Based on the Sermons of . . .

HollerAs we debrief last night’s Tony Awards this morning (loved The Music Man rap) I’m also looking ahead at the new season on Broadway. Plays are often “based on” the songs or books or lives of great and random people.

The 2014 season brings us Holler If Ya Hear Me based on the songs of Tupac Shakur.  In this article, August Wilson is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing contained in your life that’s not contained in that music. There’s love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people. There’s a whole universe in that music.” I’ve heard sermons like that. Sure most preachers have the habit of preaching virtually the same single message each week no matter what the season (“God loves us.” “Life can be different.” “Serve the least of these.”)

But occasionally there is a sermon so transformative, so absolutely inspiring that there is a whole universe in that message.

Clearly the Bible covers “love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people.” So why hasn’t someone written a play based on the sermons of MLK or some of the famous-ish preachers we all know? I’m not talking about satire or a cartoonish version of the Gospel. I’m not talking about the sermons of Joel Osteen.

Imagine hearing a message after which someone could say “There’s nothing contained in my life that’s not contained in that sermon.” Even better: imagine writing and then preaching that sermon.

Let’s face it. Even the word “preaching” prompts rolled eyes and sagging shoulders. Preachers are considered by both the secular and sacred world to be dry and inconsequential.  And yet, we have the privilege and responsibility to speak to universal truths (and most of us clergy are actually paid to do this.) Imagine doing it with the possibility in mind that someone might one day write a fabulous play based on our words.


fallen-9000-6[6]While there are several D-Day stories on television this week (all roads lead to Tom Brokaw) there are few references on social media today, as far as I’ve seen.  I wonder if it has to do with the fact that people young enough to connect via social media do not know much about D-Day.

I count myself among those who recognize “Normandy” and “Omaha Beach” and “Saving Private Ryan” but I don’t know 6-6-44 like I know 9-11-01.  My heart doesn’t physically tense up when I think about that day.

“That day” was 70 years ago and it was not just a day.  The battles continued for months. British Chaplain Leslie Skinner wrote 72 days into the fighting:

Place absolute shambles. Infantry dead and some Germans lying around. Horrible mess. Fearful job picking up bits and pieces and re-assembling for identification and putting in blankets for burial.”

Fearful job.  Bits and pieces.  Re-assembling.

This is what chaplains and pastors and all followers of Jesus still do if we are doing it well.  Ministry is not always pretty.  If we are doing it well, we regularly sit in @%^! with people and it can be terrifying.  We seek hope alongside them and they with us. Resurrection often takes on the form of re-assembling bits and pieces of life.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies failed to complete all their goals.  There would be more horror and more loss, and yet it was the beginning of a new chapter that would bring peace.  This is the best we can hope for sometimes:  peace in the (sometimes distant?) future.

I don’t know how to honor those who fought 70 years ago today except in this way:  Ponder who in your life needs to be liberated – from depression, addiction, misfortune, loneliness, paralysis, cruelty, misunderstanding, deep grief.  And be there.  That’s often the best we can do.

And a profound thanks to those who were there in the thick of things 70 years ago today.

Image is called The Fallen by Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley.

Letting Go of Impression Management

I know a church that sets an excellent first impression.pleasantville

The lawn is perfectly trimmed and the sidewalks are swept. The church sign welcomes Everybody. The doors are painted with fresh red paint and the columns are clean and white.

The hope is that people will be attracted to this church and Come On In! The mindset is that “if we look like we care for our building, people will want to be a part of this community.” The message is that Tidy Church Building & Grounds = Healthy Congregation.

We all know that first impressions don’t tell the whole story. Second and third and hundredth impressions don’t tell the whole story either. In fact, some of us are excellent at Impression Management.  And we can work feverishly to keep impressions up for a long time.

2011 article in Forbes declares that: “Most people will judge you within the first second of meeting you and their opinion will most likely never change.”   This might be true for political campaigns and job interviews.  It could even be true for most social occasions.  But it shouldn’t be true for church.

The 21st Century Church must be real first and foremost.  Maybe you know congregations who:

  • Hide conflicts, skeletons, and leaky roofs from prospective pastors for fear of scaring good candidates away.
  • Banish troublesome members in hopes of keeping everything pretty.
  • Reward The Perfect Families in their midst with attention and leadership opportunities while treating others as if they are invisible.

There’s no spiritual community on the planet without some measure of dirt, disease, and discombobulation.  We might all appear to be wholesome and prosperous but the truth is that we are kind of a mess.  That’s the point of church, if you ask me:  we gather as misfits and hot messes and find redemption and resurrection in spite of it all.  And then we offer that to others.

I would like to say that thriving churches are authentic churches, but many thriving churches (if thriving = mega-numbers) lose members when relationships become deeper and pleasant first impressions are no longer manageable.  All of us with long church connections know people who came through our doors seeking perfection and Pleasantville only to find imperfection and a unpleasant church underbelly.  And then they left.

I love what Nadia says to people when they begin to connect with her congregation:   I’m glad you love it here, but like at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.

More than most, Nadia doesn’t do impression management.

I’m all about being intentional and noticing what about our body language might repulse someone, as Forbes recommends.  But real people need real church. And it’s just too exhausting to try to manage appearances.


In Search of the Spiritually Confident Congregation

20140603-173819.jpgA healthy church is a spiritually confident church. We trust in God to direct us, gift us, stick with us, and occasionally kick us in the pants.

Sarai Schnucker Rice wrote a good article here about the qualities a church needs to be “good at.” I understand this to mean: becoming a healthy congregation that a healthy pastor will want to serve.

(That’s not exactly how SSR put it, but imagine the extraordinary things that can happen when a spiritually confident pastor is matched with a spiritually confident congregation.)

Most of us clergy try to be the kind of pastor that a church will want to call – especially in this current state of things when there are more pastors looking for positions than there are positions. Ambitious pastors take certification courses. We attend conferences. We get the word out to our connections that we are looking. But just as pastors need to be the kind of pastors congregations will want to interview, congregations need to be the kind that pastors will want to serve.

Mistake #1 when churches are looking for a pastor: The attitude that “our church is awesome and who would not want to be our pastor?”

Mistake #2 when churches are looking for a pastor: The attitude that “our church doesn’t have much to offer so who would want to be our pastor?”

Some of our congregations seem to be confident mostly in themselves, their history, their numbers. Or they are not confident at all. Imagine congregations that are spiritually confident.  They know God Is With Them.  They sense the Spirit working through them.

What does “a good church” look like? I’ve listed SSR’s points and added questions that we might ask ourselves, in hopes of being the kind of church that we are called to be.

A Church Should Be Competent in:

  1. Discernment/DecisivenessDo we pray together for God’s guidance when tough decisions need to be made? Do we make our decisions clearly, respectfully, and in a timely way?
  2. Self-Awareness Do we understand who we are in 2014? Do we know what our neighborhood needs? Have we noticed who’s sitting in the pews and who’s not sitting in the pews?
  3. Organizing ItselfDo we communicate information well to everyone? Do we have solid policies and procedures that people actually follow?
  4. ResilienceDo we happily try new things, fearless that a failed program will not kill us nor will the paradoxes of life paralyze us?
  5. ExpressivenessDo people talk with each other confidently about Real Life? Do they joyously articulate their faith using art, music, storytelling, financial giving, and mission projects?
  6. Public FaithfulnessDo we talk about how excited we are about what our church is doing to make the community look more like The Kingdom of God? Do we love our spiritual community so much that we often mention it in random conversations with neighbors and friends?
  7. StrategyDoes our church see trends in the neighborhood? Are we aware of demographic shifts in our school system, real estate market, crime rates, and unemployment statistics? Do we align our ministry accordingly?
  8. ClarityCan most members articulate our church’s core purpose?
  9. Community-Building (“SSR calls this a congregational orientation”) Do members warmly welcome strangers and guests? Do we forgive each other well? Do we refrain from gossip and blaming? Do we see each other with the eyes of Christ?

A spiritually gifted pastor can help a congregation make these shifts. But if a congregation has no interest or energy to be competent in these areas, even a rock star pastor cannot succeed.

But what if our congregations saw their challenges through the lens of a spiritually confident community of faith?

As we countdown to Pentecost Sunday, this is the perfect time to prepare for the Spirit of God to Change Everything. I’m quite confident that this can happen.

Image source.

My “When Life is Sucky” File

20140601-155919.jpgEverybody needs one.

In my previous life, I called it my “Why I Do What I Do” file. It’s the collection of emails and letters I read when I need to remember my purpose in life.

Now that my life includes an expanded glimpse into Church World, I renamed the file “When Life is Sucky” in 2011. (Church World is occasionally often difficult.) The file includes no “You are the greatest!” messages. Mostly the notes say something like “You probably don’t realize that you helped me, but you helped me” messages. I’d rather receive one of these emails than a dozen of the “You are the best pastor ever” messages. Some of my favorites include

  • A thank you from the parents of a twenty-something church member who was grateful that our church had been there for their daughter after college.
  • An appreciation for saying in a pastoral prayer on Mothers’ Day that some mothers are terrible.
  • A note from Session members that our Presbytery had helped them navigate a critical situation.

Notes like these are basically not about personalities or happiness or individual achievement. They are more about being and doing what we were created to be and do.

So, faithful readers, my hope on this 2nd day of June in the year of our LORD 2014 is that we would consider:

  • Asking ourselves who has made life meaningful for us?  Who helped something click for us?  Who unwittingly said or did the perfect thing at just the right moment for us?
  • Sending that person a thank you.

And maybe someone will send a similar note of thanks to you, and then we can add it to our “Life Is Not Sucky” file. We not only need one of these files; we need to add to the files of others.  Because – actually – life is pretty great.  We just need reminders.

Image is from a precious letter in my files that removes random suckiness from any given day.

When We’ve Got Nuthin’

Maybe I’m drained from a series of losses that I didn’t think were going to TheNewNothingimpact my soul, but they totally have.  In the past two weeks

  • TBC graduated from college and has been launched into Adult Working World,
  • A gifted friend has blessedly passed away after a cruel 7-8 years with dementia,
  • Maya Angelou died and I’m grieving the loss of That Voice.  I though it would help to re-read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but it hasn’t.

I’ve had little to write in these posts.

Occasionally part of my work involves hanging out with pastors through the thick of it and occasionally they say variations of these things:

  • I am toast.
  • I can’t seem to pray.
  • I got nuthin’.

So, on this perfect day that the Creator has made, what have you got for the bleary?  (This is a real question.)

Image from The New Nothing, a collection of images from the Hubble Space Telescope “of star clusters, stripped of the empirical data that renders them remarkable.”

I Want to Be Regal like Maya

Maya-AngelouOnly a few people can be identified as regal if you ask me.  Queen Elizabeth II – by definition – is regal, even as an 88 year old horsewoman, although I’m not sure she carries herself as regally as Maya Angelou did in her 86 years on the earth.

What makes a person elegant or resplendent or majestic? It’s a quality that cannot be faked.  It doesn’t happen automatically because someone has a title.

We can learn a lot about what Regal looks like by observing the life of Maya Angelou.

  • She carried herself with self-respect whether she was in The Store or the streets or the stage.
  • She was curious all her life, learning to speak multiple languages and living in a variety of places.  It’s impossible to carry ourselves with elegance if we think we know everything.
  • She chose every word carefully.  She famously didn’t speak for about six years after a childhood trauma, and like all good poets, she picked her words thoughtfully and precisely when she spoke again.
  • She was gentle in spite of the brutality she’d witnessed.
  • She knew the difference between bitterness and angerBitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.  (We sometimes forget that Jesus was never bitter, but he was occasionally angry over injustice.)
  • She picked herself up after loss and missteps.  It’s a positive person who considers her life charmed even after growing up in the Jim Crow South and enduring childhood abuse.
  • She was a beautiful older lady.  People wanted to be near her because she made them feel wonderful.

This is what I’d love to be if I live into my 80s.  Regal like Maya Angelou.



The 21st Century Church is Color Brave

Two things:Mixed-Colorful-Flower-Garden

  1. If you haven’t yet read Bruce Reyes-Chow’s book But I Don’t See You As Asian, please do so today. This would be an excellent summer study for your book group.
  2. Stop what you are doing Right Now and watch Mellody Hobson’s TED Talk on race here.

And for extra credit, read through these facts about white privilege.  [Maybe you don't already know this, but - in most cities in this country -  if your name is 'Yolanda' you are less likely to get a job interview than if your name is 'Bianca' (or Katherine, Anna, or Stephanie. Or John.)  White Privilege is a real thing.]

As Mellody Hobson has said, we don’t need to be color blind; we need to be color brave.  This is not about being politically correct or hipster or “open-minded.”

This is about being God’s people.  And this is about being The 21st Century Church.

We are called to be color brave, not because it’s cool, but because it is faithful.

Jesus always noticed people.  He noticed the short person in the tree.  He noticed the woman who came to the well at noon.  He noticed the person in the crowd who was tugging on his clothes. If we follow Jesus, we -too – need to notice people.

As Mellody Hobson points out, maybe we notice when we walk into a board room full of black people.  But how many of us notice when we walk into a board room full of white people?

What if we not only noticed but sought out more color and more diversity?

My sister once told me that she painted her living room salmon, and I couldn’t imagine it.  Frankly, it sounded a bit too adventurous for me.  But it was gorgeous.  She has an eye for this kind of thing, and her life is more interesting and beautiful for it.

Imagine how interesting and beautiful (and more faithful) we would be if we were color brave every day.

Judge Not

head-in-hands-sculptureThere was a couple I vaguely knew in college. They got married shortly after graduation – young, beautiful, headed for glory.  After just a year or two, the young wife suffered a terrible accident leaving her brain damaged.  And shortly after that, the young husband divorced her and went on his way.

Passionate debate ensued among us twenty-somethings, especially among those of us who barely knew them.

Pro-Divorce:  This is not what he’d bargained for.  Who wouldn’t divorce someone in his situation?  He was only 25 years old.  He had his whole life in front of him.

Anti-Divorce:  What about “in sickness and in health as long as we both shall live”?  How could he leave her when she needed him the most? 

The truth is that we have no idea what we would do in such circumstances.  We might think we know exactly what we’d do, but we don’t.  We honestly don’t.

[I remember the Pro-Life-Parade-Marching Mom in my first church who phoned me late one night and begged me to take her 15 year old daughter to get an abortion.]

As my brilliant 20-something TBC recently reminded me upon discussing the most valuable things she learned in college:  We Cannot Take Things At Face Value.  We cannot know what someone is going through.  We cannot know all the factors involved in their making very personal life decisions.  We cannot possibly know every back story, every consideration, every secret circumstance.

Perhaps we’ve even had to make a similar decision, and yet the details of our particular decisions are never the same as the next person’s decision.

Only God knows.  And God loves us.

And so next time we see someone whose toddler is throwing a fit in the shopping mall, or we hear about parents who send their child to a boarding school, or we have a neighbor who sends her mother to a mental institution, or our sibling moves to the other side of the country from his ex, or a church friend makes a choice “we would never make” – consider the fact that we may not know exactly what we would do.

We pray for grace and ask for cosmic guidance.  And when our friends make choices we say we would not make, we offer grace to them as well.  Jesus died for this.

Image source.

In loving memory of DES (1967-2014)

Because We Don’t Want To

There are many things I don’t want to do in life:  weed the garden, wash man-with-folded-arms-1962windows, paint the trim, floss.  But I have to do these things, and life is sweeter when I do.

This statement from a post by Aaron Earls jolted me last week:

Why aren’t Millennials at your church? You don’t want them there.

Honestly, our faith communities want many things:

  • “To grow”
  • “To attract young families”
  • “To serve”
  • “To make a difference”

But we don’t want to do what it will take for those things to happen.

I often ask engaged couples, “What are you willing to do to keep your marriage healthy and alive?”  It’s a better question to ask before marriage because it’s easier to secure a commitment before the wedding than after.

  • Are you willing to go to counseling with your spouse?
  • Are you willing to leave your job for her/him?
  • Are you willing to live a distance from your family?
  • Are you willing to stop _____ for the sake of your relationship?

Sometimes we don’t want to do these kinds of things.

Churches:  what are you honestly willing to do to grow/welcome “young people”/serve your community?

  • Are you willing to relinquish norms that turn people off?
  • Are you willing to fling open the doors to people who don’t look like/act like you?
  • Are you willing to give up some of the things you like most about your church?
  • Are you willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of someone else’s comfort?

If the answer is “no” then you actually don’t want to do what you say you want to do.

It’s healthier to acknowledge this truth and continue to decline than it is to say – falsely -that you want to grow and then blame it on the pastor/denomination when growth doesn’t happen.  The real story is that you just don’t want to.

Image is Man with Folded Arms by Roy Lichtenstein  (1962)