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The Bestest!!

What do you do “bestest”?

I’m a beast at knitting, and love to sing and enjoy a bit of writing as well.  I’m second-best at all sorts of other things, and the list of things I cannot do (hello, mathematics!) is long.  But knitting?  I’m confident in my ability to knit.

(Not a Participation Trophy)

Churches have a list of things they excel at as well.  This season of isolation has challenged many of our congregations, because often what they do best is what they do together.  From Sunday morning worship to fellowship; to bringing food to those who grieve and that authoritative thwack of the serving spoon at potlucks – all these things we do “bestest”, and we do them together.

So when the Governor says we can’t gather together again until late June at the earliest… we grieve because this is what we do, and we do it well.

Who are we, if not the gathered body of Christ?

How long can we maintain social isolation from each other, and still be the body of Christ?

Who are we, if we cannot do what we do well?

I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves to discover what we do “second-bestest”?  Fodder for this might be found in remembering the Great Ends of the Church.

The great ends of the Church are: 

  • 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.

What’s interesting to me is that this list is not ranked in order of priority (there is no “bestest” as it were)… and yet I believe many of our congregations have placed a high priority on the top three or four.  It makes me wonder what our congregations might look like if we began to focus on strengthening the other areas that identify to the church.  What might the world look like if we emerged from this time of social isolation being able to claim that what we do best is the promotion of social righteousness… or we excelled at being an exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world? 

Please note, this doesn’t mean abandoning what we do well.  We need to continue to do that as this season continues as best as we are able… but we might discover our faith deepens as individuals and as congregations as we embrace more fully the other Great Ends.

In Christ,

Karen

The Mermaid’s Tale

In the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Little Mermaid (not to be confused with its Disneyesque counterpart), the little mermaid forfeits her life under the sea for one on land.  She is promised not only two legs, but also the possibility of an eternal soul should the prince fall in love with her.  She’s warned that if the prince should marry another, she will instantly die of a broken heart and turn to sea foam.

The cost for this promise: Her voice and her ability to sing.

I’ve made this deal.  

In May of 1993 I suffered damage to my vocal chords during a failed external cephalic version (an attempt to turn an upside-down and backwards daughter in utero in order to avoid a c-section).  I screamed throughout the entire process.  I have no idea if the medical folk every regained hearing (I’m a trained soprano)… but I lost three of my four octaves and didn’t claim them again for years.  

Not being able to sing, especially in worship, was emotionally and spiritually painful but the resulting gift of my daughter was worth everything.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat for her.  


Losing my voice to gain a life?  Absolutely, if painful and heart-wrenching.

**

In the original version of the Little Mermaid, the prince marries another.  Just before dawn the next day and her dissolution into seafoam, the mermaid is told that if she kills the prince who betrayed her love with a special knife and allows his blood to drip into the sea, she will regain her mermaid form and will live out her remaining years with her family.  

This too is a familiar choice.

As congregations around the world determine if they will gather in worship, and gather voices in song they are making a similar choice. We can go back to singing, go back to our old forms of worship with one another.  We can ignore the warnings about the effectiveness of singing in spreading the virus and belt out beloved hymns.  We can make the choice to return to the sea in our original form and rejoin our family.

Of course, the difference in our story and that of the little mermaid is we don’t have the option of determining who might die from that choice.

**

In the end, she can’t do it.  Dawn comes, and instead of dissolving into seafoam she is transformed into a Daughter of the Air because of her selflessness.  She is told that if she does good deeds for the next 300 years she will be given an immortal soul and go to heaven.

Now, obviously, this isn’t gospel.  It’s also not Disney.  It does, however, provide a cautionary tale on the choices we make and the sacrifices we may need to consider in order that others might live.

It might be Gospel after all.

We can’t go back.

This is the dangerous time.

If we as a society move too quickly, we’ll need to return to our isolation because the virus has regained a foothold.  This is a dangerous time because we’re itchy to get back to our lives and our jobs and our churches and to get on with all of our plans.  (We’re even willing to go to extremes of personal sacrifice, say, giving up sitting in OUR pews, if only we can come together again.)  We need to move slowly and deliberately even as we deeply desire to reopen our lives.

This is the dangerous time… but not just because we may rekindle the rate of infections and deaths.

This is a dangerous time because we desire to go back to a place and time that no longer exists.

We’re anxious and impatient.  Like the Hebrews fleeing Egypt, we are tired of waiting in lines at Wegmans for manna and want to go back to normal.  We want to go back to Egypt – to what was familiar and known – and we’re bitter and discouraged toward any leadership that suggests we can’t do that tomorrow.

We can’t do that.  Ever.  You know that.  Things cannot be the same. 

I’m not suggesting we are heading to a new Promised Land.  We are, however, heading somewhere new, and there is a promise – but that promise isn’t about the land but about Who is with us.

The church has struggled with the burden of its glorious history and traditions for years.  This is nothing new.  

What is new is that we’ve been the Church without Walls for a few months now and what we really value has become clearer.  We’ve learned a bit about who we really are, as well as what we are not.

What is new is that the needs of the community outside our walls (what walls?) have changed to include extensive unemployment and pervasive trauma. 

What is new is we have discovered that we are far more flexible than we thought, and that this new world needs us to proclaim the transformative love of Jesus Christ in new ways.

Dangerous times indeed… especially if we try to return to what was.

The Parable of the Toaster

I’ve been reading good theologians and social scientists that are urging the global “us” to consider if we want to return to a normal that in many ways is unjust.  In so many ways, “back to normal” runs a parallel course with “great again”, and it ought to give us pause.  Certainly, as we reconstruct our world post-pandemic shouldn’t we make it a place where we pay attention to the effects of climate change as well as systemic racist and make the needed changes?

I’m on board. There’s no need to convince me that this is a turning point for all of us.

And, I’m exhausted.

It’s not just the work of resourcing others (I now wear my Resource Presbyter title with newfound understanding, as well as a amazement at the prescience of the Presbytery!), but multiple levels of grief.  Trauma, which we are suffering on a global scale, requires a tremendous amount of energy.

My body and spirit feel a bit like an old house where I’ve tried to plug in the hair dryer, toaster and coffee maker at the same time.  Ever the Energizer Bunny sort, this is a new experience for me.  I don’t like it one bit.

I also don’t like the idea of simply going back to what was, and pretending that we haven’t seen the impact of corporate greed or the sight of the Andes mountains now that the smog has cleared.

So, what’s someone who is tired of the injustice but also bone-tired to do?

I unplug the toaster: I begin (I think!) by practicing what I preach, and making sure I spend time at deliberate rest.  I return to the Well of the various spiritual disciplines.  I spend time outdoors.  I spend time being creative.

I evaluate if I really need the toaster in the first place: I believe the next steps include starting small…. “let peace begin with me” and all of that.  If I’m not willing to engage in my own audit of how I spend my resources, it becomes much more difficult to ask others to do so. 

I find ways of tapping into the energy of others… as well as sharing what I have so that all might have toast: I need to acknowledge that although my energy is needed toward the rebuilding, it doesn’t rest on me alone.  I need to seek out those who share similar vision (as well as those who poke me a bit!).  I also need to lean in a bit on the Source of all that energy.  

How are you planning on finding the energy to do what is just and right?

So What?

During this season of exile from the ordinary activities that define us ‘church’, we’ve scrambled to become adept at camera angles and green screens.  For many, much has remained the same, it’s just the trappings that have changed.  We’re finding new patterns and traditions.  We find ourselves adapting, even as we long to get back to normal.

Is that what we should be longing for?  

Actual Desk Footage!

Is that God’s desire… that we go back to what was?

Decades ago I took the advice of preaching professor Fred Craddock and crafted a small sign for my desk out of an index card.  I’ve never made a permanent sign… it’s always been my generally unreadable scrawl on a scrap of paper or a post it note. Every so often it will fall and get lost in the shuffle of my desk, but I’ve never been tempted to make it permanent.  There is something about realizing it has gone missing and then recreating it… somehow ritually rededicating myself to its exhortation in doing so.

In two words it provides me a much-needed focus for my own sermon work.  It simply reads:  So what?  Useful for the preacher, but it’s also become a bit of a mantra for the rest of my life as well.  

This global pandemic is a grand “so what?” moment for the church (the effects will last far longer than a moment) especially if we ask this question not of ourselves, but of God.

Things will never be the same, nor should they.  

What happens next in our churches, communities and in our own lives should be based not on what was normal for us, but rather on discerning where God is calling us now as those who bear witness to the transformative love of Jesus Christ.

Blessings –

Karen

Plate-spinning

I think the first time I ever saw plate-spinning was on the Mike Douglas show.  (Hush, I know I’m old).  I was convinced there was some sort of gimmick – perhaps a small nail that protruded from the stick into the plate? – that allowed multiple plates to be spun at the same time.

When I got a bit older I learned this was called “adulting”.

Congregational leaders have not only needed to learn new technology and language (zoombombing anyone?) in order for folks to still gather for worship but there are several other plates they’ve needed to keep spinning over the last month.  Church leaders have learned how to grieve with families who have lost loved ones (or employment, or dreams) via the phone.  They’ve studied the intricacies of the CARES act and have had debates about the ethics of such.  They’ve searched for ways to connect beyond physical coffee hour and years-old phone trees.

Those plates?  Worship, Congregational Care and Finance? They are spinning like crazy.

The name of the fourth plate is “Unknown” and it represents all the anxiety and hope and worry and concern about what comes next for the church.  We claim to know Whose we are… but who are we now that we are not the church on the corner that is known for their choir, great preaching and peach preserves?

These are the four plates the church will be spinning for the foreseeable future.  

The good news is that these are four plates, and not the four horsemen.  This is not the end of the Church, although it may be the end of the church we have known.  

The good news is we are finding that we are so much more adaptive than we could have dreamed and that we have creativity and persistence cropping up in the most unlikely ways and places.  

The good news is that we aren’t doing this alone.  We have each other (what an incredible time to be the connectional church!) and we have our God.  

What is the sound of four plates spinning?  For me, at least today, it sounds like hope.

Abiding at the Table together

Tonight let us gather and tell the story to one another; the story of Passover intermingled with the story of friends gathered and betrayal and denial.  Let us tell the story that begins with bread and cup and ends with sleepy disciples and the Judas kiss.   

We will come together, not in spaces set aside for worship, but in the sanctuary of our own homes – at kitchen tables, computer desks and comfy chairs to break bread and drink from a common cup.  For some, our gathering will be facilitated by the connectivity provided by the Internet, but the real connection existed long before the computer.  It’s communion, after all.  (We may fuss about the theology of it all, but the Spirit’s got this.  The Spirit’s got us.  Together, we abide in God.)

So let us break bread together.  Let us drink the fruit of the vine together.  Yes, we are physically separate at this time and place, but that never stopped the Great Cloud of Witnesses from gathering with us at the Table.

Let us participate in this supper tonight as an act of defiance against all the things that keep us apart – not just social distancing, but also all the other things that keep us from being distant from one another.

Jesus said “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Tonight we abide in Jesus, together.

Tomorrow is another day.

Sunday is coming.

Un/Familiar territory

We’ve been here before.

Oh, the terrain is a bit different and certainly some of the obstacles are new, but this isn’t exactly unfamiliar ground.  We can’t gather together… that’s a bit new.  We can’t bring casseroles and share hugs of comfort.  We can’t sit shiva with each other or hold hands in prayer.  It’s different, but it’s not new.  We’ve been in this dark valley before.

This is why we’ve told the stories from one generation to the next –

Stories of Exile.  

Stories of the Passover told around the family table. 

Stories of the disciples in disarray and despair following the crucifixion.

Stories of the early followers of Jesus meeting together in spite of the fear of persecution.

Stories of the Great Depression.

Stories of victory gardens and air raids.

We’ve been in this dark valley before.

We respond… with courage and creativity and a new openness to being adaptive.

We respond… with a sense that we are in this together, even as we must remain physically separate.

We respond… with hope.  Even though we know the worst is yet to come, we know how this story ends.  Easter follows Good Friday.  We’ve read the end of the Book.  

Love Wins.

We’ve been in this dark valley before.

And just like before, God is with us.  Our Rock and our Redeemer.

I call Poppycock.

Easter Sunday isn’t about a full church.

It’s about an empty tomb.

For far too long the Church has been co-opted into the belief that more is better.  We have been guiled into following the metrics of society in attempting to identify what has value, and that value is based on what is bigger.   A close sibling of this way of measuring worth is the prosperity gospel: if you are blessed, you are rich.

I call…. poppycock.

Is it a wonderful thing on Easter morning to see the church filled with folks in their finery – new hats and spiffed up shoes?  Is that morning made beautiful with lilies and trumpets and the congregation bellowing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today?”

Absolutely.

But that isn’t the goal of Easter, but the byproduct of the empty tomb.  

It is helpful to remember that the One who occupied that tomb, who lives and reigns forever and ever, is the same One who told us: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Let this Easter not be about a full church.

Let it be full of compassion for the least of these: consider how you might reach out to those in need at this time of fear and dis-ease.

Let it be full of forgiveness:  use this time of isolation to reach out to those who have wronged you, and those whom you have wronged.  Find ways to forgive and to be forgiven.

Let it be full of justice and mercy: pay attention to those who are wronged by the systems that are in place and use what privilege you have to work toward justice.  Write.  Call.  Connect with those who are making a difference.

Let it be full of hope.

Confused Cats

My cat is confused.  Although I’m often working from home, my spouse is usually at work.  These last few days he’s been home.  The cat seems content enough – the birds have begun to sing again, and neighbors still walk their dogs outside our window (for his amusement), but there is confusion in that furry little brain.

I get it.  I’ll confess to some confusion myself.  This all seems so surreal. 

My news feed is filled with numbers of tested, and the numbers who have died; borders closed and shops shuttered.  I hear that life will be ‘disrupted’ for months.  The situation is more than fluid – it is torrential.  It feels sometimes like a swift-running current that will sweep us all away.  

For this moment I’ve chosen to focus on the things that haven’t changed.  

We still have one another.  This new reality provokes us to find new ways of connecting with each other – keeping a physical distance has increased the urgency to be more deliberate in our connections.  I take heart in hearing how church folks are checking in with one another, and how the role of Deacon is one we’ve all begun to claim.

We still have the church.  For decades the focus of being the church has been morning worship, but in this new reality we’re finding not just other ways of worshipping… but also new ways of being the community of faith.  Churches are reaching out to their community to find ways of providing food for school children, and extending the support network for seniors.

We have God.  My prayers have been filled with descriptors like Rock, Fortress, Redeemer, Immutable, Refuge and Strength, Unchanging, El Shaddai (evoking mountains), Alpha and Omega, Everlasting One… for if the change around us is torrential I need to remember the One who is my foundation.  Our foundation.

If there is any way that I can help you navigate these waters… please do not hesitate to reach out.  We’ve always been in this together (that has not changed!) but the reality of those words seems somehow more vital and more true today.

Praying for us all…

Karen