Actually, I Don’t Know What It’s Like

Many Paths

A friend of mine is a clergywoman who grew up in the South and her mother died of cancer when my friend was 32 years old.  I am also a clergywoman from the South and my mother died of cancer when I was 32 years old.  We have the same story.

Except, not really.  We certainly share a bond but our stories are totally different.

So consider the ridiculousness of trying to convince someone that “I know what it’s like” to give birth to twins or have a parent in prison or grow up with brown skin or lose a leg in Afghanistan when nothing like that has ever been part of my story.  I have no idea what it’s like to experience those circumstances.

I don’t even know what it’s like for my clergywoman friend from the South whose mother died of cancer when my friend was the same age I was when my mother died of  cancer in the South.  Everybody’s experience is her/his experience.

This reality means that:

  • We are wrong to judge people (“I never would have done that“) because we cannot possibly know the countless factors influencing someone’s decisions.
  • We are wrong to shame people (“She should be ashamed of herself“) – at least in non-egregious situations when no one has been hurt.  We cannot know all the details of someone’s life.
  • We cannot assume that our personal life experience is normative for everyone.  Just because my life has been privileged/miserable doesn’t mean that your life has been like mine.

Of course our sufferings and our joys are to be shared and this is one of the blessings of human life.  Especially in the isolation that is 21st Century life, we in spiritual communities have invaluable opportunities to be that body that encourages shared suffering and joy.  This is one of the marks of the First Century Church.  And it’s one of the marks of a healthy 21st Century Church when people can trust each other with their real lives.

But perhaps the best part of being the church in this way is the opportunity to have variant lives intersect in the hope that we will connect:

Human Being A:     I am having a rough time. My daughter is being bullied.  My marriage is strained.  And I’m scheduled to have a liver biopsy this Tuesday.

Human Being B:      I know exactly how you feel.  I’m right here. Tell me what’s going on.

This is the church.  I don’t know what your life is like.  But I’d like to hear about it. And I’m not going anywhere.

Owning It

In life and in death, we belong to God.

I’m recovering from reading Go Set a Watchman and Between the World and MeCoates (assuming I will ever fully recover) – two books released on the same day with similar themes that you must read if you hope to be an informed human being in our beloved USA.  There.  I said it.

Amidst reading those great books – one fiction and one non-fiction – and in the ongoing conversation with Church People who want to take their congregations and their property and leave denominations that offend their theology, I am pondering ownership today.  We Americans like to own stuff.

God bless Donald Trump who likes to put his name on the stuff he owns (and even when he doesn’t own it anymore, the name stays.)  We in the United States have a strong tradition of claiming property and calling it our own (e.g. Native American land.)  And of course, the most heinous period of our national history involved the evil notion that some people could actually own other people.

When the Southern Presbyterians and the Northern Presbyterians reunited as one denomination (now called the PCUSA) in 1983, some Southern churches chose to leave the PCUSA because – among other things – they would no longer “own” their church property.  In the PCUSA, property is held in trust.  Congregations do not own their own church buildings. But there was a window after the Presbyterian reunion when formerly Southern churches could take action to keep their property and take it to another denomination.  Some Southern churches did leave the denomination, and others tried and failed (like the congregation I served for 22 years.)

Today throughout my denomination, there are still churches hoping  to leave the PCUSA and take their property with them.  Other denominations know this story as well.  Again, some have succeeded and some have not.

But one of the reasons I am jolted by Harper Lee’s first (but published second) novel is because she captures the concept of property.  It’s the story of my people.

As Scout’s Uncle Jack explains it:

“Now at this very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South’s not ready for it – we’re finding ourselves in the same deep waters.  As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.  I hope to God it’ll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.”  (Note:  it wasn’t.)

“The time-honored, common-law concept of property – a man’s interest in and duties to that property – has become almost extinct.”

Our history and culture involve owning property and the definition of what is and what is not our personal property has changed through the years.

The most privileged in our history are increasingly losing what they believed they owned.  Husbands once owned their wives.  Wealthy farmers once owned their workers.  Parents once owned their children.  And church members once owned their church buildings.  (Some still believe their churches belong to them – and I’m talking here about what actually belongs to God not denominations.)

Here’s the crazy thing – especially for Christians:  This is the opposite of Jesus’ message.  Yikes.    We in the United States – which has been touted as “A Christian Nation” have rarely considered the message of Jesus in the way we’ve built our country.

This is kind of a heavy message for a Monday morning post.  But perhaps this is what we really need to own.

Image of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between Two Worlds.  Check out his interview on The Daily Show.

Who Is My Neighbor? (Wedding Version)

I’ve lived in our current home for about four years and I don’t know our wedding tentgeographic neighbors well/at all.  I frankly know only two households by name and we identify the others by their yards:  the pretty yard, the yard with the bench chained to a tree, the perfect yard.

This was all true until today, that is.

Today, I slipped wedding invitations in the doors of our closest geographic neighbors warning them/informing them that a month from tomorrow, nuptials will be witnessed in our backyard with 100+ of our best friends and family.

There will be extra traffic (“but we expect little to no parking on the street because a shuttle will be transporting people to and from a parking lot a mile away“) and there will be music (“but we will be quiet by 10 pm so you can get to sleep.”)  But my mother always taught me that it’s good to include the neighbors when having a party so they don’t 1) feel left out and 2) call the police.  I included my email address and phone number if they’d like more information.

About an hour after my delivery, I received a call from an elderly neighbor who was delighted to be invited and – although her grown son who lives with her cannot make it – she’ll be there!  (When you invite the neighbors, it’s important to remember that they might accept the invitation.)  She shared her life story including:

  • her career as a teacher,
  • how she met her husband,
  • how he died,
  • the conversation with her priest in Chicago about where her Protestant husband might be buried,
  • where all her children and grandchildren now live,
  • her relationship with (all) the former owners of our home,
  • how much she likes to dance.

This is going to be an excellent wedding.

Imagine Amy Schumer in Your Church

amy-schumer_0Amy Schumer is one of my former parishioners.  Not the Amy Schumer. But I’ve known and loved more than a few parishioners who remind me of Ms. Schumer. They confided in me that they were having sex with multiple guys.  They drank too much.  They occasionally used controlled substances.  A couple of them were having serious or not-so-serious relationships with married men.  Some wrestled with the theological ramifications of their actions.  Some did not.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about church people.  Before you lecture me on my lost opportunity to inform these parishioners that they were on a fast track to hell, let me just say that these were all real people trying to figure out their lives.  The most lecture-y I got was about health.  (“Please tell me you are using birth control.“)  But I indeed asked questions about where God was in all this.  You might be surprised how close some of these parishioners (male and female) felt to God while having a perfectly enjoyable time trying to figure out which of three friends with benefits they liked the best.

I am personally not like Amy Schumer in most ways.  I’m a serial monogamist for one thing.  But I’m also trying to get past the idol that is virginity.  I’m trying to serve a church in which people are shamed for enjoying human sexuality, which God invented by the way.  I know too many people who have been theologically wounded because of erroneous information about “what the Bible says” about sex.  I believe in fidelity.  I believe in treating people respectfully.  I believe we must treat ourselves with respect.

The truth is that we are all broken.  Even Amy Schumer (playing Trainwreck Amy) confessed that she was broken.  We make choices that damage ourselves and each other.  We are selfish.  We live in a world that will smash our dreams and challenge our core goodness, and use people for selfish purposes.

But what would you do if Amy Schumer was a member of your congregation?  Call her out during worship as a “prayer concern”? Excommunicate her?  Feel generally mortified when you see her sitting there in the pews when you realize how painfully inapplicable to daily life your sermon is? Wonder how somebody like Amy is hearing the Prayer of Confession or the Call for the Offering?

Amy Schumer probably won’t show up in most of our churches.  But every once in a while, she might wander in after a particularly rough break up.  She might join a pious love interest on a dare.  She might show up with her parents.  Or maybe she is already there, looking appropriately Presbyterian but having a secret life involving guys named Fabio and Saber.

The bottom line is that everybody needs authentic love.  Everyone deserves to be known and treasured.  We are our best selves when we have experienced unconditional love and respond in kind.  How do people know what the love of God looks like unless we show them  – preferably outside the walls of a church building?

Brave Church

God Makes Us Brave

Brave churches are particularly faithful churches, if you ask me.  They make bold choices.  They favor holiness over appearances.  Their modus operandi is counterintuitive.  How brave is your congregation?

  • Your church staff currently consists of two Associate Pastors who are clergywomen, and the best candidate for Senior Pastor is also a clergywoman.  Does your Search Committee  a) select the male candidate who is not be best candidate but he ensures gender balance, b) select the clergywoman because – in spite of all efforts to call someone to create some gender diversity – it’s clear that the Holy Spirit is moving you to call her, or c) keep seeking “the right man” for the job.
  • The sanctuary is clearly too large for the current congregation and all indications show a trend towards an even smaller worshiping community in the next decade. Does your congregation a) keep the same historical configuration because that’s how the architect planned it, b) reconfigure the sanctuary to accommodate current needs, or c) create a task force to discern whether or not the church needs a new pastor.
  • A local business concern approaches your church leaders about buying the church property with an offer to rebuild church space on the property along with mixed income apartments.  Do your leaders a) have a good laugh and then head to the trustees’ meeting, b) pray and talk together about the possibilities of partnering with the mixed income apartment people, or c) rally the troops to stand against big business.

Brave churches take risks, make mistakes, choose the unlikely, and consider all potentialities.  It’s possible to be safe for so long that our congregation reaches a point of no return.  The hopes for bold ministry are replaced with survival tactics.

Look around our communities and identify the brave churches.  They are out there.  They are the ones who are open to the ridiculously refreshing Spirit. Please tell me that your church is one of the brave ones.

Who Are the Heroes?

Chattanooga Victims

With the tragedy of the Chattanooga shooting, new faces are now counted among the heroes.  Ohio Governor John Kasich tweeted:  “Ohio has lost another hero. Prayers for Randall Smith of Paulding Co & his family.”

What makes a person a “hero”?  Some people in the world consider the shooter to be a hero.  Some of us call all military victims heroes, whether they died protecting a village of children or joining the military in general and having the terrible misfortune to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I believe we all have our heroic moments.  We choose to stand up for the child in danger, to challenge gossipers, to protest when we see injustice done, to volunteer to defend our country, to spend our free time tending to under served people.

Because this is a churchy blog, I’m thinking about congregational heroes.  We are sorely in need of heroes in every realm of human life.  But our churches- as we move from being clubby institutions to spiritual communities to the glory of God – will not thrive without heroes among us.  I talking about you . . .

Being a hero is not the same as being a victim or a doormat or a martyr.  Being a hero is about being our best selves, especially when we could be lazy, disengaged, or selfish.  Imagine what this day would be like if we each acted heroically at least once in the next 24 hours.  Imagine if we made the world about something higher, holier, more Christ-like.

It would be pretty great.

Image of the five victims of the Chattanooga shooting in hopes we will pray for their families today. From top left clockwise:  David Wyatt, Squire K. Wells, Thomas Sullivan, Carson Holmquist, and Randall Smith.

What Lasts After Church

Vacation offers the opportunity to ponder.  I’m so grateful for the chance bandaids of different colorsto read on planes and share ideas with some people in Nashville this week.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like vacation to you, but stay with me.  Vacation = Time to Think.  So many are anxious and deeply concerned about the cultural asteroid that’s hitting Christendom and other institutions these days, but I am struck by something different.

In 2007, the church I was serving started a new community.  This new congregation was not meant to be a feeder into the traditional worshiping community.  It was not meant to “attract members” or be a new Presbyterian Presence.  It was simply a community of broken people interested in grappling with the issues of faith and life.  We were exceptionally good at Grappling.

The church officially ended/closed/stop meeting on Sunday nights in about 2012 or 2013.  But what’s interesting is that the community still exists and the connections remain deep.  The Holy Grounds community now lives in Beirut and Minneapolis, Davis and Pittsburgh, DC and Chiang Rai, Madison and Seattle, Dayton and Ann Arbor. But we are still community.  We meet in airports and on social media. We attend each others’ weddings and visit while traveling cross-country.  We still pray for and with each other.

How did that happen with a “church” that existed for less than six years?

  • It wasn’t about hard boundaries and conquest  to use Alpesh Bhatt‘s terminology (aka “targeting new members.”) It was about relationships.
  • It wasn’t about hierarchy.  It was about decentralized decision-making and collaboration.
  • It wasn’t about transactions.  It was about conversations.
  • It wasn’t about numbers.  It was about intangibles.

As many of us work with congregations in crises, it’s clear that some of those congregations will “go down with the ship.”  They will refuse to make the hard changes.  Their churches will close.  And they will blame their denominations or people like me who work for the middle governing bodies of denominations.

But it will be okay.  Because what lasts after “the church has closed” are the relationships, the fruits of grappling, the grace in the face of imperfection, the memories of a community that loved the broken and the whole alike.

This is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  It lasts beyond institutional existence. As 50, 75, 100, 200 year old congregations close in the months and years to come, my hope is that some semblance of their grappling together about the meaning of life and their God-given purpose will live on and be resurrected in something new and different.

Image source.  Bandaids for all kinds of hurt people in thanksgiving for BR & AD.

Vacation Check-In

This is not me.

This is not me.

As a self-acknowledged Sabbath-challenged individual, and in hopes of encouraging any sisters and brothers who might also be relaxation-impaired, I’m checking in.  It seems clear that reading a work-related book can in fact be energizing and gardening can be work. It depends.

Vacation Fails:

  • Read The Triple-Soy Decaf-Latte Era: How Business and Organization are Fundamentally Transforming by Alpesh Bhatt (Actually I loved this book like candy.  And I read it outside on a beach towel.)
  • Ran two different Home Depot Errands.  (But now our toilet seat has no crack in it.  This beats a summer drink with a little umbrella if you ask me.)
  • Shopped for clothes.  Hate. This. So. Much.

Vacation Successes:

  • Saw a movie in an actual movie theatre.
  • Got a pedicure.
  • Made teriyaki turkey burgers involving more than ten ingredients. (Actually this felt like work but they were delicious.)

True confessions: spending some of this vacation at a conference.

Adventures: The Best

AdventuresThere was a time  when I answered the ubiquitous question asked of all children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by saying I wanted to be an adventurer.  My second grade birthday party was an Explorer Party and we “discovered” a cabin in the woods behind our house and made a fort out there.

Today, children seem to have fewer adventurers because we protect them from everything.  Listen to this, young parents.

Imagine your seven year old today explaining that she went to an Explorer Party in the woods, climbed on the roof of a crumbling cabin,  and crawled around looking for left-behind treasure. And then on the way back through the woods, “a nice neighbor” came over and walked the kids home. Not exactly the typical party with Frozen cake.

The truth is that having adventures is a privilege.  There are many “nice neighbors” who are in fact not nice.  In some neighborhoods, their stray bullets will kill you.  In some places, adventures are not child’s play; adventures are what you do to live. But that’s another post.

Now that my kids are twenty-somethings, they share more of their childhood adventures without the fear of getting into trouble:  the time the deck was set on fire, the time they filmed a movie in the crawl space of a friend’s house, the time they played Nerf war in the church sanctuary at midnight.

I need more of this in my life today.  Yes, I have adventures still but they tend to revolve around work.  (e.g. The time I drove a homeless lady around all day before realizing that she was rich.)  I like adventures in restaurants.  (e.g. Alligator stew is delicious.)  I like road trips with HH (happy birthday Big Guy.) But I need more active adventures:  hiking where I don’t know the path well, dropping everything on a random Tuesday and wandering in an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Seeing inconveniences – like car trouble in the middle of nowhere – as an adventure rather than a burden.

I’m off today and next week I’m having adventures on vacation.  I may or may not report back for a few days.

Image source.

Exhaustion: The Worst

Exhaustion (2010)You know that moment, all you ordinarily perky humans out there.

You go with the flow.  You let the haters’ comments slide off your back. You answer the ridiculous questions, accept the offensive comments, repeat the explanation you’ve already shared several times.  But then it hits:  you are really exhausted. You’ve hit your limit.  You might just snap at the next person who asks for something.  Or burst into tears.  Or throw up.

That was me at about 4:05 yesterday afternoon.  And so I went home. I was done.

Sabbath is tomorrow and vacation is next week, but what I also need is an adventure apart from work adventures.  (And believe me – I have those.) Tomorrow’s post will be Adventures:  The Best.

Image source.