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Ecclesiastical Misconception #3

We are just about halfway through Eastertide and an exploration of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve been focusing on some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the church. Today’s misconception?

#3: VALUES MAY NOT CHANGE, BUT WHAT IS VALUED DOES

I have a few memories of my great-grandparents. Charles and Minnie McLaughlin lived in Buffalo and married at the turn of the last century. He was an electrician, as were almost all of the McLaughlin men who followed. I remember his stamp collection and how Great-Grandma made him keep his limburger cheese in the basement. I treasure this “running light” from his Pierce Arrow car – a light that my dad retrofitted at one point into a sconce for our kitchen. At some point I’ll continue the tradition of futzing with it and rig it with LED lights so we can hang it on our off-grid cabin up north.

I love showing it to folks and asking them what they think it is… and thus far, everyone has been surprised to learn it’s an auto part. I keep it, not because it’s cool (although it is!) but because it reminds me of the relationship I had with this man who smelled of limburger cheese.

Here’s the hard part. When I die, that light is not coming with me.

What’s even harder is that when I’m gone, I’m pretty certain this funky hunk of brass and glass will end up on eBay.

You see, my daughter has no connection to this oddity of mine because she never knew her great-great-grandfather except through my stories of him. She’s engaged in gathering her own stories and mementos, and to ask her to carry this after I’m gone devalues the reason I’ve kept it. I hold on to it because it reminds me of a treasured relationship, not because it has much intrinsic value.

Organizations have similar challenges. We have traditions that have created relationships of deep value… and when there is no one to continue the tradition, we feel grief. When I’ve spoken with folks about why they value these traditions, it is always about the herculean tasks that were accomplished in uniting for a common purpose and the relationships that were formed. The stories they tell are about the people who were engaged in the activity and the joy that comes from serving together.

When the next generation isn’t willing to pick up our treasured traditions, it’s not because those traditions didn’t have value but because some of what was valued cannot be transmitted to those who follow us. We share the same values (meaningful relationships, communal activities that create change, etc.) but that is no guarantee that we will treasure the same expressions of those values. In the end, I want the next generations to experience the relational aspects of being in community with one another and in relationship to God… but I’ve come to realize that doesn’t mean they will do the same things in order to get there. 

The hardest part of all of this is understanding that our very way of doing church may be like my great-grandfather’s running light. Oh, it can be updated and rewired for a bit, but at some point, it loses its meaning.

Jesus said he would build his church and not even the gates of hell could stand against it… but I’m starting to understand that church may be very different than the church that I’ve helped to build. And so, for now, I’ll continue to dust the lamp and remember the smell of limburger cheese and wonder in both grief and amazement at the church-yet-to-be.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #2

The season of Easter (it’s not just one day!) continues, as does an exploration into the world of ecclesiology – or the study of the church. I’ve chosen to use these great fifty days to explore some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the current church. Last week’s misconception focused on our perceived need for young folks. Today’s misconception?

#2: THE MYTH OF SUSTAINABILITY

I’m sitting at the Session table of the Saints Preserved Church and they are discussing the budget. From the looks around the table, they’ve done this dance before. Shoulders slump, fingers doodle and no one looks anyone else in the eye. Finally, someone gathers up their courage and puts “that which shall not be discussed” on the table. They need to make changes, because their current ministry model is not sustainable.

The silence is deafening. 

The silence is defeating.

This is what ultimately happens when we worship sustainability.

When we hold on to the myth of sustainability, we ask the wrong questions. We query whether there will be enough funding (or people) to continue a task and our concerns center around existing programming and projects (with a few bright exceptions). We wonder if we can sustain that which we have come to value.

Something different happens when we switch our focus from how to sustain current ministry to questioning if this is the ministry we’re called to do in this time and place. 

We focus on sustainability because to question whether or not we’re doing the work God wants us to do is a far harder path. It’s more difficult because it demands we get our own notions and priorities out of the way and we intuit that the answer we hear may ask much of us. Our first question needs to be if God is asking us to do something, with the follow-up questions then become those of implementation.

For those of us with business acumen, this makes absolutely no sense. For anyone who has attempted to establish a budget or plan a building project this is utter nonsense. You begin with what assets you have in hand and then strategize what you can do. This way of doing our work together may seem backward, until we remember that it’s not our work that we are doing.

I’m sitting at the Session table of the Disciples of Jesus and they are discussing his upcoming ride into Jerusalem as well as his death. They argue that his plan is not sustainable. They are correct. There is nothing about the cross that is sustainable. It is foolishness. 

Let’s ask the harder questions. Let’s pick up our own cross and follow on this seemingly unsustainable journey. Let us be fools for Christ.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #1

Eastertide has begun. The Great Fifty Days, that season between Easter and Pentecost was used by the early church as a way of continuing the faith formation of new Christians. The common lectionary turns to the Book of Acts where we read the stories of those first followers of the Risen Christ. It’s a great time (see what I did there?) to talk about the theology of the church!

In that spirit, over these fifty days let’s explore great myths and misconceptions of the modern church:

#1: OUR CHURCH NEEDS YOUNG FAMILIES/YOUNG PEOPLE

Rural, urban, suburban; tiny churches to cathedral status; this is a central worrying theme. It often comes up when churches are in pastoral transition (we need a nice young pastor who can bring in the young families) and when churches want to talk about transformation. 

Diving deeper into the conversation, I’ll hear concern about the future of the church without the presence of younger folks. The old pattern of adult children returning to church after their children have been baptized is no longer true. For the first time in a century, the proportion of Americans who are church members is below 50%.

The response is the same – our church needs young families/young people!

We need them because who will do the work of the church when we’re gone?

We need them because financially this model of doing ministry is unsustainable.

We need them because it causes us grief to think that something that has had such meaning in our lives is not valued in the same way.

We. Need. Them.

There’s a shift here in the theology of the church (still rocking that Great Fifty Days theme of ecclesiology). Can you see it? 

At some point the mission of the church became more about sustaining itself than bringing the transformative love of Jesus Christ to others. Less delicately, at some point in our history we began to focus on our needs, as opposed to the needs of the world (or in this case, the needs of young families).

Now, I know that many churches do a world of good and are wonderful places for folks to grow deeper in their faith. I’m grateful for the church in all its forms and expressions and would not be who I am if it weren’t for the presence of congregations that cared deeply for me and helped shape me in the faith. They did so not because I was a commodity to be invested in but because they had something to offer me: incredible and amazing grace.

What if instead of “OUR CHURCH NEEDS….” we were to consider in what ways young families might need a congregation to sustain them? How can we show young people that incredible grace and love without any expectation of future gain on our part? The early church reached out to folks of various ages and backgrounds not because the church needed them… but because they understood that they had something of incredible value they could offer the world. 

We need to do the same.

Tears for Gears

My personal truth regarding automobiles is that the purpose of a car is to get me from here… to there. It doesn’t need to be fancy. I don’t need all the newest gadgets, nor do I want my car to actually do the driving. I’m pretty content with anything with four wheels (and yes, thank you, I can drive a “stick”). So when I found myself this past week sobbing after returning our Camry Hybrid to the dealer because the lease had expired… well, that suggested I needed a moment or two of introspection.

Was it the heated seats? The Bluetooth ability? The moonroof? Either I was getting soft on cars… or this represented something more. 

We leased the car when we were living in the DC area and having a hybrid while driving the infamous beltway with all of its stops and starts made sense. With each tap of the brake my car actually MADE energy. I spent hours in that car getting nowhere, which meant leasing was a solid option. All those bells and whistles made for a lovely mobile office with great gas mileage. 

Oh, the places you’ll go, quipped Dr. Seuss. Or not. This past year I’ve put hardly any miles on it. Perhaps those tears weren’t about a car?

We’ve all shed tears: tears for the memories of a previous life and tears for missed opportunities in a year of pandemic. 

We’ve shed tears for those we’ve lost as well as what we’ve lost. 

We’ve shed tears for a changed world.

We’ve shed tears as injustice after injustice against our siblings were laid bare, and we discovered how much we were a part of sustaining that evil.

We’ve shed tears as we’ve realized our communities will never be the same, and that those small things we’ve held precious are no longer available.

For all the weariness and grief of this year… tears have flowed.

So, yes. I cried for my car and all it represented. It’s not the silliest thing I ever done, nor the most profound. And I know that we, as the church, will be tearful over small things and large as this world continues to change. We’ll shed tears in the same way that we cried at the cross and join those who for centuries have wept at the tomb… wondering how life can continue and somehow forgetting that in order to be people of the resurrection at first there will be tears.

Easter morning dawns amidst that great unspeakable sadness. 

Our tears, all our tears, are gone with the first whisper of the morning that Christ has risen. Risen indeed. Alleluia.

So we do not lose heart.

As we begin the slow spiral out of this pandemic, there is talk about the light growing at the end of the tunnel. Scientists waffle between hopeful glee and stern reminders of variants and masks and the need to keep washing our hands (I’d hope the latter was in place prior to the pandemic!). Spring is in the air, it seems, and hope has begun to set its roots.

Hope is such an odd thing, isn’t it? There are times when it is so fragile, and the slightest challenge makes it wither, but there are other times that it acts as a propellant – a strong wind moving us forward when we should have long given up.

Hope and Faith are different, and yet closely woven together. In my old philosophy days (folks who major in philosophy often become lawyers, pastors, cynics or some combination of the above) I remember studying several treaties on the differences of the two. Realizing this is a conversation best held in a pub or in a pew, let’s take a crack at it anyway!

Faith seems to be more grounded in trust that something or someone is true whereas hope is more future-oriented (however hope is built upon the foundation of faith). Examples may be helpful here:

  • I have faith in God, and hope for the future.
  • I have faith that good people have used their God-given gifts and training to develop vaccines and hope that we will work together to stem the tide of this pandemic.
  • I have faith in the many gifts and passions of those in leadership in this Presbytery, and hope for a future where we work together to build the kin-dom of God.

If you find this sort of thing fascinating, you too might have a future as a philosopher (or lawyer, pastor or cynic). Regardless, you might find these distinctions helpful as we continue the climb out of this pandemic because hope is both a fragile thing and a gale-force wind. 

The next stage of this pandemic will be challenging for us as individuals and as the church. It’s beginning to look like many of our members may not return to church even after the masks can come off. Some of the groups that utilize our buildings may cease to meet. The pandemic has sped up the movement toward a post-church society. 

We may feel the hope sucked out of us…. until we remember our faith.

Paul puts it this way: “So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.” (2 Cor 4: The Message)

It’s time to look deeper than buildings and programs… time to remember our identity is not wrapped up in the numbers game… time to recall those things we cannot see, which will last forever.

It’s time to really BE the church.

Our Calling.

Presbyterians lean heavy on the theology of vocation – that understanding that all of us are called by God to certain work. Clergy are “called” to ministry (and then to individual situations which are even called, well, “Calls”) but we believe that nurses, landscapers, librarians, parents… everyone has a calling. Frederic Buechner put it this way: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”

I think organizations, like churches, also have callings.

We might try to summarize that call as a “mission statement” or a list of activities or services that we provide to members and others, but what we’re really talking about is organizational vocation.

Sometimes our organizational calling is obvious. I know of a small church that is famous for their potlucks as well as their food program. They delight in providing this hospitality for any and for all… and also offer an incredible selection (especially given their size!) of spiritual formation classes for all ages. When I sat with one of the matriarchs of the church and asked about their corporate vocation, she simply said: “I guess we believe in feeding people”.

“We feed people”. 

What a great statement of vocation. It’s not loaded with fancy theological phrases, nor does it take up half a page to say what is at the crux of their mission. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually… they FEED people. The wonderful thing about this congregation is that if you were to ask folks in the community around this church, you’d find agreement: this church DOES feed folks.

As we begin to enter the next stage of this pandemic – as we begin to re-enter our churches and repopulate our schedules with activities, consider what it says about your mission in the community. Are you putting your talents and energy into those places where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need? Would those outside your walls agree with that assessment?

These next few months are a gift in that they provide us with the opportunity to choose what we will pick back up, and what we will allow to let fall. We know we can’t go back to what was… but we can be deliberate and faithful in discerning who we will be (and Whose we will be).

Who is God calling us to be at this moment, and in this new context?

Soon!

Rarely does March truly begin like a lion, but this year’s wind brings with it such promise for what is to come.

This weekend begins a new year of germination experimentation (for those keeping track, last year’s tomatoes were stellar, the peppers were not so hot). I’ve also managed to find my hummingbird feeder and have tracked down my feathered friends expected migratory arrival. I’ll begin planning when to direct sow in my patio planters – and this year will begin to focus on the garden at camp. 

This is the hope that is March. This year that hope is magnified by the images of folks getting vaccinated and colors on a map shifting from red to yellow. Longings that I’ve been able to keep at bay this past year push at my heart – soon, I tell myself, SOON! Soon I will be able to hug my parents and belt out hymns. Soon I will be able to meet folks over coffee and belt out hymns (can you tell I miss singing in church?).

But soon is not yet, at least not for me.

The timing of “soon” is a difficult one and needs to be based not on our impatience or the intolerance of others, but on reason.

Planting those peppers too early does not result in earlier peppers (trust me on this) and placing the hummingbird feeder out in March won’t magically draw those birds further north. Remember that the verse “For everything there is a season and a time and purpose under heaven” comes from a section of the Bible we refer to as Wisdom literature and at this time we would be wise to heed it.

“Soon” is not only vague and subjective but also highly contextual. We’ve all got a different vibe and a different sense of when it is appropriate to launch re-entry. Should the rate of vaccinations continue to increase, and we get ahead of the introduction of variants of the virus, well, “soon” may come… sooner. We’ve still got a couple of weeks before that information becomes solid enough to work with. Still, at some point the risk will be low enough for us to return to our churches and meetings over coffee. 

Until then, there are three types of discussions we need to have at this time. 

  • Decide what “soon” looks like (and how fact and reason drive that decision) as well as the different stages of soon. Singing will need to come later. 
  • Determine what may trigger the dreaded return to online-only worship. Seriously. Do this. I pray we won’t need it, but if we do, you’ll be happy you prepared for it.
  • Discern where God is calling your congregation to ministry in this new season and don’t assume it is the same as it was prior to the pandemic!

I’ll be hosting a Salon* on March 22nd at noon for folks (not just clergy!) who want to discuss the impact of the pandemic on our congregations and future ministry. We’ll look at what some folks who track trends are saying and then move to a conversation about how to respond. It’s one way to begin tackling that third question, and I invite you to some creative exploration of that work!

March winds blow in the promise of spring after what feels like a year of winter. Can you feel it in the air? 

Soon, my friends. Soon.

*an informal gathering usually held with harpsichord music and sherry… but given the circumstances will be held via Zoom.

The mustache of hope.

This is my husband sporting his “mustache of hope”.

Normally a beard and ‘stache kind of guy, Bill agreed to adapt his facial hair for his role as Horace Vandergeld in “The Matchmaker”. CNY Playhouse was able to stage only one weekend of the show due to coronavirus, but the cast was encouraged to continue practicing their lines with the hope that at some point they’d be able to complete their run of the show. Bill took this as his cue to continue his “lip caterpillar”.

The mustache of hope was born.

Earlier this week the spouse and I have talked about the mustache (which as you can see had its own zip code) and our daughter’s upcoming wedding and had come to the agreement that he would shave it prior to the wedding. Understandably this decision came with great sadness. This mustache was far more than facial hair, it was a reminder of the joy and hard work that were part of pulling together a production with colleagues. It was a hairy symbol of hope. 

Yesterday we learned that a fellow cast member had just died of COVID.

It was a terrible reminder that this virus is not just a long intermission before life returns to normal. This pandemic has forever changed their families, churches and theaters as we mourn the loss of over 500,000 lives. 

Life cannot be what it was…..as much as we might hope for it. 

It can, however, be something worth hoping for, and so, we do not lose heart. 

Prayers for us all as we negotiate these difficult times.

Lent in a Year of Sacrifice

I write this the morning of Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent. The jokes about giving up watermelon during this season seem less funny than they did last year. Somehow recycling New Year’s resolutions as Lenten disciplines doesn’t have the same allure. Perhaps this year we’ve seen enough sacrifice and reminders of our own mortality to last us several years of Lenten practice.

For many of us Lenten sacrifices have been… sustainable. It’s rather odd considering that at the end of this season we share the story of Jesus whose sacrifice was the antithesis of sustainability. Oh, I know that the forty days of Lent mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, but we also weave in the story of Holy Week into our Lenten observations. It’s not just forty days of Jesus being hungry enough to be tempted to turn rocks into bread: this wandering eventually leads to Jerusalem and the cross. 

We know what happens the Sunday after that Good Friday – which may allow us to gloss over the sheer magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. I’ve wondered in previous years if the knowledge of imminence of Easter means that we don’t feel the need to literally pick up our own cross and follow in those footsteps. Why sacrifice when you know it all works out in the end?

This year, however, seems different.

This year the sacrifices leading up to this holy season have been significant. Not all have lost family or friends to the pandemic, but we’ve all lost the ability to gather casually and to hold one another close. Talking about giving up chocolate (or watermelon) seems to trivialize those who have said goodbye to dying loved ones via Zoom. Pointing to a year without indoor dining or having to share cramped home quarters with a newly minted “work at home” spouse as sacrificial acts minimizes the sacrifices of others who have had to negotiate far more challenging situations.

Lent is weird this year, and yet the story leading to Jerusalem and the cross remains the same.

I’m not sure what comes next for us… or for the church. What I do know is that sacrifice doesn’t look the same this Lenten season and it somehow parallels the call to risk everything for the Gospel. In the midst of a year of discomfort and grief the thought of entering into six weeks of focusing on discipline and sacrifice seems daunting at best. And yet, deep within my soul there is a hunger for this work and not just because Easter is at the end of it.

It feels like this is the work we are meant to do.

Of Productivity and Dust

Next week we mark the beginning of Lent with ashes on our foreheads and the words reminding us of our dustiness in our hearts. Those words resonate this year more than others – and not only because of the number of lives lost due to COVID; they serve as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of our lives.

Early last fall I quoted Dr. Aisha Ahmad who offered a helpful observation about how individuals in disaster zones hit THE WALL at around six months. The idea was that this somewhat sudden inability to work, play or even cope was normal. Her prescription for this was to not attempt to push through, but to rest with the knowledge that THE WALL was temporary.

That was six months ago. Which suggests… we’re due.

Her more recent tweets (yes, I’ve become a fangirl) offer a slightly different reflection this time around. She points to how her university offered a “pandemic productivity” seminar which was then cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances”. She then proceeds to critique the culture of productivity during a pandemic.

Dr. Ahmad’s theory is that we’re all living in this “uncertainty vortex with a thousand moving variables that affect what we can and cannot do each day”. This high rate of variability means that there are days when we have the illusion that we’ve got this. We can be highly productive, forward-moving individuals (and dare I say churches?) in spite of a global pandemic: We are WINNING at this. Of course, variability being what it is, there are also days when we can’t find our way off the couch.

Ahmad suggests that there are no “tips and tricks” to work under the level of uncertainty that we are all dealing with. She also points out that being productive in these circumstances is less about merit than it is about privilege. 

Her words are akin to a thumb placing ashes on my forehead reminding me that I am dust.

We’ve talked ourselves into believing that that being unproductive during a season marked with death is some sort of moral failure. It’s this sort of theological trap that makes us believe that those who succeed in life (an in a pandemic) are those who have been blessed by God. It’s the other side of the prosperity gospel – two sides of a very ugly coin. 

Perhaps as we move into Lent we might take on the discipline of accepting grace. What you can and cannot accomplish during this time is no indicator of your worth: you are not the sum total of what you are able to get done in a pandemic. Perhaps we might also consider the Lenten discipline of extending that same grace to others. 

Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are God’s.

It is enough.