Ear, ear!

When my usually sweet cat’s whiskers move forward, and the shape of his muzzle becomes square I know he’s had enough play and our next interaction may involve something sharp. Our interspecies communication isn’t at Dr. Doolittle levels… but it works for us.  Mostly. We don’t share a common vocabulary, but we do have a language of sorts.

Language is such a remarkable tool. With words we can express emotions, describe beauty, build each other up and tear injustice down. Words help us to inspire, comfort and sometimes amuse. I’m the sort that appreciates not only a good turn of phrase but also feels that puns are an artform (your mileage may vary).

Of course, words are only part of our communication toolkit. We convey our thoughts using body language and grimaces, and pitch and tone have a place here as well. We also communicate with silence – from that meaningful quiet that occurs between grieving friends to the “silent treatment” offered to those who have tread on our last nerve.

Language can fail us for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there is a dissonance between what we are communicating verbally and our actions. I’ve thought for some time now that it would be helpful to have a dictionary that provided definitions alongside appropriate behaviors. A church that describes itself as friendly on the website but ignores the folks that have been visiting for weeks is a potent example reminiscent of one of the great lines in the Princess Bride when Vizzini says “inconceivable” for the nth time and Inigo responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes language fails because we choose to not to hear. Language only seems to work when there’s a willingness to hear and understand, and I have learned that I ignore my cat’s communication of his annoyance with great peril.

In this season, it is all too easy to pay attention to presidential debates and Facebook pages that are teeming with miscommunications. I wonder what would happen if we focused instead on the conversations happening just outside the walls of our churches. What are the deep fears and concerns (and joys!) spoken about around the dinner table, or at the conference table of the office on the corner? Where are hearts breaking… and does the church have the capacity and the desire to hear those stories? Do we have the words (or the Word?) to respond?

Let those who have ears to hear….

Green bananas

In one of the churches where I served there was a woman who upon being asked about her health and wellbeing would respond that she was still buying green bananas.

I’m not certain if I’d share her sentiment these days. Frankly, I’m not certain, period.

There’s so much unknown out there. It’s not just the pandemic, but also the election (and potential fallout) that has me wondering if I should buy green anything. 

Of course, my faith tells me that God’s got the big picture, and although I’m not quite convinced my breakfast fruit of choice fits that category, knowing that God remains in the middle of it helps to ground me a bit. Hairs on my head are counted, and lilies in the field have far nicer clothes than I do… but I also know that some of this stuff, although known fully by God, is our work.

And, I guess that is what worries me. We were tasked with loving one another and caring for this beautiful world… and our track record in these areas isn’t great. Those “good old days” were only good for some, and we’ve got a habit of romanticizing history in a way that glosses over the nasty parts.

I suppose my deepest concern about all of the upheaval (and potential upheaval) is the fear that we get through all of this unchanged: that churches return to their buildings will forget those new connections they’ve made with folks online and that we will return to ignoring the needs of those whose experience of this country is different than ours because of the color of their skin. I worry that we won’t take this moment in time to examine our values as faith communities and as society to see where we are out of alignment… and then to come together and to repair that breach.

I’ve read the end of the book. I know Love wins. Until that day, I worry and hope, and hope and worry that we will do the work God tasked us with.

Rough Road Ahead!

We’ve been heading north to our camp for a few hours every weekend, spending almost as much time driving as we do puttering about the place. It’s worth it – garlic and alliums have been planted as has the narcissus, and we’ve begun the work of making our cabin weather-tight.

It’s a simple thing to get to our cabin once you get to Camden. Just head up Van Buren to the last electric pole on the road and go a bit beyond that. We’re the first cattle gate on the right, and then just up the ridge to the meadow. Easy as pie, once you get to Camden.

Getting to Camden, however, has had some minor challenges. The western route takes you up 81… which had been undergoing much needed construction. There were several weekends when we avoided the traffic cones and the single lane in preference for the congestion in Sylvan Beach. It’s lovely to have options – to know what challenges are ahead and to make choices that mitigate the danger or frustration and help you to avoid the rough roads.

Then there’s the Fall of 2020.

My calendar shows several upcoming holidays preprinted on the page, like tattooed names of former partners. They remind me of all the plans that will need to be revised to accommodate a virus that is insistent on being accounted for. There are various work assemblies and meetings that will all be translated to zoom affairs where everyone continues to try and do their best, but without the actual sharing of space it feels lifeless.

These are events that are known to me. I can therefore plan for them and find decent work-arounds to avoid the rough roads. I know where I’ll need to slow down and will prepare accordingly. It won’t be the same drive as in previous years but somehow I know I’ll get there. Some things escape the ability to peg with a date and time – we may need to close church doors again if the virus flares up in our communities (see Cuomo’s new guidelines on this: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-new-cluster-action-initiative). Still, we can plan for these particular rough roads as we’ve been down them before.

The November 3rd election is a road we need to travel with no available detours. It is an unknown stretch… but there are some suggestions that it may be more than a bit bumpy. There are no creative work-arounds and no waiting for the construction to be complete (in fact, we may actually be part of the construction crew!). So, what do we do when there is potential rough road ahead?

  • We make certain what we’re driving is sound. Check the tires and the frame, look for rust. 
  • We pack snacks to share. Yes, I’m serious. We make sure that there is good nutritious stuff to ingest and we share it with those on the journey with us.
  • We travel together… that way, if one of us breaks down the others can provide a lift.
  • We turn the dial on the radio (hah… remember dials?) to good music, and we surround ourselves with sounds of beauty.
  • We tell stories that remind us of our courage and strength, and we find reasons to laugh.
  • We pack a good map that reminds us of the big picture and that we’re not alone in the universe (let’s make it a world atlas, shall we?)
  • We keep our eyes focused ahead… and on what matters.

Friends, the best thing we can do to prepare for this road we must go down is to prepare for it faithfully…. and now is the time to begin doing that work. I know it feels like it’s all out of our control (and much of it is!) but we still have some agency. Let’s do that work together.

The Wall

A week or so ago I was introduced to the idea that during any crisis there at about the six-month point individuals “hit the wall”. Dr. Aisha Ahmad who is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto tweeted about her own multiple experiences in disaster zones stating that at this six-month mark, people enter a slump. She points out that in this particular crisis, there’s no option to run away… and that this wall is real and normal and expected.

It’s strange, isn’t it, to find that this lack of feeling that anything will ever be normal again is in itself, normal?

She doesn’t stop there. She goes on to share that after a few weeks, we will again find our energy and creativity and begin to tackle the next period of adaptation.

I found this profoundly comforting. Not only is what I’m experiencing (and seeing elsewhere) normal and expected but there is promised end. The pandemic may last many more months, but the feeling of weariness that some of us are experiencing will not last forever.

Her suggestion is that instead of attempting to storm the wall, that the more productive course is to ride it out. Do what must be done but allow the wall to break apart naturally in 4 – 6 weeks. Until then, she advocates being good to yourself and to others. 

That action? Hitting the wall and deciding to rest instead of blasting it with the full force of our will? 

That’s called faith.

It’s not just faith in the words of a teacher from Toronto, it’s faith that this isn’t all on our shoulders and that Someone else is also in the mix. It’s an act of faith to simply stop and trust that there are some things we can’t power through… and to allow the gift of sabbath to wash over us and heal our weariness.

My hunch is that just as there are individual walls, there are organizational ones and that our congregations are running into them with gusto. These walls aren’t ones that can be solved with technical abilities and solutions (new microphones, a bit better lighting and everything is better!) but instead require adaptive responses. The problem is it’s hard to think adaptively when up against the wall. It’s hard to dig down to the root of an issue and to look at it creatively when everyone in the room is exhausted.

After months of changing and figuring out what this new context requires of God’s church and our congregations, our best decisions and actions will come after we’ve broken through the wall. I realize some decisions cannot wait – but those that can? My prayer is that we have the collective wisdom to realize it may be time to claim some sabbath time, and that wall is a great place to lean against and rest for a bit.

Toto: Agent of the Apocalypse

Smoke and mirrors, fog and eerie green light. A voice booms from the visage in front of the intrepid group. “I am the GREAT AND TERRIBLE OZ”. All tremble, save the “little dog too” who scampers forward and pulls aside the curtain, revealing an unremarkable man pulling levers as he also pulls legs.

Not the dog you’re looking for….

L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz (and native of nearby Chittenango!) spun a tale of dreams and nightmares into something iconic. In the movie version, the group of adventurers sees a large floating head. In the book version, each member of the cohort sees something different – Dorothy sees the giant head we are familiar with, but the Scarecrow sees a gorgeous woman and the Tin Man sees a monster, whereas the Lion witnesses a huge ball of flames. 

Toto sees a man behind a curtain and unveils the truth.

So much truth is being unveiled these days. Oh, there are smoke and mirrors, and folks who should be insignificant folks who are pulling all sorts of levers, but there are also large broken systems being laid bare and corrupt values being exposed. It’s downright apocalyptic.

Apocalypse, in the original sense of the Greek, referred to a disclosure of that which was previously unknown, and which could not have been known without being unveiled. In other words, Toto is a canine agent of the apocalypse, exposing what was previously hidden.

What’s being uncovered in this time of multiple pandemics? Churches are discovering what is really meaningful. Clergy are learning what they value about their Calling. Communities are seeing (finally?) the inequities and injustices and that are seemingly baked into our systems. 

It’s not all bad. Churches are discerning new ways of creative mission. Families are discovering strength based on deep love. Leaders are finding new courage. The pulling back of the veil has caused many individuals and organizations to re-evaluate our lives and our purpose.

I’m not sure if it matters if we are in “THE” apocalypse. Certainly, we are in apocalyptic times. What matters is whether we choose to pay attention.

Failure to thrive

What does failure look like in a church?

Is it when the building shows noticeable deferred maintenance, or when the membership number dips below a certain level? Has a church failed when there are no more children running up the aisles or when the choir is made up of only a few sopranos (why yes, I am an alto!)?

I’m not sure our answer to that question changes due to a pandemic. The church isn’t a failure when it no longer occupies its building or because we can no longer sing hymns together.  I don’t believe we are only successful when our pews (and plates) are full. Certainly, the New Testament church didn’t have tall steeples and large fellowship halls in which to accomplish its mission. However, our metrics for success don’t seem to translate well in this pandemic season.

Six months in we’re starting to ask “what if this is it”? What if we can’t return to our buildings? Can we still be the church?

Throughout the life of the church we’ve made changes and adapted and reformed our ways of doing things. I’m not talking the small stuff (although kudos to the church that moved from donuts during coffee hour to also offering fresh fruit!). I’m referring to all the times in history where we’ve adapted to our changing context. As products of the Reformation, we hold to the belief that we are reformed and always being reformed!

I think we forget how difficult those changes were in the moment. The day that Grandma showed up in pants to serve Communion was no doubt followed by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.  

Or, perhaps we remember all too well how difficult those changes were, and we want to avoid potential conflict. The day we ordained LGBT folks was no doubt proceeded by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.

The reality is that a massive change in our context has occurred. We will either continue to find ways to respond to it faithfully… or we don’t. 

What does failure in the church during a pandemic look like?

The same as it does during “normal” times.

The church has failed when it forgets its purpose and its calling and is no longer working toward the Great Ends of the Church: 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. 

Here’s the thing…. the church has found ways to be the church in spite of world wars, natural disasters, the Great Depression and huge economic fallout. And pandemics. In other words, this isn’t our first rodeo. More to the point, it won’t be the coronavirus that causes the church to fail. It will be our inability to remember our baptism, our calling and our purpose.

Yes, this is difficult work. It’s also the work we’ve been called to accomplish… faithfully. The good news is we don’t do it alone. Our God is in the middle of it all, and we have our siblings who walk alongside us as well.

Didn’t sign up for this!

It’s not exactly what we signed up for.

I mean, we were called to this work and knew it would require intelligence, imagination and love (and energy, so much energy!). Many of us learned how to fix lawn mowers as well as the details of correct concrete application to avoid spalling. We dove deep into scripture for Sunday morning and researched games for youth group for Sunday night. We adapted and adopted and some of us even started wearing shoes (it’s a long story).

But this? Doing ministry from a distance? 

We’ve met the technical challenges of our work with grace. Researched new sound and light equipment and figured out how best to be heard in parking lots and on the side lawns of our buildings. We’ve done adaptive work as well and taken the balcony view to try and figure out what is really happening, and how it will impact ministry for the next generation. We’ve held hands virtually with those who are grieving and have conducted funerals via Zoom. Within moments we changed how we worked, worshipped and ministered.  

We did so because we were called to this work… but this isn’t what we signed up for, and frankly, this is hard.

Teachers returning to the classrooms might say the same thing.

Those in the healing and helping professions…

Grocery clerks. Librarians. 

The list goes on and on.

If there was ever a time for deep compassion and patience, it is now.

Your child’s teacher is juggling more than they have ever dealt with, and that is saying a lot. The guy at the register just had to put up with several customers upset about the lack of (fill in the blank with this week’s item of scarcity). The scheduler at the Doctor’s office has to ask those questions, even if you think it’s obvious you’ve not been out of the country.

And your pastor? Well, there are days when your pastor is ready to quit. 

Thom Rainier breaks it down in his article “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit” where on top of the general weariness felt by all of us, he lifts up congregational infighting (in-person vs. online, mask vs. unmask, etc.), increased workload and criticism as well as the concern for the future of ministry (not just financial concerns, although those are also very real in many congregations).

He doesn’t offer a solution.

I also don’t offer any solutions to all of the above, except the reminder that none of us signed up for any of this… and yet we are still called to be people of grace and peace. We are still called to love one another deeply and sacrificially.  We are still called to bear one another’s burdens. We are still called to be the Church.  

We are still called.  All of us.

Fear is the Culture Killer

(With apologies to Herbert)*

This past week I confronted one of my fears.  I went kayaking!

The fear wasn’t being on the water, nor was it tipping over. No, my fear was that with my bad knees I’d never get out of the boat and back on terra firma without someone wielding a winch! (To my new friends at the Lakeside Park boat launch in Cazenovia, thank you ever-so-much for not laughing even though you were presented with several opportunities to do so.)

Fear can be an overwhelming emotion. In my case, it hits me in the gut causing indigestion and stomach pain. Other fears have resulted in restless nights or have caused me to sit paralyzed at my desk wondering how I can ever move forward.

Fear can keep you safe… which is not a bad thing! (Wash your hands!)

The trouble seems to be in navigating when our fear is justified (fire = hot! mask = good!) or when it is the overworking of our own minds. When the latter is confronted, no winch is needed and the joy is immeasurable.

Organizations also experience fear and in a way that can be more difficult to navigate. Management guru Peter Drucker quipped “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but the corollary to this is that “Fear eats culture as dessert” (okay, that one’s mine… and it needs a bit of work, but you get the idea).

Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be, and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.

Fear occurs in organizations that have no clear understanding of their mission, and/or are fuzzy on their values. It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm. Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations. We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle. We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution. We don’t take risks because that’s no longer in our nature. We forget who we are.

We forget Whose we are… because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)

I can’t describe the delight I felt on the water. The kayaking was fun, but it was the buoyant joy at facing my fears and the sense of returning to myself that was nothing short of elation.  Remember who you are. Remember Whose you are.

*Yes, I’m a geek. Yes, this is from Dune.

The Shiny.

Communal distraction is a thing. 

Exhibit A? Tiger King. 

Distraction is a coping mechanism. It’s generally passive – and is a focus on something other than what is a primary concern. As someone who has had the occasional panic attack, I can attest that it can be a helpful tool. My hunch is that having a communal distraction or two (shiny!) these last five-and-a-half months has not been a bad thing, although Tiger King, bread-baking and closet reorganizing are sooo “early pandemic”.  These things (and those that follow) distract us from a problem that we have no control over.

Distraction (communal and individual) becomes a problem when keeps our attention from confronting an issue where we have agency.

I know a Session that had debated what color to paint the women’s bathroom for months. They conducted a survey and then decided to bounce the decision to the women’s group (seeing as they would be the primary users). When the women’s group had selected a color (yet another survey as well as some political maneuvering) their decision came back to the Session which then began the heated debate about the appropriate finish (eggshell in a bathroom?!). The selection of the contractor went to the Buildings and Grounds committee whose Chair was not at the subsequent meeting of the Session and therefore couldn’t report their decision. By the time she was able to connect with the Session for final approval almost a year had passed since the discussion had started.

The bathroom was painted in a day.

Imagine what might have been done with the time and energy that was spent on that decision?  

Imagine what conversations and confrontations they were able to avoid?

Yes. Communal distraction is a thing. 

Exhibit B? Having the conversation about when to reopen the building every month. 

So much energy has been sucked into this technical discussion by so many of our good folks that it makes me wonder what conversations we might be having instead.  Don’t get me wrong, this is critical work for the safety of the communities we serve… but if this conversation dominates the meeting every month it might signal that it’s a distraction (if you’re not repeating this conversation, good for you! What are you talking about that really doesn’t need that much attention?)

If your Session made the decision that you’d not revisit opening the building until January 2021, what might you do with the time and energy to make the next few months a time of creative witness to the Gospel? Or what if the timing of reopening were connected to a specific indicator (www.covidactnow.org is a great resource for this), as well as a potential trigger for closing the doors? How can you make the opening/closing not only easy on your leadership but also free up the space to ask the questions you’ve been dodging – like “what have we learned about our congregation during this pandemic” and “what is our part in systemic racism?” and “were we spiritually prepared to be isolated, and if not, how might we work on that?”.

What are we avoiding that we have the power to confront?

Seek first the Kin-dom of God, my friends.

Still filled with hope.

If I can channel the inspiration behind Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia”… “lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been”.  A year ago, I was a long-term guest of the Candlewood Suites over by Carrier Circle in Syracuse.  I’d drive back to Maryland for a few days every week or so to reconnect with my spouse and cat (not in that order!) and then return to my hotel and the work of being a brand-new Resource Presbyter. Those trips were exhausting, especially through Pennsylvania (our family jokes that whenever we’re on a trip, it’s as if we are always half-way through PA.)  

How do you while away the hours on a road trip?  I’m fond of singing out loud (windows rolled down, of course!) everything from show tunes to bawdy 18th c. camp songs. No doubt I am offering entertainment and amusement for my fellow pilgrims on the road. Five hours each way also offered plenty of time to dream about the challenges that awaited me in Syracuse. So much work to do and such good people to do that work with? I was filled with hope.

And now?  After over five months of physical distancing?

Still filled with hope.

Here is why: God hasn’t changed.  In many ways, the work we are called to do hasn’t changed.  What has changed are the tools we use to do that work as well as the urgency. There has been a bit of an unveiling during these COVID times; a revealing of sorts.  We’re learning together what we really value, as well as what we might put aside.

When I first started here I quoted J. Gordon Kingsley who wrote 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”.  This pandemic hasn’t changed that.  Together we are beginning to hear old and new voices that are looking for where they fit in the song…. And again, I am filled with hope.  As those voices are lifted up and we sing this song together, we will write the next verse.  I don’t know what the future holds, or what that next verse will be, but I am confident we will write it and sing it together.

(With the windows rolled down, of course.)