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

Being the Church Without Walls

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. – Jeremiah 29:7

Background

As Covid-19 continues to spread, faith communities around the world are making adjustments to how they worship and work in order to protect their members as well as the communities they serve.  In addition to modifying how we worship and encouraging good hygiene amongst those who gather, we also need to minister to those who are at home.  As people who are accustomed to gathering around tables, breaking bread and sharing the peace, conversations about virtual worship seem foreign.  Those with compromised immune systems may find themselves in exile in their own homes for weeks at a time.  How shall we respond?

Framing

Developing ways of connecting with those who are quarantined or who are socially isolated may also teach us ways of reaching out to those who shy away from church walls.  Experiments in virtual worship, education, mission and outreach may offer deep insights into how we might be the church in this century beyond this present crisis.

Ideas

  • Provide a conference call (audio/video or both) that connects members, especially those who are in social isolation or quarantine on a daily basis.  Use this time for individuals to check in, voice their needs and pray for one another.
  • Choose your platforms based on your needs. If your community values the sermon, streaming on Facebook makes sense.  If they value the prayers of the people, the interactive nature of Zoom or other videoconferencing is a better option.
  • Consider posting sermon resources (articles, links to appropriate stories, etc.) on your church’s website or Facebook page as way of engaging members in scripture.

Resources

www.zoom.us offers free hosting for up to 40 minutes/100 people.  Several members of Cayuga-Syracuse attended an online meeting/training about how to utilize Zoom for worship.  A recording of this meeting will be available soon, and a link will be posted on our Facebook page as well as in the e-newsletter when it becomes available.

Shareable resources are available via subscription.  If there is interest in the Presbytery providing these resources to churches, please contact Karen (kchamis@cayugasyracuse.org)   Check out resources for children at www.illustratedministry.com; visual resources at sanctifiedart.org (wonderful for worship!).  Looking for videos… check out https://www.worshiphousemedia.com/producers/423/salt-project.

Share your ideas with your siblings!  How are you discovering new ways of reaching others virtually?  Contact kchamis@cayugasyracuse.org to share your story.

Church Dust

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return”.

Not that long ago I recall saying those ritual words and applying ashy crosses to the foreheads of friends knowing these folk were well aware of their own mortality.  One had stage four cancer, and the other had just buried her spouse and was struggling with a terminal disease. Yet there they were, standing before me as I marked them as human:  humans from the humus, earthlings from the earth.  Mortal.  

This action – reminding them they would return to the earth – was an affirmation of what they had already grappled with.  What was different in that moment was the knowledge that everyone around them had joined them in those thoughts.  In that specific time and place, we all remembered we were little more than dust.  Although their arms bore the bruises of blood work and IV tubes… we all bore dusty crosses on our foreheads or hands.  We joined them in remembering who we were, as well as Whose we were.

Churches also get a bit dusty. Churches that were built for specific purposes and demographics find their purpose challenged as neighborhoods change.  Some adapt and find new purpose (sort of like what the March of Dimes did after the polio vaccine was developed!).  Others relocate either to reach a new mission field, or to flee a mission field they fear. 

Congregations die.  The Church does not.  

When we remember how tenuous our existence is as individuals and as a corporate body, we may also remember we belong to the Creator of dust and starlight.  Acknowledging our eventual death as individuals and as congregations helps us to remember that our purpose is not to live forever.  Indeed, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (F-1.0301).  From the most robust congregation filled with vitality to the church that struggles every day to survive… we are all dust, and we all belong to God.  We all bear the mark of the cross.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember that you….we… all belong to God.

Mirror, Mirror…

It’s hard to believe that this is Transfiguration Sunday… and that next Wednesday we remember that we are dust.  This time of year we engage in a form of spiritual whiplash: moving from mountaintop experiences to remembering our own mortality.  This time of year isn’t for wimps.  

As I move around this Presbytery, this plays out in other ways.  Many of our congregations are a mashup of moments when we experience the heights of our communal faith experience in worship, only to feel a complete reversal as we sit around the Session table and discuss the budget.  It happens in the other direction as well – with Session meetings being all faith-in-action, and Sunday morning leaving us feeling parched.

Of course, this makes sense.  Our congregations are also a mashup. We’re petty and generous, nit-picking and expansive in our love.  We don’t stand up to bullies and we encourage folks to burn-out.  We also encourage each other and find ways for folks to use gifts and skills.  We welcome the stranger and ignore them (sometimes simultaneously!).  We have a knack of bringing out both the best and worst in each other.  Week after week we offer the same inconsistency.  It’s a wonder we’re still around.  (Good thing we are fluent in this whole resurrection business, right?)

Given that church is made up of humans (and total depravity being our calling card) perhaps we should simply be grateful for those moments of grace?  Those moments when we feel that the Church really is about kin-dom building?  Should we be content with what we have, and not covet what we don’t?

No.  Although I don’t ascribe to the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian Perfection (google it!), I do believe we are the church reformed and always being reformed.  Whether that reformation comes from God or from our own desires for something better… we are called to challenge the status-quo and work toward the kin-dom.

So, where do we start?  How does your congregation move from good to great?  How do you move from inconsistency to a more consistent pattern of, well, being the church? 

It begins with a healthy dose of introspection and assessment.  It absolutely requires someone(s) from the outside letting you know what they see and experience. There are several solid tools available for this – including the Congregational Assessment Tool by Holy Cow Consulting.  There are other ways of auditing programming and organizational structure, but do know this is really hard to do (impossible!) without someone outside the organization letting you know what they see.  It requires someone you trust holding up the mirror for you and commenting that that particular style doesn’t work.

 If it would be helpful for me to come and hold up a mirror for you, just let me know. I’d only ask that you would do the same for me.