Anyone know a good electrician?

There’s an old clown ministry skit (hush!) where a series of solo clowns walk on the stage each carrying a piece of lumber. On one side of the lumber is the name of a Christian denomination (Baptist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.). As they maneuver about the stage, turning this way and that, the boards collide. Hilarity and mayhem ensues. A few minutes later, all the clowns are on the floor, with wood strewn everywhere.

A solitary clown walks on the stage with a sign bearing a cross and the words: “is there Carpenter in the house?” and nervous laughter erupts from the audience. The church is a mess. It’s always been a mess because it’s made up of people who are cracked and broken and less innocent than clowns. We laugh at the clowns knowing that we really laugh at ourselves.

As disordered as denominational ministry might look, for the last thirty-some years of my life it added order to my days. There’s always been at least one project looking for my attention or at the very least a sermon that needs writing. January 1st I stepped down from my last position into a time of unpaid (and potentially unending) sabbatical. In spite of this all being planned for about a year, I find I’ve been a bit rudderless. Who am I if I’m not the head of the local mop-and-bucket brigade, providing resources and assistance to congregations and clergy?

This sabbatical has been without shape or form. In my defense, I ended up with a bad cold for one of those weeks, and of course there were a few days puttering around our new place making adjustments. I had a couple of days working with tech support to figure out what was wrong with my computer (yes, DAYS) and am now in Indiana taking care of my grandfloof cat while his moms are cruising. It’s a good time to be apart from everything familiar, simply answering to the needs of a large (rather vocal) cat.

I knew I’d not find answers to my great questions immediately… but I’ll confess that I had thought I’d be at a point where I was formulating the right questions.

I continue to insist that I am rewiring (instead of retiring). I don’t see myself leaving the central core of who I am, and what I am called to do. I know I have certain skill sets that are useful to organizations, and believe I’m still called to use them. The questions that I’ve been working with are those of when and where, and with whom.

And… why I should rewire.

Absolutely, why.

Anyone know a good electrician?

Anticipating the Next Verse

In a little over a week, I will have finished my ministry as the Resource Presbyter for Cayuga-Syracuse. While everyone seems to be counting down to Christmas, my countdown continues through the following week as we round out the year. I’ve decided my to-do list is a sad substitute for opening those little windows and doors on cardboard Advent calendars.

When I first began my work here, I quoted college president J. Gordon Kingsley. A year later, in August of 2020 I quoted him while we were knee-deep in COVID test kits and wondering if we would ever gather in person again. Kingsley said that leaders “need to learn the song of the tribe in order to sing the song of the tribe so that others can find their place in the song and then, together, write the next verse”.

What followed were several incredible months of traveling throughout the Presbytery and listening to your greatest joys and deepest needs. I saw ministry and mission happening in so many different settings and heard questions about what it meant to be a connectional church in this time and place. When I met with the leadership in this Presbytery those questions continued. 

The running joke when I arrived was “what the heck is a Resource Presbyter”, but the underlying question has always been “what does it mean to be a Presbytery?”. Beyond the questions of “what does a Presbytery do” or “what is the purpose of a Presbytery?” is this deeper question of meaning. It begs us to identify if there is value in a Presbytery apart from its function. As this Presbytery continues to explore possibilities of shared leadership beyond its boundaries… this question of worthiness is a critical one.

Is there goodness in being a Presbytery beyond its function?

My biggest regret over these three plus years is that we didn’t often have a chance to sing together. Presbytery singing is different than congregational singing. If you know, you know. At our last in-person meeting when we gathered around the Table and sang “For Everyone Born a Place at the Table” the Spirit in that place was downright palpable. It is evidence enough for me that the Presbytery is more than its function and more than the sum of its members: it is yet another way for us to join in God’s song. My prayer for you all is that you find new ways of “singing” together – gathering voices and hearts in worship and work. Worrying less about the work of the Presbytery and more about *being* the Presbytery.

I don’t know what the next verse looks like for me or this Presbytery. What I believe is that the song continues, and that is enough.  

Rewired. (Not retired!)

I credit Dr. Fauci for introducing me to the concept of rewiring. As in, I’m not retiring, I’m rewiring.

I realize this opens me up to an ongoing circuit of revolting puns that are positively shocking (for the rookie punsters out there, that was a four-pun phrase which puts me in the masters league), but wordplay aside, it’s accurate.

At the end of this month, I will step down from my role as Resource Presbyter for Cayuga-Syracuse and will go on to do…

Well, quite honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not quite ready to step away from working at least part-time, but I don’t know what that work will look like. I plan on taking several months to discern where God is calling me next. I’m not retiring. I’m rewiring.

I suppose this language shouldn’t seem foreign to Presbyterians. When a congregation Calls a pastor, that individual is “installed” in that position. If we can install pastors, why can’t we be rewired as well? I’m not suggesting a need to put in a dimmer switch (hush!) but to consider what new connections might be made that will be illuminating not just to the individual, but to the larger community as well.

The last congregation I served as pastor has bragging rights as being the first church in the world to be lit by electricity.* The manse was an old Victorian (11 bedrooms!) that had years of deferred maintenance. Some of that deferred maintenance decided to show itself in the form of sparking wires in the basement – old cloth-covered wires that didn’t quite date back to Edison but were close, and some of the original wiring was in place (but not being used). Listening to the emergency crew that was sent in talk about what they were seeing was amusing. Amidst the expletives were words of awe. They were seeing and repairing wires that represented the history of their own work. They were seeing Edison’s legacy first-hand.

No one would suggest we simply continue using the old wiring. That doesn’t diminish how well it worked at one point, or the many lives it brought light and comfort to. Rewiring is an act that honors the legacy while leaning into what comes next… or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

It does beg the question, however, what else needs to be rewired. And yes, I’m looking at you church. The world needs to hear the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ. How are you wired to do that work?

* First Presbyterian Church of Roselle, NJ – home of Edison’s “electrolier”. The manse (known as the Mulford Mansion) was part of Edison’s first electrified town.

Expecting the Unexpected

Thirty years ago my go-to book was the classic “What to Expect when you’re Expecting”. I wasn’t quite Mary-sized for the pageant that year, but I was far enough along that everyone knew the Presbyterian Church of Attica would soon grow by one member. The book details what physical, mental, and emotional changes occur during pregnancy on a month-by-month basis. I’m pretty sure I had much of it memorized.

There are other books in the series including “What to Expect: the Toddler Years”, and the ever-popular, “What to Expect: Year Two”.  I remember a few years back looking to see if there was “What to Expect when you’re Expecting Menopause” but apparently that book is yet to be written.

The church talks a good talk about expectation and hope during this season of Advent. What we don’t expect is the unexpected. Some of our congregations have codified Christmas (and the Advent run-up) to the point where any deviation from established tradition is seen as heresy. One year, the family invited to light the advent candle lit the wrong candle. When I later heard several folks in the congregation complain about this mishap, I echoed their concern and added that I was pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t be coming this year because of this grave oversight. 

I’m not certain they appreciated my insight.

How is it that the most unexpected event in history has become so over-orchestrated by good folk in the church? Some of it has to do with an attempt to re-create holy moments, and the sense that if certain things don’t happen, we won’t feel the way we felt that first time. Some of it has to do with comfort (and joy… comfort and joy!) of knowing what will occur and when. If the wreaths on the door are always the same it’s one less thing for good-meaning folk to debate. There’s something to be said about knowing what to expect when you’re expecting.

We may sing “Come thou, long-expected Jesus” but in spite of the lyrics, we’re singing about a distant baby in a far-off manger and not the Christ who calls us to freedom from fear and the call to work towards God’s kin-dom. Jesus of the cradle is so much easier to worship than the Jesus who walks toward Jerusalem and the Jesus of the cross. We expect the baby to show on Christmas Eve, but not the Rebel Jesus*.

And yet, God surprises us still. May the unexpected show up for us this Advent and Christmas season.

Blessings –


*With many thanks to Jackson Browne for this language, and the incredible song of the same name. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr1d0ivyTTk

For ALL the Saints….

This Sunday is All Saints Sunday.

In preparing to lead worship at one of our churches, my heart is filled with the names and faces of those who have gone before me. The teachers and preachers, grandparents and prophets, friends gone too soon. There are also poets and writers, composers and painters, none of whom I’ve ever met face-to-face but who have impacted my life and touched my soul. There are those saints who have yet to rest from their labors. Colleagues and peers, family and friends, the guy who let me take the choice parking spot at Wegmans even though I’m pretty sure he got there first. 

Presbyterians lean into a theology where all are saints, and all are sinners. There’s no test, no pre-requisite for being named a saint (and some might therefore suggest there is no accounting for taste). We acknowledge all the saints… recognizing that at the same time all are sinners. We therefore have no roster of saints, but a continuum of folks who are continuing the work of discern God’s call. 

Those who know me probably aren’t surprised that I’ve long acknowledged (and at time heartily affirmed) my role as sinner in this world. Somehow, it’s harder for me to claim saintliness. Not because I find it hard to be good (hush!), but because there seems to be inherent responsibility linked to that title. Saints aren’t just good people – they are good because of their connection with God, and their work is to help others make a similar connection. It’s a bit overwhelming, if wonderful.

Saints are those folks at my home church who prepared juice and cookies for the primary choir, or who led the youth group lock-ins. Saints served on the committees that no one wanted to serve on, or who climbed up on the roof to check the shingles. Saints prepared chicken salad in ginormous amounts and taught sign-language to songs. I’ve met saints in subsequent congregations who have ironed the communion cloths for one table and had fed the hungry at another. They’ve visited the sick and bereaved and have faithfully picked up the wreaths for the doors of the church every year. They’ve helped lead worship, and they’ve sat in the pews… and snored in the pews. I can’t possibly be amongst their number, and yet I am. 

We all are. 

Grateful for all the saints – those who rest from their labors, and those who seem to see no end in sight! Grateful for you.

What keeps me awake at night…

The last week or so I’ve been traveling for both work and pleasure. Somewhere between the good conversation and good (okay, incredible) food, I managed a few quick looks at email and social media. Somewhere in the latter I remembered a quip that I cannot find again… but it has continued to wake me up in the middle of the night. 

I can’t attribute it. I can’t quote it exactly, but somehow that doesn’t lessen its power to get under my skin and to agitate my thoughts. I know it resonates with a quote by Antonio Gramsci (Marxist philosopher) but within the context of the church*. 

It’s the sort of statement that makes me think of all the energy we put into established programs, and to mourn our fear to invest in that which is risky. It makes me wonder if our fear of grief (saying goodbye to what is known and uncomfortable) might somehow be transformed into joy for what is awkward and new? I ponder what would happen if the death of time-honored traditions occurred not because we lacked the energy to continue but out of a conscious choice to create space for whatever is next?

It’s the sort of statement that makes me take a hard look at the metrics I use within my own life. Is survival the same as success? Should my life be measured in how many widgets I own, or how many followers I’ve scored? Do we know we are doing it “right” because we have big buildings, budgets, and butts in the pews? Do my metrics stem from my faith or my worry of being measured by the world?

It’s a statement that makes me question the underlying values of the PCUSA, the Presbytery, and our local congregations when we start to talk about how much time we have left. I heard a colleague of another PCUSA governing body speak with concern about an endowment that might only buy them another 13 years at their current draw-down rate. I immediately thought of churches that are measuring their own lives in a fraction of those numbers. 

Neither scenario feels in sync with the One we claim to follow. The One who gave up everything, including his own life.

The Gramsci-ish quip went something like this: The tragedy is not that the church is dying, but that the church isn’t allowed to be born.

If this statement keeps you up at night…. know you have a friend willing to talk about it with you.

*Discovered Gramsci not during my philosophy days at Buffalo State but in the book “White Too Long” by Robert Jones. I did find a reference to Gramsci’s quote in a Presbytery Facebook post and believe it triggered my remembrance of the troubling statement above. (Also happy to talk about this book with anyone interested!)

When to Appreciate

I said I was an ideas person. I didn’t say I was a GOOD ideas person.

Perhaps I would have been better off if I had floated the idea with the good folk at Hallmark. These same folk created Clergy Appreciation Day in 1992… but to their credit, didn’t start selling the associated greeting cards until 2002. Unless you talk with Jerry Frear, Jr., who will also claim founding this day to thank clergy (this after he spent time in prison for fraud associated with his dot-com business).

Should we have a day/month set aside to thank clergy?

There is a sound biblical basis for showing appreciation for one’s pastor. In several of his writings, Paul encourages churches to show respect and to pay those who work hard at preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17) and to allow pastors to do their work with joy (Hebrews 13:17). 

Paul, however, says nothing about a rendering a Starbucks card or providing a cake after worship, nor does he suggest this happen on a particular day.

If you’ve celebrated your pastor this past week (2nd Sunday of October is the official day… although the entire month is designated for Clergy Appreciation) don’t despair. It’s not heresy. In fact, it is kind of… nice. If you’ve not celebrated your pastor (or if you are among those clergy who have not been gifted with a card) that’s okay as well. The truth is that although cake is always appropriate, there are other ways of showing appreciation that don’t cause a sugar-rush:

  1. Observe your pastor’s sabbath time and allow them to keep it holy.
  2. Let them know when a sermon resonated with you.
  3. If your pastor has been with you for six years or more, encourage a sabbatical. The Board of Pensions has just started offering sabbatical grants up to 4K for clergy (including interims!). 
  4. Make sure your pastor has time for the things that bring them joy.

Ultimately, shouldn’t there be a day for everyone? What about Single Parent’s Day, or Food Service Workers Day? Or better yet, perhaps we could show appreciation for all the people we interact with throughout the year by showing them respect and kindness?

Put that on a card, Hallmark!

Death Throws (aka unpacking stuff)

Moving is the only inspirational fodder I have these days. It’s been weeks since I’ve watched a video or read a book, or even knit. Every day is filled with painting walls and unpacking boxes. The latter has been eye-opening.


The first time we moved was a professional job. Burly men gently cradled possessions into stiff boxes which were then moved 400 miles away. I recall the long unpacking period, and the shock at unpacking a box containing the kitchen garbage can… still filled with garbage. 

This time around, we used movers for the heavy stuff. We called in a team of guys the day after the move to haul off the furniture that didn’t make the cut. Most of the boxes we packed and moved ourselves.

My ritual of unpacking a box begins with seeing if the person who packed it was gracious enough to give a nod to its contents (I need to add here that Bill religiously marks the boxes. The lettering may be illegible, but they are marked!) The rite continues with removing item by item and either putting the object where it belongs or staring at it wondering why on earth it had been packed in the first place. 

Why would I pack dry erase markers for a board that had been discarded AND that were also dried up and no longer usable? Those markers were packed into a box (purchased!), and then carried that box to the new place (gasoline!)… to toss it. It ends up in the same landfill, but after costing precious time, money, and mental angst. Everything is dust, says the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Obviously, the author of that text must have moved frequently.

I know why I keep things. I might need them. They bring lovely memories of another time. They make me feel like I am prepared. They comfort me.

There are multiple organizational books out there, from Marie Kondo’s advice to keep only what you love to Swedish Death Cleaning (it’s a thing. Honest!). The presence of these on bookstore shelves attest to the difficulty we have in tossing stuff. Churches are notoriously bad at this. Every church I’ve served has at least one closet (room, garage, basement) loaded with stuff that should have been discarded years ago. Every church I’ve served has a calendar that deserves the same treatment.

Of course, churches don’t move all that often. There are exceptions to that rule (looking at you, South Valley, Arlington, and Kenmore Pres!) but in general, we hold our rituals in the same place as our fore-parents. We do so for the same reasons we keep our stuff… memories are triggered, and we are comforted.

Two and a half years ago, the Church moved in a significant way. We moved online and into people’s living spaces. We may not have taken the time to critically eye the contents of our boxes. Now that we’re back in the space where we know comfort, there’s likely even less desire to see what in those boxes should be tossed.

I’ve stated previously that I don’t know what God has next for the church. I do know that God continues to be in the middle of everything, and trust that regardless of the effectiveness of our churches… God will continue to be God. 

I’m less convinced that God will use the stuff we’ve had in the back of that Sunday School closet (or the annual ‘whatever’ that no one has a passion for anymore) to move hearts. I’m also not convinced that holding on to anything makes us nimble enough for whatever our next Call is. What I do know is that a whole bunch of energy is being expended on holding on… to dust.

Do be do be do…

Poor Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy features the Prince of Denmark contemplating death and suicide. He compares the nobility of hanging in there as opposed to a quick (merciful?) death. His quandary is due in part to not being certain of what happens after death*. Regardless, he sees the option as either one thing or the other. To be, or not to be. That, he believes, is the question.

To be, or not to be…

Either black or white. Either death now, or death later. 

As congregations see a steady drop in membership and a steady rise in the average age of members, Hamlet’s question is whispered in coffee hour and in the parking lot after Session. 

To be? Or not to be? It’s a false dichotomy. Let me fix it:

To be, or not to be… or to become.

As people of the Resurrected Christ our options are never limited to death now or later. As those who worship the One who destroyed the sting of death itself, the question cannot be one of when to die, but rather how we choose to live.

Churches DO close their doors. However, there is a difference in whether a congregation simply waits out the inevitable or chooses a legacy that continues the gift of that congregation. The difference isn’t just semantics. It’s intent.

Consider the following examples:

Saints Preserved Presbyterian intends to continue “to be” and has focused all its energy on their building and the care of the existing congregation. They have partnered with a childcare center that will provide much needed funds to pay their bills. They will continue in this fashion until the last member turns off the light.

Saints Alive Presbyterian intends to become a new creation. They have decided to work with the presbytery to sell the building to a group that will provide an entrepreneurial kitchen for folks in the community as well as an adult day care facility. Following the sale of the building, Members have agreed to meet monthly for coffee but to also channel their energy into other local congregations.

Both churches close their doors. In the second example, the church and congregation are not dead but rather live on in a new way, and with new purpose. They have become a new creation.

Everyone dies in Hamlet. Only Horatio lives to tell the story. In the first Act (and in apparent contrast to the black and white philosophy offered by Hamlet in his great soliloquy) Hamlet says to Horatio: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Where is the church headed? God only knows. Fortunately, we believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can begin to imagine as God creates a new creation in our midst. Our work is to discern how God is calling us to partner in that work.

* Shakespeare may be commenting on the Reformation here – does purgatory exist, or do the reformers have it right? His interaction with Ghost (his father?) suggests the former, but as a student at Wittenberg he was likely taught Protestant theology. Don’t you love trying to read stuff in context? (Yes, I am a geek).

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.