In the midst of my own grief, I find myself wondering if I’ve done enough as a pastor, mother, and citizen to find a solution to this epidemic of violence. I grieve their deaths. I also grieve the many times I’ve kept silent.
I’ve served a purple church – a church that has individuals that are both conservative and progressive. It was really nice. There was much talk about how we were able to welcome all to the Table and how incredible it was that in spite of our differences we were united and loved each other deeply. I learned that I could preach a sermon that deliberately walked a fine line. There were times when I was blatant about my own understanding of how scripture should inform our actions… only to have folks from both sides of an issue hear completely different sermons.
My deepest regret as their pastor was not providing an opportunity for folks to go deeper in their relationship with God and with one another and to really listen to each other…. and to hear one another’s fears and concerns. I regret that we avoided hot topics because I was afraid we’d lose folks, and fearful for how that would impact us.
I encouraged the congregation that I served to worship at the Idol of Niceness.
We worship a man who didn’t value his own survival more than the lives of those whom he loved. How can we as the church be worried about our own survival more than the lives of others.
I use this wonderful phone app called Pray As You Go (https://pray-as-you-go.org). It’s a lovely mixture of music, scripture, and guided meditation that on a daily basis reminds me of who I am, and Whose I Am. It’s provided by the Jesuits, and so from time to time there are readings from what we Reformed folk understand to be the apocrypha… but hey, it’s a free app, and listening to the occasional deuterocanonical text reminds me that we’re all from the same vine if different branches.
Which, interestingly enough, was today’s reading. Vines, branches, fruit… pruning. In John 15, Jesus uses the illustration of a grapevine to help the disciples understand the importance of being deeply connected to the branch in order to thrive.
The word Jesus uses (meinate) is in the plural. This abiding is not to be done by individuals, but by a group. It’s not a suggestion, but an imperative. We are called to abide.
Abide is a weird word in English. The top three synonyms for abide include: accept, stand for, and tolerate… which doesn’t exactly work for this verse. The better translation in this context is to remain, or to dwell. We are called to dwell in Jesus just as Jesus dwells in us.
This past week there have been two mass shootings. One in Buffalo at a Tops, the other in a Presbyterian Church in California. The first shooter is a white supremacist who acted on his belief that Whites are being replaced by Blacks. The latter shooter is Chinese and his victims Taiwanese, and his actions reflect a conflict that began between those two nations after the second world war. Both men acted from a place of hate.
Jesus calls us to abide.
Not wait or to bide our time.
The lovely English voices on my phone app this morning asked the question: “What does it mean to you, to abide in Jesus and for him to abide in you?”. In the wake of these two racially motivated shootings I wonder what it means for the church to abide in Jesus. Not accepting. Not tolerating. Not biding our time… but actually being the church of Jesus Christ.
The lovely English voices continued their gentle questioning: “Right now, do you identify more with the withered branch, or the fruitful one? Talk with Jesus about this. What does he want to say to you about your abiding?”
Good questions. Hard questions. Important questions.
Days like today I like to go out onto our small apartment balcony and put my toes in the sun… and let them sit there until they become too hot. For just a few moments, all is right with the world.
Try telling the hummingbirds that. The hummingbirds have returned and buzz about my head but soon they’ll take to fighting. Flowers are few at this time of the year, so they fiercely guard each bloom (or feeder) as a matter of self-preservation. There are limited resources, and the instinct to protect their territory overrides everything. Even confronted with the presence of multiple feeders (bounty!) some birds will continue to respond from this deep biological need to protect what they see as theirs.
I’ve witnessed this behavior in the church as well.
There’s an instinctive desire for preservation within some congregations that encourages behavior that is downright aggressive. When we focus on the scarcity of resources we immediately become defensive of our own territory. We cannot conceive of living another way… and so we fight.
If the perceived resources are REALLY tight – and we’re either a hummingbird or a congregation – we might take another tack: torpor. Hummingbirds require an immense amount of energy to survive. At night they dip into torpor – a state in which only the essential bodily functions are maintained. They look as if they are dead.
Hummingbirds fight over resources and enter into torpor because they have evolved to do so. I could argue that this is also the case with some congregations (and, if I’m honest, our denomination as well) but I believe our call is different.
As the old joke suggests, perhaps hummingbirds hum because they’ve forgotten the words.
Sometimes I wonder if the church has stopped humming because it’s not only forgotten the words, but also the Author of the song. We’ve forgotten that our purpose isn’t self-preservation, but proclamation. We’ve forgotten that our song is one of shelter and fellowship for the children of God, and that in addition to worship we are called to the promotion of social righteousness. We are called to be the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
I spent last weekend up at our camp installing tongue and groove pine paneling on the ceiling of our wee cabin. I finished one half of the ceiling (the majority of which went up last fall) and began to tackle the second half. It’s not as fun as it sounds. At the base of each section, I must negotiate trusses and so I’ve jury-rigged supports to provide a place to attach the paneling. After much trial and error on the first half, I stumbled into a process that worked. With that experience, and a process in place, the second half is going up much more smoothly.
At some point in the middle of working on the second half, in the midst of what I call my “crafter’s zen”, I thought: “I could write a manual on how to do this”.
I crack myself up.
It’s a Presbyterian thing. When experience and experimentation lead to effective process, we pull it all together into a tidy bundle and call it “Standing Rules” or “Committee on Ministry Manual”.
In Presbyterian polity it’s not just our collective experience that shapes governance. There’s a reason that the Book of Order is the second part of our Constitution. The first part is the Book of Confessions – a whirlwind tour of the church’s identity and theology throughout our history. In fact, if you read the small print in the Book of Order you’ll see references to the Confessions.
Sometimes things need to be tweaked (Exhibit A: Warped Boards) but in general, following established process makes life a bit easier. When we adjust our processes to accommodate challenges, we need to do so with careful attention to the theology that undergirds all our governance. Remember, the policies in place are not just accumulated experience but also reflect our relationship with God and one another.
Over the next few months, you may hear a bit more about bylaws, manuals, etc. Some folks may see these as restrictions on what congregations can do, and other folks may find their heads nodding sleepily. I encourage you to try to see these efforts with new eyes and ears… these aren’t just a compilation of rules but reflect the story of how we as Presbyterians balance order and ardor to best accomplish the work we’ve been called to do as a community of faith!
(And, if you ever want to hear a sermon on the best practices for applying pine paneling in tight spots… give me a holler!)
 I initially meant this to refer to the tongue-and-groove pine boards that are sometimes not quite straight… but if your church has dysfunctional governing boards, this might also apply.
You’ll remember the story of the widow’s mite? Jesus contrasts the influential powerbrokers who make a big deal about their contributions to the temple with a woman of no-means silently contributes all she has to the cause.
The first time I preached this story, I had a field day with the puns: She was poor, but “mite-y”? She had a way of putting in her two cents? When the widow shows her “mite” the wicked… flea?
I think it was in the preaching of this sermon that I learned that not everyone appreciated a good pun, and that most of the good puns had already been told. Multiple times.
The sharing of this story from the pulpit often focuses on themes of individual values, sacrifice, and stewardship. If we read it in the larger context of Mark’s gospel the contrast isn’t just about the faithfulness of the widow, but also about the corruption of temple leadership who despite having plenty of money were taxing the poor.
Church… are we listening?
Although I’m confident that our churches are not taxing the poor to amass funds so leadership can have fancy robes and cars… there are times when congregations spend more on the upkeep of buildings than on mission. Sometimes the building is used in such a way that that sort of expenditure makes sense, but there are times when the building itself becomes the mission of the church. Due to dwindling financial resources we find ourselves diverting funds from the care of those in need to stoking a furnace.
What follows the story of the widow’s offering in Mark’s gospel is telling: “As he walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!”
Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” (Mark 13)
Church… it’s often in the more uncomfortable questions that we find our vocation. The good news is, as difficult as these conversations are, there are those who are willing to be partners in discerning how we might faithfully respond. The Presbyterian Foundation continues to help in this regard, and I’m also available to meet with church leadership and to begin this conversation.
Prayers for us all as we figure out where God is calling us to be the church!
The FedEx guy dropped off my rental cap and gown this morning. The culmination of 11 years of the academy was stuffed into a small box with my name on it. I crammed the tam onto my head to check fit, and I thought of all the other noggins that had rented this particular cap. It should have been humbling, but it was amusing. Heads stuffed with knowledge, now stuffing their heads into caps that reeked of dry-cleaning fumes.
It looked ridiculous.
It doesn’t look nearly as ridiculous as the rental gown, however. I knew when I looked at the requested measurements (height, weight) that I should have included a note. I’m a bit… fluffier… in some areas than other folks. I opted to go with the “they are the professionals, they’ve got this” approach… and ended up with a gown that is several sizes too small. Proof that a degree means little unless paired with common sense.
Worst case scenario is that I’ll head to the fabric store, pick up some velvet and attach doctoral bars to my old black pulpit gown. It figures. 11 years of the academy, and it will be my crafting skills that save the day.
To use an old Saturday Night Live refrain, “It’s always something”. Or, my own personal motto, “It’s never done when we think it’s done.”*
Consider all the big moments in life and you’ll see all the work that leads to the main event, and then the trail of work that follows. It’s never done when we think it’s done. We work hard at pulling together “the big day”, only to realize that all the days that follow are somehow bigger and more challenging. We may graduate, get married, have kids, buy a house, run a marathon, write a book, perform in a stage production, start a new job, retire… and there’s always something more to do. It’s never done when we think it’s done.
We crawl into bed at the conclusion of one day, and birdsong greets us the next morning (complete with new challenges.) This is the pattern of life that we’ve learned from the very beginning. It’s never done when we think it’s done.
Perhaps that’s why we cling to some traditions in our churches. We know the world changes moment by moment. We know that nothing remains the same… but we honestly grieve when something changes at church. I believe this is because we desire constancy in some area of our life. A sense of completion. We want just one thing to be as it always has been.
I can’t predict the future, but I do know that every day after this one will be different. Our churches have already changed. Y’all don’t need to see the demographic charts to know that overall, we’re getting older and less… fluffy… in terms of folks in the pew. There is collective grief in knowing that what has been a central and stabilizing part of our own lives is forever changed.
God never changes.
It’s never done when we think it’s done.
Those two thoughts taken together give me great hope and make my head hurt. If I’m honest, the latter makes my heart hurt as well. I don’t know what happens next to our churches. I do trust that God’s got this, however.
*In reality, I’m really NOT done with this degree. The dissertation is in the hands of my readers who will determine if I can “stand for the defense”. If they deem I’m ready, I’ll defend on May 3rd… and graduate on May 7th. Oh, and then there will be additional tweaks to the dissertation, someone who checks to make sure my formatting is on point… and THEN I’ll be done. Maybe.
This image landed in my Facebook feed, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I came up with my own story about the road. In my tale, the planner had originally thought to remove the tree to keep the road straight (and somewhat safer), but the road crew, after taking a break under its branches didn’t have the heart to bulldoze it, and raised the funds to re-route the road around the tree.
Heartwarming, right? A great illustration of priorities and values and… fake.
That’s right. This is a road in Arizona (Route 160 for those with a need to know) that has been photoshopped by a Korean advertising agency for a now defunct non-profit. There are entire threads on the internet debunking this picture.
I’ll confess that when I discovered my version of the story wasn’t remotely true, I became a bit deflated, but then realized that even if the story itself wasn’t true (I made it up!) the truth was that sometimes beautiful things happened because good people stepped forward to make it so.
Isn’t this like the stories we tell ourselves about our past? Stories filled with truth about our history that speak our values… that are either exaggerated or downright false (and yet, somehow on point?). In one church there was a story about a woman who never missed a Sunday and knew everyone’s name. In another church I learned that each of the founding members mortgaged their own homes to finance the building of the church. These stories speak of welcoming and commitment that proceeded our own…. and even when a little digging shows that no one can agree on the name of the greeter or only three people mortgaged their homes, the truth remains the same.
We’ve begun to weave our stories of the pandemic – not just how we responded, but who we were during this time apart. As we look toward the weeks and months to come, we’re also beginning to shape the stories about what is next. We’re telling stories about those who haven’t returned without asking them if they are willing to share their story… we’re telling tales about those who continue to wear masks as well as those who don’t.
What is true and what is truth? There’s only one way to know… ask.
The truth we hear may challenge our own perceptions of our collective story. We may hear things that are hard to hear. We may find ourselves defending our own understanding of the truth. We may find that we need to change in ways that are uncomfortable.
We may find we need to change direction and reroute the road we’re on….
The road ahead is unknown. What is known is that we don’t make this trip alone.
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.
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”.
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).
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.