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Don’t Panic

The last few days I’ve been in Baltimore with other Mid-Council leaders.  It was a few days of all of us asking hard questions about what a Presbytery is and what it does.  Amidst keynotes, workshops and informal conversations with colleagues who are wrestling with similar challenges and opportunities I heard stories of our Church.

In the middle of that there was a brief conversation with someone who quoted from “The Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy”.  I’m not going to attempt to summarize the book (impossible!), but the words “Don’t Panic” are written on the cover of the Guide because it looked “insanely complicated to operate” and to “keep folks from panicking”.

Right.  

Those were the words I needed to hear.  J. Herbert Nelson preached similar words at the Mid-Council Gathering.  He reminded us that although we may not know where the path may take us, we know that Jesus knows.  

My hunch is this resonates with a number of churches in this Presbytery. My hunch is this resonates with a number of us, period.

The world is a whirlwind right now.  Between glaciers melting and the posturing of global leaders, we’ve got families in need of food and housing and issue of injustice all around us.  The harvest is great; the workers are few.  More than of few of us (individuals, churches) are feeling compassion fatigue.  It’s nothing specific… it’s a conglomeration of everything that makes life seem inherently insanely complicated to operate.  It’s all too easy to panic.

Now, the words “Don’t Panic” isn’t exactly written on the cover of our Holy text… and within the covers are all sorts of stories of faithful folk who did just that (panic!).  But the words the Resurrected Jesus speaks to the disciples in that Upper Room echo the words Douglas Adams penned.

Peace be with you. Don’t panic.

There is much work ahead for all of us – Cay-Syr Presbies and all the rest.  We know, however, that our God remains in the middle of it.  What is our only comfort in life and in death?  That we are not our own.  That we belong, body and soul, both in life and in death to our faithful savior.  

What’s your sign?

No, I’m not asking for your astrological sign… I’m curious about what sort of placard you carry every day that lets folks know who you are.  Perhaps you wear a hat that proclaims your affinity for a sports team, or maybe it is the car you drive.  It could be that perpetual smile on your face, or the way you ignore folks that make you uncomfortable.  What are you saying to the world with what you wear, how you speak and act?  Does that outward manifestation resonate with who you really are?

Part of what has prompted this rambling is that one of our churches, the Robinson Elmwood United Presbyterian is changing their sign. This new outward manifestation of identity is no small thing, but I also know that this congregation has done some good work in discerning who they are as a congregation.  I laying odds that the outward sign will match what is going on inside the doors.

We know that when our outsides match our insides we are perceived as being authentic.  This rings true for congregations as well as for people, and for the sake of the Gospel, we need to be who we say we are.

Our denomination is encouraging congregations and presbyteries to adopt the Matthew 25 initiative.  This initiative asks that we focus on at least one of three areas:  congregational vitality, confronting structural racism and addressing systemic poverty.  It’s hard to argue with the urgency of these issues, and yet I’ll confess to some hesitance in signing on with the initiative.  My concern is that, for the sake of the Gospel, we need to be who we say we are.

Talk, especially as Presbyterians, is cheap.  Let’s be fair, talk is cheap, period. How often do we say one thing, and do another (h/t to Paul)?

If we take on the bold vision of Jesus and actively work to end systemic poverty and break down structural racism we need to be prepared to act sacrificially.  Are we willing to set aside our time, talent and treasure for this work? What about our privilege?

 If we say we will do this.. .and we don’t, what is the sign we are showing the world?

Convoked

And, just like that… I’m Installed for service and use!

If you missed the Installation, please check out the pictures and videos that Sarah our Communications Guru has put up on <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FCayugaSyracuse%2Fposts%2F1358500734299652&width=500&quot; width="500" height="650" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowTransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media">Facebook.  You’ll hear wise words offered by colleagues and friends who poked and prodded, but also lovingly reminded us of our mutual accountability to one another.  This Installation wasn’t about me… but about US (I’m not sharing the chocolate, however*).

All of the activity of the past weekend has had me thinking (again) about how individuals collaborate in ministry and what it means to be church.

  • Church is messy because it requires collaboration.  
  • Church is difficult because it requires us to trust others.  
  • Church is frustrating because the wisdom of our goals is often foolishness to another.  

Yet participating in this messy, difficult and frustrating work is some of the most rewarding work any of us can do.  When we collaborate, we are called out of our egos and fears and find that we have been convoked to do this work together.  This convocation of folks is at the root of the Greek word ekklesia – or church.

To be convoked (it’s a word, I promise!) as the Church means to let go of our own way, and to find our collective way together.  It requires not just trust in God but in each other – which is a radical world-changing sort of love.  To be convoked as a Presbytery is to find ways to encourage that radical love in the communities we serve.  We are connected for service and use!

As I make my way around the Presbytery, there are two themes emerging.  One is a deep desire to be convoked – to collaborate with our Presbyterian siblings and to be in deep partnership with each other.  The other is mistrust for the Presbytery and a concern for being hurt by our siblings.

This tension is real.  This tension is also, I believe, integral to who we are called out to be.  The community we desire is not because of who we are… but in spite of it, and it is a witness to the transforming love of Jesus.  

The Installation is complete.  Now we are connected for service and use.  Shall we take the risk to deepen that connection?  I’m game – heck, I’ll even share my chocolate.

Blessings –

Karen

*Shannan Vance-Ocampo offered the Charge to the Presbytery, but she gave ME chocolate.  Nice how that worked out, eh?  No, really… I’ll share.  

Coaxing the Connection

I’ve successfully moved into our Syracuse apartment after six fine weeks of hotel living (shout out to the folks at the Candlewood Suites at Carrier Circle – it’s a bit worn around the edges, but the staff are top notch!). The cat will move in with me after MidCouncil later this month, and the spouse and furniture are due to arrive the first week in November. Whew!

Rereading the first paragraph, I realize I need to modify the adverb in the first sentence. There are still a few lingering issues with my move…. and I’m looking at you, Spectrum. Cable and Internet are part of our rental package, but setting up the account and the installation of equipment is the purview of the resident. I dutifully called Spectrum, set up my account and was told where to pick up the equipment. In all fairness, they DID ask if I wanted to have a technician bring the boxes and install them, but I’m my Dad’s daughter, and knew I was up to the challenge.

You know where this is going.

After several hours of struggling with cables and calling technical support (three times! three different answers!) the assemblage of geeks discerned that I had done everything correctly, but that the problem was with the coax cable in the apartment itself. And so, on Wednesday of this week, I will be entertaining angels in the form of an Installation Technician.

Later this week, I will be the one Installed. I’m amused by the parallel.

Some things you simply can’t do on your own. Even though you might possess the technical skills (I did it right, I’ll remind you!), when it comes to any sort of connection – Cable Network/Router, Church/Pastor, Resource Presbyter/Presbytery – there needs to be good effort on both ends in order to make the darn thing work. Sometimes, you need some help getting something installed properly.

There are several definitions of “Install” provided by Webster’s. In the case of a pastoral installation, we usually use the definition that is similar to “induct”. Given my experience this past week, I think the other definition is more apropos: “to place in position or connect for service or use”. That’s the purpose of the Installation service this Saturday. Both parties – Presbytery and Resource Presbyter – will be connected for service and use. Of course, I’m the one being Installed for service and use. I get that. But it’s meaningless unless we’re connected. I’m so incredibly grateful for all the ways this Presbytery has reached out and done the sacred work of connection and encourage you to continue in doing so.

This Saturday, I’m bringing in a few folks in addition to the Administrative Commission who will help with the Installation. Think of them as a Godly Geek Squad of sorts. I’ve invited them because of their expertise in this work… as well as for the joy I know they have for MidCouncil work. Like the Cable Guy, they will bring their own gifts and coax our connection (see what I did there?) to each other. I’m grateful for each of them.

Enough about me. How about you? Where are you currently plugged in and connected? Is the connection (to your faith group, family, spouse, friends and God) functioning at full capacity, or does it need some coaxing? If the latter, let me encourage you to find folks with the technical expertise who can help with those frayed relationships. If you need help finding that assistance, holler. I’m here to serve.

P.S. The Installation Service is at 2 p.m. on October 5th at First Presbyterian of Cazenovia.

Fleabag

I’m attempting to write this without spoilers. If you haven’t seen the now Emmy award-winning Fleabag, you may need to see it. I don’t know. You do need to know it’s awkward. It’s not the sort of series I’d recommend to my mother (sex, nudity, adult language warning inserted here), but there is something about this show that continues to poke at me.

The protagonist (played brilliantly by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a woman with absolutely NO filters trying to cope after significant loss. Her life choices are… interesting (see adult content warning above). Here is a woman whose name we never learn (Fleabag) and yet we’re invited into her thoughts and deepest memories as she breaks the fourth wall – sharing those thoughts with the audience. She creates chaos and drama wherever she goes, and the spotlight follows her.

She demands to be seen.

When a character (and what a character!) in the second season actually SEES her, she disassembles a bit, but eventually finds some semblance of peace. The final scene at the bus stop, where she turns to walk away? That final gesture? It gives me such hope.

Here’s why this series continues to poke at my thoughts: consider the many ways in which Jesus really saw those with whom he interacted – the woman at the well, Mary and Martha, the Thief on the Cross and those who were blind, lame or possessed. Jesus saw them. He didn’t casually look past them, or mumble a question about the wife and the kids. He saw them for who they were, and in that seeing, there was healing.

I believe that one of our roles as the church is to SEE people. It’s also the reason I sometimes find visits to churches frustrating. I’m greeted (maybe?) but not actually seen. Once folks figure out my place (Hello, I’m your new Resource Presbyter!) there’s a subtle change in stance because I’m now a known quantity. My professional self is SEEN. One of our deepest failures as the church is to not see as Jesus did. We know there are others in the pews, some of them lifelong members, who have never truly been seen by another member of that church, and we rationalize that they are okay with this reality. Heck, many of those who are unseen may believe that as well.

It’s difficult work, this seeing. It requires vulnerability on the part of the person with the eyes. Seeing another means knowing that persons pain and fear as well as their joy. It requires time and patience (and sometimes, a bit of stubbornness). For the person being seen it requires vulnerability fortified with trust.

If it were easy, the world would be a kinder place. To really see someone is to begin to love someone.

As I continue to learn my role in this new place and new position, I believe some of what I am called to do is to SEE congregations. We so easily applaud that which is easily seen – mission trips and great worship (those physical manifestations that are easy on the eyes) – but just like individuals, I believe entire congregations can also feel unseen and forgotten. I have no doubt that some congregations prefer being unseen… but I also have no doubt that that is not our calling as a connectional Church.

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth he writes: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Fleabag, in the end was fully known… and my prayer for her is that she shall also know fully the ability to love and be loved. It’s my prayer for all of us really, individuals and congregations.

For my part? I see you, church. Or, at least, I’m trying.

Present company…

In the world of the Enneagram, I’m a 7. (For those unfamiliar with this insightful tool, a great introduction is the book “The Road Back to You” by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile). What you need to know this means for my personality is that I’m a planner.

No, that’s not quite right.

I’m an obsessive planner. I will spend hours planning what the coming days and weeks will look like, from the work that will be accomplished to the gifts I will give family members over the next several years. Meals? Menus and shopping lists are forever being revised in my head. Even crop rotations for my ten acres on Tug Hill (yes, I’m serious).

Like other 7s, I can’t understand how those without this tendency function. For years I asked my spouse what his plans were for the weekend because I assumed he had spent just as much time working through all the possibilities when Bill (definitely NOT a 7) was instead spending his time enjoying the present.

You can imagine how this weird tendency to continually plan has impacted my ability to honor my commitment to “…need to learn the song of the tribe in order to sing the song of the tribe…” in this new Calling. I’m working on several different strategic maneuvers for this Presbytery in my brain when my covenant with the good people of Cayuga-Syracuse is to learn to sing the song of the tribe first.

I’ve promised to be present in part so this isn’t about me… but it is about “us”. There is an incredible bonus to this – I’ve learned that when I am truly present, I taste the incredible meal that I’m sharing with Seniors at one church and I see the light shining through the colorful windows at another. I hear (and feel!) the deep concern of members who wonder and worry about what will happen to the church they’ve cared so deeply for, and I delight in the joy of children praying for a member of their cohort who has just received his first Bible. I know that our God has been with me in the past, and I trust that our God will be with us in the future… but when I challenge myself to be present I know that God is with me now, and I know that that is more than enough.

Sometimes congregations seem stuck between living in the past and fearing what will happen in the future. As leadership meets to discuss what happened last month, and what needs to be done in the months to come, I wonder what would happen if we really took the time to be present in the moment? If we offered more than a perfunctory prayer, but instead chose to set aside time to abide in the abundant grace of God? Or, instead of huddling during coffee hour with like-minded folk to discuss the current state of affairs, what would happen if we relished this common time together? What would happen if we took time each day to be fully present to one another and the workings of the Spirit and focused on the holy work of “abiding”?

As for this obsessive planner… I’m working on it, just as surely as God continues to work on me. Just don’t ask me about my list of knitting projects.

Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred….

If you are of a certain generation, or if you love musicals, I’ve just given you an ear worm. I’d apologize, but at least it’s a really GOOD ear worm (and not something like “Baby Shark”. Oops.)

For those who aren’t pleasantly humming along, the song is “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. The numbers refer to the number of minutes in a year, and the lyrics are reflective in nature and beg the question of appropriate metrics. How do we measure a year of our lives? The as the lyricist here suggests that we measure our seasons in love. *

How do we measure a life?

How do we measure a congregation’s life?

Is it the number of bulletins run off on a Sunday morning, or the size of the choir? Is it the successful capital campaign, or the number of folks who come to the food pantry? How do we measure our life together?

For too long we church folk have been captivated by the 3 B’s…. Buildings, Butts and Bucks. We’ve measured our success by these three metrics, and when they begin to fail, we panic. If we’re not the most successful church on the block, who are we? What are we?

More importantly, what if we’ve been measuring the wrong thing all this time?

As I begin to move around the Presbytery and visit congregations and their leaders, I’m often given a tour. I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a sanctuary junkie. I love church architecture, and stained glass makes me swoon. Cayuga-Syracuse has its share of gorgeous churches.

What I’m finding myself captivated by is not the beautiful wood and the lofty arches, but rather the stories I hear about how our congregations have helped transform lives. Beautiful buildings fade into memory, but lives that have been changed because someone has seen the Gospel enacted and has come to desire a relationship with our God? Those stories, those memories, they last. I find myself reflecting on them after the visit, and lifting up those involved in the story in my prayers.

Sort of like a good ear worm.

What lasting impression has your congregation made on your community?

*As an aside, Jonathan Larson who composed “Seasons” died unexpectedly the night before Rent premiered. His season is measured in the beauty and message of this song.

The Church of the Assumptions

I heard someone use the “you know what happens when you assume…” line the other day and cringed (and y’all know it wasn’t for the vulgarity!). The thing is, in order to get up each morning we need to have a certain number of assumptions lined up. Imagine what would happen if you didn’t assume your car would still be in its parking space each and every day? Our lives are based on a series of assumptions.

Where we run into trouble is when we set assumptions that have not been validated…. especially in assuming causal relationships. All of the below may be true but that can only be determined if they are tested:

  1. A pastor with a young family will bring in young families.
  2. Unless we have a drum set in worship, we aren’t relevant to younger generations OR everyone loves old hymns.
  3. The denomination started losing members because it became too social justice oriented OR because it didn’t address social justice issues soon enough.
  4. Growing deeper spiritually as a congregation is the best way to grow numerically.
  5. We aren’t attracting new people because a) our pastor’s preaching/personality/spouse; b) we no longer have __________.

Again, any of the above may be true… but the only way to determine that is to test the validity of the statement. The problem is, what may be true for one congregation isn’t necessarily true for another. Context is highly individualized.

So how do you go about testing the validity of your assumptions? External sets of eyes and ears can help when looking at the assumptions within a congregation – including the use of benchmark survey tools (Holy Cow! Consulting offers an excellent tool that also requires good interpretation).

Testing the assumptions about the needs of the community outside the walls can occur with demographic information, but the most important thing you can do to test your assumptions about your community is to spend real time in it! Walk around the neighborhood of your church. Talk with folks you meet about their needs and hopes (and don’t immediately start suggesting they need the answer to their problems is to staff your committees!)

Of course, it’s not just churches that need to challenge assumptions. Part of the work that I continue to do is to learn the song of this Presbytery, and that involves conversations with many different folks in different places. I’m still new enough that I’m not sharing the established collective assumptions y’all have been using… although I know this state of ‘assumptive innocence’ won’t last long!

Some assumptions are essential, and without them we couldn’t function. Others need a good poke from time to time! As we enter into this new season together, let us challenge our own assumptions, knowing, well…. you know what happens when you assume!

Who moved my… church?

Last week I set up my mobile office at the Scipioville Church. It’s a sweet country church building set back a bit from the road with a large expansive lawn. It’s the sort of church you imagine has been in that exact same spot for generations.

Except… it hasn’t.

Those who know the story of this church know that it was MOVED from one site to another in order to accommodate the building of a Fellowship Hall. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. Back in the early 1960’s, this congregation desired a place for fellowship and gathering so much they MOVED their building.

When I consider the sheer number of meetings, consultants, experts and bar fights that often accompany church decisions to… oh, I don’t know, change the paint color in the women’s bathroom… the magnitude of this move is mind-boggling. What an incredible undertaking!

As I toured the sanctuary I thought of those who must have had such a passion for fellowship with one another they were willing to move mountains (or churches!). It’s difficult to imagine a group of people having such a fire in their collective soul… and yet, I’ve seen glimpses of the same in other places. The Arlington Church in north Virginia sold its building in order to build affordable housing. Isaiah’s Kitchen has relocated in order to feed both body and soul. Something transformational happens when we look to where there is need and we are willing to sacrifice.

What are you willing to move in order to accomplish your congregation’s mission? This isn’t about restructuring committees… this is about tearing down in order to build up in a new way. Or, a bit closer to home, what are you willing to move in your own life that will help you accomplish the work you’ve been called to do?

The Space Between

I’ve got some significant quirks. For instance, my reading list is intentionally varied. I have several books going at once, but generally I try a literary diet that is comprised of non-fiction, “books I should have read in High School/College but didn’t” and Candy. The latter generally takes the form of Science Fiction and Fantasy (I’m currently re-reading Harry Potter which is against my rule of never reading a book twice).

I just finished The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. It’s going back in the reading pile to be read again… and soon. There was such a banquet of information that I know I’ve not begun to digest it all. I also have the sense that reading it a second time will help me to make some of the connections between his theory and my theology.

One of the central points to his thesis is that people’s beliefs are intuitively-based. It’s only after that initial gut reaction that we form reasoned rationale to substantiate what we’ve felt. Furthermore, much of that intuition is genetically based. We’re not hardwired to believe a certain way, but the science of DNA bears out that there are genetic preferences that are linked to evolutionary development. Liberals generally have the code that shows a preference for new experiences, whereas conservatives have a preference for stability. From an evolutionary perspective, there’s a need for both.

Ultimately, what does Haidt suggest will bridge the gap?

Relationships. For Haidt, what we need to pay attention to is not individuals, but rather, the space between individuals.

Conflicts bubble up in society, and often comes to a full boil within the church. We argue about critical things as well as spend time debating the color on paint chips. What if Haidt is right (I’ll admit, I’m persuaded!) and therefore much of what I believe about morality begins with my genetic code? Because if that is true for me, it’s also true for the person who I’d really rather not sit next to in choir rehearsal. Let’s not begin to talk about the Imago Dei – that we are all made in the image of God!

Church, we’ve become so good at debating, demonizing and distancing when what we need to do is to come together around the Table. I’m not suggesting we dial down the conversation but rather that we find ways of having difficult conversations that are embedded in meaningful relationships.

I’d love to hear what your church is doing to create these kinds of relationships within your congregation as well as outside the church walls. What kinds of relationship are you building? How might the Presbytery partner with you in creating space for all God’s people?

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