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What’s the Difference between the Youth Triennium and a Political Convention? (Spoiler Alert: A Couple Things)

If I build stadium seating, with flashing lights and pounding drums, and broadcast my message across the world, but do not increase love for the stranger, the outcast, the helpless, my worship is ego-driven vapor, exercises in excess that leave the heart empty, and our people more alone.  From the closing liturgy for the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium last Friday

Political Campaign and Triennium[Note:  This is not intended to a politically partisan post.  As a follower of Jesus, I have concerns about last week’s political convention and as a follower of Jesus, I have concerns about this week’s political convention.]

What’s the Difference between the Presbyterian Youth Triennium and an American Political Convention?   The Youth Triennium was held in Indiana last week and one party’s convention was held last week in Ohio.  The other party’s convention will be held this week in Pennsylvania.

Both of last week’s events featured people who were whipped up in the frenzy of the moment. Both featured people wearing funny hats. Both events were held in huge venues with screens and spotlights and balloons and confetti.  Both events included inspiring speakers and rousing music.  Both events prompted religious fervor.

But these events could not have been more different.  One allowed hate and darkness to overshadow love and light.  The other lifted 5000 lights into the sky and asked participants to take that light out into the world.

One – in our Land of Liberty – vilified those whose opinions and beliefs differ from theirs within the realm of patriotism.  And the other addressed the diversity of opinions and beliefs within the realm of Christian orthodoxy.

One event included calls to “lock her up” and to “execute her”  (speaking of Hillary Clinton) to the point that I was almost expecting people to start shouting, “Crucify her!  Crucify her!”  The other event called people to go out into the world and make disciples.

One event included a speech declaring that the candidate could single-handedly fix the problems of the world.  The other event included a sermon by Steve Wilde that declared that “God has always chosen to work and act through unimpressive and inadequate people—normal, insecure and slightly freaked out people like you and like me.”  Steve was joined by other preachers who shared similar messages that proclaimed that we cannot actually make a difference alone.

I could go on and on but you get my drift here.  And my point is that it will also be equally as disappointing if this week’s political convention espouses a similar message of demonization and darkness and cosmic self-sufficiency.

Friends, our world is a hot mess and yet there is light.  I saw it brilliantly shining last week  at Triennium as I’ve seen it throughout my life, and I pray you have seen it in your lives too.

There is light in the world when oppressed people are protected and treasured. There is light in the world when enslaved people are set free whether that slavery is a result of human trafficking or addiction or the lie that we are not included in God’s love and mercy.  There is light in the world when 5000 high school students commit to going out into the world to make it better in God’s name. There is hope in the world when adults give up their vacation time to chaperone youth events or volunteer for mission trips.  There is hope in the world when life looks impossibly dark and someone chooses to sit with us in that darkness.

Every day I see goodness.  And the beauty about being one of the Co-Moderators of the PCUSA is that I increasingly witness goodness in remote corners and among strangers who become friends.

I am not naive. I know that political conventions are not overtly spiritual events. And yet . . .

We are called, my friends, to go out and bring light and life into the world.  We are not called to villify each other and build temples to ourselves.  We were born to bring hope.

Images from the Republican National Convention (top) and the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium (bottom)

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The new Ghostbusters are women.  And they get the job done.  Mosaic on diversity

When the team of Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter Venkman  was replaced by Erin, Abby, Jillian, and Patty some people scoffed.  Some didn’t care.  Some were inspired.  Sort of like what happens when non-traditional clergy replace “traditonal clergy” – and by that I mean women and people of color replacing white males.  Some people scoff.  Some don’t care.  Some are inspired.

I loved this article from The Atlantic and hope you’ll read every word.

The Eclipse of White Christian America is the title of the article.  What word jumps out at you in that title?  Which part makes you anxious?  For many of my people, they see “eclipse of Christian America.”  For me, the word “white” leaps out.

I hear over and over again that

  • People don’t go to church like they used to.
  • Young families won’t commit to church.
  • 20 and 30-somethings are not interested in church

But the issue here – for me – is not about age.  It’s about race and ethnicity.  Some pastor search committees in predominantly white churches  want a “young minister.”  There are lots of young pastors out there but they may not be white. Some congregations want lots of new members, but they don’t want new members who don’t look like themselves.

There are still lots of Protestant Christians in the United States. Increasingly they will not be white as demographic shifts continue.

So . . . who will Pastor Nominating Committees call in the future?  Many of our PNCs want to call a pastor with “classic looks” – code for a white guy in a tie perhaps.  But I hope they call the very best pastor – who doesn’t necessarily look like them.  The next pastor should always offer something that looks like the church of the future.

(Note:  Looks often deceive.  Find out what your candidates know about missional church, entrepreneurial church, conflict management, time management and emotional intelligence – because they will get tired – and cultural fluency.)

Image is a mosaic of some of the best pastors I know in my denomination.

It’s Not About Getting Younger Members

This report made me sigh.  (Quick recap:  The PCUSA is one of the two oldestYAADs with Jan and Denise religious groups in the country.)

Here’s what not to do in response to this information:

  • Run out and hire the first pastor we can find with a tattoo.
  • Install screens in the sanctuary.
  • Replace the organist with a drummer and a couple guitar players.
  • Become Buddhist (because their average member is twenty years younger than “ours.”)

It doesn’t matter that all the kids love Hamilton (and the real Alexander Hamilton was educated by a Presbyterian on St. Croix and influenced by Presbyterians in NY.)

It doesn’t matter that hundreds of youth and young adults will be converging on Purdue University this week for the Presbyterian Youth Triennium and it will change their lives.

What does matter:

  • We say that “we want kids” and “we want young adults” but sometimes we don’t act like it.
  • We want “young families” for the wrong reasons.  Please re-read this post.
  • We are addicted to a certain way of being the church that is less about the gospel and more about our own comfort levels.

What also matters is that my (old) denomination offers the kind of spiritual community – in terms of The Big Picture – that would be appealing to people in younger demographics if we could live out these principles in real life:

  • The majority of millennials support marriage equality in the United States.  (Note:  The PCUSA is one of a handful of denominations that support same sex unions and ordains LGBTQ clergy.)
  • The majority of young adults support Black Lives Matter.   The births of multiracial children is increasing in the United States.  In 2015, there were more 24 year olds than any other age group, but for white Americans, the average age was 55.   In other words, it’s time for faith communities to address the realities of racial/ethnic shifts in this country and – for the love of God – the realities of systemic racism.  (Note:  The PCUSA not only just added a creed to our Book of Confessions that declares it is a sin to separate people based on race and color.  But it’s also true that the four leading officers of our denomination include a Latino man, an African American man, an African American woman, and me.)
  • Young adults want to make a difference in their communities. According to this Pew study, the majority of Millennials and Gen Xers volunteered in the past twelve months in greater percentages than Boomers or members of the Silent generation. While slacktivism is popular (e.g. buying TOMS shoes, signing internet petitions) there are many young adults more interested – and aware of the need – to make more impactful contributions. (Note:  PCUSA World Mission is known for sticking around after the sexiness of doing good wears off in many troubled corners of the world.  For example, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance stuck around to help Katrina victims after most agencies left and, subsequently, we are the only group of our kind recognized in the Katrina museum in New Orleans.)

I believe that diverse and theologically progressive congregations have much to offer people – of every age – seeking a spiritual community that wants to change the world for good in the name of Jesus.  And yet our churches doing amazing things could do a better job translating who we are and what we are about.

Perhaps we – in every church –  could stop repelling people with our in-house squabbles.  Perhaps we who have remained in traditional congregations could get out more and notice more clearly the needs of our communities – rather than perpetuating  pet projects that offer little impact.

I can almost hear you saying, “Jan’s been a General Assembly co-moderator for less than a month and she’s already drinking the Kool-Aid.”  But the truth is that there are many congregations faithfully doing what matters to younger generations whether the younger generations are present to notice or not.  How can we connect with people of all ages in ways that make sense for a the future Church?

Image from the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon.

 

In Search of: A Wonderful, Bountiful, Not Bad, Pretty Good Day

AlexanderRemember Alexander? He’s not the only one who suffers bad days.  (This post was inspired by this article.  I feel for him.)

Sometimes our days are filled with First World annoyances.  And sometimes people experience unspeakable horror.  Unspeakable horror seems to be winning.

There is always more to do than we get done in a given day, and we can respond to this cosmic reality in several ways:

  • Lie awake in bed regretting our time management decisions.
  • Work more.  Rest less.
  • Assess the good witnessed/achieved/experienced that day and give thanks.

My work schedule varies every day.  I have a list of things to do, and my day might or might not turn out the way I planned.  Maybe your days are like this as well.

But there is good each day.  I – for one – can’t survive without daily assessing what I witnessed or achieved or experienced that was life-giving and redemptive.

  • Who was loved?
  • Who was heard?
  • What was appreciated?
  • How was God honored?

And then we try again tomorrow.

Whether we try to follow the way of Jesus or not, we can all be kinder to each other. We can do the right thing, even if no one is watching.  We can give someone else a really good day.

Image from Judith Viorst’s book.  Illustration by Ray Cruz.

Beyond “Thoughts & Prayers”: How About Some Orientation?

I have always loved orientation days.  compass

As I write this, I’m on the cusp of my latest orientation:  GA Co-Moderator Orientation with Denise in Louisville today and tomorrow.  Look out, people.  We are getting new PCUSA email addresses.

Information brings power.  I like knowing where the restrooms are located.  I like knowing what’s expected of me.  I like having access to calendars and phone numbers.

As we still reel from Dallas and Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, I – like many – are frustrated by merely offering our “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families.  As many preachers noted last Sunday, the Good Samaritan did more than offer “thoughts and prayers” to the beaten man on the side of the road.

I’m wondering if we need to be – or to seek out – orientation counselors.  Please note:  this is not an opportunity to offer mansplanations to “those people.” Please, no.

We live in a world in which we are exposed to people and places that are unfamiliar to us, especially if we are able to travel or go away to school or take a new job on the other side of the country.  [Note: if you travel or go to college or move to a new place and do not meet anyone who is not like you, you’ve missed a God-given opportunity.]

Or maybe our only contact with people who are Not Like Us is through media where each of us – on any given day – can find ourselves at a march in Dallas or a parking lot in Baton Rouge or a campaign rally in Portsmouth, NH. These opportunities to visit unfamiliar places and explore new worlds and meet new people require some effort though.

Now more than ever, we need effective orientation.  What seems confusing to us might become understandable if we learn about the history behind the culture.  What makes us judge-y when we watch news reports might be understandable if we knew the norms and customs of the hometown crowd.

We live in a world full of unfair judgments and destructive mythologies and it’s killing us – sometimes literally.

We’ve “heard things” about (a person, race, ethnicity, religion, gender) but we actually don’t know what we’re talking about until we have firsthand conversations and personal experiences.  There’s quite a bit of misinformation out there about human beings with whom we share a planet who might look/worship/speak differently from the way we look/worship/speak.  Imagine allowing ourselves to be oriented according to what the-already-oriented can teach us or show us.

Imagine serving as someone else’s Orientation Counselor  – not like the know-it-all OCs who lord over their experience, but like the ones who help you carry your mini-fridge up three flights of stairs.

How can I help?” is a good question, especially if we mean it.  It’s so much more than saying, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

 

 

Everybody Should Get This

green-mountainsI’m headed back to real life today after a couple days celebrating HH’s 60th birthday in Vermont.  It was lovely.  We ate really good food.  We experienced God’s nature in technicolor.  We stared into space with few immediate worries. We worshiped with a church on Sunday that addressed important spiritual issues and nobody got angry/shot/banished.

At dinner last night, my sweet HH said, “Everybody should get this.”  He is right.

Everybody should get a vacation.  Everybody should get at least one standing ovation in life.  Everybody should get dessert after a great meal.  Everybody should get his birthday celebrated or her election honored.  Everybody should get to go to a peaceful protest without being shot at.  Everybody should get to drive in the wee hours – if we wish – without being shot at.  Everybody should get to play in a public playground without being shot at.  Everybody should get to make a living without getting shot at.

My heart is filled with gratitude.  I have married a generous person who loves me.  I have enough money to take a vacation.  I have healthy children who are happy and interesting.  I work with fantastic people.  I live in a house with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.  I have a cell phone, a laptop, a double-wide fridge, an extra bathroom, and a team of people who mow my big yard.  I am an enormously privileged human being.

Everybody should get this.  I reject the notion that – for me to “have this”  – some people are doomed to the poverty class.  This is not true.

Everybody should be treasured and well fed and rested and honored.  We are in big trouble, cosmically, if we don’t get this.

My Name is Jan & I’m the White One

baptismal fontThe day after Denise Anderson and I were elected to be Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, I found myself on the hotel elevator alone – which was rare – headed down to the lobby for our next thing.  The doors opened about halfway down and a young man got on the elevator, saw my C0-Moderators’ stole and blurted out, “Oh hi!  You’re the white one.

Yes.  I am The White One.  My name is Jan.  I think of myself as white.

My skin is pale.  My people are from Europe (although the Irish were once considered Black.)  Sometimes “blackness”  has less to do with skin tone than level of oppression.  Quite a few of us have varied and colorful DNA.  I’m not sure that even the palest among us is 100% “white.”

But I think of myself as White.  I am biased about race.  I am a perpetuator of racial prejudice.  I am so thoroughly privileged that I only notice it a tiny fraction of the time.  I am uncomfortable around people of other races sometimes to the point that I say or do awkward – sometimes even asinine – things.

Examples:

  • I don’t think I’ve ever touched the hair of a black person without permission – although maybe I have – and yet I often talk about hair with friends whose hair is different from mine because it’s easy to talk about.  Stupid maybe, but easy.  I honestly would like to have Samira Wiley‘s hair and basic head shape but my head is lumpy. So I’ll see a woman who looks amazing with hair different from mine and I’ll want to talk about that as if a stranger’s hair is something I have the right to hold forth about.  Note:  I’ve noticed that when people feel awkward – especially women of every color – we comment on each other’s clothing or hair or shoes.  I once went into a church meeting and a person literally said, “Oooh a boucle skirt and top from Talbot’s.”  It felt weird.  I am not my clothes/hair.  Neither are you.
  • I expect Black friends (or Asian friends, LGBTQ friends, etc.) to be my teacher and explain “their people” to me.   “Why do Black people ___?”  This is ridiculous unless it’s genuinely a joke.
  • I assume a lot of things that people of color cannot assume:  that I will not be shot if pulled over in my car with a broken tail light, that I belong in the fancy department in Nordstrom, that I am smart, that I can live in any neighborhood I can afford, that I can get a bank loan based on my credit score (and not my skin tone.)
  • I think I can sing “We Shall Overcome” without a monumental sense of irony.

On this day, exactly 60 years ago I was baptized.  Many of us were baptized for purely sentimental reasons.  But if we are serious about those vows we will quake in our shoes:

“Do you renounce evil and its power in the world, which defies righteousness and love?”
Response: I do renounce them.

“Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?”

Response: “I do renounce them.

We have witnessed evil and its power in the world this week.  Much of that evil has been race-based.   We are afraid.  We are angry.

Or worse:  we are indifferent.  We go about our vacations or our cook-outs or our business without once pondering what we have done to contribute to/perpetuate racial prejudice in our families, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our country.

I remember visiting a local church in my Presbytery on Sunday, July 14, 2013 – the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin.  I felt sick.  I craved  God’s Word.

Not only was there no mention of this trial or the agony of  a 17 year old boy’s death without anyone being held accountable, but the sermon – clearly pulled from a seasoned preacher’s file – referred to “the new play on Broadway called ‘Hair.’”   Jesus wept.

What can we do besides “think and pray”?

  • Read this book.  Talk about it with your friends.
  • Correct people – out loud – when they say something racist.  (Note:  you have permission to do this to me too.)
  • Talk about race in our families.  I’m talking to you, White families.
  • Spark conversations by doing privilege exercises in classes, training retreats, etc.  Here are some.
  • Register for this conference.
  • Plan to register for this one in 2017.  Seriously, take a group. Registration for the 2017 conference in Kansas City (April 27th-30th, 2017) opens in January.
  • Read books – fiction and non-fiction  – by people of color.

One way to change the world is to change ourselves.  I for one – The White One – am focusing on this right now.

Name Above All Names

Jesus BillboardI counted five electronic Jesus billboards on a visit to Minnesota recently.  One could be seen from my hotel window.

They were each part of a loop of other electronic messages that included ads for everything from yogurt stores to insurance companies.  I don’t know whether the red, white and blue color scheme was tied to the recent Independence Day holiday or whether it was a “Jesus and America” message or whether somebody just liked those colors.

I’ve been trying to find out who paid for these signs and what they hoped to convey, but no success on that front.  (Minnesotans:  if you have information on this, please weigh in.)

Because I can’t find out anything about these particular billboards, I can’t know the hopes and goals of the folks who paid good money to project the name “Jesus” high up along the highways outside Minneapolis.  I wonder:

  • Do they hope that simply seeing the name “Jesus” along the highway will bring a serene reminder to believers?  Calm down.  Don’t worry.  Think about Jesus.
  • Do they hope that seeing the name “Jesus” – for non-believers – will spark curiosity to the point that some people might check Jesus out when they reach their destination?  Hmm.  Jesus.  I should pick up a Bible and read about Jesus this weekend.
  • Is it a reminder that Jesus is watching us?  I’m going to slow down and obey the speed limit because . . . Jesus.
  • Is it some kind of weird competition with billboards like these?

I got home from MN after not watching or reading the news for a couple days to learn that someone named Alton Sterling was shot by at least one police officer in Baton Rouge on Tuesday.  Mr. Sterling apparently had a criminal record but on the day he died he had been selling CDs in a store parking lot, and it’s not clear that the police were aware of his previous crimes.  It seems to me that – criminal record or not – nobody deserves to be executed in a parking lot.  It’s not even clear if he himself had a gun, although some believed he did.  From the video, it doesn’t look like he was pulling a gun on anyone.

I wonder if having an electronic Jesus billboard overlooking that Triple S Food Mart parking lot might have helped.

Someone or several someones decided it was worth their money to project Jesus’ name along popular Minnesota highways.   But I wish there were more people who simply exemplified Jesus in parking lots and on playgrounds and along sidewalks than people who want to put Jesus’ name in the sky.   I’m at the point, though, where I’m willing to try anything – anything – to stop these shootings of black men.  For the love of God, what is wrong with us?

POSTLUDE: I wrote this post before Philando Castile was shot four times by a police officer in Minneapolis after being pulled over for a broken taillight.  No Jesus sign would have mattered.  Dear God, how do we convince people that Black Lives Matter?

Image taken along a highway in Minnesota yesterday.

 

20-Somethings

PathsI’ve convinced that the Twenties are the hardest decade.  For every Mark Zuckerberg or Alexander Hamilton, there are millions of 20-somethings who are trying to figure out who they are, what they are called to do and be, with whom they will spend their lives, and why they exist.  Bless them.

Yes, the other decades are tricky.  HH and I spent a decade trying to keep our kids alive. We spent another decade trying to juggle their lives and ours.  Now, on the cusp of our sixth decade (for him; I’m already there) we will try to avoid cancer, heart disease, and an insecure retirement.

What is The Church doing for 20-somethings beyond praying that they will connect with our congregations and teach Vacation Bible School?

I am the mother of three 20-somethings.  They may or may not ever connect with a traditional congregation again.  What they want includes:  meaning, support, community.  What they don’t want: guilt, pressure, fakery.

Some of our congregations are demographically bereft of 20-somethings.  Maybe we live in retirement communities or expensive neighborhoods or places where there are no jobs or colleges.  Some of our congregations are demographically blessed with 20-somethings.  How can we serve those in the most difficult decade?

  • Be flexible.
  • Offer authentic support.
  • Love them for who they are.
  • Assume they are smart.

Twenty-somethings often become thirty-somethings who are somewhat more settled. Sometimes they have children.  Sometimes they have a desire to serve in their communities.  In the meantime, we can be the kind of community that any follower of Jesus of any age would want to be a part of.

Although I Don’t Want to be THAT Person . . .

I have an exceptionally good life.  Honestly, I can’t think of many people whose IndigoSlaveSaleSC1769-smlife is better than mine in terms of family and friends, health and prosperity, opportunities and grace.  I am blessed, lucky, privileged, and randomly fortunate.

I celebrate Independence Day today, recognizing that this is historically a white holiday.  There was independence with the signing of The Declaration – but not for everybody.  Even our forefathers who were against slavery owned slaves.   And women, of course, could not own property, vote, or consider themselves “autonomous”   – although with Independence Day came the ability to divorce and have child-custody rights.  There was some semblance of freedom for women –  except of course for women of color, most of whom were slaves.  Women of color have always been the last to be free.

So, I don’t want to be that person who always mentions the underside of what is good in our culture.  I don’t want to be Debbie Downer at the barbecue.

And yet – for people with my skin tone, no matter how hard we have worked – much of what makes America great came on the backs of enslaved people.  Slaves (along with free Blacks) built The White House and Capitol. They worked in and for our oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities.  Their servitude made our colonial economy thrive.  Important reading for this national holiday is this.

Happy Birthday, America.  I love my country and that’s why I want us to be better than what we are now.  We are a better country than the gun violence, the torture of our enemies, the toxic water, the law enforcement disparities, and the everyday racism convey.  We are not only better than this; I believe we were created to be better than this by almighty God.

And so I celebrate today.  But let’s not forget that there are many people who are grieving that our beloved nation is not what it could be.

Image of a poster  from 1769 in Charleston, S.C.