Category Archives: Uncategorized

Called to the Dirt

“We are animated dirt. Soil and life joined. From living ground we were made; to living ground we will return.” Diana Butler Bass in Grounded

We were at a family birthday party several years ago when TBC told me that she had discerned her life’s work:  “I’m called to the dirt,” she said.

As the great granddaughter of farmers, she would be joining a family trade,  but in a way that would be unrecognizable to her 20th Century ancestors.

It occurs to me that – upon the birth of Jesus for which we prepare this season- God was called to the dirt.  God became dirt.  For a more eloquent & complete breakdown of this, please read Grounded– Diana Butler Bass’ most recent book- especially Chapter One.

I love Diana’s insight that spirituality as we have experienced it has been a horizontal endeavor marked by tall steeples and elevated pulpits.  But the marks of a God known as Emmanuel- God with us– is a wholly different concept.  This God not only became dirty by engaging in earthy, gritty human life.  But this is a God willing to die in the thick of human imperfection and injustice.

All of us – farmers, preachers, clothing designers, baristas- all of us human beings are called to the dirt in order to nourish the world with all that is good.  It’s the most basic of Advent messages.

Choosing Church

 I found myself on Advent 1 in Brooklyn on vacation with extraordinary choices:  Sleep until noon or arise with the sirens? Drink exquisite coffee from TBC’s 4th floor window overlooking the neighborhood or from one of countless patisseries lining the sidewalks?  

It would be so easy not to choose church. 

There are many deterrents to choosing church even if we are spiritually or generationally disposed to do so – especially in an unfamiliar town.  

  • What if the sanctuary seats 400 and only 40 show up?  (Been there.)   
  • What if it’s one of those churches that makes newcomers stand up and introduce ourselves.  (Please don’t ever do that.)
  • What if the music not only fails to inspire, but it separates us from God.  (Ugh – “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music)
  • What if the message offers no hope in light of LaQuan McDonald or The Planned Parenthood attack?  (Because we need a word of hope.)
  • What they call themselves “a friendly congregation” in the opening words but there is no one to hand us a bulletin when we wander in? (Also the Wednesday class sounds interesting but there was no time or location mentioned- just a friendly heads up.)

TBC & I were lucky.  We experienced the living God on Advent 1 in an actual church building as strangers greeted us warmly and the music stirred us and the message was exactly right. And even if the opposite had been true, I’ll still be back, if not to that particular church gathering then to another in another town.

I still choose church.  

It can disappoint us and infuriate us and even hurt us.  But where else can we gather with all kinds of people who have spiritual longings and bankruptcies? Where else can we shake our fists and weep and express our profound gratitude and smile at elderly people and wave little waves at babies and sing together and mention out loud that we need prayer for great or small things?

I still choose church.  But I also marvel when I meet strangers who still choose church.

Recipes and Cookie Cutters

The Good News:  Turkey Cookies

  1. Thousands of us in the United States will enjoy the handiwork of family recipes this Thursday.
  2. Sugar cookies of every seasonal shape will be available in the coming weeks.

The Bad (but not so bad) News:

  1. There is no longer a recipe for creating A Successful Church.
  2. Cookie Cutter Churches have died or are dying.

There was a time when most Protestant Mainline Churches followed a similar recipe for success and it worked:  Sunday Morning Church School, Sunday Morning Worship, Children’s Vacation Bible School during a week in the summer, Church Choir, Women’s Groups Men’s Groups, Pastor-Led Bible Study, Sanctuary with Pews, “Education Wing” that looked like a school building.

Over the past couple of decades the recipe shifted a bit.

Some churches installed screens in the sanctuary and initiated “contemporary worship services.”  Some built enormous Family Centers.  Some copied what other churches had found successful.  (I remember a pastor telling me last year that his church was considering the possibility of placing a computer lab in their building because the church down the street had one.  I suggested that they should not do this because 1) the church down the street already had one and 2) there are computer labs in public libraries and 3) they needed to discern what their church was called to offer to the community based on the needs of the neighbors.)

How many times have we heard that “we need a preschool to bring in young families” because that “worked” for another church?  Or we need to include guitars and drums in worship because “that’s what the Methodists (or the Lutherans or the Presbyterians) did to bring in the young people“?

I’m not saying that screens, drums, and preschools are a bad idea.  It’s just that we need to include them in our ministry because it works for our own context.  (If we try putting a preschool in a neighborhood with no children or with an overabundance of preschool options already available, we will be frustrated.)

The question is always Why?  Why do we want screens?  (There are excellent reasons but “to be attractive to the young people” is not one of them.)  Why do we want to bring in young people?  (Again, there are good and great reasons but “so they will join all the committees and give money to keep us afloat” is not one of them.)

There is no precise recipe for a “Successful Church” in the 21st Century anymore than every American is eating the exact same menus this Thanksgiving. (Anybody sharing the feast with a vegan?  Anyone bringing curry this year?) Just as our culture is more diverse, our communities are becoming more diverse and therefore our congregations could – should? – become more diverse as well . . . at least if we are serious about making disciples of all nations (or all neighbors.)

If we really need a recipe, I would suggest this one:

  1. Prepare the congregation.  (God is always doing something new and it’s usually not what we expect.)
  2. Gather necessary ingredients/information.  (Do we know what our community is missing?  What’s needed?  What breaks God’s heart out there?)
  3. Allow things to heat up. (Let the Spirit in.)
  4. Mix it up.  (Try new things.  Don’t try to institutionalize everything – i.e. just because you try something doesn’t mean you have to do it forever.)
  5. Taste. Savor. Strive for a more adventurous palate.  (HH and I encouraged our kids to try a “no thank you portion” with new foods.  This is not a bad idea for church creativity too.  Just try it.  Maybe it won’t become your favorite thing, or maybe it will.)
  6. Don’t forget to say ‘Thank You’ to the chefs. (Church is no place for shame and blame when we try something new and it doesn’t work out.  Thank those who worked behind the scenes and then take your turn.)

And leave the cookie cutters in the drawer.  (Drop cookies are easier and more fun anyway.)

Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!

Lola, Sheila*, & All of Us

So this is happening.  Pray for Me

I caught a glimpse Saturday night of what it might be like, if my friend and colleague Denise and I find ourselves elected to serve as Co-Moderators of the 222 General Assembly of the PCUSA  in 2016.

When Cindy Bolbach  was Moderator (2010-2012), she occasionally phoned me from Holiday Inns in small towns across the country to review her day and share the things she could not share widely.  There were lonely nights and funny encounters.  There were also random blessings.

Last Saturday night, on the way to celebrate a church anniversary with a congregation in Indiana during the first snow storm of the year, I checked into a hotel and was asked by the two women behind the desk why I was in town.  I said that I was preaching at a church’s 175th anniversary in the morning and without hesitation they asked me if I would pray for them.  Absolutely.

Me:  How can  I pray for you, Sheila*?  (She was wearing a name tag.)

Sheila:  Things are just not going very well.  Just pray about that.

Other Desk Worker:  Please pray for my kids. I have seven kids.

Me:  What’s your name?  I see Sheila’s name tag, but what’s yours?

ODW:  Lola.*

Me:  I will definitely pray for you both.  Thank you.

[Note:  Lesson One is that I should have asked if I could pray for them then and there, but I was really tired and I didn’t.  Next time.]

Every single day, we meet people in need of a holy connection.  They might be hurting or tired or afraid.  In some places there are still people who seek out a clergy person to pray for them, hoping against hope that those prayers will make a difference.  But this is a blessing that all people of faith – clergy or not – should be willing and equipped to offer.

There will be more of those moments if Denise and I find ourselves in the role of GA Co-Moderators.  But I imagine a world in which all people of faith would make ourselves available to connect those in need with The Holy.

For today, please pray for the two hotel workers.  God knows their real names.

*Names changed.

Helicopter Pastors?

Pastors:  Are we “hobbling” our people?

This article by Emma Brown of the helicopter and crossChicago Tribune addresses the familiar notion of over-helping our children.

Stanford University former Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims who wrote How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success offers some no brainer advice to parents:

1. Check your language. “If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter – as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team‘ – it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined”

2. Examine your interactions with adults in your child’s life. “If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested”

3. Stop doing their homework. Enough said.

There are surely some pastors who under function in that they basically call it in. (Question to congregations:  Why haven’t you fired these pastors?)

But more likely, we pastors over function in ways that hobble our congregations. With all due respect to Emma Brown and Julie Lythcott-Haims, here are a couple ideas for us who serve congregations:

1. Let’s check our language. If we call everything “mine” as in “my organist” or “my sanctuary” or “my congregation” – as if we own them – we risk setting ourselves up for a role that will not be healthy.  The church belongs to God and the different components of the church belong to all of us who are part of the community.

2. Let’s examine our interactions.  If we constantly argue with those who disagree with us, if we’re my-way-or-the-highway leaders, if we refuse to partner with people unless we can be in charge, if we treat the rest of our church staff and our volunteers as if we alone offer the final word, our congregations will suffer.

3. Let’s stop doing their ministry. Our calling as pastors is to equip our people to serve as First Responders (see yesterday’s post.)  Our calling is to train our people to pray with others (out loud!) and to lead Bible studies and to take the lead in church programming and to speak clearly about their faith stories.

We who need to do all the ministry ourselves have some security issues.  The irony is that congregations led by pastors who “do everything” are not thriving, healthy congregations.  Relinquishing control and deploying our leaders to serve is not only more fun, it’s the way church is called to be.

Everybody’s a First Responder

I visit many church leaders who have forgotten – or perhaps never knew – how toFirst Responders be the church.  (That sounds really harsh, but stay with me.)

We talk about missional leadership and outreach into the neighborhood and pastoral care, but many of us are not equipped to do these things.  Imagine if – especially in these days – we trained all our of people to be First Responders:

  • There’s a snow storm and we need to know how to check in with our neighbors to see if they are okay.  We need to check if they are warm and stocked with food.  If necessary, practice the “Hi, I just wanted to check to see if you’re okay” dialog.
  • The new couple across the street just adopted a baby and we want to be good neighbors.  Ask if we could bring over dinner.  Find out if there are food allergies.  Deliver dinner in disposables.  Drop off the food and go.  (Don’t plan to stay for a long visit and – for heaven’s sake – don’t comment on how tired somebody looks or how it doesn’t look like they’ve had time to tidy up.)
  • The single man down the street is recovering from hip surgery and his kids live in another state, and we want to offer support.  Get the kids’ numbers in case you need to contact them.  Ask if you can drive the man to his doctor or physical therapy appointments.  Invite him over for dinner or take dinner to him.

I believe that if we all knew how to love our neighbors, our congregations would thrive in spirit if not in numbers.  We can no longer assume that everybody knows how to do these things, but this is something the church could do:  offer First Responder training for the neighborhood and beyond.  It might seem rudimentary.  But in our hectic, busy world – perhaps we’ve forgotten how to respond to someone in need.  Or perhaps we never learned how to do it.

God forbid, maybe we’ll one day need to know how to tend to a victim of terrorism.  Or maybe we’ll simply need to know how to help a lonely neighbor. Church:  this is a good place to being figuring out how to care for others.

Don’t Be a Daes

Love in ParisWe all know that words matter.  “Progressive” versus “Liberal.”  “Pro-life” versus Pro-Choice.”  “Violent Extremists” versus “Radical Islam.”

The terrorists responsible for the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut have been called ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.)  We love our acronyms.

But John Kerry and others have been pushing a different acronym:  DAESH or DAIISH  (pronounced something like di -ESH or dehySH)   It’s the acronym for the Arabic name of the group: ‘لدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام’ (‘al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam’). We can hear on this podcast why calling them DAIISH is a slam.

In a nutshell:

  • To use their their own Arabic name and acronym it demeans the name.  It’s a name that should be demeaned.
  • DAIISH sounds very much like the word daes (“one who crushes something underfoot“) and dahes (“one who sows discord“) – especially when Western people say it.

Word play is our friend.

Calling something what it truly is is not only a linguistic exercise.  It’s a theological and political exercise.  Remember these words:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;  perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

There is violence in the Scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but that’s not who we are.  Don’t be a deceiver or a d#@k, or a daes or a dahes or a DAESH.  This is not what we were created to be.

Let’s Innovate Before We Have To

City WalmartWalmart continues to be the largest company in the world. Love them or hate them, they are not merely amazing innovators; they innovate before they have to.

Sam Walton started Walmart in 1962 but through the years, he was a master of innovation.  In the 1990s, Walmart went into rural areas while Kmart, for example, stayed in the suburbs.

It took Kmart 15 years to plant stores in rural areas.

As I was walking in the Chicago Loop last week, I noticed that Walmart has adapted once again.  Among the sweeping skyscrapers, a Walmart Neighborhood Market stood out on a busy corner.  Also within the city are a Walmart Express and even a Walmart Superstore.  Urban Walmart stores have been around for several years now.  By 2020, Walmart projects that there will be so many stores in the District of Columbia that 64% of the population will live within 2 miles of a Walmart.

So what can we learn as spiritual communities?  Most of our congregations have not brought innovation to our church kitchens much less to our worship practices, our mission priorities or our organizational structures. Why is that?

  • We tend to confuse “traditions” with “customs.”  We don’t want to mess with “tradition” which (we think) means that we don’t want to change the way we do the Christmas pageant.  Actually Advent is a church tradition.  The Christmas pageant is a church custom.  We can change customs to our hearts content.  (Advent, on the other hand, will always be the four Sundays before Christmas and the days in between.)
  • We fear making mistakes.  If our congregation shames people who make mistakes we will never try anything new.  Failure is immeasurably educational, though, and we need to do it more often.
  • We institutionalize customs.  We have a great chili dinner one year and somebody says, “We should do this every year.”  Before you know it, we’ve had a chili dinner for 17 years and nobody likes it much anymore but “we have to do it.  It’s what we do on the last weekend in October.
  • We innovate as as last ditch effort.  (And then it’s too late.) We could have easily restructured our educational program or our leadership model years ago when we had the capacity to make effective change.  But – for whatever reason – we didn’t do it.  Maybe we were complacent or we didn’t want to offend somebody in power or we didn’t see change coming.  But we missed our window and now our educational program or our leadership pool are so depleted that we can’t recover.

Last weekend, I visited a congregation of lively members who were clearly happy to be together, happy to work together, happy to serve.  One member joyfully said, “We never know what’s going to happen around here!”

Exactly.  Innovation is part of their culture.

And innovation is not important for innovation’s sake.  It’s important because the world is changing, our contexts are changing, our populations are changing. Waiting to change the way we are the church doesn’t serve the God who has called us.

Need help innovating?  Here are some ideas to check out.

Everyday Shame (There’s a Miracle for That)

I believe that the Wedding at Cana story is more of a shame story than a miracle Wedding at Cana Daniel Mitsuistory.  (Thank you MP.)  In a nutshell:  Jesus takes what is shameful and creates something beautiful.  Few things in 1st Century Palestine were more shameful than offering poor hospitality to guests (i.e. running out of wine at the wedding.)

Shame trumps guilt every time as the curse that keeps on cursing.

I can’t let go of this story from Chicago last week about the young woman who hid her pregnancy from her parents and was so ashamed/afraid to face them, that she dropped her newborn from her eighth story window.  Imagine the level of terror this 19 year old was experiencing.  She was willing to sacrifice her child in order to spare herself the insults or attacks or shunning of her parents.  Please pray for her as she has been arrested.

When shame is not addressed, it continues.

In a ridiculously incomparable segue, I also believe that many of our congregations live in shame storms.  Congregations remember the days when their choirs went on tour and their pews were filled and their youth programs were brimming with energy.  Some of those same congregations now patch together a much smaller group of singers and rope off the back pews.  There are many, many churches with no children much less any youth.  We lifelong church people might not say so, but to a certain extent, we are ashamed.

It’s not as crushing as the shame of an unwed teenager with conservative parents, but it causes similar fears.  We fear making choices because a “bad choice” could be the end of us. We fear taking risks because we don’t believe we can afford risks.  We cannot joyfully worship because there’s a cloud hanging over us.

Maybe we’ll just cover up the problem and it will go away.

But I’m here to tell that you that Jesus takes what is shameful and redeems it. It’s not just a Bible story.

If you are facing something shameful right now – whatever it might be – please know that there is someone out there who will walk with you.  If you are a congregation on the cusp of closing, know that this is not the worst thing. Water can still turn into wine, in a proverbial sense.  Sometimes dying churches can be transformed, but Jesus is the only one who can do it.  And sometimes Jesus’ people are so loving – no matter what we’ve done or who we are – that our lives can be transformed too.  Shame is never the last word.

Painting of The Wedding at Cana by Daniel Mitsui.

Red Flags

If you were looking for a new pastor, what “red flags” would you Red Flagslook for in hopes of avoiding a poor choice?

  • Doesn’t play well with others?
  • Binge drinks a couple times a year?
  • Has PTSD from an accident?
  • Married his ex-sister in law?

Part of my job involves doing “exec checks” on pastors interviewing to serve around here.  I contact my counterpart where those pastors are currently serving and ask about red flags.

As the pastoral candidate gets closer to being called to a church, there will be other checks: DMV, financial, criminal, theological, “fitness.”  But in the initial check I’m looking for immediate deal breakers.

Here’s what I usually ask:

  • Are there any red flags?  (Seems like a good, basic opening.)
  • Is this a happy person?  (I don’t care if a person has bad days or even depression.  But how is this person’s general disposition?)
  • What does he/she do to serve beyond his/her local congregation? (Tells me if the pastor collaborates with others in the wider Church or in the community.)
  • Is this person teachable?  (Knows-it-all-already pastors tend to be poor leaders for a 21st Century Church.)
  • Is there anything else we need to know about this pastor?  (This would be a good time to tell me she’s got an unaddressed addiction or he burned down the manse.)

[Important note:  Someone is my position can’t truly be a “pastor to pastors”  if I also do “exec checks.” What if I have information shared during a pastoral moment, and I’m asked a question about that issue during an exec check? Boundary problem.]

My question, actually, is:  What Would You Consider a Red Flag for a Pastor? Does it depend on the context?  The pastor’s age?  The pastor’s marital status?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

What should I be asking during Exec Checks?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. What would you want to know about your future pastor?