The Privilege of Walking Away

Many years ago I was visiting a parishioner in a nursing home facility who couldWalking-away not communicate except through grunts. It must have been enormously frustrating. Her mind was clear.  She had a graduate school education.  But she could not speak or move her limbs.  This was a permanent condition she would endure for the rest of her earthly life.

After trying to talk with her and clearly upsetting her because I couldn’t understand anything she was trying to say, I prayed with her and then I left. I went home to my safe and easy life.

I distinctly remember feeling relief.  I could simply walk away.  I also remember feeling pangs of guilt because she could not walk away.  It was her reality and she could not escape it.

So, just last week, I talked with a stranger – a straight white man about my age  – who told me that:

  • He was tired of being called racist.
  • He was tired of being called sexist.
  • He was tired of being called homophobic.
  • He was not going to talk about those things anymore with anybody.

On the spot, I was speechless.  Later, I wished I’d said, “congratulations” to this man.  He can just walk away.  What an enormous privilege.

His daily life does not involve enduring flagrant racism.  It’s assumed he is always supposed to be wherever he is.

His daily life never includes cat calls or inappropriate stares.    His daily life probably doesn’t include name-calling if he happens to be holding his partner’s hand in public.  He doesn’t have to talk about daily injustices and he doesn’t even have to think about them because they don’t belong to him.  He can just walk away and not think about such unpleasantness any more.

The thing is, however, that – as followers of Jesus – we cannot walk away.  We have been commissioned – not only to think about injustice but to oppose it actively in Jesus’ name.

I get that things are changing for straight white men.  It’s not assumed that you are the smartest, most skilled, most important people in the room anymore. What you might be experiencing now is what people of color and women and LGBTQ people have known as their daily reality.

I don’t say this because I hate straight white men.  Five of my favorite people on the planet are straight white men.  I’m crazy about them.  (But they also get that they’ve had clear advantages throughout their lives.)

We who say we believe that “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” in the words of Eugene Peterson know that we can’t just walk away when we see people suffering.  We can’t save them (and they already have a Savior anyway, whether they realize it or not.)  But we can stand with all who experience injustice, especially when we don’t have to.

Strengthening Weak Ankles

“If the David were to be tilted 15 degrees, his ankles would fail.”

David by MichelangeloI haven’t been to Italy for many years, but this news came to me as a terrible shock:  Michelangelo’s perfect sculpture of David is cracking.  Or at least the ankles are cracked – those smooth and sinewy ankles of  brilliantly chiseled Carraran marble.

Apparently, because of natural tremors or traffic jolts, David has shifted his weight throughout the years which has brought uneven balance to his ankles.  You can read more in this article by Sam Anderson in the NY Times.

Human ankles serve two purposes:

  • Dorsiflexion  – the ability to flex the toes backward towards the leg.
  • Plantarflexion – the ability to flex the toes downward the sole of the foot.

Ankles help us walk and keep our balance.  Without strong ankles, we fall.

If the Church is Christ’s body in the world, we need to consider the ankles.  I, for one, usually think about body parts like the hands and feet, the eyes and ears, the mouth and voice when I ponder the body of Christ.  I don’t wonder much about the ankles.

If we are off balance as a congregation, if we are a bit shaky moving forward, I wonder if it’s because we need to work on our flexibility.  I wonder if we need to strengthen our ankles.  What might that look like for the Church?

Image source here.

A Church’s Moment of Truth

[Note of thanks:  My three go-to sources for inspiration about The Church these days – besides the Bible of course – are:  1) The Atlantic  – which is the best periodical in the world, 2- Fast Company – which I have to read with a highlighter so I won’t forget any of the sparks, and 3- one of my clergy colleagues.  He knows who he is.  Thanks to all.]

moment-of-truthThe cover story for the September issue of Fast Company  is “Apple’s Moment of Truth.”  While some Apple people are freaking out over stagnation in iPhone sales and a slide in revenue, Tim Cook is a believer.  The article declares that “Apple’s future may look very different from it’s past.

Oh.  My.  God.

The past was pretty great.  What does this mean?

In a nutshell Apple (Tim Cook) has decided:

  1. To make more mistakes than they used to make.
  2. To admit it when they make mistakes and then change.
  3. To make innovation incremental – but steadily so.
  4. To “learn on the fly.”  To learn from every detail of a project – not just from the end result.
  5. To get over your embarrassed self.  (It’s more embarrassing never to try anything new than to fail after trying.)
  6. To ask – always – before making a decision, “How important is this?”
  7. To be less secretive.  (We become blind in the thick of our own decision-making processes.  We need feedback from people who are not at the table.)
  8. To embrace the fact that he is not Steve Jobs (and that’s a good thing.)

We in Church World are facing a moment of truth.  I won’t go there today in terms of sweeping, institutional thoughts.  But I would like to address our individual congregations.

Church Leaders:  you are facing Moments of Truth.  

Some of you faced those moments years ago, as I wrote here, and you did not choose wisely.  You unwittingly voted to close your church – maybe not immediately but probably sooner than later.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Your congregation received an enormous bequest and you choose to depend on that money rather than pledged financial support from church members.
  • Your congregation has several choices for your new pastor and you choose the safe one.  
  • Your congregation has a stockpile of money in the bank and you chose not to invest it in building improvements so that your ministry could expand or create a new ministry someplace else.
  • Your congregation is diminished in size and you chose to allow every possible group willing to pay rent regardless of their deeper purpose to use your church building.
  • Your congregation has the opportunity to house a ministry that would have positively impacted a new and different group of neighbors and you chose not to because you don’t want strangers in the building.

Any worthwhile meeting of your church’s governing board includes A Moment of Truth that defines who you are.  Are you – as a church – actually a social club?  Are you God’s hands in the neighborhood?  Are you directed by what is holy and life-giving?  Or are you directed by fear and pain-avoidance?  Are you more interested in pleasing the crankiest members or in pleasing God?

Happy Thursday.

What Do You See?

almond treeThe world is feeling especially crazy these days.  I won’t elaborate here because you know exactly what I’m talking about.  And in the throes of all this death – the death of institutions and social structures, not to mention innocents – what do you see?

(It’s the question God asks of the prophet Jeremiah in this one of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.  Jeremiah sees an almond tree and a tilted pot of boiling water.)

When I talk with anxious church folks, this is what they tell me they see:

  • Ghosts of loved ones past.  Memories of days when everybody went to church wearing their best clothes.  That good, old-time religion.
  • Empty pews. Uncommitted young families.  Buildings in need of serious maintenance.
  • Relationships with people they might never have known without the Church.  Conversations about what the community really needs.

What we see determines not only what a congregation is feeling, but it also impacts where a congregation is going.  What do you see?  Does it make us sad or excited or wistful or angry?

Do we get excited about seeing diverse people in our neighborhood?  Do we get excited when someone wants to try new forms of worship?  Do we feel inspired when we (finally) discern what God is calling our church to offer in our particular communities?

Do we see opportunity or crises?

Do we see the future or the past?

Jeremiah saw something  blooming and something boiling – both symbols that Something Was Happening.

What do you see?  And why?  (It’s a real question.)

Image of an almond tree in bloom.

Totally Worth It Tuesday

It’s a Tuesday in August and the world needs your help.  Here is a simple tool to transform the planet today: Prayer.

Not original in concept, but here’s an original way to do it simply and powerfully.

Download this is a must-have app created by Christopher Lim.  It’s free.  It’s ingenious.  It’s called Ceaseless.

It’s an easy discipline for praying for three people in your phone contact list each day.

“We are already praying for over 137,000 friends.  By joining, you can help us personally pray for everyone on earth.”

I met Chris Lim last week at a conference and he is onto something life-changing.  Download this thing.

Totally worth it.

Chris Lim is the founder of Theo Tech.

Leaving Out the Scary Parts

Hiding Eyes During Scary PartsI often cover my eyes during the scary parts of movies.  I always cover my eyes during the gory parts. Thank goodness I have HH to tell me when I can open my eyes again.

We who live in the United States of America often leave out the scary parts of our history.  We almost always leave out the gory parts.

Talk of being “the greatest country in the world” is heard more frequently during the Olympics and election season.  National holidays – especially the ones honoring veterans and those who’ve died during military service  – move us to cheer.  USA!  USA!

I love my country.  But we are not the greatest in every way.  Some nations offer better health care.  Others offer better education.  We are – disturbingly – first in prisons.  And then there is the systemic racism.

As much as some of us want to leave out the scary parts of our nation’s history, it’s essential that we own it, that we not leave out the scary parts.  My family – historically – owned slaves and I was always told that my ancestors were, themselves, poor and that they treated slaves well.  Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t.  The myth of happy slaves is just that.  An enslaved person is an enslaved person – even if they are “well fed.”

The Church has some unspeakably scary parts too.  We in the Western Church are corporately responsible for perpetuating slavery, for turning our backs on racial-ethnic minorities, for shaming the divorced and remarried, for condemning LGBTQ people – sometimes to the point of taking their own lives or contributing to violence against them.  This is part of our history.  It’s scary for many reasons including the fact that it shines a light on who we have been and who we are now.

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

The world, our nation, our church, and the totality of human history all involve both the glorious and the excruciating, both good and evil.  When we turn away from the scary parts we allow them to continue.  We cannot fight what we do not acknowledge.

And so, as hard as it is, let’s not look away at the sight of evil.  We need to know what we are up against.

Note:  The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a great read that includes some scary parts.  I strongly recommend it.

Trusted Brands (Spoiler Alert: Denominations are Not on the List)


The most trusted brands in the United States, according to a 2015 study of 38,000 people are Coca Cola (for soft drinks), Kellogg’s (for breakfast cereal), Campbell’s (for canned soup), and General Electric (for “bringing good things to life“?)

Christian denominations have brands too.  Some involve tag lines like . . .

  • The United Church of Christ: “God is Still Speaking”
  • The United Methodist Church:  “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church:  “God’s Work.  Our Hands.”

My denomination and many others have no official tag-line but we certainly have unofficial branding/free association descriptors:

  • The Presbyterian Church USA:  Elders.  Decent and orderly.  Really smart.  (I added that one for fun.)
  • The Episcopal Church: Henry VIII’s divorces.  Good liturgy.  Rich.  (I also added that one for fun.)
  • Southern Baptists:  Bible Belt. Teetotalers. Baptism by immersion.
  • Roman Catholic:  Smells and bells.  The Pope.  Stuff we read about in the newspapers that could be said about many denominations.
  • Greek Orthodox:  Smells and bells.  The Patriarch.  Different Christmas and Easter from other Christians.

Sadly our brand as  The Church is not considered very trustworthy. There are many reasons why this is true – many of them involving child abuse, financial abuse, hypocrisy, and a tendency not to resemble Jesus on most days.

So what do we do about our trust issue?  This article sparked my attention yesterday.  It’s about for profit business brands but maybe we in Church World can learn something from it.  According to its author, Jason Demers:

  1. “Corporate brands are faceless.”  When our denominations look and feel like corporations to the average parishioner, it’s easy to blame bureaucracies for congregational problems.  As a person who is newly awash in the work of my denomination’s corporate headquarters, I can honestly say that there are many, many people who work at my denomination’s headquarters who are among the most dedicated, faithful, and creative people I know.  They do amazing things and offer enormous gifts.  The average person in the congregation has no idea who they are or what they do or what I do – for that matter – in a “mid-council judicatory.”  This doesn’t sound like anything Jesus died for.  And how can we possibly trust a distant entity about whom we know nothing personally – in a spiritual community that values personal relationships?
  2. “Advertising is seen as manipulative.”  When we see people as “targets” whom we hope will become “members” we deserve to be distrusted.  We exist as the Church to show the love of God that we have experienced to human beings.  We do not exist to perpetuate an institution.  Unless we actually do exist to perpetuate an institution. Yuck.
  3. “Brands have an agenda.”  We churches want to make ourselves sound friendly, welcoming, purposeful, fun, and enriching whether we are or not.  Why?  See #2.  Are we trying to get people into the door?  Or are we trying to serve them because that’s what God has told us to do?
  4. “Brands offer little in the way of validation.”  If we really want people to connect with us, a pithy tag line or a nice church sign isn’t going to do it.  Word of mouth is a much more meaningful way to connect with people.  I visit a church because someone has invited me personally.  They tell me that they’ve found authentic community there or they’ve found a way to serve the neighbors or they’ve met Jesus or they’ve found meaning for their lives.
  5. “Money is on the line.”  Church friends: how many times have you heard someone say that “the church just wants my money”? People do give money  – when they can – to organizations and projects that are valuable to us.  I give financially to things that add to my quality of life (NPR) but I also give to things that serve the common good.  I am happy to pay for taxes for good schools even though I no longer have kids in school because I want all kids to have an excellent education.  I give to congregations who make a difference in their neighborhoods.  I do not give to congregations who serve only themselves and I hope you don’t either.

Trust issues are among our biggest challenges for the 21st Century Church.  But trust is nurtured when we are real.

When we share our own real brokenness, when we recognize that maybe we are not really as friendly as we think we are (but we are honestly open to figuring out how to be more hospitable), when we truly serve the community not to “get new members” but simply to follow Jesus . . . that’s when we begin to deserve the trust of strangers and friends alike.

What if we simply tried to better resemble the way of Jesus?


Paying For It

Oh yes, it's freeJon Oliver recently shared a pithy and brilliant bit about journalism that you can see here. Among other things, he talks about our increasing hesitation to pay for newspapers or news services.  If we can get our news from Twitter or Huffington Post for free, why pay for a Washington Post or NY Times subscription?  The video explains exactly why.

I’m writing this from my denomination’s conference on evangelism, new church plants and church redevelopment, and there is a lot of talk about creative spiritual communities.  Often these new ideas involve community gardens or supper groups or Bible studies in cafes and bars.  Church folks are out in the communities giving free bottles of water at farmers’ markets or handing out snow cones in parks.  They are offering free community suppers.  They are serving coffee at bus stops.

With new forms of being the church come new forms for funding them. Or not.

Decades ago, churches financed their ministry by renting their pews.  The Smith Family rented the third pew.  The Jones Family rented the fourth pew.  And the free pews were in the balcony.

Later, churches adopted the pledge system.  Family units tithed ten percent of their income to the ministry of their congregation or – more likely – they pledged a smaller percentage of their income.  According to the  Congregational Life Survey, church people contributed an average of $1,500 a year to their congregations in 2009. The average was lower in Roman Catholic congregations— about $727 a year — and among mainline Protestant churches the average was higher — about $1,627 a year.  Online giving and automatic bank transfers have made it easier for members to make donations.

One of the issues with new worshiping communities that meet in gyms for “Cross Training” (get it?) or in yoga studios for group spiritual direction or in bars for Bible Studies involves paying for it – at least if the community wants a paid leader.  New church plants often encourage fluidity in participation.  And even in established congregations, participation is often fluid anyway, resulting in less regular financial giving.

We get what we pay for.

Actually many parishioners or participants receive more than they pay for.  When HH and I were co-pastors sharing a single full time position, the church received more than one pastor.  Many pastors who work for part-time pay work full time in reality.  And many of us – in this culture of receiving many services for free  – assume that others will cover church expenses.  Or we simply cannot afford to contribute much in light of our personal financial debts.

But we pay for the things we value.

I very much value the work of smart, professional journalists and so I pay for it. It’s worth every penny to me to read the reports of  Frank Bruni and Nick Kristoff and marvel over the photos of Doug Mills.  I pay for Netflix because I very much appreciate the stories of Jenji Kohan  and Beau Willimon.  I pledge to my local NPR station because . . . NPR.

I value the work of the congregations I serve and I share with them what I can especially when I notice that they are doing God’s work well.  Sometimes our church giving is transactional because of what we receive in return.  But sometimes all we receive in return is that amazing feeling that we have participated in something holy and beautiful.

If you appreciate your spiritual community, I hope you participate in paying for it because it’s our calling to make disciples and promote social justice and offer a haven of healing for the neighborhood.  Our leaders deserve to be paid well.  It costs money to be the church if for no other reason than the fact that caring for each other has a price and sometimes it’s a monetary price.

As Jon Oliver said, “The longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it.”  But I hope we’ll consider paying for it, especially if it’s church.

Here are some great uses of your money that transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ.  Thank you.

Hospitality is Inconvenient

woman-tantrumHH and I were out eating breakfast yesterday and a family in the next booth had one of those moments that every family has if you have kids:  the random tantrum.

Parents become mortified sometimes to the extreme.  [There was a popular restaurant in Chapel Hill that my parents never entered again after I threw a fit during a rare dinner out at the age of three.  Decades later, they were still afraid they’d be recognized.]

The tantrum we witnessed yesterday didn’t involve a toddler.  The child was not even a child.  He was probably a teenager or a young adult.  And he was probably autistic and really upset about something that nobody else was experiencing.

The restaurant staff was perfect.

They asked if they could help.  They offered more water and coffee.  And when the family decided it was best to leave, the staff was stink-eye free.

Hospitality is often inconvenient. This is especially frustrating in a world where people are supremely annoyed by highway detours and when we actually do mind your dust.  My first reaction is displeasure when my favorite bakery is closed the week I’d hoped to take morning buns to the office, when I should be happy that the bakery owners understand downtime.

It’s easy to offer genuine hospitality when everybody’s saying please and thank you.  It’s not so easy when people don’t wait their turn or they smell bad or they take more than their share.  It’s not so easy when you are trying to make people feel comfortable and one family’s screaming child is making everyone uncomfortable.

Entertaining angels is easy when they act like angels.  But when they act like they struggle with demons, we hesitate.  Imagine a church that offers hospitality even to the children of God who make everybody uncomfortable.




Love People. Use Things.

“In America the quirk was that people were things.” The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

People are not things.  Colson Whitehead’s novel about  escaping from slavery reminds us that beingBe the Light “owned” by another human being was unspeakably miserable in spite of what many of us (white people) were taught.  Stories of benevolent slave owners were part of my upbringing along with myths that people were kept as slaves for their own good. Seriously, this has been the narrative for generations.

People are not things.  While politicians might say anything to win our votes, we are more than our ballots.  We are more than our polled comments.  We are human beings who deserve leaders who serve a cause bigger than themselves for the sake of the whole.

This week I am in St. Pete’s, FL at the national conference on evangelism and church growth.  Starting new churches, much less serving established congregations, is not for the fainthearted.  There are countless cultural and personal reasons why people are not as active in spiritual communities as they used to be.

People are not things.  They are not numbers to bolster our sense of success. They are not financial pledges.  They are not “targets for evangelism.”  We are human beings who crave community and healing and forgiveness.  And we deserve leaders who understand that we are created in God’s image.  Every one of us – even the cranky and mean ones.

Congregations flourish when we love people and use things.  Congregations die when we use people and love things.

And so we begin the Go Disciple Live Conference this week.  How can we be the light in a world that uses people?

Note:  I heartily recommend The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  And the image comes from the PCUSA Go Disciple Live Conference featuring keynoters Casey Wait Fitzgerald, Ralph Watkins, and Mike Breen.