Posts By Karen Chamis

Whew.

Within the span of a few hours, three separate items appeared on my desk.

  • The first was a New Yorker cartoon featuring the inside of a house that looked like it had been ransacked, and the smiling person at the door welcoming guests saying: “Come on in, sorry about the mess – we’re just in the middle of not caring anymore”.
  • The second was a blog post by Carey Nieuhow that was entitled: “Fear isn’t keeping them home, it’s indifference (why church attendance has plummeted).”
  • The third was an article by Justin Henderson, PhD in which he proposed that the antidote to burnout was not self-care but addressing the root causes.

What do these three things have in common, other than their proximity to other files on my desk?

Not caring. Indifference. Burned out… and not due to lack of self-care but due to systemic issues built into our workplaces (and churches).

Breathe.

This is your friendly reminder that 

  • this is a cycle that happens during disasters and that there will be an upswing. You can’t work your way through this. Breathe.
  • that there are things beyond our control, and the first step toward wholeness is recognizing this. The second step is to step back and breathe.
  • It is time to stop blaming yourself (your partner, your children, your pastor, any of the folks you’ve “othered” over the past two years) for feeling overwhelmed and without energy.

Although I don’t know what is around the corner – I do know that when the energy returns we can choose to build something different. I’m not sure what that looks like for you, but perhaps it includes more balanced relationships, compassion-centered workplaces (including churches), and time spent with those people who bring us joy. 

We will find our passion again. 

I pray that when we do, we use it in a way that creates something kinder and more just than what we left behind two years ago. 

Prayers for us all.

The Word-le

The New York Times bought WORDLE, and immediately things went awry.

Not familiar with WORDLE? It’s a simple game that requires a perfect combination of luck and skill. It was developed by a guy blessed with the last name of Wardle as a way of amusing his wife during the pandemic. The gist of it is that you attempt to figure out a five-letter word in six guesses. Every guess offers information about the final word… if you have letters that make up the word, but aren’t in the right place, those letters are in yellow. If you have letters in the right place, the color is green.

What set it apart was 1) there was only one word per day (which meant you couldn’t get sucked in… I’m looking at you, Candy Crush); 2) everyone got the same word (a rare instance of commonality in a divisive world); and 3) Mr. Wardle made it incredibly easy to share your score without giving away the answer creating a mini-community.

At one point my Facebook page was filled with little squares from folks from all parts of my life sharing their WORDLE scores. Around this same time, the New York Times recognized a good thing and bought the rights to the game. 

Undoubtedly, Mrs. Wardle has gone from amused to pleased.

The Times stated that they were not initially planning on charging for access to the game, nor would they make significant changes. The latter part of that promise only lasted a few days (February 15th, a day of infamy), when players discovered there were actually TWO correct words.

You’d think the new folks were sitting in someone else’s pew.

It would be easy to belittle those who are frustrated with a change to a (free) game that has only recently gained popularity. Really easy. However, I think this goes beyond the “change is hard” trope or the “this is why we can’t have nice things” lament.

At a point in time where we debate over masks and boosters or whether to meet online or in-person, it was a relief to have a small sign that we might be able to be on the same page, working on the same word. For a brief few weeks there was a feeling of unity.

It doesn’t occur daily… or even weekly… but there are times when the church is able to pull this off as well. There are times when folks who disagree about any variety of topics are able to come together to make sure that the hungry are fed and those imprisoned are visited. I believe those times when we are able to share in the work of the Gospel (the Word of God, as it were) is when real unity occurs.

(Not sure where Mrs. Wardle stands on this… but am pretty sure this is pleasing to our God!)

Revenge of the Roof

Back in July I shared the Saga of the Closet ™ which detailed how when we don’t address root problems we find ourselves continually addressing the symptoms. If you don’t fix the roof, it doesn’t make sense to simply patch and paint. Eventually the water will return. (Read the saga here: https://wordpress.com/post/karenchamis.blog/1292)

Our maintenance guy did all the right stuff. He contacted a roofer who found a few open seams, replaced the moldy drywall, and sealed it up well. He put on one coat of paint and discovered it didn’t match the rest of the room (this is what happens when there are 5,478 varieties of “white”). I told him not to bother with repainting as it was a closet. Surely there were more pressing needs in our complex.

When he stopped by last week to look at the new emerging stain in the corner I quipped “aren’t you glad you didn’t repaint?”. He didn’t seem amused.

Last night our neighbor knocked on our door to tell us they were dealing with water dripping from their kitchen ceiling… and a closer inspection of the space over our own cabinets showed the beginning of staining. This morning the stain had grown and the damp was obvious. I’m no expert, but my hunch here is that the work done on the roof this past summer required more than patching seams.

I never re-use sermons or blog posts, in part because I find that context changes quickly and because I usually am embarrassed by what I’ve written. Today is the exception to the rule:

“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.”

Rev. Dr. Dee Cooper will be present with us via Zoom on the 17th at 7 p.m. to help us begin the conversation about organizational trauma… what sort of things does a church experience when it discovers its past has painful stories of abuse or neglect? How do we begin to address the real problem and not the symptoms?

I hope you’ll join us.

Into the woods…

I wept when Sondheim died.

I’ve done a bit of Community Theater, both on stage and backstage (nothing like a ham that can costume herself!) and those productions that had Sondheim’s name attached were easily my favorite. There were so many layers to his work. It didn’t matter if you were in the cast or painting the set, everything worked both independently and together to create something intertwined and profound.  It’s one of the few times I’ve really experienced how the sum of the parts might be greater than the whole.

The other time I’ve felt this is within the church. There are so many moving parts in even the smallest congregation, and many of those parts have their own purpose and goals and yet when combined with the other areas there’s a blessing of synchronicity. When it happens, it’s glorious.

When it doesn’t happen?

There’s a scene in Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” where the characters perform a dizzying song entitled “It’s your fault”. Each of the characters finds a way to blame the others for the predicament that they are in. At the end of the song each of they find their victim and sing together: “You’re responsible! You’re the one to blame! It’s your fault!” 

When things are going well in our families and organizations we get along just fine. We have our differences (in our family this was how to make the gravy for Thanksgiving) but in general we’re able to brush off minor offenses. When we’re under significant threat our fingers quickly point to others as the source of our discontent.

Who should the institutional church blame for its decreasing numbers? 

The list of blame is a long one and changes depending on the perspective of the one pointing the finger. As blaming continues, we are unable to accept the consequences of our own actions (both individually and corporately) and are like the characters in the story. 

I believe we are now facing the choice of whether we will continue to blame or if we will work toward something new.

This is not to be confused with the importance of understanding history so that we do not make the same mistakes again. This is believing that discovering who to blame will somehow be enough to reverse the current course. The witch who confronts the blamers understands this. She says to them “what really matters is the blame, somebody to blame” and invites them to place the blame on her. The witch, like a prophet from the Hebrew scriptures says what needs to be said regardless of how it might be perceived.

I don’t know what the future church will look like post-pandemic. I imagine parts of it will be familiar and feel like home, but I also imagine some of it will feel like a venture into unknown territory: into the woods, as it were. But the penultimate song in “Into the Woods” rings true here as well: “Hard to see the light now, just don’t let it go. Things will come out right now, we can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is… alone”.

We know we’re not alone.

Courage

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with dentists*. The family dentist was a lovely guy who didn’t believe in cleanings (no, really!) so it wasn’t until adulthood that I first experienced the joy of swishing. The next guy to view my molars made me almost give up on dental health altogether. He discovered my first cavity. I had a terrible experience with an injection to my gums that made me feel like I had been hooked up to a 220 volt line. There were no apologies, no acknowledgement of my tears, just impatience with my reaction.

We moved. I switched providers, and again I wasn’t happy. At the suggestion of a parishioner, I checked out one of the local folks… and fell in love. I loved him so much I’d travel from DC back to NJ for appointments. That’s about 7 hours of travel to spend 1 hour drooling in a chair. I loved him because he made me feel safe.

There’s a unique vulnerability from the perspective of the person in the chair. Being able to trust the person with pointy objects is critical.

Vulnerability isn’t our strong suit. We stigmatize illness (especially mental illness) and we plod forward despite various aches and pains. Societally, we prefer to show our vulnerabilities when the lights are low, and the screen is bright knowing that when the show is over we can pretend to be untouched. We will let those we trust see our woundedness, but for many that circle is very small indeed. 

Over the next few months the Presbytery will be engaging in some deliberate explorations into some of systemic issues that have impacted our ability to be the church. Ruth Everhart (every church should have recently received a copy of her book) will be with us on January 25th, and the conversation will continue with Dee Cooper a few weeks later. Although these conversations are specific to the intersection of church and sexual misconduct… there’s something more here as well. We are being invited to be vulnerable so that we can identify the cavities and those places that may need root canals. We are able to do this hard work because we trust in God’s grace.

Brené Brown makes a connection between vulnerability and courage. I think that’s true, whether we’re talking the dentist’s chair or the church. Let us be brave and vulnerable, church. Open wide!

Blessings –

Karen

*I adore my current dentist (just ask our Moderator, Bill Newell!) and how he sings throughout any procedure. When he’s not singing he’s talking about the pro-bono work he’s doing in the north side of Syracuse on underserved kids. I’m a fan, can you tell?

Asking the right questions.

I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to do at this juncture.

The demographics are clear across the denomination, and those of us in Cayuga-Syracuse are no exception. The Gallup poll from this past summer gave us data to back up what we already knew: as a country, less than 50% of us are members of religious organizations (that includes synagogues, mosques, and churches of all stripes and sorts).

A couple of decades ago the trend had become noticeable in declining numbers of younger folk in the pews. I seem to recall someone commenting that worship had begun to look like a pack of Q-Tips™ – all white hair! That isn’t as funny as it once was, and not because my own head is gray. This isn’t going to be reversed with a new website, a drum set, and a fresh young pastor with children in tow.  This isn’t going to be reversed. Period.

Whatever comes next won’t look like what I’ve known all my life. Of course, it’s also not the first time that God’s people were upended from what was known and tossed into the unknown (see also: time in the wilderness with Moses; Babylonian exile) but those were stories told using flannelgraph and cute songs. Y’know… history! This certainly wasn’t supposed to happen to me (and it really wasn’t supposed to happen on my watch).

But here we are.

(And, God is here as well).

I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to do.

But I am completely sure of who we are supposed to be. 

We are supposed to be people of faith.

Friends, difficult decisions lie ahead for many of our congregations. 

I’m not referring to those hard decisions regarding spending from endowment, staffing, or even conversations about closure. The most difficult decision isn’t whether to do those things, or the best way they might be done.

The hardest decision is to discern our next steps as people of faith.

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.