a shift here in the theology of the church (still rocking that Great Fifty Days theme of ecclesiology). Can you see it? 

At some point the mission of the church became more about sustaining itself than bringing the transformative love of Jesus Christ to others. Less delicately, at some point in our history we began to focus on our needs, as opposed to the needs of the world (or in this case, the needs of young families).

Now, I know that many churches do a world of good and are wonderful places for folks to grow deeper in their faith. I’m grateful for the church in all its forms and expressions and would not be who I am if it weren’t for the presence of congregations that cared deeply for me and helped shape me in the faith. They did so not because I was a commodity to be invested in but because they had something to offer me: incredible and amazing grace.

What if instead of “OUR CHURCH NEEDS….” we were to consider in what ways young families might need a congregation to sustain them? How can we show young people that incredible grace and love without any expectation of future gain on our part? The early church reached out to folks of various ages and backgrounds not because the church needed them… but because they understood that they had something of incredible value they could offer the world. 

We need to do the same.

Tears for Gears

My personal truth regarding automobiles is that the purpose of a car is to get me from here… to there. It doesn’t need to be fancy. I don’t need all the newest gadgets, nor do I want my car to actually do the driving. I’m pretty content with anything with four wheels (and yes, thank you, I can drive a “stick”). So when I found myself this past week sobbing after returning our Camry Hybrid to the dealer because the lease had expired… well, that suggested I needed a moment or two of introspection.

Was it the heated seats? The Bluetooth ability? The moonroof? Either I was getting soft on cars… or this represented something more. 

We leased the car when we were living in the DC area and having a hybrid while driving the infamous beltway with all of its stops and starts made sense. With each tap of the brake my car actually MADE energy. I spent hours in that car getting nowhere, which meant leasing was a solid option. All those bells and whistles made for a lovely mobile office with great gas mileage. 

Oh, the places you’ll go, quipped Dr. Seuss. Or not. This past year I’ve put hardly any miles on it. Perhaps those tears weren’t about a car?

We’ve all shed tears: tears for the memories of a previous life and tears for missed opportunities in a year of pandemic. 

We’ve shed tears for those we’ve lost as well as what we’ve lost. 

We’ve shed tears for a changed world.

We’ve shed tears as injustice after injustice against our siblings were laid bare, and we discovered how much we were a part of sustaining that evil.

We’ve shed tears as we’ve realized our communities will never be the same, and that those small things we’ve held precious are no longer available.

For all the weariness and grief of this year… tears have flowed.

So, yes. I cried for my car and all it represented. It’s not the silliest thing I ever done, nor the most profound. And I know that we, as the church, will be tearful over small things and large as this world continues to change. We’ll shed tears in the same way that we cried at the cross and join those who for centuries have wept at the tomb… wondering how life can continue and somehow forgetting that in order to be people of the resurrection at first there will be tears.

Easter morning dawns amidst that great unspeakable sadness. 

Our tears, all our tears, are gone with the first whisper of the morning that Christ has risen. Risen indeed. Alleluia.

So we do not lose heart.

As we begin the slow spiral out of this pandemic, there is talk about the light growing at the end of the tunnel. Scientists waffle between hopeful glee and stern reminders of variants and masks and the need to keep washing our hands (I’d hope the latter was in place prior to the pandemic!). Spring is in the air, it seems, and hope has begun to set its roots.

Hope is such an odd thing, isn’t it? There are times when it is so fragile, and the slightest challenge makes it wither, but there are other times that it acts as a propellant – a strong wind moving us forward when we should have long given up.

Hope and Faith are different, and yet closely woven together. In my old philosophy days (folks who major in philosophy often become lawyers, pastors, cynics or some combination of the above) I remember studying several treaties on the differences of the two. Realizing this is a conversation best held in a pub or in a pew, let’s take a crack at it anyway!

Faith seems to be more grounded in trust that something or someone is true whereas hope is more future-oriented (however hope is built upon the foundation of faith). Examples may be helpful here:

  • I have faith in God, and hope for the future.
  • I have faith that good people have used their God-given gifts and training to develop vaccines and hope that we will work together to stem the tide of this pandemic.
  • I have faith in the many gifts and passions of those in leadership in this Presbytery, and hope for a future where we work together to build the kin-dom of God.

If you find this sort of thing fascinating, you too might have a future as a philosopher (or lawyer, pastor or cynic). Regardless, you might find these distinctions helpful as we continue the climb out of this pandemic because hope is both a fragile thing and a gale-force wind. 

The next stage of this pandemic will be challenging for us as individuals and as the church. It’s beginning to look like many of our members may not return to church even after the masks can come off. Some of the groups that utilize our buildings may cease to meet. The pandemic has sped up the movement toward a post-church society. 

We may feel the hope sucked out of us…. until we remember our faith.

Paul puts it this way: “So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.” (2 Cor 4: The Message)

It’s time to look deeper than buildings and programs… time to remember our identity is not wrapped up in the numbers game… time to recall those things we cannot see, which will last forever.

It’s time to really BE the church.