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Thankful for the “extras”!

We are moving!

We’ve recently purchased a sweet little condo near Syracuse’s new Salt City Market and are in the process of painting, patching, and purchasing items for our new home. After years of apartment gray and taupe we’re leaning heavily toward deeply saturated colors. Although we’ll be keeping several old furniture pieces, we’ve invested in a gorgeous mission style settle (to be delivered sometime around Easter). 

My version of the Holly Hobby House!

Lest you think we’ve become entirely too fancy; I also spent a good part of a day off assembling our latest furniture haul. If you’ve never assembled IKEA (or IKEA-adjacent) furniture, you’re missing out on… something. 

It feels like I’m participating in an old family tradition. My Dad put things together – from Heathkit radios to bicycles. The only time I knew my father to become seriously frustrated with a do-it-yourself construction project was the Holly Hobby House (my little sister’s big gift that year) that he attempted to assemble one Christmas Eve. He spent the entire night figuring out how it was possible for Tab A to be inserted into Slot C, and in the end I believe the solution involved a whole lot of tape. That dark night of the soul is why subsequent years Santa got extra cookies.

Dad would rejoice when he found leftover parts after putting together a project. For him, these were a bonus. They were screws that could be used in a future project or a small piece of wood that might find service elsewhere. He’d declare: “Look! Bonus!” and grin. These parts would join other misfits in old Velveeta boxes on a shelf in the basement and would often find new purpose.

Although I think this optimistic attitude MIGHT have had some connection with the aforementioned Holly Hobby House disaster… I believe there’s something to be said for his optimism. These additional parts didn’t quite fit what he had assembled, but they were treasured and utilized. It wasn’t a reason for panic or fear that something had been missed, but instead was seen as a potential gift.

They are like the new person who comes to church and who brings gifts that don’t quite fit what we’ve done before. They are the folks who have new ideas and vision for how we might continue to be (or become!) the church. All too often, instead of rejoicing at the opportunities, we see them as weakening the project we call the church. They aren’t seen as a sign of the promise that God is always doing a new thing in our midst, but a threat. And so, we don’t find places for their gifts or new vision, but instead school them in how things are traditionally done ‘round here.

I get it. Last week, when I found extra parts while assembling our new hall tree I reacted with full-blown panic. This wasn’t a situation with a solitary remaining screw, but rather many extra bits. I feared the very structure of this new piece of furniture was in jeopardy. After the initial anxiety, I checked out assembly diagram booklet which stated that these were provided to allow for other variations in assembly. The hall tree could also be a bench with a shorter back, or the bench could be assembled separate from the tree section. It was designed to be changed and reformed based on the needs of the user.

If the church is going to change (and we proclaim that we are always being reformed) then we need to overcome our fear of what is new and different as an existential threat. They may very well be exactly what we need in order to be reformed yet again.

What is the mission?

There’s been a change in my apartment complex. New folks moved in over the summer, and this fall there is an increased number of school buses that are trying to navigate the parking lot. I’ve taken to drinking my morning cup of coffee as I watch the buses drive by and try to imagine what’s going on in the heads of the children on their way to school.

Some of those faces are undeniably excited. It’s a new year – filled with the promise of new friends and activities. Other faces are a bit less enthused, and I find my heart filling with empathy for these young folks. I’ve been there. It’s not easy.

What I can absolutely guarantee is that NONE of them are contemplating the overall mission of a public-school education and the impact it will have on their lives. Why would they? It’s not their job. We have teachers, and administrators, and boards that help to shape the work of the school so that the mission of education might be accomplished. 

Who establishes the work and mission of the church?

In our tradition, that work is shaped by the various councils of the church (Session, Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly) as guided by our Constitution…. which ultimately finds its direction from scripture. Jesus is clear about what our mission is. 

I’ll confess, I’m not always certain we’re as clear on that subject.

Recently, members of this presbytery were invited to participate in a survey. This survey was also given to the other four presbyteries (Lake Erie, WNY, Genesee Valley, Geneva) that are in conversation about who we might collaborate in the future. 

One of the questions was “What does your congregation need to do effective ministry”. The image above is a word-cloud of our responses… note that the larger the word, the more often it was used. Some of the words are difficult ones: struggling, replaceable, and floundering. Others are hopeful: cooperating, renewed, engaged, and nurturing. 

For me the disconnect is found in the larger words. 

What we seem to be saying is we need more members in our pews to do effective ministry. We need pastors. We need people. I understand that in order to maintain the ministry that we’ve created over the last decades we need folks to serve on committees and to sing in the choir, and to preach from the pulpit. But… what if our mission isn’t to find new members so that we might have an effective ministry? What if our mission is to reach out to folks with the transformative love of Jesus Christ regardless of whether they join us in the work of this ministry?

New folks with kids moved into our apartment complex this summer. Are they needed for the mission of the church as the survey suggests… or is caring for them the mission of the church? Leaders – what do you say?

One Book to Rule Them All

I’m a list sort of person.

I maintain a bullet-journal that I fondly refer to as my One Book to Rule Them All. Within its pages is a running list of stuff that needs attention, and these are triaged accordingly. If there’s a little bullet point next to an item it’s normal priority. Little arrows to the left symbolize the item needs to be placed on a long-term calendar. A star next to the listed item suggests urgency.

Crossing stuff off my list makes me giddy.

I conducted an experiment in which I put the book away for a few days. Y’all need to understand that this is pretty big for me. Even my days off from work I have stuff planned – knitting projects with due dates, seeds that need to be planted, and movies I’ve wanted to see.

The result was not the relaxation I had anticipated. Instead, I discovered a persistent need to mentally re-invent my list… re-creating my list in my head. At one point I remembered something that I was certain had not made the journal, and I found a piece of paper and jotted it down. 

Right. I created a baby-list.

Some folks might suggest this obsession is fully in line with my being an Enneagram 7. It might also be rooted in some concern about my family history with Alzheimer’s. My hunch though is that much of this is due to a work-history of juggling many tasks along with being the type of person who loves spontaneity and improv. My lists help create space in my brain to allow for greater joy. Lists on paper means I don’t have lists in my brain. Theoretically.

I hold all the above to be true for me, but at the same time I acknowledge that life isn’t about getting things done. The things that I value the most are rarely on my list of things to do… because they are the sorts of things that are unplanned. If crossing items off my list makes me giddy… these moments bring me deepest joy. 

It’s great to cross stuff off my list, but without the other stuff? What’s the purpose?

Methinks churches run into the same challenge. We do all the things we are supposed to, and there is comfort in that. We check off all the boxes and yet it sometimes feels like we are just going through the motions. When that occurs, our energy drops and so does our joy. We become, well, works oriented. Get it done (especially if you can get it done like it’s always been done!) becomes our mantra. (The pandemic didn’t remove the list, it just rearranged it a bit.)

What might you do to make space for those things you truly value – that which brings you joy – to occur? If it would help to talk through this… don’t hesitate to call.

I’ll put you on my list.

Regrets

I’m gutted by recent acts of gun violence.

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. 

Just what are we really worshipping? 

Abiding

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 accept.

Not tolerate.

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.

Forgetting the words?

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. 

Praying for the church. Praying for us all.

Of Order and Rules

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[1]) 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!)

Blessings –

Karen


[1] 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.

Two Cents

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!

It’s ALWAYS something…

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.

Roseann Roseanna Danna

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.

Blessings –

Karen

*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.

The stories we tell…

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.