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.

Test

We the People?

If you want to see folks engage in a debate like young dogs going after an old soggy sock, just mention that the United States is a democracy. Suddenly folks that have taken any political science or philosophy course spring to action debating whether this country is a democracy or a republic of the federal constitutional variety.

Presbyterians sit back smugly and remind their sparring partners that the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence was the Rev. John Witherspoon (Presbys from NJ get TWO points) and that much of this country’s political organization is rooted in our own polity.

What this debate often misses is that regardless of the structure, this form of government relies heavily on the people… all the people… to make it work. Yes, we are at our root representational (those Elders in your church are elected by you and bear the responsibility for the mission and ministry of your congregation) but y’all need to know who you are electing and remain engaged by reading those Annual Meeting reports in order to ask those good questions that hold all leaders accountable.

In the same way, we the people need to remain engaged in the political structure of the United States in order to maintain those democratic values we hold dear.

What happens when the people become disengaged? Consider the following definitions of other forms of governing… and see if they are familiar forms within national or church politics:

  • Oligarchy – a small group of people who have control
  • Plutocracy – governance by the wealthy or powerful
  • Monarchy – two forms, constitutional and absolute -both focused on the sovereignty of an individual
  • Dictatorship – where a ruler or small group have complete control

In church governance there is also congregationalism… which is where each individual congregation has its own authority and may be a part of a loose association of like congregations (think states rights on steroids).

If our system is going to work it is going to require all hands on deck to question, volunteer, wonder and support. That democratic value of “for the people, by the people” only works when there are people willing to do their part.

When I’ve asked folks why they are Presbyterian I have often heard that there is a deep respect and love for a system in which there isn’t “one guy in charge”. The challenge for us all is that in order to have a system where power is shared amongst many… there must be many who are willing to hold that power.

I invite you again to this wild ride we call Presbyterianism.

What comes next?

“What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own
Awesome, wow!
Do you have a clue what happens now?” – King George III, Hamilton

Although Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote these words for King George III to sing on stage following the success of the American Revolution, sections of these lyrics keep buzzing in my brain as vaccines are distributed. That tunnel is still frighteningly long, but I do believe there is a light at the end of it.

What then? What happens when we’ve been freed from some of the restrictions that have become the norm this past year? What will we keep from this experience?

It’s easy to get caught up in deserted island dreams… thinking about all the things we’ve missed that we will do once life goes back to normal. It’s becoming increasingly clear that those dreams may be unfulfilled because our context has shifted significantly. History suggests that we either adapt or…

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle makes the case that every 500 years or so there is some event that changes the context so significantly that the church responds accordingly. Given that the last significant change was the printing press and the Reformation… we’re due. Tickle writes that the result of these changes is “the Church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.”

If y’all aren’t cleaning the attic, you need to start. Now.

Time to lean into not just the physical cleaning (although I do know of several congregations that are taking advantage of this season to physically purge the church closets of all sorts of things) but also the organizational overhaul that will be essential in the months to come.

What will you keep… not just from our pre-COVID lives, but from this new reality?

What needs to be tossed, and who will do that work?

Do you know how hard it is to lead?

Where do you begin? It’s possible to approach this Marie Kondo-style (if it doesn’t spark joy, toss it!), but that assumes that joy is the metric by which we measure our work together. I believe that where we begin is in determining the essential values of our organizations and holding up our activities to that light. What from this COVID-era resonates with those values? What about the patterns of activities and behaviors prior to the pandemic are in step with who you say you are?

Of course, King George ends his bit repeating an earlier line: “you’re on your own”. You’re not, you know. We do this work together and with God. Let me know how I might help.

Creatures of Hope

On Monday nights a small group of us have been watching a series of short films based on the book “America’s Unholy Ghosts”. Smack dab in the middle of a stream of information regarding the church’s complicity in systemic racism, the author answered a question regarding the future. He stated that he understood there was a distinct difference between hope and optimism.

Something clicked deep in the recesses of both my brain and my heart.

You see, I’m a creature of hope. It’s part of my DNA, my faith-structure and my wiring. Hope is intertwined not just with faith, but also trust. For me, hope is the dependence upon the Divine and belief that regardless of what today or tomorrow brings… God remains in the middle of it.

Optimism, on the other hand, seems to be linked more to our own actions. These may not be the standard definitions that have been blessed by Saint Webster, but they do tease out in my mind how I can be both filled with hope… and yet feel despair. I can fully have my hope and trust in God and feel like the world is going to heck in a nicely decorated handbasket.

Cool, right? The problem with my sussing this out for myself is that it also comes with the realization that although there is nothing needed from me in regard to hope (God is God, and that’s enough!) when it comes to optimism?  Well, then….

Our own optimism is closely linked to that of our neighbors. As long as my neighbor is hungry or fearful, that confidence that today will be at least as good as yesterday is unreachable. Our choices impact the lives of others, as does our inaction (for instance, it isn’t enough for me to not be a racist, I need to be an anti-racist). What we do, who we are, impacts the whole. 

The church has a dual role in pointing toward that hope we have in God while also working to create communities where our actions reflect the kin-dom of God. This is not passive work, but requires action grounded in the intent to build that kin-dom. We have a responsibility for this work that is part of our calling… and closely interconnected to that hope that we feel. The good news is that, as always, we never do this work alone.

I’ll continue to be a creature of hope but becoming more optimistic begins with my own actions in response to my siblings. Today is a new day filled with hope, thanks be to God. Will it be filled with optimism? That’s up to what we do next.