Category Archives: Uncategorized

Seeing the Clinton Library through a 2018 Lens

I’ve been in Little Rock all week at Presbytery Leader Formation and on our free afternoon yesterday, several of us visited the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.  In these #MeToo days, I felt a little queasy to be perfectly honest.  I believe the women who say that he assaulted them and/or harrassed them before and during his Presidency.  And although I do not believe we should judge people based on the worst thing they’ve ever done, most of us haven’t forgotten that Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.  Yes, he was acquitted on all charges.  But we remember.

This post is not intended to be politically partisan.  There are good things that each President of the United States has done regardless of party affiliation.  Obviously every President’s library will highlight the good things, including quotes from supporters, and successes in the eyes of their own party.

But what struck me about this library were the world leaders whose words were played on video lauding this President for specific actions that benefited the world:  Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Vaclav Havel, Ehud Barak.  There was Clinton with other Presidents at the dedication of the George H.W. Bush Library.  There was Clinton at President Nixon’s funeral.  And there were numerous legislative highlights that – whether you agreed with them or not – were intended to benefit the poor, the uninsured, the refugee.

As my colleagues and I watched the videos, read the letters, toured the Presidential timeline, each of us felt the special impact of observing it all through the lens of 2018.  We wondered aloud what our current President’s library might look like.

Again – I am not seeking partisan comments or snarkitude here.  I simply wonder if there will be respected world leaders who laud this President.  Will there be highlights of legislation that benefits the poor, the uninsured, the refugee?  Will there be photos with other Presidents that exude mutual respect and dignity?  What quotes will be featured on the walls?

I long for leaders who display good character.  I crave leaders who visibly honor each human being’s value, whether those human beings are family members, business partners, political colleagues, or international neighbors.

This is my hope for our President – no matter who he is or – one day – who she is.  Our country is too important, too special to expect anything less.  We deserve leaders that our children can admire.

A good Presidential Library – like a good sermon – inspires us to be better.

Image from the Clinton Library that mentions his impeachment in his Presidential timeline.  There is a single mention of Monica Lewinsky in the entire facility. (right)

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Most of the World Doesn’t Care

One thing The Institutional Church needs to remember is that most of the world doesn’t care what The Church  – especially The Mainline Church –  is doing.

And even Church People care at different levels about Church World:

  • Level One:  There’s a church in town and I’ve participated at least once.
  • Level Two: I participate fairly regularly in that church.
  • Level Three:  I’m a leader in that church.
  • Level Four:  My leadership in church has expanded to connections with other believers outside my particular congregation.
  • Level Five:  Church people know me as a church leader.
  • Level Six: I go to church conferences in my geographic area.
  • Level Seven: I spend money and/or take vacation time to go to church conferences that require a plane ticket.
  • Level Eight: I can identify the mid-council leaders of my denomination/somebody’s denomination.
  • Level Nine:  I know and care about denominational policies and can name at least three people who serve at the highest level of my denomination/somebody’s denomination.
  • Level Ten:  I can tell you who Paige Patterson is and what he said recently said that caused an uproar.  I know what the United Methodist bishops just said about homosexual pastors and (for extra points) I know who the new Presbyterian Mission Agency Executive Director is.

As a Level Ten Church Person (Paige Patterson. United Methodists. PMA Exec.)  I read all manner of church information from news articles and policies to General Assembly overtures (look it up) and mission co-worker letters home.  But I also know that most of the world Does Not Care about such things.  In fact, the average church person is probably about a Level Two or Three.

So how are we as the Church going to be Relevant, Engaged, Interesting, and Interested in these days?  In many of our spiritual communities . . .

  • Information gets shared numerous ways (emails, newsletters, tweets, texts, snail mail) but it goes unread.
  • Congregations hold meetings and there’s barely a quorum.
  • Everything from a congregation leaving the denomination to a pastor being approved to serve in a new church is listed in a meeting’s Consent Motion/Omnibus Motion because it’s considered non-controversial/people want to get home ASAP.

Sometimes people want cursory knowledge about church things, but are not invested/interested enough to study the situation.  We might show up for a vote but not for informational sessions leading up to the vote.  Whatever.  Don’t really care.

I wonder about these things because on the one hand, some of these things truly don’t actually matter in the big scheme of things.

But on the other hand, they matter a lot because People Matter.  The Planet Matters.  Structures Matter (although it’s not my favorite thing to debate.)  Jesus even said that our Enemies Matter.

When we can connect Church Stuff with People, there is a good possibility that others will take notice and maybe they’ll even care.  The Church talks about the environment because we want people to be healthy.  We create policies because we want people to be treated fairly.

And the bottom line is that God created us (people) to love each other.  If the Church isn’t ultimately about loving God and neighbor, I guess I don’t care either.  But that is what a healthy church is all about.  God.  And the people.

That Time I Found a Pink Cocktail Dress in the Closet That Wasn’t Mine

I saw it one day in our young sons’ bedroom closet.  It was hanging with the clear dry cleaning plastic over it, but I could see that it was pink chiffon and it was tiny.  I have never been that dress size.

HH and I were the parents of three youngish children at the time and we were serving two different congregations.  Life was busy.  There was laundry to wash. There were sermons to write.

For months I saw that tiny pink dress hanging in the boys’ closet and I kept thinking that I should probably ask somebody about it, but there was too much going on.  The moment I left the boys’ room, my brain moved on to the next thing.

It was literally hanging in that closet for over a year until I finally asked HH, “What’s up with that tiny pink dress hanging in the boys’ closet?”  He didn’t know what I was talking about.

We both went to find the dress and there it was.  And it took HH a minute to remember.

Oh!  There was a controversy when  ___ died about what she should wear in the (closed) casket.  Her sisters wanted her to wear a blue dress and her son wanted her to wear a pink dress.  And the sisters won.  But they didn’t want the son to know that they had asked the funeral director to change his mother from the pink dress to the blue dress.  And so they handed me the pink dress and asked me to hide it. So I brought it home.”

So here is the thing:

  • Nobody had noticed the dress but me, even though everybody in the family had been in that closet.
  • I had noticed the dress but didn’t consider it an emergency situation.  (i.e. I was pretty sure that neither my HH nor my kids had had a size two Significant Other they were hiding.)
  • Our closets needed to be cleaned out.
  • Sometimes family secrets are ridiculous.  (But many times they are not.)  And either way, we need to address them.

I consider this story a metaphor for ministry.  If we fail to notice “the elephant in the room” how much more do we fail to notice the pink dress in the closet?

The Good News:  I trusted my spouse and knew that the little dress wasn’t a souvenir from Vegas (or whatever.)  The Not-So-Good News: Being intentional about our closets takes work and focus.  And it’s unhealthy when families can’t let go of the ridiculous.  Was changing a dead woman’s casket outfit really worth the trouble?

Trust is essential whether we are talking about our spiritual leaders or our family members.  And we need to grapple with conflicts in the open together.

We gave the dress to Goodwill.

May your closets be organized and may you address what you find there sooner than later.

 

Broken Is What Makes Us Human

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt.  We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.” Brian Stevenson in Just Mercy

Every person is broken but we expend a lot of energy hiding that truth.  I’m convinced that the more church members pretend like they do not struggle with with spiritual doubts/addiction/mental illness/bankruptcy/unemployment/imperfect children/bitterness/marriage problems/greed the more that congregation resembles a social club.

When we fail to admit the ways in which we are broken, it’s almost impossible to serve other people without feelings of superiority.  “I have it all together so I will deign to help people with cancer/in prison/who are homeless.”

This is not what authentic Christianity looks like.

My hero Brian Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy (2015) about his work as an attorney in Montgomery, Alabama serving poor incarcerated people – some on death row.  The work was incessant and exhausting.

He wrote story after story about mostly black men, women, and children who found themselves so utterly powerless in the face of the legal system that they were more than broken; they were crushed.

The work was burning him out . . . until he acknowledged that he, too, was broken.  He writes that being broken is what makes us human.  God did not create perfect robots.  God created people who bleed and ache and experience deep grief.  And often we break each other.  And sometimes we even enjoy breaking each other.

Imagine – as we encounter each other today – that we recognize that every single person we meet has hurts we cannot see.  Some are deeper than others, but we all have those broken places.  Every single one of us.

Being broken is what makes us human.

Image by Jon Shireman from his collection of shattered flowers.

Talking Something to Death

Have you ever had friends who would Not Stop Talking about . . .

  • A breakup?
  • A family trauma?
  • That time they were mistreated/betrayed/abused?

We human beings grieve our losses at different paces and a truly good friend keeps listening until the story no longer needs to be told.  Also, talented therapists are among God’s greatest gifts.

I was talking with a clergy colleague the other day about systemic racism – as you do – and he said something brilliant:

We need to talk this to death because resurrection only comes after death.

I find myself talking about systemic racism and white privilege quite often these days and some people are tired of hearing about it.  But there’s so much we need to address as People of Faith:  police shooting unarmed black people, the high incidence of incarceration among black men, the condition of schools in poor (often black or brown) neighborhoods, Confederate monuments, our nation’s history of lynching people of color.

As Debby Irving notes in Waking Up White, most brown and black families regularly talk about race around the dinner table, in the car, shopping, playing, sitting in waiting rooms.  In other words: everywhere.  Most white people do not talk about race because we don’t have to.  We assume we belong wherever we go.  We assume that “white” is the default skin color, at least in the United States, Canada, and western Europe.

Many people – including myself – don’t like to talk about unpleasant things. But following Jesus means engaging in the world’s injustices.  I’ve even had Christians weaponize Philippians 4:8 – accusing me of not being faithful when I bring up certain realities of life that are in no way honorable, just or pure.  Dirty water in Flint, people without electricity in Puerto Rico, and DACA kids come to mind.  Human trafficking.  Opioid addiction.  For-profit prisons.  People with no health insurance.

When we read our Bibles, notice how many times Jesus participated in conversations or activities that some might call “unpleasant.”  Here are a few.  Remember that he wasn’t crucified for making everybody happy.

Until the world becomes as God created it to be, we need to talk about dishonorable, unjust, and impure topics to death. Sometimes when we talk and talk and talk about life’s difficult realities, somebody decides to step up and take action.

Don’t we want resurrection for everyone?

Image is from the cover of Roz Chast’s memoir, drawn by the author. (2014)

Good Questions

Where can I get a cup of coffee?

Do we have a shredder?

Why do we do it this way?

There are good questions and there are better questions.  I’m a fan of Simon Sinek and “Why do we do this?”  can be a tender question – whether we’re talking about the annual fish fry or the everybody-join-hands-and-sing-KumBaYah at the end of worship. We take some questions more personally than others.

Good Questions make us especially uncomfortable if our identities are tied up in them.  “Why do we use artificial flower arrangements?” feels personal if I head up The Flower Guild.  “Why does the choir sing a 5 minute anthem at the end of worship?” sounds like a theological question if I’m the Choir Director asking my choir.  It can sound accusatory if I’m the Personnel Chairperson asking the Choir Director.

Here are some questions I would hope all Church Leaders would ask of themselves and their partners in ministry:

  • Where did we see transformation in that worship service/chili dinner/mission trip?
  • Who or what was transformed?
  • Why are we doing this?

The answers point to spiritual growth or spiritual stagnation – or maybe even spiritual death. But it’s an easy way to assess how things are going.

My Last First Day

Today is most likely my Last First Day of professional ministry.  Although we don’t know what God holds in store for us, chances are that today commences my fourth and last official call as a Presbyterian Pastor.  I’m pretty dang excited.

Weirdly enough, my last day of ministry in Alexandria, VA was exactly seven years ago today. There was a party, and my family was there, and Cindy was alive and present. It was also the day Osama Bin Laden died so there’s that.

As for this day, I look forward to everything – the inspirational, the frustrating, the holy, the not-so-holy, the relationships, the transformations, the hellos and good-byes.  I love professional ministry.  But I am the first to admit that what “success” will look like cannot be fully spelled out today.

The institutional Church exists in the throes of tumultuous change but I find this refreshing.  I humbly ask for your prayers today and my prayer for you is that you find something intensely meaningful in whatever you are doing on this May 1st in the year of our LORD 2018.

Image of the state flower of North Carolina.

I Dreamed About Sarah Huckabee Sanders Saturday Night

I started watching the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on C-Span because I think Michelle Wolf is funny.  But then I turned off the television because it felt like I was participating in televised bullying.  If this means I’m a weeny, then yes, I am.

I often think about my father these days as I watch the news and feel shocked over the comments coming out of politicians’ (include the President’s) mouths.  HCE used to say, “Don’t lower yourself to their standards because they will always go lower than you will.

When the President calls people names, those people usually don’t retaliate with more names because that would be childish.  When Michelle Wolf says that – even if the Republican candidate is “Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor” the Democrats will “mess it up” I often think they will mess it up because 1) there is literally not a better candidate running or – more likely – 2) one side will use tactics that the other side will not use because . . . Dignity. Human Respect. Basic Maturity.

I get that Michelle Wolf is a comedian and comics speak uncomfortable truths (because truth is funny as well as stinging) but Saturday night felt unnecessarily stinging.  The truest thing she said was at the end: “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” which is not at all funny.  I hadn’t watch until the end, but I read about it.

When I also read the post-dinner comments that Michelle Wolf’s words “destroyed” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I felt more than uncomfortable.  It felt like those words further divided us and broke us as a culture.  It wasn’t Michelle Wolf’s job to be the peacemaker.  At all.  But I am craving someone to be a peacemaker.

We have got to figure out a way to stop retaliating and be the people we say we are:  working towards freedom and liberty and justice for all.

Who will lead us into that kind of response to our brokenness?

Back to my SHS dream:  she and I were at camp together.  We were literally doing crafts and making up skits – like you do.  She seemed nice.  I told her I was sorry for the way she had been treated at the dinner and she was still pretty angry about it.  But then I asked her not to retaliate because . . .  Jesus.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and I might never be in the same camp and yet I still believe that nobody changes for the better because of exclusion and humiliation.  Love changes people for good.  Yes, I just said that.  I don’t care if it sounds naive.

But it’s even truer than the fact that Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

Image from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 28, 2018 in the Washington Hilton.  I think she looked gorgeous that night.

Pastor as Pinball

I remember a day when – as a parish pastor – I chose cover art for a worship bulletin, did Greek word studies for a sermon on the Gospel of Luke, visited a new mom in the hospital, testified as a character witness in a military trial, moderated a session meeting, and talked with a newly retired member about her suicidal thoughts.  I remember feeling like I was in a pinball machine with no time to process these experiences.

[Note: one of the added stresses was that I also couldn’t share with anyone what I had done that day – but self-care is the topic of another post on another day.]

This memorable day came to mind as I read this article by John Dickerson.  He writes about President Obama’s week before Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011:

The events that took place immediately before and after those secret bin Laden meetings included: an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya. On April 27, the day before Obama chaired his last National Security Council meeting on the bin Laden raid, his White House released his long-form birth certificate to answer persistent questions about his birthplace raised by the man who would be his successor.

In the two days before the raid itself, Obama flew to Alabama to visit tornado victims and to Florida to visit with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was recuperating from a gunshot wound. On Saturday, April 30, with the operation under way but its outcome uncertain, he attended the White House Correspondents’ dinner, where he had to entertain journalists with a comedy routine. In the joke-writing process, he had removed a quip about bin Laden. His aides were given no hint of why.

Dickerson mentions in this article that the President of the United States is expected to master pastoral skills.

Actual pastors are expected to be emotionally intelligent, theologically impressive, media savvy, administratively gifted life hackers.  Oh, and the pastor must be Christ-centered.  Of course.  And a good preacher.  Other helpful skills include: accounting, mechanical engineering, fundraising, and social work.

What actually happens is that the superbly gifted preacher might have weak bedside manner.  The mission leader might be an ineffective meeting facilitator. The deeply faithful shepherd might be a failed administrator.

Now more than ever, we need what Forbes Magazine calls “unbundling.”

We need leaders – in church and beyond – who know how to share power and break up hierarchies.  We need leaders who understand our limitations and welcome authentic partnerships.  We need leaders who are not threatened by the leadership of others.

No one person can excel in all the areas needed for excellent leadership.  But a good leader assembles a team that not only covers all the bases well but they work together for a common mission.

Pastor as Pinball is not a model for ministry.  We need time to process and pray and stare into space.

From Virginia to North Carolina By Way of Chicago

It’s less than 400 miles from Our Nation’s Capital where HH and I raised our children and served the Church for 22 years to North Carolina where I have moved to begin my next chapter of professional ministry.  But it took me seven years to get here.

Like the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to Canaan, I have arrived from Virginia to North Carolina indirectly although my detour took only seven years.  I loved that detour through Chicago – which was the farthest west I’ve ever lived except for a summer in Guatemala.

I learned so much in Chicagoland.  I learned that deep dish pizza is for tourists and Rick Bayless’ restaurants are for people who appreciate the perfect mole sauce.  I learned that you can take the architectural boat trip a dozen times and it will be life-giving every time.  I learned that ketchup on hotdogs is an abomination. I learned that Anthony Rizzo is one of my favorite humans. And I learned a great deal about mid-council ministry.

Leadership is a fascinating journey and I can hardly wait to start working with leaders in my new part of the world.  I’ve been relishing this.

We learn from great leaders but we also learn from not-so-great leaders.  Learning how not to lead is as valuable as learning how. 

For many years, I’ve kept notes on the shifts into 21st Century leadership both in and outside the Church.  I have files and files and files. I see patterns and trends.  And it seems to come down to – simplistically – dignity and authenticity.

I’d love to hear your insights as I share my own in the coming days.