Heroes & Mentors (Don’t be like them)

Throwback Thursday:  But don’t be like Mike.

I remember reading years ago that Michael Jordan taught his own sons not to be like him.  He told them to be like Marcus and Jeffrey.  Whether or not his thinking was theological, I don’t know.

But – theologically – I completely agree.

We can observe and learn from our heroes and mentors.  We can hear and understand.  We can admire and be inspired.  We can even try to emulate them.

But leadership is not the same as imitation.  (A wise woman recently told me this.)

We are not called to be somebody else.  God calls us to be the people we were created to be.  Thinking about this today.


PS  Okay there is one exception:  we are called to be like Jesus.

Foreign to Each Other

“We can’t even say prayers in our own schools anymore. But yet, we can build mosques across the country.”  Arlene Hawk of Ravelli County, Montana

rural-urban-mosaicI can’t stop thinking about this article. (Heads up:  there’s profanity.)  And the interview quoted above made me want to pull my hair out.  The interview was on NPR.  Of course it was.

Here are things I love:  NPR, The Atlantic, The New York Times, urban
coffee shops, Chicago Ideas Week.  I am an urban snob.  I grew up in a college town with well educated people from all over.  I have lived in cities for most of my adult life.  I have enjoyed privileges that come with white skin, college degrees, and money.  My car has heated seats for heaven’s sake.

Here are other things I love: the smell of cow manure and freshly mowed hay, church pork dinner fundraisers, men in dirty farm shirts with big bellies, women in aprons frying fish, diner waitresses with lots of blue eye shadow.  My extended family is from rural towns with populations under 1500.  My first call was in a tiny village with a population under 700.

The Cracked article helps explain why many people are angry.  Their jobs have gone away.  They are mocked.  They are called “a mass of ignorant, rageful, crude, cursing, spitting subhumans.”

No wonder our nation is divided.  We don’t understand each other.  We don’t even want to.

We are foreign to each other.

Even people who share the same religion and read the same Bibles disagree with the meaning of these words:

  • “So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19
  • “The alien has not lodged outside, for I have opened my doors to the traveler.”  Job 31:32
  • “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;” Matthew 25:35

Welcoming the aliens includes welcoming people who have alienated us and welcoming people whom we have alienated.  Maybe the foreigners are from Syria and maybe they are from Montana.  But we have got to stop mocking each other, stop demonizing each other, stop sharing misinformation about each other.

Fear of the other is killing us.

Vuja de

“Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before.  Vuja de is the reverse – we face something familiar but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.” Adam Grant

I’m reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adamclouds-are-for-dreaming Grant and you should be reading it too.   People who are “originals” reject the default options of human history:

  • Suffragettes rejected the default notion that women can’t vote.
  • Rosa Parks rejected the default notion that people of color must sit at the back of the bus.
  • Kelly Oxford (and countless others) rejected the default notion that  “locker room talk” about assaulting women is okay.

Consider what this might mean  if we countered what has become the default narrative for the Church:

  • I do not accept that the Church is irrelevant.
  • I do not accept that all Christians are homophobic.
  • I do not accept that the Church must be segregated by race and ethnicity.
  • I do not accept that denominations cannot be transparent, permission-giving, creative, honorable, and inspiring.

What about you, my original friends?  What new narrative can you imagine? What will you no longer accept?

Are we ready to consider Vuja De?

Beyond FOMO

worship-at-disgraceAs I longed to be at this conference last week, it occurred to me that this wasn’t a case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out.)  It was more about FOLIT (Fear of Leaving It There.)

I can only try to imagine the depth of emotion in having a Come to Jesus event about race and white supremacy/fear in the church context.  I’ve been a part of such conversations before.  But this sounded different.  You would almost feel it in the comments of participants and in the quotes from keynoters:

Don’t ignore the body in the room.”  Soong-Chan Rah on the need to lament in church

We cultivate comfort in the church. We need to cultivate discomfort and grow courage. We conflate comfort and gospel.”

We are not seeing the de-Christianization of America.  We are seeing the de-Europanization of Christianity in America.

“The most significant evangelical/spiritual movement in U.S. history was when First Generation African-Americans moved north after the Civil War and started churches.”

[Note:  I’m sure these are not exact quotations.  But you get the gist.]

One of my personal pet peeves is when we church people go to classes, training sessions, conferences, and retreats and learn amazing things, but then we go home smarter but without any lasting impact.  The impact of this conference is yet to be seen, but my hope – as one who was not there – is that we will:

  • Lament for the Sake of the Gospel.
  • Repent for the Sake of the Gospel.
  • Notice for the Sake of the Gospel.
  • Speak Up in Love for the Sake of the Gospel.
  • Be Willing to Set Aside Our Own Privilege for the Sake of the Gospel.

Healing prayers to all who attended disGrace and are now pondering its impact.

Photo by Irene Pak Lee from the disGrace Conference at Montreat Conference Center last week.

That Time I Met the One Non-PCUSA Person On the Planet Who Knows What a GA Moderator Is

It happened in an independent coffee shop two blocks from my office in Chicago.  I noticed that all the barristas were new.

Me:  Are all of you new?card

Barrista:  Yeah, there are new owners.  Same coffee.  New owners.

Me:  I love your coffee.  Nice to meet you.  (Even though we hadn’t exactly met.)

Barrista:  Do you work around here?

Me:  Yes, the Rice Building, where the Giordano’s is.

Barrista:  What do you do?

This is the moment when I have several options, as I assume that no one has any idea what a Presbytery is.  I could say that I work for a non-profit.  I could say that I work for a church office.  Or I could go for it and say “I work for The Presbytery of Chicago.

Me:  I work for the Presbytery of Chicago.

Barrista:  Is that PCA or PCUSA?

Me (in my head):  What???!!!

Me (out loud):  Seriously?  You know the difference?

Barrista:  Of course I do.

Me (in my head):  This guy is a total dork.

Me (out loud):  Look at me.  What do you think?  PCA or PCUSA?

[Note: If you are not a church dork yourself, the Presbyterian Church in America does not ordain people with female parts.]

Barrista:  You could be a secretary.

Me:  Yes, I could.  

And then I said something I never thought I would ever say out loud in my entire life because 1) I still can’t believe this happened and 2) there are very few people on the planet who care.

Me:  Actually, I’m an ordained pastor.  And I’m one of the co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Barrista:  No @*!t?

Me:  It’s true. I even have a card.

Barrista:  I’m PCA.  My name’s T___.

Me:  Hi.  I’m Jan.

Then we talked about our sameness and our different-ness.  And he makes an excellent mocha.  As AAM says, “Every day’s a school day.”



Image is the Spanish and Korean side of my GA card.  I would have shown the English side but I don’t need that many phone calls.

Reprise: We Are Even More Than Sisters and Daughters

createdFrom my 4-20-16 post:

 . . . after her ordination in her late 20s until about age 45 – there was not a single church meeting, not a single Presbytery Assembly, not a single committee meeting when she was not propositioned in some overt or subtle way by her male colleagues. As one of her colleagues crassly put it, “If you are here, we get to have you.

I have known for as long as I can remember that women are objectified.  Even clergywomen.

Even female surgeons and senators and professors – as well as girls and women with less financial and societal power.  Nevertheless though, I have to admit that I’ve been stunned to the point of being sleepless over the weekend as the truth of objectification has blown up since  The Video was released.  Someone referred to a woman as “it” in the video.

And then  – over the weekend – writer Kelly Oxford asked women to share their earliest assault stories on Twitter – in 140 characters or less.  Millions responded. At one point there were 50 tweets per minute for 14 hours.  Many of the memories were from very young ages:  5, 7, 10, 14.  Some of the offenders were family or friends.

Here’s is one of those tweets:

public library, middle school, boy 2 grades younger grabbed me from behind.

I have always remembered this but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.  I remember that kid’s face.  He smiled when I turned around and it still makes me feel sick.  I didn’t know his name but I remember his face.  If I had a middle school yearbook, I could probably identify him.

Girls and women are touched inappropriately or subjected to creepy comments every day.  I was trained to assume that I must have caused such an uncomfortable moment or perhaps I misunderstood what was happening or maybe at some level I believed that this was just the way of the world.

I remember the morning after a slumber party in high school when a girlfriend told me that she was awakened in the middle of the night by the father of our host.  I can’t even repeat here what he was doing when he woke up my friend.

I remember traveling in Europe after college with girlfriends and we were regularly grabbed on buses or sidewalks.  Seriously, it happened all the time.

What’s positive about the Access Hollywood video is that it can give us a little  courage. Women and men who have heard DJT share worse commentary than in 2009 have stepped forward to share what they remember.  And hearing those disgusting words (perhaps the worst of which were “give him a hug“) inspired Kelly Oxford and millions of others to share our own experiences.

If you hang out in locker rooms and hear assault language, I hope you will be courageous too.  If you find yourself selling your soul in order to stay in the good graces of a wealthy misogynist, wake up and know that you were not created to be an object in someone else’s life.

And if you are offended for your daughters and wives and mothers and sisters at the thought of someone talking about them like DJT has talked about women, please remember that women are people.  We are more than being related to you.  We are related to God.  And no one gets to call any of us an “it.”

Friendly or Friends?

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.

The quote above was written by Craig Barnes here just before becoming the President of Princeton Theological Seminary.  I’ve been talking with counselors and colleagues recently about this topic of pastors being “friendly” with our parishioners but not “friends” with our parishioners.

The word “friend” is the issue, perhaps.  friends

We all have different kinds of friends.

  • There are the friends who are more like acquaintances. We say hi in the grocery store and we know a little bit about each other.
  • There are “old friends” with whom we grew up that we might or might not stay in touch with regularly today, but they knew us as children and we share a lot of history.
  • There are Chosen Family kinds of friends with whom we can say almost anything.  They know us.  We can phone them in the night and say, “There’s a naked dead man on my kitchen floor” and their immediate response is “I’ll be right over.”
  • And then there are Facebook friends.  Whatever.

I will confess before you and God that I believe pastors can be friends with our parishioners But With Clear Boundaries.  This is what I mean:

  • We need to be willing to (gently) clarify our roles.

As a parish pastor, I regularly lunched with church leaders to discuss church business.  After they rotated off that leadership position, some still wanted to meet me for lunch but I couldn’t possibly do that because we had new church leaders whom I needed to meet for lunch to talk about church business. Yes, we were friends, but I was meeting them because of their role.

I remember a member who wanted to meet for coffee to talk about her life and she suggested Friday.  “Friday is my day off,” I said.  And she said, “Great!  It’s my day off too.”  But then I needed to explain to her that my day off meant that I didn’t do church work.   Yes, we were friends, but pastoral care over coffee is my job.  It might even be something I enjoy, but to keep good boundaries, it’s important to remember that I am getting paid to have coffee with parishioners.

I considered parishioners true friends but it was always one-sided.  I might know everything from the sex life to the white cell count of a church member, but they never had comparable information about me.  A parishioner saying “I’m having an affair with a married man in my AA Group” was not the same as me saying, “HH and I are going to the movies tonight” even though it could be interpreted that we are sharing equal information.

  • We need to explicitly identify which hat we are wearing.

Let’s say that – after decades in professional ministry – I have clergy friends whom I’ve known through marriages, childbirth, cancer, etc.   And now I am a Mid-Council leader and Friend is a pastor in the same Presbytery.  Maybe this person badly needs a sabbatical or a physical check up or a lawyer or whatever.  I might say, “So, I’m taking my friend hat off and putting on my Presbytery hat. Let’s call the Board of Pensions about getting you some support with ___.”

The thing about being friends – if the relationship is healthy – is that I can say things to my friends that I can’t as easily say to a mere acquaintance or a stranger. Trust levels are high.  They know (I hope) that I am spiritually mature and must live into my role.

I’m not saying that this whole friend vs friendly thing is easy.  It takes being aware of the optics and being aware of what others will expect if we offer special status to some.

[Note:  If you have friends in your former church where you served as Pastor, that’s great.  But please get out of the way and let the new Pastor who follows you form appropriate friendships too.  And don’t drop by the hospital after Elder Jones’ surgery “as a friend.”  You are not Elder Jones’ pastor any more.  Send a card.]

Years ago, I regularly vacationed with a group of women that included my former General Presbyter, the former Interim General Presbyter, and assorted pastors, church members and former church people.  This is could be a Boundary Nightmare.  But it wasn’t.

We talked about what we would eat for dinner, our kids, our dogs and cats, sunscreen options, wine options, etc.  It created relationships that – literally – allowed me to say to my colleagues (when we were back from vacation) “I’m putting my ___ hat on and you can’t do that.”  Or they would say it to me.

So what do you think?  Can we be friends with our parishioners?  Or is it best to be merely friendly?

Image from the show Friends (1994-2004.)  They had terrible boundaries.

Repeat After Me: Mantras of Truth

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” John 18:38

False narratives are part of our culture.  In politics, in Church World, in family systems, and even in the Bible, we are subjected to false narratives every day.seed-a-pomegranate-800x8001

Heads up:

  • The fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the garden was not necessarily an apple.  (See Genesis 3:1-6)
  • The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexual behavior. (See  Ezekiel 16:49-50 .)
  • Mary Magdalene was not a reformed prostitute. (See Luke 7:36-50.  The woman in this story is never identified as MM – or a prostitute.)

If somebody repeats something often enough it becomes “true” even when it isn’t:

  • President Obama is a Muslim.
  • Ted Cruz’ father is linked to the Kennedy assassination.
  • Gerald Ford was clumsy.
  • Hillary Clinton is dying.

Sadly we even hear such misinformation in our church communities.  Dying churches often breed false narratives about the pastor or the single parent in the fourth pew or the office volunteer.  It’s all about power issues.

We in the Church should be the last ones to spread false stories about each other, but – especially in these days of dramatic culture shifts – some grasp onto false narratives and spread them because . . .

  • false stories distract people from the real issues?
  • false stories give power to those with dwindling power?
  • false stories are crazy-making?

Imagine a world in which our mantras of truth go like this:

  • We don’t know what will happen but we trust that God will guide us.
  • This (pastor, teacher, leader) has a hard job and she is trying to do her best.
  • It’s not about me.  It’s about expanding the reign of God.

If we hear crazy stories about each other, check them out.  Don’t believe the crazy.

Image of a pomegranate.  It could have been a pomegranate in the Garden of Eden.


Long Term Relationships

clock-and-calendarSometime we live in a Hit and Run culture, especially in Church World.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Our youth groups  take mission trips to faraway places where they  serve for a week or so, take lots of photos with the needy children, and then go home.  This is a good experience for our own youth in terms of getting them out of their comfort zones, but imagine what it’s like to be one of those “needy children” who see groups come and go.  They are loved and left over and over and over again.
  • Our congregations are generous and quick to help when disaster strikes. There’s a tornado over here and we send water bottles. There’s a fire over there and we send health kits.  There’s a refugee family moving into the neighborhood and we provide linens. We move from crisis to crisis because it’s more interesting that way. It’s sexy to be among the first responders, jumping in to help like Jesus.

But Jesus didn’t do that.  He wasn’t a fixer.  He was about offering Long Term Relationships.

One of the many things I love about my denomination is that we do not do hit and run ministry:

  • The PCUSA has been a ministry presence in Syria long before Aleppo was in the news.  Our history with Syria is over 100 years old and it continues today without much self-congratulations.
  • While most churches have long left the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina (2005) the PCUSA is still present because there is still work to do.
  • South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011 and the PCUSA was there at the difficult beginning and is still there today.

There are countless examples of this.

When we have long term relationships with our ministry partners they become – indeed – partners.  We are not serving “the needy.”  We are joining together in mission as equals.  We are not merely there for the dramatic early days of a crisis. We are there long after, when the hardest recovery work is necessary.

Our long term relationships allow for honest conversations (“What we really need is a hospital even though you want to build us a barn.”)

God calls us into a long term relationship with each other and with God.  While many of us offer God a come-and-go connection, God is the One who remains steady.  Some of us even ghost our Maker for years and decades, but we are the ones who miss out.  Our spiritual lives become empty.  But God seems to pursue us still – if we are paying attention.

Many (many) people out there come and go in and out of our congregations. Some dip their toes into spiritual community and maybe they stick around for a while or maybe they don’t.  Some of us think of ourselves as being in relationship with a church even if we haven’t connected with that church for years.  Sometimes our relationship with a spiritual community is based solely in our relationship with the pastor.

I’m advocating for long term relationships here.  It’s easy to come and go.  It’s so easy to step away when we are disappointed (“Church people are just like secular people!“) and when we catch a glimpse of church administrivia and conflict.  But that’s the real stuff.  Ask any long-time married couple.

God invites us to a long term relationship that begins with baptism, perhaps, or with childhood musings about the meaning of life.  And God is with us at the end when we breathe our last breath.  The stuff in the middle is the truly fulfilling part.  I don’t want to miss that, even though sometimes it feels easier to hit and run.



The Unimaginable

If you haven’t noticed yet, all my posts this week include Hamilton lyrics.  (The touring company opened last night in Chicago.  Thanks be to God.)

sarai-laraI’ve been thinking about Evangeline Lara whose 16 year old daughter Sarai survived childhood cancer but was killed by gunshot at a shopping mall in Seattle last weekend.

Let this sink in for a moment:  Imagine the monumental stress of parenting a child through cancer.  And then a person shoots her at a shopping mall.  Shoots.  Her.  At.  A.  Shopping. Mall.

I’ve been thinking about Samaria Rice whose 12 year old son Tamir was shot by a police officer in Cleveland because his toy gun was mistaken for a real one. He had been sitting on a swing in a playground. Who can accept this, even years later?

I’ve been thinking about the 26 teenagers shot and killed in Chicago in 2016. Almost all of them were 15 or 16 years old.

I’ve been thinking about the families of the 20 children who died at Sandy Hook. I’ve been thinking from the perspective of being a parent myself.  It’s unimaginable.

There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is suffering too terrible to name. You hold your child as tight as you can,  and push away the unimaginable.*

What will the Church do about this violence?  What can we do?  There are plenty of church buildings with “No Guns” decals on the doors.  But there are other churches with gun-wielding parishioners in their pews because that’s their culture.  It feels impossible to imagine a world without gun violence in the United States.

What moves  us to demand change  are those glimpses of the unimaginable becoming real.  These are not “somebody else’s children.” These are our children.  God’s children.

What can we do?  

Get to know the police officers in our communities.  Invite the police chief or sheriff  to church to talk about how we can support them.  Invite them to hear our own community concerns (and fears.)  Introduce them to our children – especially to our brown and black sons. Be in relationship.

A world without gun violence might well be unimaginable in your community. Or if you feel like your community is safe, try to imagine – just for a moment – what it must be like for the parents of these lost children.  And then be brave.  Be outspoken for the sake of the Gospel.  Be the Church.

Image of 16 year old Sarai Lara.  Lyrics from “It’s Quiet Uptown” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.