Lent: Forgive Me for Repelling People

imageI like coffee shops.

I like prayer.

I like Bible studies.

I like prayer and Bible studies in coffee shops.

But yesterday – on Ash Wednesday in the year of our LORD 2014 – in rural-ish Illinois, I happened to park myself in a Starbucks with my computer and a skinny mocha, sitting in the one seat not taken by a large group of Christians who seemed to be gathering for prayer and Bible study.

They were loud.  Like Sports-Bar-on-a-Monday-night-before-the-Playoffs loud.   It was about 11 am and they were talking (loudly) and laughing and then praying (loudly) and then they left.  And all I could think about was how much I did not ever want to be a part of that group.

God, have mercy on me and my own friends for the times that we were That Group.  I’ve been part of groups called Theology on Tap (until my RC brothers threatened to sue me), Faith on Tap, and God Talk on Tap.  And now I wonder how often we made onlookers never want to be a part of our gathering.

And so, please forgive me and my friends.  My hope in getting together with believers and doubters and born-again atheists is that we would be authentically welcoming of all.  But I wonder how often I have repelled people from a God who entered our world in human skin and loved/welcomed/blessed everyone.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Tourists Who Walk, Ride, & Buy

Navy-Pier-Ferris-WheelAccording to this article, the world’s tourists spend most of our time walking around, shopping, enjoying amusement park rides and maybe gambling.

We live in a world where more people visit Navy Pier than the Louvre.  Even worse – in my snobby opinion – is that the Las Vegas Strip has more tourists than any other attraction in the whole wide world.

(Note:  as a fairly new resident of Chicagoland, your time will be better spent on an architectural boat tour than Navy Pier. Even if you don’t like architecture, you get to ride on a boat.)

How can Union Station in Washington, DC or Grand Central Station in NYC be a bigger tourist attraction than the Smithsonian Museums, unless we are counting people who are simply walking around in food courts?  Same with Times Square. Are we counting a stroll through the Hershey store as tourism?

So here’s my church connection (because there is always a church connection.)  Rob Bell wrote long ago in Velvet Elvis that we 21st Century Church People are sort of like tour guides:   We help guide people who are passing through, in hopes of enhancing their experience and understanding of what they are seeing or hearing or feeling.

Churches today attract lots of tourists, and I don’t mean those churches with Tiffany Windows and historic pulpits.  I’m talking about communities of faith with visitors  who are looking for something.  Maybe they don’t even know what they are looking for.

Some people simply want to walk in and check it out as a cultural experience. Others are looking for more of a log flume experience:  “My life is a roller coaster.  What does it mean?”  Maybe they will get a little wet.

It could feel like a huge gamble to visit a church.  They are hoping against hope for something that will make them rich.  They will find – perhaps – that spiritual peace cannot be bought.

Are we prepared to engage with spiritual tourists?  Are our church leaders equipped to give what we might consider to be obvious directions to guests who don’t know a hymnal from a Bible – although those differences are as unfamiliar as a subway map in a foreign city?  Are we willing to repeat the same message over and over again with unrelenting patience and compassion?  And do we know that message personally ourselves (i.e. that God loves us enough to die for us, that we were born to love God and others, that we are saved by grace?)

Look for tourists this Lenten season – who probably don’t even know what Lent is.  They will definitely be walking along or driving by or shopping.


Pick Me! Pick Me!

Seven women shall take hold of one man on that day, saying,
‘We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes;
just let us be called by your name; take away our disgrace.’  Isaiah 4:1

LupitaWe all want to be chosen.  From kick ball teams on the playground to varsity teams in high school.  By college admissions officers and job interviewers.  At the Oscars.  By Pastor Nominating Committees.  We so much want to be picked and it feels – maybe even – disgraceful when we are not.  We want to be liked (really liked.)  We want to be accepted.  We want people to want us.

It feels lousy not be to picked, but there are reasons why some of us are chosen and some are not.

  • One pastor is chosen over another because the congregation was looking for something you can’t teach or force.  It wasn’t that other candidates were not smart enough or old enough or young enough.  (Note: Sadly sometimes it is still about not being male enough or straight enough or white enough, though.)  When the Spirit of God is in control, unexpected things happen.
  • One actor is chosen over another to win a prize for a multiplicity of reasons that sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t.  How do we even try to compare Lupita Nyong’o ‘s Patsy with June Squibb’s Kate?  And yet the cliche that “just being nominated is an honor” falls flat.
  • Some of us believe that if we can just get a foot in the door, we’ll have a good chance of being chosen.  Some of us believe it’s totally “who you know.”

I love this bizarre verse in Isaiah 4 about the seven women vying for one man.  There was/is shame in not being selected to be somebody’s partner because it means that we belong when we are selected.  In the days when Isaiah was written, it literally meant “belong” to someone.  If a woman in those days didn’t belong to a man (her father or her husband) her life had no meaning.

Twenty-first Century Church is all about belonging – but I don’t mean having our names on church rolls or membership cards.  (Any pastor will tell you that she’d rather serve a church  of 200 members with 180 in worship than serve a church of 2000 members with 180 in worship.)

Belonging today means participating, making a commitment, feeling connected, experiencing community.  It’s okay if we don’t get the job/award/position on the team if we feel appreciated and fulfilled in our particular community.  This is what church is for:  to ensure that we have a community of people who love and accept us in the image of Christ.  The world doesn’t always choose us.  But God already has.

How are we doing on conveying this truth to others?


The Ministry of Helping People Save Face

shame1Brene Brown continues to be The Patron Saint of Vulnerability, polishing the lens through which I see things. Consider all the Bible stories that have a connection to shame and face-saving (Zacchaeus, Ruth, Leah & Rachel, Peter, etc. etc. etc.

Oh, and Jesus. There are those stories.

We Church People are called to help people save face – and God knows we have ample opportunities:

  • The most judgmental couple in the congregation – who regularly condemn people for various reasons – learn that their own daughter is getting divorced. We can secretly embrace schadenfreude. Or we can comfort them as if they never mentioned how spiritually bankrupt we must be for being divorced ourselves.
  • A church staff member is caught stealing money. We can openly share this with everybody. Or we can quietly let this staffer go “for family reasons” or “health reasons” or some other face-saving reason.
  • A 80-something church member’s son commits suicide and she doesn’t want anyone to know how he died. We can whisper the truth in the church parking lot, or we can protect this confidentiality and sit with her for as long as she needs.
  • There’s conflict between the pastor and other leaders, and it’s clear that a change in leadership is needed. We can shame and blame each other. Or we can prayerfully consider what’s honestly best for the church and move accordingly.

Church should be the last place where people are shamed.

We should be The Go-To Place to share our failures, our mistakes, our disappointments, our anxieties, our weaknesses. I see a slow (very slow) shift in how we are the church together in terms of helping people save face. We are slowly moving from a Mad Men Church (“Appearances are everything“) to a Real Life Church (“I am a screw-up and so are you. But there’s grace.“)

What face-saving efforts have you seen in your church lately?

Edith Crawley Needs a Bigger Church

EdithIn light of Lady Edith Crawley’s delicate situation in the first episodes of Downton Abbey Season 4, her grandmother mentioned to Lady Rosamund that Edith needs “cherishing.”  It’s one of the Dowager’s rare pastoral comments.

Edith found holy, sacrificial support both from her grandmother and her aunt, but actually Lady Edith needs a bigger church.  I say this because it is the church’s job – among other things – to cherish God’s children in the thick and thin of life.  A woman with a difficult pregnancy?  She needs to know that she is still loved  in spite of cultural shaming.  A jilted bride?  She needs to know that she is profoundly treasured as God’s own child.  A quirky middle child?  She needs to know that her worth is not based on superficial things.

As I left my former church last Sunday after an invited visit, I felt deeply loved and appreciated, and it was a feeling that everyone should get occasionally.  I remember – as the pastor of that church years ago – talking with parishioners who had never experienced “someone ever being in love with them.”  There were women who married men for security because “that’s what you did.”  But those men had not really cherished them.  There were women who had deeply loved their husbands but that love had not been returned in kind.

There were men in similar situations.  And my point is that we live in a world where love is not guaranteed and – sometimes – even when we love, it is imperfect and disappointing.

We in the church are called to love bomb each other.

While no church can fulfill every person’s every need, we are called to notice and appreciate each other.  We are called to reach out to the lonely and to sit with the grieving. We are called to help the weak and suffering, whether this involves driving someone to the doctor or listening to their stories over tea.  One of our most essential reasons for existing is that we are to love those who are not loved by anyone else.  We are to love even our enemies and those who persecute us.  We are to love strangers and others who are not part of our congregations.

It was not easy to have close relationships in early 20th Century England society.  But we can have that here and now, wherever we are.  Church requires authentic, safe, compassionate, selfless relationships.  Lady Edith could have used a bigger church.  We are called to be that bigger church.

Imagine cherishing someone who feels unloved.  That is church.

What If Wednesday: Current & Former Pastors Edition

imageA colleague once shared that – when she started her current position as pastor – she wrote to each of her living predecessors and said:

  • Thank you for building this congregation and serving these people that I’ve now been called to serve.
  • Please know that I would like to invite you back as a guest sometime during my ministry here.
  • If you are in town visiting, please let me know so we can get together.
  • If you are asked by your former parishioners to officiate at their weddings, family funerals, etc. please say a simple ‘no.’  If you say ‘yes’ you are making it hard for me to establish myself as their pastor.  If you say ‘I’d love to, but I have to be invited by your current pastor’ you are putting me in a difficult position because if I then don’t invite you, I am the mean new pastor.  Thank you for understanding.

As I’ve written many times in this blog, the relationship between current and former pastors can be tricky for countless reasons.  What if the former pastor considers himself beloved, but now that he’s gone, the congregation resents him and blames him for various problems (and they don’t want to see him again)?  What if the former pastor is actually beloved and has retired down the street?  What if the former pastor’s family grew up in that congregation and they stayed with their own children after their mother accepted a call far away?

So many factors make the relationship between current and former pastors delicate.  In a perfect world, former and current pastors love their congregations more than their own need to be beloved (and so former pastors don’t interfere.)  In a perfect world, former and current pastors are mature, secure in themselves, and have lots of friends who are not part of their former or current congregations.

Last weekend, I was invited to visit my former church for the first time by their current pastor to be a guest in worship. I had not been back for almost three years.  The pastor invited me forward to share updates on my family.  (Our three kids had grown up among them and were now 20-somethings.)  I let them know what HH and I were doing in ministry.

It was not only lovely and generous.  “It completed the circle” in the words of my wise sister in ministry.

After leaving my first church, where I’d served for five years straight out of seminary, I moved several states away and – apart from Christmas cards – I was never seen again.  I literally never again saw or talked with people whose spouses I’d buried or whose babies I’d baptized.  I was invited back once for an event but it was between pastors for them and an elder invited me.  Sadly, I couldn’t attend because of a prior commitment, but it would have been healing to return and see that they were okay and I was okay.

What if current and former pastors saw ourselves as partners - both loving and serving the same people but in different times?  What if current and former pastors intentionally made that circular connection for the sake of people who have cared for and been cared for by both of them/all of them?

What if we current and former pastors first considered, “What would be best for this church?” in terms of relationships?   What if it never had to be about our own stuff (insecurity, jealousy, loneliness, the need to hang onto a role)?

What if all pastors were as generous and wise as JW-B?

Image is Circles by Kandinsky.

Moving On to Something New

imageI’m writing this from My Happy Place, where I learned so much about professional ministry.  My current home is  693.2 miles away.

It’s profoundly meaningful to be in my old stomping, pastoring, parenting grounds, but I also find that I appreciate my new life so much.  It’s all good.

I’ve also just read that the current Moderator of the General Assembly of my denomination has been called to a new position as he completes his moderatorial year – a move which is somewhat expected in that there is a pattern of PCUSA GA Moderators who want/need to move on to a new call after serving in this role.  It’s been fascinating over the years to watch former Moderators navigate this desire/need to move on after such an intensive 1-2 years, juggling ministry at home and ministry on a national scale. Sometimes we have to move on in a dramatic way.  If we don’t, we get stuck – and possibly stale.

Stale is killing The Church.

We need to move on – but not necessarily to a new church  or church position. We need to move into a new way of being the church.

  • Many (many) secular people have a negative opinion of church people.  How are we changing their opinion?  (Or are we perpetuating it?)
  • Do we know how to be the church in a non-institutional way?
  • What’s our (honest) tribal creed?  The actual one (e.g. “We actually don’t like strangers.”) Not the one we publish in the annual report.

We need to move on to (becoming) something new. Let’s do it.  Really, it will be fun.


Image is from Busboys & Poets in Shirlington, VA.


Standing Tall

I tend to wear nun shoes because:Power Posture

  1. I fall down a lot.
  2. I walk a couple miles to/from work and need comfort.
  3. I kind of dress like a nun much of the time.

But on 2-8-14 when I was installed into my new position in this lovely venue, I decided that – heck – I was going to wear heels. It was kind of a special occasion. I found black pumps in my closet with two-inch heels – not spiky but not quite chunky.

They made me feel really tall.

Prior to my pre-Presbytery Meeting presentation, my brilliant colleague L. taught me Power Postures. (See image.) Much like birds spread their wings to demonstrate their authority, L. showed me how to stand tall which was especially easy wearing heels.

I liked the feeling.

I’ve now worn my heels three other times and haven’t fallen down once. I suddenly understand why tall pastors and other tall people have immediate confidence as they tower over the landscape. I enjoy tapping my inner Nadia/long-stem rose.

The truth is that I am the shortest person in my family, and my spouse and kids are not exactly altitudinous people. It’s also true that I’ve also never been a tall-steeple pastor – at least in the sociological sense – and so I don’t have that self-assured sense that I am An Important Pastor based on the membership rolls.

And yet Standing Tall is a spiritual practice and a way of being that all of us can experience. I wonder how we can embrace our Tall & Mighty Selves based on just being who we are. Much like Sheryl Sandberg encourages us women to lean in, how can The Church encourage everyone to stand tall and feel strong not because we are physically tall and mighty but because we were created in God’s Image?

How can we teach each other to stand tall against bullies? How can we stand tall against injustice? How can we teach each other that standing tall feels great and it’s not about our own stature? It’s about something so much higher.

Image of Wonder Woman in her power pose. I think she’s been a bit photoshopped.

Temper. Temper.

jordan-davis-flagWe Christians follow a leader who was once angry enough to turn over tables in the temple. If we don’t like the idea of an angry Messiah, we can call it righteous indignation

Then there was the cursing of the fig tree for having no fruit at breakfast time and the whole pile-it-on rant against the scribes and Pharisees. Again, Jesus got angry because there are Just Some Things in This World that justifiably rile us for the love of God. Jesus was often angry about injustice and hypocrisy and spiritual laziness.

But Jesus was never angry about loud music as far as we can tell. He was never angry about people whose skin color was lighter or darker than his own. He was never angry about strangers in the neighborhood. Actually, he was often that stranger.

I can’t say whether or not Jesus had a temper in terms of general disposition towards angry outbursts and impatience. I can say that Jesus was one to temper justice with mercy, to temper heated moments with grace.

What we need are fewer tempers and more tempering.

Most of us can’t get our heads around a person who would fire a gun at teenagers whose “rap crap” was too loud. It turns out that the teenagers didn’t have weapons in their Dodge Durango, although Michael Dunn explains that he shot at Jordan Davis and his friends in the Durango because he saw a gun. He stood his ground and shot Jordan Davis and then continued to shoot at the car as they drove away.

Mr. Dunn seems to have a bad temper. He lost control. He had just left his son’s wedding before the shooting, so you’d think he would have been in a good mood.

On the other hand, tempering their understandable rage are Jordan Davis’ parents. Nobody could blame them for cursing the heavens – and Michael Dunn. But they are grateful now for a glimpse of justice. Jordan’s father said that “his calmness through anger and grief honored the memory of his son.”

The world needs cooler tempers and more passionate tempering. There is nothing we can say to Jordan’s parents except that many of us worship a God who knows what it’s like to lose a son to violence. Honestly, we have got to get a grip on our anger and fear.

Image of Jordan Davis who would have been 19 last weekend.

When the Pastor Dies

priest graveI just learned over the weekend that the pastor who held me in his arms to baptize me when I was four months old passed away in 2012.  He was 93 years old and had been retired for almost thirty years.

The grief of losing a nonagenarian spiritual leader is real, and yet it’s quite different than the feeling of losing a person whose voice you can still hear as you remember her sermons, whose face singing familiar hymns is still a fresh memory.

Two colleagues passed away over the last month – one last Friday and another in late January.  One from a terrible disease and another after an accident.  One retired early after her dire diagnosis, although she remained active in the community.  And the other was an active pastor serving a small church.

It’s a tender time for the families and friends of those two gifted pastors.  But it’s also a holy time for their congregations which will forever influence their spiritual lives.

How do we grieve our spiritual mentors well?  When the pastor has been the holder of our darkest secrets and the celebrant of our most joyous milestones, it feels strange to watch that same pastor fade away slowly or quickly.

For the pastor who knows he or she is dying, there is the temptation to keep smiling and never let God’s people see you doubt or cry or curse.  The truth is that dying is usually more difficult than being born ever was.  And it’s okay to doubt and cry and curse.  Sometimes it’s the most pastoral thing we can do.

For the pastor who dies suddenly, it’s a horrible jolt to everyone, especially the family.  It’s okay for the pastor’s family and friends to doubt and cry and curse too.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are losing their faith.  It just means that they are devastated and rocked.  And so are we.

I remember being in a worship service several years ago the Sunday after a pastor had suddenly died of a heart attack.  One of the liturgists announced that “if anyone wanted to be on the committee to nominate the next pastor” to let him know.  Really.  Their beloved pastor had not even been buried yet, but they were trying to keep moving.  Maybe it felt like the faithful thing to do.

But it was not faithful.  It was fearful.

Remember that axiom about not making any Big Changes after a loved one dies?  Don’t sell your house or marry the next person who invites you to brunch.

The same is true when the pastor dies.  It may take a long time before the congregation is ready to call someone new because rushing into the next pastorate may result in an unintentional interim situation.  But we fear our church losing traction or losing members or wandering aimlessly, and so we reach for something that feels solid.

But we still need time.  It’s okay to take time.

In memory of the Reverend Carlyle McDonald and in honor of special friends who know who they are.