Posts By Karen Chamis

Seeing Spots

I’ve been seeing spots lately.

I have PVD in both eyes (that’s posterior vitreous detachment for the medically curious). 

The short story is that several years ago I took a faceplant on asphalt which resulted in a few juicy abrasions, a split lip, and PVD. For days I told the story that I was involved in Clergy Fight Club… it was brutal.

PVD is generally a normal part of aging with most folks learning they have it in their 60’s or 70’s. It presents as floaters – with some large enough to make vision blurry. I’ve always had floaters (a gift from Dad’s side of the family), but these new swarms of spots were dark and omnipresent. My optometrist (following a polite laugh at my Clergy Fight Club story) was encouraging. He explained that although these new additions to my vision were permanent, my brain would learn to see around them.

Within days my brain had figured out to ignore the spots. They are still there… if I think about them, I can see them, but most of the time I see beyond them.

Our minds quickly normalize things the way living in a space for a bit allows you to no longer see the paint smudges on the molding. We learn to look beyond.

There are times when this ability is a gift. When my spouse tells me I look beautiful early in the morning, while I’m wearing an old bathrobe and my hair resembles a nest, he’s not commenting on what he’s actually seeing. It’s not just an act of self-preservation on his part, but an ability to see beyond what he’s currently seeing. 

There are other times when this ability means we are able to look beyond the work that needs to be done. When trauma occurs (one psychologist calls them “environmental jolts”) our vision clears temporarily. This pandemic is one of those times.

As we begin to (hopefully) emerge from a time of pandemic we are in a tender place where, if we are intentional, for a short time we may see differently. Not with our eyes, necessarily, but with our heart, minds, and creativity. We may see where there is injustice. We may see where old ways and patterns have been continued out of habit. We may see where there are great needs… where we are being called to move and act.

We may be able to see the spots (logs) in our own eyes and respond faithfully.

Open your eyes, your ears, your heart. 

Let those who have eyes to see…

Collections of Dust

As I write this, folks are remembering they are dust.

In the first church where I was a pastor, we had a “hobby show” one Sunday during Coffee Hour. The idea was simple – members of the congregation were invited to take a table to showcase their hobbies as a means of deepening community. 

Honestly, I don’t remember what everyone brought. I think there were some wood carvings, quilts and maybe some crochet? I can’t remember anything… because there was one individual who brought a collection that I’ll never forget.

Win Redding was ancient. She was the sort of person that much of the time had you second-guessing if she was being serious. On this day, she sat behind a table with a display featuring several plastic bags each with carefully lettered labels.

It was her dust bunny collection.

Some were found under the bed. Others behind the fridge. She had one from a friend’s home as well (part of a traveling collection). And she presented all of this with a straight face. When I approached her table, she looked up, motioned to the rest of the room and quipped: “I figure it’s all dust anyway”.

On Ash Wednesday I remember Win. I also recall those whose foreheads I smeared with ashes in order to remind them of their mortality… especially those few for whom I knew that death would come soon. 

I remember that we are dust (and isn’t it all dust anyway?) and know that people recall their mortality not just on this day, but all the time. Visit any floor in any hospital and amidst those working brilliantly and compassionately to stave off death… well, there it is. We are dust.

Sometimes we are lots of dust. Wars in forgotten places (because those involved don’t look like us or because they involve countries we can’t find on a map), tsunamis, drought, earthquakes, and deaths due to pandemics – all of these become tally marks symbolizing those who died far too soon.

We are dust. 

From the comfort of my couch this week, I watched war unfold in Ukraine, and heard the words of heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk: “My soul belongs to the Lord and my body and my honor to my country”. 

Everyone dies, and yet… we have choices in how we live and breathe until that time. Daily we are reminded that we are mortal but also that each day we have been given the choice on how we shall live.

Today as people are smudged with dust and ash, we are reminded that we are of dust and to dust we will return. Some folks will use alternative language: “repent and believe in the Gospel”.  

This year, I believe I will do both.

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?