Mid-Life Crisis?

Churches and other organizations are struggling with their sense of purpose; individuals (clergy and others) are questioning their vocations.  We are all asking questions about who we are NOW, as well as whether we really like who we are NOW.

It’s as if we’re all collectively sighing and asking if this is it, or as Dante’s protagonist quipped “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

In other words… welcome to our shared mid-life crisis (of sorts).

Now, if this were truly a mid-life crisis (of sorts) we might consider working through the experience with a good therapist.  We’d be invited to talk about our disappointments surrounding our lives and our response to it.  Perhaps we’d grieve a bit together about relationships lost and plans set aside.  We’d talk through our anxiety and concern about what life is like now – collectively, and individually – because grief isn’t something you find a path around. Eventually, we’d have worked through the box of Kleenex and we’d sit up a bit straighter and begin the work of “what comes next”.

What does come next?  I’m not asking when you’re reopening the buildings, or what your ratio of people to hand sanitizer looks like… I’m asking what future God is calling you to build.  How has this season changed you, changed your organization, changed your community?  

How we have reacted to this season says much about us as individuals, and as a church.  What we do next will speak volumes about our priorities as well as our understanding of purpose.  

Disappointment 101

Monday afternoon I took a knife to some lovely ears of corn and prepared corn chowder for dinner.  I loaded everything into my handy Instapot, pushed the appropriate buttons and went back to my desk.  

Pro Tip #1: Corn chowder can go from creamy yellow to blackened char within a matter of minutes if your pressure cooker isn’t properly sealed.

Pro Tip #2: Panera makes a lovely corn chowder and still has curbside delivery.

My response to this “burnt offering” was to sob somewhat uncontrollably for a few minutes, and then reflect on how my reaction was a bit… exaggerated… given it was just a few ears of corn and a bit of my time.  When I drilled down a bit I realized that amongst all the other emotions I was feeling, the prevailing one was disappointment.  Oh yes, there was also anger, sadness, and frustration at this surreal world and the uncertainty and injustice… but, in that moment, what came to the top was overwhelming disappointment.

The literature suggests that disappointment is generally caused by a disconnect between our expectations and the resulting reality.  Unchecked it often gives way to rage or apathy, however, if we take the time to examine why we are feeling this way it can give us incredible insight into what we value.

As we begin to return to our sanctuaries, I encourage you to make time to discuss the disappointment that we all will inevitably feel.  Yes, it will be wonderful to be back in sacred space and to see each other’s eyes… but it won’t be the same.  Plan to talk through the experience with your leadership so that your community can benefit from learning more about what you really value.  How do those values compare with those you’ve previously claimed? Dig out your mission and/or vision statement.  Is there resonance there, or a disconnect?  How does that inform your understanding of your congregation?

Disappointment may sound like a second-tier emotion – it doesn’t have the same flair as anger or the numbing nature of depression, but its impact can be significant.  Ignore it at your peril.  And, stir your soup.

The end?

And just like that, a vote is cast and it is the end of an era.

Whether our vote is to close a church, end a marriage, choose hospice or to sell a camp there is always a mix of emotions and second-guesses.  We wonder what would have been.  We find ourselves thinking of all the “should haves” and “could haves”.  We cast blame on others, as well as on ourselves.

Photo by Jill Kilts

There should be finality to it, but there’s not.  Even if something should happen that suddenly offers the opportunity to reverse the decision – everything is forever changed.  

And so we grieve.

We grieve not for what we’ve lost, but for what might have been.  Perhaps with the right pastor, or an infusion of cash… perhaps with more counseling or an effective treatment things could have been different.  We mourn the past as well as the future.

At last night’s Presbytery meeting we voted to sell the Vanderkamp Center. VK has been offering camp since the late 1960’s and was a joint effort on the part of our Presbytery as well as the Presbytery of Utica and the ELCA folks in upper NY. These two partners in this ministry had voted to sell the camp… and have been waiting on our decision.  It was the sort of vote that cut to the heart of many even as we recognized that there were no other options.  In order to purchase the camp from the other two judicatories, we’d need to spend every cent we had… and find another 300K.  The necessity of the sale doesn’t make it any easier, or more palatable.

The good news is that we are a resurrection people.  We know that the end is not always the end.

Last night spoke a great deal to who we were as we made that decision… what happens next speaks to who we will be as God’s people after this decision. The funds from the eventual sale will echo the values of Vanderkamp (as per NYS non-profit law).  Because of this, there will be a legacy that honors those who first had a vision for that sacred ground as well as those who laughed and cried there and those that gave time, talent and treasure to its mission.

There are other ways to continue the legacy.  Rita Hooper is coordinating the “Friends of Vanderkamp.”  (If you’d like to join their efforts, you can find them on Facebook or by emailing her at twohoops2@gmail.com).  I’m also working on developing a website that celebrates the camp in stories and photos.  It’s still in the rough stage (it won’t be quite right until you send me your own story!) but you can find it here: http://www.celebratingvanderkamp.org. We will also try to find time to gather safely at the camp for one last campfire.

Prayers for us all during this difficult season and particularly at this difficult time.

The Magic Pew

Do you believe in magic?[i]

Not the sleight of hand or “where did the elephant go?” sort of stage magic, but the sense that certain things must be done in certain ways in order for something to happen?  Not a recipe, per se…. but a way of controlling something normally beyond our control.  It’s the lucky shirt you wear to the game or Grandma’s pie plate that has never failed to turn out a perfect crust.

It’s that pew you sit in every week; perhaps because it’s the pew your grandfather sat in or it’s the first pew where you honestly felt comfortable in church.  If you had to move? Change pews? The magic is gone.  (For those of you feeling somewhat smug, imagine if we didn’t sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve.  It’s that sort of thing.)

We’ve had a few months of not being able to sit where we know we belong, where we’ve felt the magic happen, and for some folks it may feel like we’re losing our religion (or that we’ve lost God).

I wonder if that is why we so desperately desire to go back to our sanctuaries.  It’s beyond a sense of comfort and familiarity, but rather a desire to connect with that which has seemed fleeting via Zoom or Facebook Live.  We miss one another, yes, but I think on some level for many have never found God anywhere else.  We miss that sacred space… that sacred geography.

We profess that we worship a God who cannot be enclosed by the boxes we create.  We worship a God who has spun the very stars into existence and who also knows every hair on our head.  We claim to be in relationship with One who is not bound by space (or time) but is our very breath, and yet our pew is still our pew.  Our church building is still our church building, and if we aren’t there we have no real access to God.

This understanding of magical and sacred space happens outside of church as well.  As we begin as a Presbytery to make decisions about Vanderkamp, it’s helpful to remember that this has been sacred ground for many.  It is a place where, like your favorite pew, there are memories and moments that are held dear.  For some it is where their relationship with Jesus was kindled around a campfire, or in the quiet of a cabin. This is more than a camp – it’s a place where folks regularly encountered God.

Breathe deep, friends.  Grieve.  Lament.  Mourn…. and know that this relationship we have with God is so much more than place.  I don’t know what the future will bring.  I do know that the Spirit will be there in the middle of it… regardless of whether we are in our sacred spaces or at home on our couches.  There’s nothing magical about it.

[i] The anthropologist in me understands the difference between magic and religion is one of control.  Magic, by definition, is defined by human agency.  By doing things in the right way, things normally understood as beyond the ability of humans to influence are impacted.  Crops grow.  Sickness is cured.  Weather patterns change.  With religion, adherents may become supplicants – those pray or beg deities they believe in for crops to grow, sickness to be cured, etc., but the power to do so belongs to the supernatural.  Of course, this is a simplistic explanation, and the lines I’ve just drawn are blurred in any number of ways.

What is the problem?

Seemingly centuries ago I took classes at Buffalo State in the area of Creative Problem Solving.  I loved the coursework so much that I ended up picking up a minor in it (isn’t it cool that a state-run institution offers these sorts of classes?  They still do… and they have a weeklong conference in Buffalo: http://cpsiconference.com).

One of the most important things I learned in that program was how critical it was to determine what the problem is before trying to solve it.  It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we expend creative energy solving the wrong thing.

Currently, many of our churches are engaged in trying to solve the problem of how to bring folks back into the sanctuary for worship.  I know there’s incredible creativity taking place amongst the various Session meetings who have taken up the challenge of masks, distancing, music and disinfecting.  We’re also trying to manage expectations so that folks know that it won’t be the same when they return.  We’re solving problems.  Heck, we’re solving those problems with creativity.  

But are we solving the right problems?

Here are a few questions to ask leadership:

  • Why do we want to return to worship together?
  • What have we learned about the church during this season of physical distancing?
  • What have we discerned that needs to be strengthened as we move forward?
  • What might we let go of as we move into this new season?

My hunch is that the answers to these questions aren’t as obvious as we’d like them to be.  

Of course, there are parallel questions that the Presbytery needs to ask as we move into this next season.  What have we learned during this season?  What needs to be strengthened?  What might we let go of?

Friends, let us not waste this crisis (these crises!).  Let’s do the difficult work of digging deeper so that we might better love our neighbors and our God.  Let’s do the wonderfully joyous and complex work of being the church.


Over the last few weeks of all the words that have landed on my desk, the word “PERFORMATIVE” lands like an indictment.  No, that’s not quite right.  The indictment part is right, but the landing strip for these words isn’t my desk.  It’s my heart.  It’s my gut.  In conversations with others, I know I’m not alone.

PERFORMATIVE [ per-fawr-muh-tiv ]

(of an expression or statement) performing an act by the very fact of being uttered, as with the expression “I promise,” that performs the act of promising. (See also, “slacktavism” or “ally theater”)

It pertains to me specifically in several areas – at times including my own faith. 

Performative allyship occurs whenever we say we’re in support of a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful (or is actually harmful!) or that draws attention away from the group we state we support.  It’s where we talk a lot… an awful lot… and we pass overtures and policies and form committees that have no chance of actually changing anything, but they make us feel good about what we’ve done (and that’s what is really important, right?).

Again.  It lands like an indictment.  It is an indictment.

How we respond to this charge complicates things further.  My immediate reaction is always defensive.  All the good things I’ve done line up like little toy soldiers ready to spring to my defense.  I’m a good person.  I’m trying. Look at me trying!  You may get angry.  Others might turn away entirely.  Some of us make the choice to not say anything.  We are really good at not taking risks – and I know that there are times when the fear of doing the wrong thing is paralyzing.  The problem there is that, again, that is all about us. 

We’re conflict-avoidant, peace-loving (where the peace we’re talking about is that sort we feel comfortable) chaos-fearing Presbyterians, and we all have our own preferred method of avoidance.  As a dear friend often said, “Your mileage may vary”.

Thing is, church?  We’re really good at all of the above.  I’m really good at all of the above.  Church folk know all too well how to talk the talk while walking in a completely different direction.  

We have a name for it. It’s called sin. We also know that sin requires us to lament and confess even as we work to repair.  It’s not work we can dole out to another; it’s our work to do.  It’s not the work of the Leadership Team, the COM or the Presbytery.  It’s the work of all of us.

Can I see your identification?

I’ve been rummaging about these last few days attempting to pull together a broken dissertation.  What began as a passion for discovering how ritual might be used to change organizations has… well, changed several times over the course of the last few years.  Then again, I’ve had a bit of a metamorphosis myself these last few years  – and I’m not referring to the gray hair.

Where my writing has finally settled is in looking at organizational identity, as well as organizational identification (yes, those are two separate things, and I’ve got the notes to prove it) and how organizational culture helps to shape and maintain that identity through ritual, amongst other things.

“Who do we say we are?” is a core question organizations ask of them selves.

“Who do they say we are?” is also important.

But deeper down are the other questions, the ones we dare not ask because we’re afraid of the answers.  How do we know who we are?  What informs that knowledge of the self?

I think about our congregations who on March 13th, 2020 could have told you exactly who they were… only to find on March 15th that their entire sense of identity had changed… and I think about building on rock and building on sand.

I wonder about congregations who moved easily into this new territory, even though it meant learning new technology, because their identity was focused not on a building, but on relationships with God and one another.

I’m inquisitive about those congregations who are halfway in the middle – with a core group of folks who made the move to online, as well as those who found their online attendance double that of what they’d see on a typical “in the building” Sunday.

I’m curious about congregations who have found themselves engaged in conversations regarding race, perhaps for the first time, and am wondering how that might change their identity.

My hope and prayer is that even as we begin to prepare for moving back into our buildings we take some time to discover what this wilderness time has said about our identity and what that might mean for us moving forward?

Finally, I always appreciate conversation partners around this sort of stuff.  I promise not to use you as a sermon illustration (although, you might end up somewhere in this dissertation!).

Give them Watts!

On June 9th my spouse and I celebrated thirty-years of marriage.  Our wedding picture shows us both in 18thcentury clothing – he in a white wig, and I dressed in a robe à la française (also known as a “sack back”).  We met as Revolutionary War re-enactors and fell in love at Old Fort Niagara… so this all made sense to us at the time (although it undoubtedly mystified a few neighbors).

Isaac Watts

So, when I had a chance to preach at the Springfield Church in NJ, I jumped at the chance… although I did preach in my usual Sunday pulpit gown and not my 18th century kit.  This charming colonial church is the site of a famous tête-à-tête (French again!) between the British and the Continental forces.  Rev. James Caldwell, a Presbyterian pastor whose wife had been killed by the British at the Battle of Connecticut Farms, was at the Springfield church likely in his role as a military Chaplain.  

During the battle the Continentals ran out of the paper used to roll cartridges.  Rev. Caldwell reportedly ran into the church and grabbed some hymnals.  He threw them to the army shouting “Give them Watts’ boys”, referring to several of the hymns that were penned by Isaac Watts.   As a result, the Battle of Springfield was a Continental victory.   

There are a variety of reasons folks express concern about the mixing of politics and faith.  For some its based on confusion over the principle regarding the “separation of church and state” which prevents the State from endorsing any particular faith system.  Other folks will cite the Johnson Act[1].  But at its root I think we don’t like to mix politics and faith because it is messy.  It is also risky.

Rev. James Caldwell didn’t live long after his “Give them Watts’ boys!” moment: a Continental soldier who was rumored to have been bribed to kill the chaplain succeeded in doing so. 

Rev. Virginia Gerbasi was the victim of “tear gas” and flash bombs last week as she handed out water on the patio of St. John’s Episcopal in Washington, D.C.

Messy.  Risky.  

These are the sorts of actions that make folks uncomfortable, and we will do anything to avoid discomfort… including making our churches political safe zones.  Instead of engaging one another in difficult conversations about how faith impacts our understanding of politics, we silently agree not to discuss it.  

J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA raises this question:  “How deep is our faith? How deep is our commitment to get into places we aren’t familiar with and proclaim the gospel?”

For Caldwell and Gerbasi the answer was clear, and messy and risky.

Where does your faith lead you?  What is your commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel?

[1] Churches and other faith groups are forbidden from endorsing political candidates by the IRS.  This doesn’t mean a church that does this will be arrested/sued/forbidden to meet, its intent is to limit the power of organizations that do not pay taxes to sway their population.

Whose Order?

Presbyterians are squirrely folk who lean heavily into the understanding that Order is important.  Some of us have even had bumper stickers on our cars that read “Decently and in Order!”.

Only me?  Okay, then.

There is something about order (logos!) being called out of chaos that appeals to my sensibilities.  I see it in the church even when we are even at our most disorderly – at Session meetings when emotions are high and in the way we debate the best use of resources.  Order occurs not because we insist on one way, but because we allow for discourse and discernment. We as a denomination have chosen to allow for lots of wiggle room even as we set parameters.  

Those parameters are our Confessions.

If you’re only familiar with the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, you need to dive into the others.  Three have been added to our Constitution in my lifetime: the Confession of ’67, the Brief Statement of Faith (roughly around the time of reunion) and Belhar Confession.  Like the previous additions, each Confessional statement speaks to the context in which it was written.  Each Confession seeks to birth order out of chaos.

Take the Barmen Declaration.  This Confession was written in the late 1930’s as a response to the efforts of the Nazi state to force churches to adopt “the Führer Principle” for organizing church government.  This principle focused on the unity of one leader and the people on one goal as the only means of creating order.[1] Many churches adopted this principle and supported Hitler as a German “prophet” and actively worked to support his ideals.  The idea of order was persuasive for many Christians because all the right props were in place, even as it marched boldly toward fascism.

It is a bit tempting, isn’t it?  Just give in to having an autonomous leader, and the problems and conflicts cease? This is the promise of fascism.

The Barmen Declaration was born out of the movement that protested the alignment of the church and the state.  It didn’t overtly speak to the acts of the Nazi state, but instead reminded the church that Jesus is the decisive Word (logos!) of God.   

In other words, if you are seeking order (logos!) and peace… do not look to the state.  Only Christ, church.  Only Christ.  There will always be those who promise order and lawfulness, but God alone is the One who brings order out of chaos.  

[1] Why, yes… Heidegger was a fan.

Corrective Lenses

Do you remember last year?

A bunch of folks realized that the year 2020 provided an excellent opportunity to strategize and, well, refocus.  I saw everything from “Vision 2020” or “2020 Vision” or the longer-ranged “20/20 by 2020” for those who had the foresight (hah!) to see this coming down the road a few years ago.  

Capital campaigns were planned and launched, “Think Tanks” were assembled and from our collective vantage point looking forward, the future was bright.  This was to be the year of strategizing and developing bold new goals for the next few years. 

And now?  All of that seems like so much Babel.

Now we find our vision is far from clear.  It’s hard to see straight amidst the chaos, and what we can see is often blurred with tears.  It’s hard to see with all the dust that has been stirred up, and if anything the last three months has taught us is that so much is vanity.  So much is dust.

Our vaulted 2020 Vision didn’t see the mote called SARS-CoV- 2 in any of our brilliant invulnerable Babel plans.  And now, into this incredible expanding void as Babel topples (every day new numbers… new names… new lives added to those lost) I can’t help but think of the words of the prophet Joel who spoke of dreams and vision and prophesy even as the Spirit was poured out upon all flesh.  

As the Wind picks up and the dust swirls around us, instead of bold new visions for the year 2020 and beyond we find ourselves humbled.  We find ourselves very, very, human and very, very afraid.

And what is to be our response?  We can go back to building Babel, grabbing bricks from one another to build a strategic vision that we can worship.  

Alternatively, we could confess that our vision needs to be corrected, and lean into the new lens that Pentecost brings.  “20/20 Vision With Correction!” might not have the same marketing flair – but if it allows us to focus on building the world anew in such a way that the least of these is cared for; a world where systemic racism is acknowledged and repented of and poverty is eradicated? 

Wouldn’t that be a sight worth seeing?

Isn’t that the vision we’re supposed to be seeing?