Category Archives: Uncategorized

Pick a Fight (Please!)

I was introduced to The 24-7 Prayer Room in Charlotte yesterday – which is amazing by the way.  Check out both the national and Charlotte websites.  Rooms and more rooms of prayer stations all artfully decorated to inspire.

One corner is called Pick a Fight replete with boxing gloves.  And it calls pray-ers to pick something – anything: cancer, human trafficking, bullying, racism – and spend time fighting it as a spiritual practice.

This is the calling of anyone who understands our life’s purpose to be service.  Fighting injustice and pain is the best kind of fighting.

What are you called to fight in this life?  Imagine a world in which we stop fighting each other and start fighting anything that brings suffering.

Today is a good one for picking a fight.

Image from the 24/7 Prayer Room Charlotte which is currently on the campus of Caldwell Presbyterian Church.

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Happy Town

You know those slices of life when everything seems to be going really well?  Nobody in my immediate family has cancer.  Everybody’s employed.  There’s a deep joy over the most ordinary meetings and errands. The AC works.  There is money in the checking account to get the oil changed.

This is what I’m encountering this week.  The coffee tastes richer.  The sun on my face feels particularly life-giving.  There is deep hope in spite of the realities of profane injustice in the world.

I see God in the faces of church people who are taking leaps of faith that they wouldn’t have taken three years ago.  I see God in respectful disagreements between people of faith.  I see God in the faces of a young couple in love who are discerning what kind of future they might have together. 

It’s a good time – in spite of the fact that suffering is rampant in this world.  God uses these times of calm to prepare for future experiences that will require resilience and grit.  Those times are surely coming.

But today is tranquil and full of gratitude. Thanks be to God.

Image of an Eastern Bluebird.  I literally saw one last week while visiting one of our exceptional pastors.  

Invitation to Moral Leadership

He is who he said he was.

He does what he said he would.

Now. Who are you?  Traci Blackmon

I live in Charlotte, N.C. and on Monday the Charlotte City Council voted 6 to 5 to accept the invitation to host the 2020 Republican National Convention if an invitation is extended.   The Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler offered a public letter to the City Council on why he was against accepting such an invitation:

“It is a poor moral witness. It is both un-American and un-Christian to stop immigrants fleeing from violence in their nations of origin on our border, imprison them, deem them and their essential personage “illegal,” and then strip their children away from them (without any consideration given to how they will be reconciled!); to foster a taxation scheme that further centralizes wealth in the hands of the wealthiest Americans while offering little to no relief for the poor; to develop false moral equivalencies between non-violent protest for equality and violent white supremacist and anarchist demonstration (worse, to call those who hold these beliefs “good people”); to work to undermine access to healthcare of poor, working, and middle class citizens based only on partisan ideological reasoning and providing no viable alternatives; to sponsor voting legislation that makes it more difficult for people to gain access to the polls (this after so many have fought, bled, and been martyr securing this right.)”

There are disagreements in the Church about what constitutes Christian and un-Christian behavior.  There are disagreements in the United States about what constitutes moral and immoral behavior.

Nevertheless most people of every or no religion lift up something akin to The Golden Rule:  Treat others as you would like to be treated.

There is a hunger for moral leadership in these days.  Most of us want leaders who tell the truth and conduct themselves respectfully.  I personally crave leaders whom I can trust even if I disagree with them.

After Monday’s vote, Charlotte might be hosting a convention in 2020 that could become a moral test for us all.

  • How will we respond if White Supremacists march in Charlotte as they marched in Charlottesville in 2017?
  • How will we respond if violence breaks out for any reason?
  • How will we respond to the presence of someone who has mocked disabled people, assailed immigrants, and boasted about assaulting women – even/especially if he is President of the United States?
  • How will we protect the vulnerable – especially the homeless – who will be particularly impacted by this convention?
  • How will we seek to prevent a rise in human trafficking during the convention?
  • How will we preach/pray/teach our children about the democratic process in the throes of deep political division?

If Charlotte is indeed selected to host the RNC in 2020, we will have a unique opportunity to model moral leadership.  Who will we be as God’s people in Charlotte?  What type of moral leadership will we display?

Will we sit in front of our televisions and watch from the safety of our homes?  Will we leave town in hopes of missing the whole event?  We will show hospitality to our guests beyond renting hotel rooms and taking restaurant reservations?

What will we do if we witness injustice either in words spoken or actions made? To do nothing seems disobedient if we are serious about following Jesus.  (Remember those who betrayed and denied him and left him to suffer alone?)

Maybe Charlotte will be invited to host the 2020 RNC and maybe we won’t.  But just as politicians are discerning whether or not they will challenge the President for that party’s nomination, we must begin discerning how we will challenge policies and practices that dehumanize God’s children.

And if you don’t live in Charlotte, please know that you too will face moral quandaries in the coming months when you hear or see injustice.  What will you do?  Who will you be?

Images of a July 16, 2018 tweet by the Rev. Traci Blackmon and from the 2016 RNC in Cleveland. (Photo from Wired Magazine)

 

What Would Your Church Be Willing to Do to Grow?

Is your congregation trying to “Attract Millennials”?  Stop it.

Every day in every congregation in every city and suburb and small town, I hear the same thing:  our church wants to grow.  They say they are willing “to think outside the box.” (sigh)  These congregations will try “anything“:  screens in the sanctuary, drums in worship, a youth pastor with tattoos.  They wonder where the Millennials are.

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

It fills me with joy when I hear someone say, “This church is not about me.  I would give up my favorite things to be what God wants us to be.”  And it’s about so much more than reaching Millennials.

It could be about personal discomfort.  It’s definitely about giving up anything we love more than Jesus.  Imagine giving up the beloved building, the beloved organist, the beloved pastor.  Those are fighting words, but it’s possible that the building or a staff member – the very things we assume are so helpful – are keeping us from thriving.

I’ve known wonderful church leaders who can be counted on to volunteer at every turn, to bail the congregation out financially, to be present for every occasion and – as pastors – we declare them Irreplaceable Pillars Of The Church. At first.

And then we realize that the congregation cannot grow and make necessary shifts because the Irreplaceable Pillars keep others from stepping up to volunteer, to ratchet up their own financial giving, to participate.

Prayerful discernment led by faithful leaders is the ongoing practice of thriving congregations.  And a willingness to take leaps of faith is a norm in thriving churches.  It’s as simple and as scary as that.  If your congregation is filled with Millennials – great.  If you are not – great.  Church growth is about so much more than that.

Image source here.   A relationship with Jesus isn’t about anybody’s hipster quotient.

Does Carolyn Bryant Donham Deserve Forgiveness?

Nope. 

Sometimes God’s grace is infuriating though.

I believe God’s grace is for Carolyn Bryant Donham too  – even after lying about her interaction with Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi over 60 years ago. He was 14 years old and black.  She was 21 and white.  She told authorities that young Emmett from Chicago – visiting cousins in Mississippi  – had flirted with her and then assaulted her in the store where she worked.

“According to recovered court transcripts released by the F.B.I. in 2007, he let out a “wolf whistle” as she exited the store to get a gun from her car. Bryant later informed her husband and his half brother, who proceeded to uphold a grim tradition: Till was abducted, beaten, shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.  A 74-pound gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire, with the hope that he would never be found.”  (Source)

In an interview by Timothy Tyson for his 2017 book The Blood of Emmett Till, Carolyn Bryant Donham confessed she had lied.  It was all a lie. And her lie got Emmett Till lynched.

No. Carolyn Bryant Dunham doesn’t deserve forgiveness. She deserves to be punished.  And yet . . .

Last Sunday I stopped for coffee in a rural area on my way to church and was impressed with the cute coffee shop that roasted its own beans and baked its own scones.  It was very crowded for a Sunday morning.  There were sofas and booths for two.  And there was a large table with about 20 people sitting and standing around it.  I took a seat on one of the sofas to sip my coffee and look over my sermon when I overheard a man at the large table complain about “liberals.”

Someone ought to line ’em all up and then string ’em all up,” he said.  And others at the table laughed and agreed.  I admit before you and God that I literally thanked God at that moment for my white skin.  But I said nothing.

If you remember the parable of The Good Samaritan, I was more like the hypocritical priest headed to worship than the Good Samaritan who stopped to do the right thing without regard for his personal schedule.  Frankly, I was afraid.  There were 20 of them and one of me.  Even with my white skin in an establishment full of other white people, I was afraid.

My guess is that Carolyn Bryant Donham was afraid in 1955.  Her husband and brother in law were violent men and maybe they intimidated her to say things she didn’t want to say.  Or maybe she told a small lie that erupted into a huge lie.

Nevertheless, her lie killed a child.  And she doesn’t deserve grace. But God offers it anyway.

All of us have fallen short of God’s glory.  Every one of us.  And yet the God I believe in offers us grace anyway.

It’s maddening.  This means I have to forgive people too – which I rarely want to do.  I like to simmer in my own resentment and anger  – which of course does nothing but kill my soul.

There are no words to express my anger at the Carolyn Bryant Donhams of the world.  But while I’m boiling inside about what that woman did and then what she failed to do, the truth is that I am also in need of forgiveness and so are you.

The astounding thing is that God forgives us even when we cannot forgive ourselves.  But I confess, I have some wrestling to do with God.

Image of Emmett Till’s grave in Alsip, Illinois about ten miles from my and HH’s house in Flossmoor.

Vulnerable

There are reasons why pastors prefer funerals to weddings.

There are reasons why congregations that attract broken people can be more faithful than congregations that attract “young families.”  (In 2015 I wrote this.)

There are reasons why I’d prefer to serve a church that needs Jesus than serve a church that considers itself “successful and prosperous.”

It’s all about vulnerability.  When we are grieving, when we are broken, when we feel unsuccessful and insecure, God does God’s best work. 

But when was the last time we asked God to make us vulnerable so that our faith might grow? That’s a terrifying prayer request.

There was a time when I felt wholly alone in my ministry except for God and a handful of people.  I had been told that I was untrustworthy, manipulative, and disgusting.  I was told that everything would be better if I just went away.  There was a narrative about my leadership that people who didn’t know me believed and people who did know me didn’t refute.

gas·light ˈɡaslīt/
verb gerund or present participle: gaslighting
  1. manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.

It was not a good time.  And it made me trust God to save me.

We need Jesus most when we are vulnerable.  And the Church is at its best when we make it safe to be vulnerable – as opposed to perpetuating a culture of “I’m looking great on the outside but actually my life is a hot mess.”

Thriving congregations nurture authentic community based on the fact that each of us is broken in some way.  I certainly am.

I’m not saying that we all need to stand up and tell the world every flaw/heartbreak/weakness/sin/trauma that we carry today – although maybe this works for some people.

I’m saying that we all need at least one person – and possibly a community of people – with whom we can share our hot mess reality.  I’m saying that we all need a Savior who is not our parent, mentor, spouse, or BFF.  And we don’t really know the depth of our need until we experience those desperately vulnerable times.

Being vulnerable is not merely a Brene Brown aspiration.  It’s the reality of being a spiritual human.  And it’s the only way to meet or re-meet God.

 

ISO Spiritual Curiosity

I would rather be the pastor of 50 spiritually curious people than 500 who go through all the (church) motions most Sundays.

One of my colleagues and I were discussing this the other day and we agreed that looking out from a pulpit at listless people can flatten any sermon  – even those written with great inspiration. I can tell when wandering minds are pondering existential things as opposed to wandering minds who just want to get out of there.  Many churchgoers are just that: churchgoers.

In many places in the United States, there is still an expectation that Good People Go To Church.  Maybe it’s a self-imposed expectation, but it’s soul-killing either way.  The result has been that many people know how to be Church People but we don’t know how to be God’s People.

In other words, we know the lingo (pulpit, font, bulletin) and we know the particular congregational expectations (how to dress, what not to do in the sanctuary- i.e. bring a coffee cup, nurse a baby, talk about personal unpleasantries) and if we – Church People – fail to abide by these expectations, it becomes fodder for gossip or shunning.

Such things are not worth our time if we are spiritually curious.

I remember being asked by young adult parishioners in my former congregation if I would teach them to do Hebrew and Greek exegesis online so that their personal Bible study might be more in depth.  True story.  Maybe they wanted to grapple with life from a spiritual perspective because they had not grown up in the Church.  Their spiritual sensibilities had not been tainted by years of meetings about carpet colors and Guidelines for Arranging Sanctuary Flowers.

Maybe we are so beaten up by life that it’s simply easier to come and go without much spiritual effort.  It’s easier to focus on the unimportant stuff and so that’s what we do.  But imagine using those beaten-up-by-life moments to grapple with God.  Unfortunately, Church is not the community that some people think of when life is falling apart.  #KeepingUpAppearances #NotSafe

Can spiritual leaders be blamed when we are more excited about talking about Big Life Questions with spiritually curious people than serving among people who seem to have forgotten why we are here?  One of the exciting features of 21st Century Church is that there are still people out there who still wonder Why Are We Here?  What is God Doing?  How Can I Find Meaning in the Throes of Chaos?

I love those questions.  And I love the harder ones:  How Can I Possibly Be Friends With People Whose Politics I Find Abhorrent?  How Can I Forgive the One Who Tried to Destroy Me?  How Can I Live With ___?  How Can I Live Without ___?

Spiritually curious people are a joy to be Church with.  They are the ones who get that life is not ultimately about them.  They are the ones I’m seeking out.

What Do You See? I See a Resurrected Church

Every day in every city and tiny village throughout the United States, people pass by church buildings.  The buildings might be towering stone structures once the tallest edifice in town.  Or they might be look like the ecclesiastical version of a ranch style house.

What do you see when you pass them by?  Maybe you don’t notice them at all.  Most people don’t.

All my life I’ve noticed church buildings.  As a child, I could have told you where the Lutheran church building was in relation to the United Methodist church building.  I could tell you where the Latter Day Saints met and where the Roman Catholics worshiped.  I could even tell you were the Hillel Center was on the university campus in Chapel Hill  long before I went to high school.

And I see those buildings now.  I see them with eyes on the future.  

  • What’s happening around that building?
  • Does the space appear to be used daily?
  • Does it look abandoned?

As a Mid-Council leader, I get phone calls from real estate developers weekly asking about that Abandoned-Looking-Church-On-the Hill asking if they could buy that property.  The Charlotte area is booming and new condo construction is everywhere even in the rural areas in surrounding counties.

We are not selling church property to build new condos.  (I’m not a bishop, even if I sound like one here.)

The 21st Century Church looks different – even in the real estate we use for ministry.  Our worship spaces are different.  Our educational spaces are different.  Our mission spaces are different.  I can see it, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

When I pass by an abandoned looking church on the corner, I see affordable housing and free clinics and job training sites.  I see affordable day care and after school programs and clothing closets.  I see gathering spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and addicts and people in the depths of grief.  I see ministry.  Can you see it?

People will tell me that we can’t develop ministry without money and we can’t get money without selling to the highest bidder.  I understand how that works and yet I am optimistic about partnering with organizations willing to share their money while we share our property.

This is not about being landlords.  I’ve written about this before.

This is about being church.  Not lone ranger Church – but collaborative, selfless, it’s-all-about-Jesus Church.  Can you see it?

“Now That We Know, Doing Nothing is No Longer an Option.”

I just finished reading Austin Channing Brown’s Im Still Here: Black  Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness and I encourage everyone to read it. And while you might be tired of my comments that . . .

  1. We (white people) have a lot of work to do, and
  2. We (white people) need to wake up to the realities of white privilege and white supremacy . . .

I admit before you and God that I am one of those exhausting white people that Austin Channing Brown is talking about in Chapter One.  That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

As my eyes slowly open to some of the realities of human history that I was never taught in school or at home, I can no longer not act on that knowledge.  I can’t pretend that I don’t know that . . .

If you believe that this is fake news, I encourage you to do your own research and critically think through these reports.  Seek out trained journalists and researchers – not talking heads and lobbyists.

Churches have a special knack for sweeping unpleasant truths under the rug.  We tend to erase the stories about pillars of the faith who were slave holders or slum lords.  We want to believe that we come from good stock and that our forebears were benevolent community leaders.  Of course they were.

But as I open myself up to the possibilities/stark realities that “my people” might have been complicated human beings who were not always “good” and that my country has a long and disturbing history of separating children from their parents, I find that I must do something in accordance with my faith.

What we do depends on our personalities and our opportunities:

  • We can give money to ministries and other organizations working towards justice.
  • We can be the activists who write our members of Congress and march in the streets to draw attention to discrimination and/or run for office ourselves.
  • We can teach our children and others about the reality that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was usually offered only to white people – which is a sin.  Plain and simple.
  • We can challenge those who are telling half-truths.
  • We can pull out our camera phones and record the next white person who calls 911 on a person who is simply living while black or brown.  And then put it on social media.

My own tradition – the Presbyterians – prides itself in being well-educated.  We have established schools of higher education from Princeton University in New Jersey to Daeyang University in Malawi to Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie in Brazil.  We have founded secondary schools throughout the world.

We attend Bible studies and book studies and lectures and discussions on international issues.  And then we go home smarter. But nothing changes.

After touring an exhibition on lynching with black and white students, Austin Channing Brown writes in her book that one white student stood on the tour bus and said – emotionally – “Now that we know all of this, doing nothing is no longer an option.” 

Doing nothing when we know that there are hungry people, homeless people, addicted people, terrorized people, lonely people, and broken people makes us complicit.

My friends, if we address these things in the name of Jesus, never again will we need to wonder if the Church is irrelevant or dying.  We will know deeply that it is neither.

ISO Intrapreneurial Pastors

Feeling simplistic this morning and so I’ll just come out and say that there are three kinds of pastors out there – and we need them all:

  1. Church Planters – for starting completely new congregations
  2. Church Chaplains – for helping congregations die with dignity
  3. Church Intrapreneurs – for rethinking and creating new ministries within established congregations

This article explains it right here.

We need pastors who see the future and to paraphrase Bill Aulet of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. we need leaders who can “create kingdom values with new ministries, new ways of running congregations, and do it both with assets that the  church controls and assets that the church doesn’t control like partnerships with secular partners. Entrepreneurs can exist (as Intrapreneurs) in congregations and congregations need them more and more.”

I’m talking about the church leaders who learn about the need for affordable housing and – even if all things are going well in ministry – they begin efforts to partner with other organizations to build affordable housing on that extra piece of property they own but are not using.

I’m talking about the church leaders who recognize the need for a jobs training program which would be perfect in unused Sunday School classrooms.

I’m talking about the church leaders who start a second worship gathering in the cafe near the high school on Sunday nights.

More coming later this week but for now – please – read the MIT article.

Image from Sweet Jesus Ice Cream, the Toronto-based company.  It is my undying dream to partner with them. Not kidding.  Especially not kidding if you are the Sweet Jesus people.  Please return my emails and phone calls.