Category Archives: Uncategorized

I Need Stories

I need stories to connect.jungle

  • When you tell me stories about Jesus turning water into wine or calming storms, the power of God is more real to me than when you offer a lecture on The Power of God.
  • When you tell me the story about when your sisters were adopted by A Nice Family, but that Nice Family wouldn’t adopt you until after you got corrective back surgery, I can offer better pastoral care than if you simply tell me you spent a couple years in an orphanage.
  • When you tell me the story about your decision to share a child for adoption, I can understand your stance on abortion better than if you merely put a pro-life bumper sticker on your fender.
  • When you tell me the story about that time your special needs child was excluded from an art class, I get why you work as an public education activist.

We need stories to make sense of the world.  My political proclivities have been impacted by my personal experiences with LGBTQ people and refugees and undocumented workers and people of color and immigrants.  I would like to hear the personal stories which have impacted your own politics.

Sharing our stories might well save us from further divisiveness in this country and throughout the world.  It’s harder to hate people when we know what they’ve been through in life.

Image by Brian Moore 

Questions I Wish Would Be Asked in Church Interviews

question-mark-on-windowI’ve mentioned before that I love this question asked of a pastoral candidate by a search committee:  Tell us a time you’ve led change?

I like it even more when the candidate also gets to ask the search committee that question, as in:  Tell me a time when your congregation has led change?

Here are a couple more questions that offer layers of insights, especially if you ask both the candidate and the search committee:

1. What Impresses You About a Congregation or a Pastor?

  • Numbers?  As in  “Our church has 4000 members” or “Our budget is $3 million” or “Our pastor makes six figures a year.”
  • Educational Credentials?  As in “She has a degree from Harvard” or “Most of our members have doctorates” or “He studied with Ed Friedman.
  • Diversity?  As in “Our congregation is comprised of a variety of age groups” or “We have members from ten different countries” or “Our community includes homeless members and wealthy members and everyone in between.”
  • Real Estate?  As in “Our church campus boasts two buildings and a gym” or “Our building is on the historic register” or “Our sanctuary was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • Music?  As in “Our section leaders are members of the City Opera” or “Our choir tours the country each summer” or “Our pastor is also a jazz pianist.”
  • Mission Projects? (which could also be about numbers) As in “We support 43 different mission projects” or “We go on mission trips every summer” or “We send all our money to a hospital in Haiti.
  • Serving broken people? As in “Our pastor teaches us how to reach out to neighbors” or “We have good relationships with our local school officials and civic leaders to identify the needs of the community” or “We are especially connected to the homeless and victims of domestic violence in our town.”

Look into their eyes when they answer this question.

2. What do you not want me/us to know about you?

  • Does your church have secrets they don’t want to talk about?
  • Is there a power player in the congregation who bullies every pastor the church calls?
  • Do you fail to practice Sabbath?
  • Is there a group that wields most of the power in the church?  (And – if they are willing to spill it: who are they?)
  • Do you have a history of poor relationships with co-workers?
  • Do you need to be the smartest person in the room?
  • Are you threatened by talented church members?

Give them time to think about this before answering.

3. How have your leadership skills changed to better serve the 21st Century Church (if you are the potential pastor) or (if you are the search committee) how is your church’s organizational structure and culture different than it was 10-20 years ago?

  • Has nothing really changed?
  • Is change hard for you/the congregation because of a lack of energy? Fear of failure? You don’t know how?

Interviews can be fun and inspiring.  They can offer insights about what we are really looking for and what we are not at all looking for.

Because Lent is a time of discernment this is an especially good time for churches looking for new pastors and pastors looking for new churches these days.  Spend some time prayerfully considering the deeper matters at hand.  Authentic discernment takes time.

We’re All Gonna Die

cremains

We’re all gonna die.  But until that happens . . .

 

I sometimes wonder about how I will die.  When you’ve watched your parents die young and you’ve sat with countless others while they breathed their last breath (i.e. the life of a pastor),  it feels quite real.  I tend not to deny death.  Instead, I tend to be surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

My funeral plans are on my phone if you happen to be with me when I pass away.  Grab my phone and look for “If I Die This Year.”  (I change it every January 1st.)

My parents died of breast cancer and lymphoma.  My grandparents died of “old age” (read: heart issues, lung issues, more cancer.)  I could die in an accident, especially since I spend a lot of time in cars and airplanes.  My children have had to remind me not to text behind the wheel even at red lights.  (Note:  I don’t text while driving anymore but confess before you and God that I might text at a red light.)

I could be hit as a pedestrian.  I could fall down a flight of stairs.  I could contract a super virus.  I could be poisoned.  I could be struck by lightning.

There are surprise deaths and there are expected deaths and – if I could choose – I’d go with expected.  As horrible as it was when my parents died after being poked and prodded and zapped and maimed, we got to say good-bye.  We got to relish final conversations and take note of every Last Thing.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we’re all going to die.  But until that happens, I will eat kale.  And more importantly, I will try to make my Creator happy out of immense gratitude for this gorgeous life I have been given which has included human skin, a brain that loves to read and learn, taste buds that crave cheese and chocolate, an unspeakably breathtaking planet, and relationships that have embellished and inspired and infuriated and broken and blessed my life beyond all telling.

My theology is that this life is not about getting into heaven.  (How much are we actually worshipping God if this is a transactional relationship?  I live a “good life” so that I can “go to heaven”?)

My theology is that this life is about making earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus taught us to pray to that effect.  And I like that about God.

We are all going to die but until that happens, I believe we were born to live lives that make our Creator happy.  The details differ but the basic idea is to love as Jesus loves.

A blessed Ash Wednesday to all.

Sunlight is the Best of Disinfectants

Life feels messy and even dirty sometimes.sunlight

I prefer sun-filled rooms and open communication.  As I continue to travel throughout the Church for denominational work, I find that – like families – churches  with secrets tend to be broken and dysfunctional. Sure there’s some business that needs to stay confidential.  But while confidences are kept for the health of a person or organization, secrets perpetuate the brokenness of a person or organization.

Our congregations and mid-councils (not to mention our government and businesses) are filled with secrets or half-truths spread to perpetuate a certain bias.

For example, The President spoke at a Boeing plant in S.C. last week and said, “This plane, as you know, was built right here in the great state of South Carolina. Our goal as a nation must be to rely less on imports and more on products made here in the U.S.A.”  But the truth is that the plane being highlighted that day was Exhibit A for globalization:

It’s fuselage comes from Italy. The wings are from Japan. Passenger doors are built in France.” (Source here.)  It’s indeed great to be “made in America.”  It’s also great to be “made everywhere and put together in America.”  Speaking the truth bolsters trust and makes us understand what’s really going on.

I hear Mid-Councils – as I travel around – talk about shifting budgets and staff structures, when actually the budgets and staffs often remain the same. The truth is that the money is reallocated to a new line item.  Or the staff members have different titles with the same responsibilities.   Sometimes we think we are doing new things but  – in truth –  maybe we aren’t.

It’s okay to tell the truth.  Trust us. We can take it.

Shedding light on the underbellies and the processes of our organizations bolsters relationships. And because trust levels are at an all-time low in our institutions, it’s essential that we share as much of the whole truth as we can share for the sake of organizational health.

I visited one Mid-Council recently and was impressed with the way they openly discussed one of those skeletons in the closet that most of us like to pretend never happened.  It was treated with such transparency and grace that it made me – personally – feel inspired.  Yes, we are indeed Resurrection People and we can overcome mistakes and failures.  What a concept.

Some of us will remember the refreshing smell of bedsheets dried on a clothesline out in the sunshine. Some of us know people who openly – and lovingly – share their mental illness, their business failures, the child they shared for adoption, the child they lost to addiction, their own addiction, their lessons learned.

These are the things of a real family, a real church, a real community of churches. Life is messy and sunshine disinfects the messiest of systems.  We, as the Church of Jesus Christ, can never be healthy until we are as transparent as possible and as safe as possible.

Note: Louis Brandeis is credited with saying, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectantsin Other People’s Money—and How Bankers Use It (1914)

Can You Be Brave?

Mose Wright TestifyingWhat would you do . . .

  • if someone was denigrating one of your friend or colleague in a public meeting?
  • if you came upon a person who was being openly bullied at a party?
  • if you had information that would save someone but sharing that information would put your own life at risk?

Would you be brave?

The photo above by Ernest Withers shows one of the most iconic images of bravery in American history.  The Rev. Moses Wright, uncle of Emmett Till, stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall.  But he was a giant of courage when he pointed his finger at J.W. Milam and then Roy Bryant who had kidnapped Rev. Wright’s nephew in the middle of the night and later murdered him.

As Timothy Tyson writes in The Blood of Emmett Till:

No doubt many though that Wright had pronounced his own death sentence by identifying the two white men who had taken his nephew.

In more recent news, Ian Grillot is being credited with showing uncommon courage by attempting to stop the shooter of two Indian men in a Kansas bar last week.  He risked his own life, later saying from his hospital bed, “I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being.

I wish I believed that most people would have done what Ian Grillot did.  I pray I that I would naturally do what’s right even at personal risk to myself.

In these days when immigrants are being targeted, when refugees are being turned away, when People of Color are presumed to be dangerous, when Muslims are presumed to be terrorists, when transgender people are no longer protected,  we have got to be brave.  We have got to be prepared to step between the bully and the bullied.  We have got to be strong in the face of violence.

My hope is that – in light of his words and actions – President Trump will ultimately make us braver.  God uses everything.  And I pray that God will use these days of the Trump Administration to inspire us to stand up for what is right.

It’s often dangerous to stand up on behalf of the vulnerable, but today calls for more of us to be like Moses Wright. Rev. Wright died in 1966.

Emmett Till’s Grave Is 9 Miles From My House

emmetttills-graveThe first grave you see when you enter Burr Oak Cemetery is Mamie Till Mobley’s grave.  Her only child was Emmett Till.

When I lived in upstate New York (my first call in professional ministry) I lived ten miles from a real grocery store. When I lived in Northern Virginia (my second call in professional ministry) I lived 8 miles from The White House.  And now (in my third call in professional ministry) I live nine miles from the grave of Emmett Till.  I just figured this out a couple weeks ago.

I have passed this grave countless times on the way to Midway Airport without realizing it.

August 28, 1955:  It was my mother’s 22nd birthday and she was in her first trimester of pregnancy with me. It was also the day that Emmett Till died

Mom was a year older that Emmett Till’s accuser who would admit decades later that she’d lied about most of her testimony.  He had not assaulted her.  He had not spewed vulgar language.  At most, Emmett Till had put the cash to pay for his items directly into her hand rather than onto the counter.  He had dared to graze her hand when he paid her.  He would be brutally, horrifically murdered for this social infraction.

He was fourteen years old.  

I’ve read several accounts of Emmett Till’s murder through the years, but most blood-of-emmett-tillrecently, I read Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till which I strongly recommend.

Today, when we say that Black Lives Matter, we are expressing a holy Truth.  It’s also true that we have not cherished the lives of Black Americans in this country.  And Emmett Till’s grave one of countless examples of this.

Now, every time I pass by the cemetery at 127th and Cicero, I will be aware of a holy place along that ordinary roadway where a mother put her child to rest and now rests there herself.  I stood over his grave last week and all I could say is, “I am so sorry.”

To my white sisters and brothers: it’s on us to learn about white supremacy.  We have got to talk about this, think about this, step up against this.  What happened to Emmett Till still happens.  We have got to be braver than we’ve ever been before.

Shooting the Moon (I Hope We’ll See More of This)

shoot the moon – present participle shooting the moonshooting-the-moon

Synonym:

I was talking with a colleague yesterday about her congregation’s ponderings about Shooting the Moon to pay for a new Associate Pastor.  I hope we’ll be seeing more of this in the 21st Century Church.

We have many congregations throughout the Mainline Church on the cusp of closing.  They are not on the brink of closing tomorrow, perhaps, but decisions they make today will impact where they are in five years.  The smart ones are Shooting the Moon for the sake of the gospel.

For example, I know a wonderful church that does good ministry although they are very small.  Less than 50 members.  They have enough money in their assets to pay a good salary with benefits for a full-time pastor for the next three years. And they are going for it.  They are Going for Broke.  They are Aspiring to Great Heights.  They are Shooting the Moon.

In other words, they are investing the entirety of their assets over the next three years to call a new pastor who speaks the language of the neighborhood (English and Spanish) in hopes of attaining a new identity and new growth.

And if they don’t make it after those three years, they will celebrate their legacy and then close.

Note:  They are not putting all their hopes in this new pastor.  They are intentionally agreeing to be equipped by this pastor, to partner with this pastor, to work alongside this pastor to be the Church in a new way in their neighborhood.  They acknowledge that the pastor is not The Professional Christian.  They acknowledge that they are all ministers.

The alternative is to wither slowly.  Our struggling congregations seem to feel sad, confused, angry, or stuck – or all the above.  My hope is that they might look at their situation and take a leap of faith.

  • Take a look at all  assets and consider investing all of them.
  • Take a look at the neighborhood and call a pastor who looks like the neighborhood.
  • Pray mightily for God’s direction.
  • Leap.

It takes great faith over great fear to do this.  But we have got to step up if we have any energy left in us. In these days especially, there is overwhelming need for Good News.  Are we willing to invest everything to share it?

Bringing Light to Dark History (Let’s Do That)

I once served a congregation with HH whose history included an ugly chapter maryturnerwhich had resulted in a church split.  It had happened prior to our arrival.

As we started our new ministry, the leaders who had lived through the worst of it had different ideas for moving forward.  Among the comments I remember:

  • Let’s pretend like it never happened.
  • Let’s figure out how to punish the ones who caused the trouble.
  • Let’s work of getting new members and eventually no one will remember it.

What do we do when our institutional history includes something evil?  It’s one thing for a Church to have a congregational split because of theological differences or financial misconduct.  But it’s quite another thing when our history includes something so heinous that remembering it brings deep shame.  And sometimes it brings denial.

That never could have happened.

It’s important to remember that it did happen.  It’s why James Cone wrote The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  It’s why Yale changed the name of one of their residence halls from John C. Calhoun (a Vice President of the U.S. and supporter of slavery) to Grace Hopper (a computer scientist and United States Navy Rear Admiral.)  It’s why Southern states erect historical markers where slave trading markets once stood and lynchings occurred.

It’s why there are holocaust museums. It’s why the Lorraine Motel is a national historic site.

The truth is that sometimes terrible things happened in this country with the approval of good church people.  How might we address that history?  Forgetting it ever happened isn’t an option if we want to avoid repeating history. Check out these faithful responses to evil:

  •  Allison Creek Presbyterian Church in York, SC not only didn’t ignore the fact that there was a slave cemetery on their church property, but they have drawn attention to the cemetery and honored the human beings who once worked those fields.
  • Salem Presbytery of the PCUSA will remember the excruciating legacy of lynching in North Carolina during their Assembly meeting next week.
  • Last week, our current and former Stated Clerks in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. made a pilgrimage to Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska to offer an apology to Native Americans, native Alaskans, and native Hawaiians for banning their indigenous languages and stealing their livelihoods in the 19th Century.

Few of us enjoy reflecting on uncomfortable things.  In fact, some of us believe that it’s unnecessary and “too negative.” But the Bible actually requires us to look at the truth – even the terrible truth – because that’s how we turn around and become the people we were created to be.

In these days  – especially  – we are required to shed a bright light on those secrets and lies that threaten our humanity.  It’s how healing happens.

Image of an historical marker in Valdosta, GA reminding us of one of the darkest stories in our American experience.  Her name was Mary Page Turner.

 

Imperfect for Each Other

“You’re not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn’t perfect either. But the question is: whether or not you’re perfect for each other. That’s the whole deal. That’s what intimacy is all about.”  Sean (played by Robin Williams) in Good Will Hunting 

I know lots of love stories.

Pastors get a front seat to weddings and we’ll all got stories about the bride who freaked out when the flowers didn’t match her nail polish or the groom who dropped the ring.

We get to observe congregational romances. I know a couple who met during the Ash Wednesday Service – which isn’t easy.   One  attractive person said to another attractive person, “That was so meaningful.  Would you like to get a cup of coffee and talk about Lent?”  Seriously.  That happened.

And just last week I overheard two people fall in love (or at least serious like) on a flight from Philadelphia to Chicago.  They were strangers who happened to take a window seat and a middle seat, side-by-side, and by the time we landed their relationship appeared to have taken flight.  The guy in the aisle seat pretended to be asleep through the whole thing for his own self-preservation.pretty-woman-stairs-scene

Part of being a grown up involves making life about someone besides ourselves. Any bride or groom who believes that the one and only love of their lives 1) exists and 2) exists to serve their every whim has watched too many Julia Roberts movies. True love involves sticking around after all the imperfections reveal themselves. True love is messy. It’s looks almost nothing like a Julia Roberts movie  – especially one starring Richard Gere.

The search for True Love makes today difficult for a lot of people.

The truth is that it’s an underrated miracle when two people fall in love with each other at approximately the same time and it’s a bigger miracle when they can stick it out after they start driving each other crazy.

I disagree with Sean in Good Will Hunting.  It’s not about being perfect for each other.  It’s about being imperfect together.

Sometimes it starts out well but it ends.  That’s okay because you took a risk and shared your life.  You were not perfect for each other and being imperfect with each other was harder than anybody realized it would be.

Nevertheless, Happy Valentine’s Day. This is a good day to make someone – anyone – feel loved in spite of their imperfections.  The God I believe in does that countless times every day.

Image of Richard Gere climbing up to Pretty Woman Julia Robert’s apartment. Beware. This kind of thing can mess with your mind. 

Sonic Boom

sonic_boom_1What’s giving me life right now in the thick of the world’s anxieties is visiting healthy churches and Presbyteries.  There are quite a few out there, my friends.

Another one of the enormous privileges of serving the Church is the opportunity to meet amazing human beings like Dr. Christine Darden.  She is among the second generation of Hidden Figures and – like Dr. Katherine Johnson – a Presbyterian Christian.  In fact, they used to sing in the same church choir.

[This is a gentle reminder that being a scientist and a person of faith are not mutually exclusive.]

Dr. Darden’s special interest is sonic booms and when she spoke to a packed chapel at Columbia Theological Seminary last week about vapor cones and pressure waves, there were moments when our theologically-trained eyes glazed over.  The woman is clearly brilliant.  Among the things I understood about her presentation is that a sonic boom results when shock waves form a cone of sound after an object has moved through the air faster than the speed of sound.  The pressure has to go somewhere so:  Boom.

We – meaning the world, the culture, the Church – are experiencing a series of sonic booms.  There are shock waves jolting our lives every day. And then there’s a boom.  Every day.

Sometimes the shocks are personal:  betrayals and losses.  Sometimes they are political: executive orders and random tweets.  Sometimes they are spiritual: holy disappointments and divine silence.

But there is hope.  There is always hope.  Someone is alive right now that knows more than we do about sonic booms and how to minimize them for the sake of the people.  Dr. Christine Darden has done this.  Others are stepping up to address those figurative kinds of sonic booms.

A note about protests: they are important tools for gathering steam and building energy, but the shock waves and sonic booms of these days require additional research and actions.  I loved this article in The Washington Post about the concrete steps people are taking after the protests.

The world feels shaky to many of us.  But if you are feeling even a little steady, please step up.  Be the Christine Darden of refugee work, immigrant rights, LGBTQ justice, anti-racism training, anti-hunger work.  The Spirit is leading us.

We are called to be the healthy Church.