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The Away Message

On Sunday afternoon I will activate the “away message” on my Presbytery email, and it will remain activated until the end of November. I’ll be spending two weeks of vacation working on my dissertation, baking and crafting and maybe constructing an interior wall at our cabin. It’s such an amazing thing… I hit the right buttons, and PRESTO! I’m in vacation mode!

I crack myself up.

The reality is that it always takes me days to get in vacation mode, and given the limitations of this COVID season, I won’t have much of a change of scenery to help that along. I understand the deep need we all have for sabbath – both on a cellular level as well as one embedded in our covenantal relationship with God. Plenty has been written about its importance, however, I find it far easier to read about sabbath time and embrace the theory of time away than to practice it… perhaps because the actual practice of sabbath for me is work?

There’s also the conundrum of exactly what sort of sabbath I need at this time. I will be abstaining from work, but I know what my soul really needs is to take time apart from the regular babble of news chyrons and social media; to step away from that stream of voices for just a bit so that I might remember who I am (and Whose I am).

This is really hard for me. For folks who have worked with the Enneagram, I’m a 7 (with a 6 wing) which means I suffer greatly from FOMO (also known as Feelings Of Missing Out). My theme song is “What did I miss?” from Hamilton. It’s bad.

Why is it so difficult to do what we know will bring us renewal and life? It’s not just a challenge that we face as individuals who know what we need to do in order to be healthier in mind, body and spirit. This challenge also faces congregational leadership that know the changes that need to be made and yet choose instead to debate the paint color for the parlor. We avoid doing what we need to do not because we are lazy… but because we are afraid of what we will lose in the process. 

Am I willing to lose my ability at quick political banter (aka “snark”) by stepping away from the news reels for a few weeks? Will I lose my sense of what is happening in this Presbytery if I step outside for a bit? Absolutely, however the sabbath mandate is clear and the risk of not taking this time apart is actually greater than my ignoring this call.

What are you afraid of losing? What is the thorn in your side? Is it worth the risk of keeping it? (See you in a few weeks!)

Family Resemblance

The family I married into has strong genes. At gatherings of the Chamis clan there is no mistaking who carries similar genetic code. There’s some hint here and there of other families and their stories (my daughter absolutely has my mouth) but generally you know that Chamises come from the same stock. Our daughter looks so much like her father that when she was born good friends arrived at the hospital to greet our new arrival and asked Bill if he was certain I was the mother.

Note graven image

It’s like the time when the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked him about taxes, and Jesus responded by asking for a coin. Now, he may have done so to see what was in their pocket (or, rather… whose pocket the Pharisees were in!) but when they showed him a graven image of Caesar instead of the local imprint of wheat… they showed Jesus who they most resembled. 

Jesus then responded to their question about taxes. The word he used wasn’t simply “give” but “give back”. Give back to Caesar what belonged first to Caesar (and if you think Jesus didn’t get political, consider what these words implied during a time of occupation!)

I write this the morning after the election and like many I find myself wondering what the results say about our own family resemblance. What does this election say about what drives us as a people and what does it say about Whose we are? I think about our churches here and throughout the country that are unpacking the impact of this on their communities and wonder at the work ahead. How do we even begin to relate to one another…. let alone believe that we are related?

I think we do so in part by sharing the family story. We tell the version where Jesus and his parents were refugees and fled the wrath of a tyrant. We tell the story of how he addressed the powers and principalities of his day (and got all up in the politics of what was happening) and how we broke down walls in the ways that he broke bread. We talk about how he spoke about the oppressed and we don’t leave out those stories that are uncomfortable.  We tell the version of the Gospel that doesn’t gloss over the sacrifice and the crucifixion to get to the chocolate bunnies and the egg hunt.  We preach Christ.

We make this story OUR story… because it is in the telling and the hearing that we are challenged to resemble the one we claim to follow, and then as disciples we call others to join us at this work and in this fellowship.

As I post this the results of the election are still unknown but the work ahead of us is clear. Let us begin by remembering Who we belong to, and work towards resembling that side of the family.

Prayers for us all.

Scruples

Several years ago the Presbyterian Church did a deep dive into scruples. If you missed it, the gist of the nationwide discussion was how to provide clergy an opportunity to declare if they had scruples regarding the Constitution of the PCUSA. The idea was that they would be able to state their scruples up front when being examined by the Presbytery. This would provide transparency as well as the ability for a pastor to attend to their own conscience.

You’ve got to love a denomination that provides an opportunity for someone to say, “I disagree with this” and still be accepted by the larger body. Bonus points for us deciding to use a word like “scruples”.

Part of the discussion regarding scruples was to determine if there were some lines that could not be crossed. What were the essential tenets that were, well, essential? As a church we are encouraged to practice mutual forbearance in those areas that are “scruplely” (my word), understanding that “there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” (F-3.0105). You’ve also got to love a denomination that uses a phrase like “mutual forbearance”.

This moment in our nation feels like a battle over essential tenets without the benefits of a bonus word.

I’ve seen friendships fall apart over the last few months, and the conversation goes like this:

            “You can’t vote for A and say you love me”

            “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both”

            “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence”

            “Friends can have a difference of opinion… right?”

What’s happening here is that one person believes this is a conversation about scruples, whereas the other individual believes this is about essential tenets. For one individual this is about philosophy (or theology) for the other it is about the direct impact this will have on their lives. It’s hard to have a conversation about something when we can’t even agree what the conversation is actually about. One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place. 

Both. Grieve.

By this time next week the election will be over and the waiting for results will have begun. Regardless of what the result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee. We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom. 

Here’s the thing… you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of essential tenets on the denominational website. There’s no checklist, but we do have the Book of Confessions which is a witness to the Reformed faith. We may not be able to walk around with a list, but we can agree to how we will talk about difficult topics together.

My suggestion?  Listen deeply enough to understand if what you are disagreeing about is a scruple or essential. Listen deeply enough to hear not only WHAT is that line in the sand for the other, but WHY it is a “bridge too far”. You may not find agreement, but do not fall into the trap of discounting the other’s belief as non-essential (only they know what is essential for them). Finally, do not ask them to lay aside something that is essential in order for you to be more comfortable. Understand that your essentials deserve the same level of care, but know that you may need to model that behavior first.

These next few weeks and months (and years) require us to be the folks God has called us to be, and to serve not just the church but also the world with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

Ear, ear!

When my usually sweet cat’s whiskers move forward, and the shape of his muzzle becomes square I know he’s had enough play and our next interaction may involve something sharp. Our interspecies communication isn’t at Dr. Doolittle levels… but it works for us.  Mostly. We don’t share a common vocabulary, but we do have a language of sorts.

Language is such a remarkable tool. With words we can express emotions, describe beauty, build each other up and tear injustice down. Words help us to inspire, comfort and sometimes amuse. I’m the sort that appreciates not only a good turn of phrase but also feels that puns are an artform (your mileage may vary).

Of course, words are only part of our communication toolkit. We convey our thoughts using body language and grimaces, and pitch and tone have a place here as well. We also communicate with silence – from that meaningful quiet that occurs between grieving friends to the “silent treatment” offered to those who have tread on our last nerve.

Language can fail us for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there is a dissonance between what we are communicating verbally and our actions. I’ve thought for some time now that it would be helpful to have a dictionary that provided definitions alongside appropriate behaviors. A church that describes itself as friendly on the website but ignores the folks that have been visiting for weeks is a potent example reminiscent of one of the great lines in the Princess Bride when Vizzini says “inconceivable” for the nth time and Inigo responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes language fails because we choose to not to hear. Language only seems to work when there’s a willingness to hear and understand, and I have learned that I ignore my cat’s communication of his annoyance with great peril.

In this season, it is all too easy to pay attention to presidential debates and Facebook pages that are teeming with miscommunications. I wonder what would happen if we focused instead on the conversations happening just outside the walls of our churches. What are the deep fears and concerns (and joys!) spoken about around the dinner table, or at the conference table of the office on the corner? Where are hearts breaking… and does the church have the capacity and the desire to hear those stories? Do we have the words (or the Word?) to respond?

Let those who have ears to hear….

Green bananas

In one of the churches where I served there was a woman who upon being asked about her health and wellbeing would respond that she was still buying green bananas.

I’m not certain if I’d share her sentiment these days. Frankly, I’m not certain, period.

There’s so much unknown out there. It’s not just the pandemic, but also the election (and potential fallout) that has me wondering if I should buy green anything. 

Of course, my faith tells me that God’s got the big picture, and although I’m not quite convinced my breakfast fruit of choice fits that category, knowing that God remains in the middle of it helps to ground me a bit. Hairs on my head are counted, and lilies in the field have far nicer clothes than I do… but I also know that some of this stuff, although known fully by God, is our work.

And, I guess that is what worries me. We were tasked with loving one another and caring for this beautiful world… and our track record in these areas isn’t great. Those “good old days” were only good for some, and we’ve got a habit of romanticizing history in a way that glosses over the nasty parts.

I suppose my deepest concern about all of the upheaval (and potential upheaval) is the fear that we get through all of this unchanged: that churches return to their buildings will forget those new connections they’ve made with folks online and that we will return to ignoring the needs of those whose experience of this country is different than ours because of the color of their skin. I worry that we won’t take this moment in time to examine our values as faith communities and as society to see where we are out of alignment… and then to come together and to repair that breach.

I’ve read the end of the book. I know Love wins. Until that day, I worry and hope, and hope and worry that we will do the work God tasked us with.

Rough Road Ahead!

We’ve been heading north to our camp for a few hours every weekend, spending almost as much time driving as we do puttering about the place. It’s worth it – garlic and alliums have been planted as has the narcissus, and we’ve begun the work of making our cabin weather-tight.

It’s a simple thing to get to our cabin once you get to Camden. Just head up Van Buren to the last electric pole on the road and go a bit beyond that. We’re the first cattle gate on the right, and then just up the ridge to the meadow. Easy as pie, once you get to Camden.

Getting to Camden, however, has had some minor challenges. The western route takes you up 81… which had been undergoing much needed construction. There were several weekends when we avoided the traffic cones and the single lane in preference for the congestion in Sylvan Beach. It’s lovely to have options – to know what challenges are ahead and to make choices that mitigate the danger or frustration and help you to avoid the rough roads.

Then there’s the Fall of 2020.

My calendar shows several upcoming holidays preprinted on the page, like tattooed names of former partners. They remind me of all the plans that will need to be revised to accommodate a virus that is insistent on being accounted for. There are various work assemblies and meetings that will all be translated to zoom affairs where everyone continues to try and do their best, but without the actual sharing of space it feels lifeless.

These are events that are known to me. I can therefore plan for them and find decent work-arounds to avoid the rough roads. I know where I’ll need to slow down and will prepare accordingly. It won’t be the same drive as in previous years but somehow I know I’ll get there. Some things escape the ability to peg with a date and time – we may need to close church doors again if the virus flares up in our communities (see Cuomo’s new guidelines on this: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-new-cluster-action-initiative). Still, we can plan for these particular rough roads as we’ve been down them before.

The November 3rd election is a road we need to travel with no available detours. It is an unknown stretch… but there are some suggestions that it may be more than a bit bumpy. There are no creative work-arounds and no waiting for the construction to be complete (in fact, we may actually be part of the construction crew!). So, what do we do when there is potential rough road ahead?

  • We make certain what we’re driving is sound. Check the tires and the frame, look for rust. 
  • We pack snacks to share. Yes, I’m serious. We make sure that there is good nutritious stuff to ingest and we share it with those on the journey with us.
  • We travel together… that way, if one of us breaks down the others can provide a lift.
  • We turn the dial on the radio (hah… remember dials?) to good music, and we surround ourselves with sounds of beauty.
  • We tell stories that remind us of our courage and strength, and we find reasons to laugh.
  • We pack a good map that reminds us of the big picture and that we’re not alone in the universe (let’s make it a world atlas, shall we?)
  • We keep our eyes focused ahead… and on what matters.

Friends, the best thing we can do to prepare for this road we must go down is to prepare for it faithfully…. and now is the time to begin doing that work. I know it feels like it’s all out of our control (and much of it is!) but we still have some agency. Let’s do that work together.

The Wall

A week or so ago I was introduced to the idea that during any crisis there at about the six-month point individuals “hit the wall”. Dr. Aisha Ahmad who is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto tweeted about her own multiple experiences in disaster zones stating that at this six-month mark, people enter a slump. She points out that in this particular crisis, there’s no option to run away… and that this wall is real and normal and expected.

It’s strange, isn’t it, to find that this lack of feeling that anything will ever be normal again is in itself, normal?

She doesn’t stop there. She goes on to share that after a few weeks, we will again find our energy and creativity and begin to tackle the next period of adaptation.

I found this profoundly comforting. Not only is what I’m experiencing (and seeing elsewhere) normal and expected but there is promised end. The pandemic may last many more months, but the feeling of weariness that some of us are experiencing will not last forever.

Her suggestion is that instead of attempting to storm the wall, that the more productive course is to ride it out. Do what must be done but allow the wall to break apart naturally in 4 – 6 weeks. Until then, she advocates being good to yourself and to others. 

That action? Hitting the wall and deciding to rest instead of blasting it with the full force of our will? 

That’s called faith.

It’s not just faith in the words of a teacher from Toronto, it’s faith that this isn’t all on our shoulders and that Someone else is also in the mix. It’s an act of faith to simply stop and trust that there are some things we can’t power through… and to allow the gift of sabbath to wash over us and heal our weariness.

My hunch is that just as there are individual walls, there are organizational ones and that our congregations are running into them with gusto. These walls aren’t ones that can be solved with technical abilities and solutions (new microphones, a bit better lighting and everything is better!) but instead require adaptive responses. The problem is it’s hard to think adaptively when up against the wall. It’s hard to dig down to the root of an issue and to look at it creatively when everyone in the room is exhausted.

After months of changing and figuring out what this new context requires of God’s church and our congregations, our best decisions and actions will come after we’ve broken through the wall. I realize some decisions cannot wait – but those that can? My prayer is that we have the collective wisdom to realize it may be time to claim some sabbath time, and that wall is a great place to lean against and rest for a bit.

Toto: Agent of the Apocalypse

Smoke and mirrors, fog and eerie green light. A voice booms from the visage in front of the intrepid group. “I am the GREAT AND TERRIBLE OZ”. All tremble, save the “little dog too” who scampers forward and pulls aside the curtain, revealing an unremarkable man pulling levers as he also pulls legs.

Not the dog you’re looking for….

L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz (and native of nearby Chittenango!) spun a tale of dreams and nightmares into something iconic. In the movie version, the group of adventurers sees a large floating head. In the book version, each member of the cohort sees something different – Dorothy sees the giant head we are familiar with, but the Scarecrow sees a gorgeous woman and the Tin Man sees a monster, whereas the Lion witnesses a huge ball of flames. 

Toto sees a man behind a curtain and unveils the truth.

So much truth is being unveiled these days. Oh, there are smoke and mirrors, and folks who should be insignificant folks who are pulling all sorts of levers, but there are also large broken systems being laid bare and corrupt values being exposed. It’s downright apocalyptic.

Apocalypse, in the original sense of the Greek, referred to a disclosure of that which was previously unknown, and which could not have been known without being unveiled. In other words, Toto is a canine agent of the apocalypse, exposing what was previously hidden.

What’s being uncovered in this time of multiple pandemics? Churches are discovering what is really meaningful. Clergy are learning what they value about their Calling. Communities are seeing (finally?) the inequities and injustices and that are seemingly baked into our systems. 

It’s not all bad. Churches are discerning new ways of creative mission. Families are discovering strength based on deep love. Leaders are finding new courage. The pulling back of the veil has caused many individuals and organizations to re-evaluate our lives and our purpose.

I’m not sure if it matters if we are in “THE” apocalypse. Certainly, we are in apocalyptic times. What matters is whether we choose to pay attention.

Failure to thrive

What does failure look like in a church?

Is it when the building shows noticeable deferred maintenance, or when the membership number dips below a certain level? Has a church failed when there are no more children running up the aisles or when the choir is made up of only a few sopranos (why yes, I am an alto!)?

I’m not sure our answer to that question changes due to a pandemic. The church isn’t a failure when it no longer occupies its building or because we can no longer sing hymns together.  I don’t believe we are only successful when our pews (and plates) are full. Certainly, the New Testament church didn’t have tall steeples and large fellowship halls in which to accomplish its mission. However, our metrics for success don’t seem to translate well in this pandemic season.

Six months in we’re starting to ask “what if this is it”? What if we can’t return to our buildings? Can we still be the church?

Throughout the life of the church we’ve made changes and adapted and reformed our ways of doing things. I’m not talking the small stuff (although kudos to the church that moved from donuts during coffee hour to also offering fresh fruit!). I’m referring to all the times in history where we’ve adapted to our changing context. As products of the Reformation, we hold to the belief that we are reformed and always being reformed!

I think we forget how difficult those changes were in the moment. The day that Grandma showed up in pants to serve Communion was no doubt followed by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.  

Or, perhaps we remember all too well how difficult those changes were, and we want to avoid potential conflict. The day we ordained LGBT folks was no doubt proceeded by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.

The reality is that a massive change in our context has occurred. We will either continue to find ways to respond to it faithfully… or we don’t. 

What does failure in the church during a pandemic look like?

The same as it does during “normal” times.

The church has failed when it forgets its purpose and its calling and is no longer working toward the Great Ends of the Church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. 

Here’s the thing…. the church has found ways to be the church in spite of world wars, natural disasters, the Great Depression and huge economic fallout. And pandemics. In other words, this isn’t our first rodeo. More to the point, it won’t be the coronavirus that causes the church to fail. It will be our inability to remember our baptism, our calling and our purpose.

Yes, this is difficult work. It’s also the work we’ve been called to accomplish… faithfully. The good news is we don’t do it alone. Our God is in the middle of it all, and we have our siblings who walk alongside us as well.

Didn’t sign up for this!

It’s not exactly what we signed up for.

I mean, we were called to this work and knew it would require intelligence, imagination and love (and energy, so much energy!). Many of us learned how to fix lawn mowers as well as the details of correct concrete application to avoid spalling. We dove deep into scripture for Sunday morning and researched games for youth group for Sunday night. We adapted and adopted and some of us even started wearing shoes (it’s a long story).

But this? Doing ministry from a distance? 

We’ve met the technical challenges of our work with grace. Researched new sound and light equipment and figured out how best to be heard in parking lots and on the side lawns of our buildings. We’ve done adaptive work as well and taken the balcony view to try and figure out what is really happening, and how it will impact ministry for the next generation. We’ve held hands virtually with those who are grieving and have conducted funerals via Zoom. Within moments we changed how we worked, worshipped and ministered.  

We did so because we were called to this work… but this isn’t what we signed up for, and frankly, this is hard.

Teachers returning to the classrooms might say the same thing.

Those in the healing and helping professions…

Grocery clerks. Librarians. 

The list goes on and on.

If there was ever a time for deep compassion and patience, it is now.

Your child’s teacher is juggling more than they have ever dealt with, and that is saying a lot. The guy at the register just had to put up with several customers upset about the lack of (fill in the blank with this week’s item of scarcity). The scheduler at the Doctor’s office has to ask those questions, even if you think it’s obvious you’ve not been out of the country.

And your pastor? Well, there are days when your pastor is ready to quit. 

Thom Rainier breaks it down in his article “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit” where on top of the general weariness felt by all of us, he lifts up congregational infighting (in-person vs. online, mask vs. unmask, etc.), increased workload and criticism as well as the concern for the future of ministry (not just financial concerns, although those are also very real in many congregations).

He doesn’t offer a solution.

I also don’t offer any solutions to all of the above, except the reminder that none of us signed up for any of this… and yet we are still called to be people of grace and peace. We are still called to love one another deeply and sacrificially.  We are still called to bear one another’s burdens. We are still called to be the Church.  

We are still called.  All of us.