It’s Always More Complicated Than It Seems

I’m not sure how to respond to the news of last night’s bombing in Syria after standing on that holy ground so recently.

On Monday, our delegation from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance met with the Governor of Homs.  Today Governor Barazi  is being interviewed about casualities.

It’s been interesting watching the news and comparing what’s said in U.S. media with what local church leaders shared with us last week or how the BBC reports stories in other parts of the world.  I’ve observed partial news, fake news, and sentimental news.  It’s hard to discern the whole story . . . except I do know that . . .

  • these are real people we have killed.
  • these are real people that others have killed.
  • we are all hypocrites.
  • everybody wants a piece of Syria (they have oil and natural gas)
  • we need to remember that human beings are indeed – always – children of God and they are never – ever – poison Skittles.

To ask us to pray for Syria seems shallow although that’s what I’m asking and that’s what my new Syrian friends are asking today.  And we might also consider how we – in our own lives and in our own congregations – might create Space for Hope wherever we are:  a place to gather safely  in the face of anxiety and trauma to create fun and conversation.  Who needs this in your neighborhood?

Images from the Evangelical Church in Homs on Monday.  “Space for Hope” is a program bringing Christian and Muslim youth together for sports and other programs.  I tried to explain March Madness to the basketball players but failed.  They’ve got other things going on.

Traveling Uncomfortably

Before leaving for  Lebanon and Syria a couple weeks ago, I started feeling sick. And then I pulled my right knee getting out of a chair or something.  By the time we landed in Beirut my throat was scratchy, my head hurt, and my chest ached from long nights of deep coughing. And sharp pains were piercing through my right knee. And then I got pink eye.

I had become That Traveler – the one who can’t eat the local food because her stomach is already sensitive, the one who experiences second hand smoke by getting searing headaches.  The one willing but unable to start early and stay late. Ugh.

I’m home now and I’m happy to report that the pink eye is clearing up.

There are many ways to travel and my favorite kind involves premium rain-shower heads.  But uncomfortable travel is about more than needing to find a local pharmacy to stock up on throat lozenges.  It’s about accepting brief power outages without drama because the locals deal with them every day.  It involves being curious about the unfamiliar.  It involves talking with people about their lives rather than assuming we already know.

Especially when one visits a part of the world impacted by pain and trauma, it’s a holy thing to stand beside those neighbors even if this means being uncomfortable.  We who call ourselves Christian follow One who not only stood beside those in pain; he was willing to die for them.

When we stand in solidarity  – with the poor, the powerless, the minority, the outcast, the threatened – we stand in the image of Christ if only for a moment.

It’s uncomfortable walking among the ruins of a once-beautiful street and remembering what is now lost.  But this is real life and we are called to be a part of it, and to welcome those who need to be comforted.

Image of a bombed out apartment building along Al Qal’aa in Homs, Syria last weekend.

 

(Trying Not to Be Sinfully) Proud

Pride is a funny thing.  

It’s a deadly sin and yet we embrace pride when talking about our children or our friends, or even about ourselves.  (Hello Facebook.)

My understanding of the sin of pride is that it makes my achievements about me. It kind of makes everything about me.

I’m a proud mother.  My kids are remarkable human beings with good hearts  – and while much of that is about grace and luck, the underlying message could be that HH and I are superb parents.  (There’s the sin part right there.)

I returned safely home from ten days in Lebanon and Syria last night and I didn’t want to go with a post about being “sinfully proud to be Presbyterian.”  That makes what I experienced about me, as in: I am smart enough/faithful enough to be part of an amazing denomination that gets many things right.  No, this trip was all about what God does through unlikely people.

There’s a lot of toxic charity out there.  There’s a lot of charity that makes us look and feel great about ourselves – whether we actually helped anybody or not.

I built a well!  We made friends with poor kids!  We put a new floor in that flood-destroyed school!

So many Heaven Points.

The world is heartbroken with Syria today and rightly so.  They have now been gassed after being shot, bombed, burned, maimed, killed, starved, and terrorized – sometimes by their own leaders.

But I thank God for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program which is in no way a toxic operation:

  • Long after organizations have left Katrina-battered parts of the Gulf, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is still there.  We stay after the sexy is gone.
  • Presbyterian Disaster Assistance works with local partners supporting what they want to do – not what we think they need.

About a year ago, the Presbyterian Churches in Lebanon near refugee camps wanted to provide schooling for the refugee children – many of whom had never been in any school of any kind.  Many up to age 13 were illiterate in even in their native language – Arabic.

Now they are learning to speak, read, and write in both Arabic and English (because they will need English if they ever hope to go to an accredited school in Lebanon or in most places in the Middle East one day.)

They are not only given free schooling.  They receive transportation, medical care, a school uniform, and love.  Five refugee schools now teach Christian and Muslim children through northern Lebanon.  One meets in a former auto garage. Did you read this carefully?  Five schools were established in less than one year.

These schools are often staffed by barely paid directors (often the local pastors’ spouses) and members of their congregations.  And those congregations are all members of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) which is Reformed in theology and Presbyterian in polity.  You can support these schools here.  (Note that we Presbyterians are not new to this ministry.  We’ve been partnering there since 1823.)  That’s right:  1823.

Through NESSL, we Presbyterians in the PCUSA have been helping to build schools, hospitals, and nursing homes for a long time.  Yep, I’m proud.  But I’m mostly overwhelmed that God would move exhausted people who are unspeakably patient followers of Jesus in a war-ravaged corner of the world to step up and create five refugee schools in less than a year.

This is what God does through us.  If you are filled with sorrow of the deaths in Syria this week, if you are moved by the plight of people fleeing for their lives out of Syria (and for the overwhelmed nation of Lebanon which has received more refugees than a country smaller than Connecticut should have to take on) you can do something.  Here.  These people are heroes.

One more thing:

Most of these children are Muslim by identity and faith.  The Christians who teach them are respectful of their beliefs unlike some schools who seek to convert.  NESSL seeks to love in the image of Jesus and let God take it from there.  When I asked what that looked like, one teacher said that when two boys were fighting, she reminded them that “Jesus does not like fighting.  Jesus wants us to treat each other with love.”  Better than any lecture.  One school director said that a student told him that he “never wanted to leave the school because people love him there.  No one hits him at school.”  Seed planted.

This is who we are as the people of God.  At our best and our holiest, we followers of Jesus do not hate people.  We love people in the name of the one whose death and resurrection we honor next week.

I am unspeakably grateful and simply proud of my brothers and sisters in Lebanon and Syria.

Image of some of the Syrian refugee school children we met last week.

I Can’t Wait to Tell You about Lebanon & Syria

I’m on my way home.  Can’t wait to share the amazing work that the Church is doing in Lebanon & Syria in response to the refugee crisis & post-war assistance.

And you win Presbyterian points if you can identify the global treasure pictured with me here in Tripoli, Lebanon yesterday.

This is Why I’m Here

I love those moments when it’s clear that you were supposed to be at that very point in time and space.

A couple weeks ago, after hearing a stirring sermon, the person sitting beside me in the pews said, “That’s why I was supposed to be here today.”  She had tears in her eyes and – frankly – I loved the sermon too.  But there was something about it that rang especially true and real for my friend.


We can’t make these moments happen.  But we can look out for them.  We can pay attention.

Last week, I was sitting in a room with strangers and friends listening to the hopes of a pastor in a faraway place who has a vision for ministry among the poor in his city and beyond. Suddenly, I felt it:  that moment.  This is why I came to Puerto Rico.

Things made so much sense and my whole life seemed to connect to that very point in time.  The strands of my life pulled together into some cosmic choreography: the family farm, summers spent smelling cow manure, a daughter “called to the dirt,” agricultural entrepreneurs I’ve known and loved, recent readings about Farminary, leadership development, Diana’s book.  I don’t know what it means but I plan to pay attention.

Image is Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com   Used with permission.

Pastors with Agendas

All of us who are clergy tend to be Pastors with Agendas.  We pray that those agendas are holy and noble:

  • To lead God’s people in the corner of the world to which we’ve been called with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love – to quote the PCUSA ordination vows.
  • To discern what breaks God’s heart in our neighborhood and address it in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • To reach out to broken people.
  • To shift the congregation’s ministry from a 20th Century to a 21st Century culture for the sake of the Gospel.

Some pastors – perhaps unconciously – have an agenda which may or may not serve God’s people well:

  • To hang on until I can retire with full benefits.
  • To get my kids through college/my spouse to retirement/my house paid for.
  • To stick around long enough to set myself up for a higher step on the ecclesiastical ladder.
  • To wait out Mr. Crankitude on the governing board.  He can’t live forever.
  • To make this congregation more conservative/liberal/gay friendly/willing to leave the denomination.
  • To make anti-gun violence/LGBTQ rights/inclusive language/environmental awareness/gun rights/anti-trafficking/any-number-of-justice-issues What We Are Known For in our community.

Pastors (and I’m talking to you too Mid-Council Leaders):  what’s your agenda as you live out your calling?  Is it a hidden agenda?  Is it shared in whispers or is it shared out loud?  How often do you track it?

I think about Jesus’ agenda often in these days and it wasn’t about climbing ladders or achieving personal security or seeking the spotlight.  It was about serving.  It was about connecting with unlikely people.  It was about sacrifice.

Trying to keep this in mind as I land in Lebanon today with representatives from my denomination.  We’ll be meeting with leaders whose agendas are indeed holy and noble in that they are serving is difficult and dangerous corners of God’s world.

Image of Edward KnippersChrist the Servant.

Cancer

I wanted to call this post F@*! Cancer but I’m a pastor and denominational leader and such vulgarities are frowned upon in my circles. On the one hand, I don’t care about that.  On the other, swearing about cancer won’t make it go away.  But sometimes it’s the best we can do.

There are more than 120 different kinds of cancer.  Did you know that you know that you can get cancer of the eyelids? You can get cancer of the salivary glands? You (women) can even get cancer on your vulva.  True story.

My mother died of breast cancer.  My father died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. My friend C died of uterine cancer. My friend M died of liver cancer. My friend D died of brain cancer.

I’ve lost count of how many of my friends’ mothers have died of breast cancer. We hate being in this club.

Some people don’t die.  I didn’t die.

But not knowing what’s going to happen is so strange.  I remember asking my brother one August if he thought our Dad would be with us at Christmas.  Dad died within the week.  We just don’t know when the end will come. This is a blessing and a curse.

The best part of a cancer diagnosis is that you get that jolt that reminds you to tell people you love them.  You can prepare.  You can write notes to your people. You can record in your own voice how much you love them.

The worst part of a cancer diagnosis is that you might die sooner than you imagined.  And you actually have cancer. You could be zapped and poked and prodded and poisoned and people will feel sorry for you and give you that look. Or you could hear words like “incurable” or “terminal” or “nothing-we-can-do” or “put-your-affairs-in-order.”  You get added to the Prayer List.  (Note:  it’s more difficult to get off the Prayer List than to get on it.)

I hate cancer so much.  I especially hate it today.

All This Talk of Church Decline Is Making Jesus Cry

Or at least I believe it makes Jesus cry. 

I write this from a Big Church Meeting in Puerto Rico – which sounds lovely except that I haven’t gone outside yet.  (This probably also brings my Savior to tears but that’s for another post.)

Today, a wise theologian said something like this:

When a huge tree falls, damage from the fall results but new growth begins under & around the fallen tree.

And then another wise theologian said this:

When we talk about church decline we’re only talking about white church decline. New non-white congregations are actually growing.

There is a cycle of life and it includes birth, growth, and death.  And resurrection and then new life.  I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is not dying.  It’s pregnant (i.e. it just feels like we’re going to die.)  Another of my favorite theologians often says that.  As well, the Church of Jesus Christ is becoming browner and more diverse in every way.  I believe this and every kind of growth gives Jesus great joy.

Note:  Each of the theologians I linked in this post is a member of RevGalBlogPals.  And each of them make Jesus smile on a regular basis.

Do Poor People Deserve a Great Pastor?

Obviously the answer is a big yes.  

But as we in the United States know – at least in most Protestant Churches – the pastor is paid according to the financial contributions of members.  If the members are wealthy, they can afford to pay one or more pastors a higher salary. If the members are unemployed, on fixed incomes, or living paycheck to paycheck, they cannot afford to pay their pastor a high salary.

Rich pastors do not work harder than poor pastors, no matter what you might have heard.  All people are in need of pastoral support because all of us are spiritually broken.  But while all churches in all neighborhoods are comprised of people struggling with everything from addiction to family conflict, pastors serving in the poorest neighborhoods have additional issues within their congregations. And there are fewer resources for serving the children and adults of that community.  The daily financial insecurity can feel unrelenting.

As you read this today, I will be in Puerto Rico where the Presbyterian Church is strong in spite of a devastating financial debt crisis.  This letter from four of us in PCUSA leadership to the President and Congressional Leaders states that:

Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt, which is more than two-thirds the amount of its GDP, cannot possibly be repaid simply by using spending cuts and tax increases.

We are asking our national leaders to consider forgiving debts and supporting our neighbors to the south.  They are citizens of the USA.  They are an essential part of our culture and God’s Church.

Every once in a while throughout my denomination, someone will suggest pay equality for clergy and – every time – it doesn’t go anywhere.  Those of us who have served in prosperous communities are usually not willing to give up our healthier paychecks.

Several decades ago, I remember hearing about the first PCUSA pastor to be paid a six figure salary . He was the senior pastor of a large urban congregation and I remember wondering – as I served my tiny church where most people were eligible for food stamps – if he worked as hard as I worked.  It’s difficult to measure this kind of thing if we take into account cost of living, years of experience, etc.

But this is an issue that deserves consideration as we rethink what the Church looks like in the 21st Century.  If we truly care for the poor, will we make ministry to the poor possible?  Will we ever encourage our most gifted pastors to serve in our poorest neighborhoods?

Image of the artist’s mother by Puerto Rican painter Rafael Tufino (1922-2008)

You have the right NEXTChurch Takeaway: Rodger Explains It All

I am a sheltered Church Person.  Although I am well aware that much of the world doesn’t believe in God, it still jolts me when someone says she/he doesn’t have the slightest interest in The Eternal.  Frankly, I think we all secretly seek something Holy.

Last week at NEXTChurch, Rodger Nishioka spoke about what the 21st Century Church needs to know about human experience and the meaning of life.  The Next Church absolutely must offer opportunities for:

  • Transcendence
  • Relationships
  • Incarnation

Everybody – even those who do not believe they care about Holy Things – are seeking something Bigger.  Although individual experiences inform our life’s purpose, the community around us is necessary to affirm and correct our interpretation of life experience.  And we human beings have the capacity (thanks be to God) to experience God in our deepest souls and become Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

The Church has a unique role to be something like a Tour Guide.  We human beings experience things – some wondrous and some heinous – and what we experience means something. Or it can mean something. God uses everything.

This is not merely about theories. An ancient story is ours today.

We can have academic chops.  We can know dates and charts and the latest, greatest organizational theories.  But if we cannot model, teach, and encourage transcendence, authentic relationships and incarnational ministry, we will never be a 21st Century Church.

There’s a lot of transition happening in The Church these days.  As congregations call new pastors and and Mid-Councils (as we call them in my PCUSA denomination) call new leaders, understanding what Rodger Nishioka spoke about last week will make the difference between a thriving community and one that continues to go round and round in circles.

  • Are we pointing to Something bigger than ourselves? (Yes, please.)
  • Are we choosing relationships before reorganization? (It doesn’t matter how impressive our theories are if we cannot treat each other with authentic compassion and respect.)
  • Are we embodying the Spirit of God in all we do?  (Is this about us or about expanding the reign of God?)

Strategies are cold.  Restructuring is impersonal.  But God is calling us to be something different.  It’s more fulfilling (albeit way harder) to be who we were created to be together.  We call this Church.

Image of a group from Wheaton College (Norton, MA) touring South Africa.  Note:  The future Church will be lead by our neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere from Africa, Asia, and South America.