Don’t Easter My Lent

I just finished Kate Bowler’s book and – for the love of God – please read it, especially if you are a human being.

Dr. Bowler is a Duke Divinity School professor who specializes in The Prosperity Gospel.  She went to Texas to hear an inspirational speaker give a talk during Lent last year, and it was the kind of theological talk that makes Christians like me crazy.  (Sort of like the preacher I heard during Lent a few years ago whose sermon was part of a series called “Don’t Worry.  Be Happy.”)

The speaker was a perfect 30-something woman with good hair and a tiny waistline who confessed that suburban moms hate her because she never has to wash her hair and life is pretty crazy because baristas mess up her order.  She also confessed that she is afraid of death and she’d rather not hear you talk about it either.

“Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent,” Bowler said later to a friend in response to hearing this speaker.

I’m with her.

I’m not dying of cancer like Kate Bowler, although that possibility is a perennially looming mist through which I live.  But I would like to talk about  death.

I am angry. I am shaking-my-fist-like-the-Psalmist angry.

I am angry that my friends’ child is tortured by cancer.  I am angry that 18 year olds in Florida can buy assault weapons and shoot other teenagers with them.  I am angry that the world has forgotten Syria.  I am angry that there is still no power in every corner of Puerto Rico.

I am really angry that a lot of people believe in Prosperity Gospel and subsequently blame illness, poverty, and desperation on the sick, the poor, and the desperate.  I believe God is going to jolt us all when we realize that the Holy One who walked alongside us expects us to walk alongside the sick, the poor, and the desperate too – unless we already understand that part of the Gospel.

Please don’t Easter my Lent.  Or anybody’s Lent.

This is the season when we remember that death is part of life and we are called to notice it.  We are called to face it.  We are called to let the reality of death re-prioritize our lives.

This is the time when it becomes less important to talk about how hard I have worked for all my toys than it is to work so that others get toys.

This is the time to embrace activities that not only give me life, but they give others life too.  As Denise Anderson asked in social media last week, “Are our baptisms doing anybody any good besides ourselves?”

If we take our baptisms seriously and our baptisms transform us, we are called to transform the world for good in Jesus’ name.

Lent reminds us that there is a world of suffering out there.  How are we offering ourselves to stand with those who suffer? (It’s not a rhetorical question.)

Also, read Kate Bowler’s book.


The Difference Between Reforming & Eliminating (Yes, This Sounds Boring)

As I travel around Church World today I often hear these terms:

  • Cutting Costs
  • Trimming Overhead
  • Making the Organization More Nimble
  • Getting Rid of Waste
  • Tweaking the System

For various reasons – often connected to downsizing – we in Organized Religion find ourselves reorganizing.  In fact every organization from the United States Government to the local credit union is reorganizing all the time.  It’s part of 21st Century life.

This article – When Reform Means a Process of Elimination by Beverly Gage – caught my eye in terms of examining how we make those reorganizing decisions.  We in the Reformed Tradition claim to embrace ongoing reform theologically and ecclesiologically.

In the Gage article,  she notes that politicians politicize “reform.”  (Maybe we all do.) The majority in Congress, for example:

  • Calls cutting Obamacare “health care reform”
  • Calls cutting taxes for corporations “tax reform”
  • Calls cutting immigrants from a path to citizenship “immigration reform”

It’s also true that expanding healthcare beyond Obamacare, spending more taxes on mental health and infrastructure, and welcoming Dreamers into full citizens could be called health care reform, tax reform, and immigration reform, respectively.

Reform doesn’t always equal cutting back.  It could mean adding to.  It could mean shifting around.  It could mean re-thinking priorities.

I am foolish enough to believe that we have all we need to do ministry.  We simply need to be creative.

  • Instead of an Associate Pastor who serves the congregation alongside the Senior Pastor, maybe we need a Neighborhood Pastor who spends most of her time making connections in the community.  (This would give the congregation a better idea of authentic outreach needs in the neighborhood.)
  • Instead of a Children’s Minister (for 5-10 children) maybe we need a Christian Educator who focuses on the whole age range of congregants.  (This would nurture those children, the parents of those children, and everybody else, plus bolster relationships beyond generations.)
  • Instead of a secretary, maybe we could hire a high school student for two afternoons a week?  (This would give a fresh approach to media materials and the bulletin layout.)

Everybody is reforming the way we do church and the way we are Church.  Rather than making necessary changes through the lens of anxiety and pessimism, what if we made necessary changes through the lens of creativity and hope?

Messy cuts do a lot of damage.  Creative changes inspire!

What’s Your Wakanda?

Everyone should have a Wakanda.  But it’s not like that.

Wakanda is the fictional nation ruled by King T’Challa who is also The Black Panther.  Although most of the world knows Wakanda to be a poor country of farmers, the truth is that Wakanda is the world’s only source of vibranium.  And vibranium is . . . well, go watch the movie.

Along with being a technologically superior nation, Wakanda enjoys a long and revered tradition of honor and peace.  They have never been colonized.  Their resources have never been taken from them.

Everyone should have a Wakanda.  But it’s not like that.

This is what I heard the brilliant Jenn Jackson say on Sunday night at a showing of Stay Woke, a documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement by Laurens Grant.  Laurens also happens to be brilliant.

Imagine a world where people live in honor and peace, where those who farm and build and create enjoy the fruits of their labors without fear of oppression or plunder or colonization.  Interestingly enough, the prophet Isaiah wrote that God wants this for us too:

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well.  Isaiah 65:21-23

Jenn Jackson shared a human truth as she referred to The Black Panther movie in her talk Sunday night:

“If your Wakanda means that people who look like Jenn Jackson will be enslaved, then it’s obviously not Wakanda for everyone. My Wakanda cannot be one that oppresses anyone.”

As we grapple in the United States with issues about everything from settling refugees to protecting DACA people to selling assault rifles to offering health care to the poor to expanding mental health care – we are actually talking about what our Wakanda looks like.

Although we do not have unlimited resources in the United States, we are rich.  We. Are. Rich.  And yet our riches are hoarded by an elite few whose Wakanda involves something different than the one I’ve described.  We have the capacity in the United States to feed every child, offer health care to every citizen, and end school shootings.  But those with power choose not to do those things.

As children are shot in their classrooms or white supremacists march in Charlottesville or unarmed Black men are shot for violations that White men would get a pass for, we sometimes hear that “This is not who we are as Americans.”  But the heartbreaking truth is that – actually – this is exactly who we are.

We are a country with gun laws that make it easier for unspeakably disturbed people to shoot people in schools.  We are a country where white supremacists march with torches and yell Nazi slogans.  We are a country where we turn away people even if they are running for their lives or grew up here with parents who were desperate enough to flee their home nations.  Dear God, we are a country that once kidnapped and enslaved human beings only to free them to a system of sickening laws that has led us to an obvious school to prison pipeline that incarcerates so many people of color that “it has warped our sense of reality.”

This is who we are.  But we don’t have to be this way.  We could be more like Wakanda.

Or we could actually be the America that once welcomed immigrants with these words, the America that fought against fascism in the 1940s, or the America that created blue jeans, hamburgers, donuts, and Google (thanks to immigrants.)  We could be the America that dismantles racism.  We could be the America that considers poverty to be a sin (rather than calling the poor sinful.)  We could be the America that gives every child the possibility of a good education.

Everybody should have a Wakanda.  We are the ones who could make it more like that.

Image of Wakanda from The Black Panther.

Remember When Child Sacrifice Was Not Okay?

One of the reasons that the God of the Hebrews was special in the Old Testament is because this God did not ask people to practice child sacrifice.

The point of the story of “the sacrifice of Isaac” is that the God of Abraham was different.  God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son – which was not an unusual request considering that the Amorites worshipped Moloch and the Moabites worshipped Chemoth – both fans of human sacrifice. When God offered a replacement sacrifice, it was clear that this Deity was different.  Child sacrifice was not okay with this God.

Early Christians were known for their generous treatment of widows and orphans in a culture known for casting widows and orphans out.  Early Christians worshipped a God who would rather touch lepers, eat with pariahs, converse with unfamiliar women, and even turn water into wine before allowing the sick to suffer, the unpopular to be ostracized, the powerless to be disregarded, and even the wine-less to be shamed.

With Jesus, love was introduced as God’s superpower.  And it becomes our superpower when we follow Jesus.

Love makes sacrifices for others.

But we are extremely confused today.  Instead of making sacrifices for others, we have reverted to sacrificing others to benefit ourselves.

We choose to sacrifice our children for the sake of the gun lobby.  We choose to sacrifice the poor for the sake of corporate profits.  We choose to sacrifice people fleeing from war and abject poverty for the sake of people who chant for a wall.

We all deserve to go to hell if we don’t stand up and declare that child sacrifice is not okay.  Via the prophet Isaiah, God said this:

When you stretch out your hands,
   I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
   I will not listen;
   your hands are full of blood. 
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
   remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, 
 learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow. 

I would like every local, state, and national politician  – especially those who call themselves Christian – who has ever voted to choose corporate interests over the interests of children to read and re-read this and recognize that their hands are full of blood.

And our hands are full of blood if we do not vote these people out of office unless they make it impossible for anyone to purchase an assault weapon. 

Remember when child sacrifice was not okay?



Image of the Moabite god Chemosh from Wikipedia.  Also, this post was inspired by this excellent Garry Wills article written after the Sandy Hook shootings.

Commuter Marriage

HH and I have been married for 30 years and we’ve lived apart twice before – for six months each time. 

The first time was when we were newlyweds – which was weird because many couples live together before marriage and we didn’t even live together after marriage – for six months.  At month three, we learned we were expecting our FBC so it seemed wise to speed up the let’s-move-in-together plan.

The second time was when HH had a new call, all three kids were in college and I needed to get some things done – professionally and personally – before joining him in Chicagoland.

This third time will happen in April and there is no time limit in terms of how long we will live apart.  HH serves a great congregation in Chicagoland.  I’ve just been called to a great position in Charlotte.    Sometimes couples have to live apart to stay in their profession.

In the course of discerning if we could do this, I talked with:

  • God
  • HH
  • Our kids
  • Other people doing commuter marriage
  • God again

And while I am pumped for this new position and know that God has called me to this ministry, it is bittersweet.  There are hundreds of things I like about being with HH every day.

So, here’s what I’ve learned in my two previous stints in a commuter marriage and in my term as a denominational leader (which involves quite a bit of time away from home) and in talking with commuter couples who offer their own Pro Tips:

  1. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and reunions are sweet.
  2. I get a ton of work done when I live alone.
  3. I need to remember to stop working when there is no one around to remind me to stop working.  (I got a dog in my first call when I was single just to be able to tell people “I have to get home to my dog.”  Some people expected me to work 24/7 and I bought into this unholy idea for a while.
  4. HH and I plan to have coffee together every morning via Facetime.
  5. I talked with the search committee (and will be talking with other leaders in Charlotte) about “going home” to HH twice a month, if possible – leaving Thursday nights and returning Saturday nights/ Sunday nights once a month.  This will have to be flexible according to church schedules of course.  (People tell me it’s easier when only one person does most of the back-and-forth travel.)
  6. I will need a true home in Charlotte too with familiar things. (And I have one.  Moving into cute apartment next to a BBQ place.)
  7. Spense needs to stay in Chicagoland but we will also be talking via Facetime.  #Yard
  8. A healthy marriage makes me a healthy pastor.  I’m best if my marriage is happy so feel free to encourage me to take my Sabbath/see HH as often as possible.

I’m happy to accept further Pro Tips for any of you who commute between two homes in your marriage.  Especially for clergy couples who take God’s call to professional ministry seriously and cannot always find calls near each other, living apart can be a reality.

Some of you will disapprove of this arrangement for whatever reasons.  But my hope is that most of you will hold me and my HH in prayer that this will only make our marriage stronger and more fun.  It’s will kind of be like having a love nest in Plaza Midwood.

The Whole 40

I see two basic truths on this Valentine Day:

  1. Lent lasts 40 days.
  2. People long to be whole.

HH and I are doing The Whole 40  during Lent (and this is the first and last time I will talk about that) because certain foods are messing with us at this point in our chronological lives and I will especially need Jesus to help me with giving up sugar.  And pasta.  And cheese.  We are trying 40 days instead of 30 because . . . Lent.  Again, I will need this to be a spiritual practice.  And I may not succeed.

Giving up things for Lent or for any season was not something I did growing up.  Simply giving up – yes, sometimes I have been tempted to do that.  But giving up certain foods seems harder for the granddaughter of dairy farmers and bakers.

It’s also hard to give up greed, self-centeredness, gossip, and other daily ways of life that keep us from being whole. But this is the season to try.

The focus is not supposed to be on ourselves (and how much I want a piece of pizza.)  The focus is supposed to be on those who are not loved nearly enough who are hungry for food and peace and dignity.

We all want to be whole.  I’m trying it in a new way for the next 40 days.


Why Does Your Church Exist?

Everything. I. Read. these days is fundamentally about this question.

I just finished the Bonhoeffer chapter in Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by Nancy Koehn  and have just realized (!) that Bonhoeffer was a postmodern Christian:

In Bonhoeffer’s eyes, a church that existed for others, that sought to embody Christ’s concern with those who suffered, was not primarily concerned with its own survival or aggrandizement. Nor was it a community of ascetics or saints living in monastic seclusion—quite the opposite. The Christian life, he argued, was rooted in being truly human, in anchoring oneself in what he termed “this-worldliness.”


For the last twenty years, I’ve been asking churches the question, “Does your church exist for your congregation or for the people outside your walls who need the love of God?”  In healthy congregations, the answer is “both” but one is always dominant.

If our congregation exists dominantly for its own members, then we are dying.  And we basically deserve to die.  We have missed the point of the Gospel.

I don’t mean to bum everybody out on Fat Tuesday, but this is important on the cusp of Lent.  We live in a time when innocent immigrant young adults are being threatened with deportation from the only country they’ve known.  We live in a time when the poor in our own great nation are being threatened with an ever increasingly level of shaming.  We live in a time when corporations are blessed with more benefits than human beings in need, with the premise that corporate profits will eventually aid individuals.  (This is has been proven to be untrue. Corporate profits overwhelmingly aid those in the corporation.)

This is a blog for people who – generally – want to follow Jesus.

So . . do we want to follow Jesus or don’t we?  If we do, then this is why our congregations exist.  Our world craves community, security, nourishment, and wholeness.  What are our congregations doing to offer these gifts?

Image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who continues to be a good read for Lent.

A New Chapter

As I write this, I’m back in Louisville without much time to reflect much less write. My next call has finally been revealed and there will be some thoughts on that later. But for now, I’ll just say I’m tired but happy. Can’t wait to return home to Chicagoland tonight if the airports re-open. Thank you for the good wishes. They mean a great deal to me.

Image via MT-B.

Simple Division. Between Neighbors.

I’m in the middle of an 15 day work trip mostly in Louisville, Kentucky.  Four hotels.  Multiple cabs.  Banquet meals.

My expenses are covered.  The beds are plush.  The hot water is plentiful.  The wireless and cable are free.  There is complimentary coffee.

It would be easy to move through this work trip without seeing the other people working all around me. There are hotel housekeepers, cab drivers, restaurant servers, concierge managers, and shuttle drivers.  They depend on my tips.  And they make comments to me as we share stories that make me realize that the economic divide between us is deep.

  • One hotel restaurant server phoned me in my hotel room hours after lunch to tell me that there was a problem with my bill and she couldn’t get her tip.  (The front desk had forgotten to place my credit card on file so when I charged the bill to my room, it hadn’t gone through.)  The tip was $3.00 – 20% of my bill – but she needed that $3 before leaving at the end of her shift.
  • One of my cab drivers shared that he was working extra hours to pay off medical bills because he doesn’t have insurance and his wife has cancer.
  • Another cab driver told me that when he lived in NYC, he and his wife worked in a bakery but they didn’t earn enough money to rent an apartment so they slept on the subway. Once a week, they checked into a cheap motel to sleep in a bed and get a shower.
  • The shuttle driver and I were talking about snowstorms and he said that he was grateful they didn’t have snowstorms in Louisville because it would be hard to get snowed in and not be able to work.  (He doesn’t get paid for snow days or sick days or vacation days.)

Each one of these people is a hard worker who has not had the advantages many of us have had, through no fault of their own.  My own privileges start with my skin color and multiply from there:  born to college-educated parents who expected college for me, annual vacations, music lessons, braces, health care, and an excellent public school system.  The advantages of having connections assisting me in everything from admission into circles of influence to offering safety nets if I needed them.

Those of us with college degrees forget that over 60 percent of those living in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin, and over 80 percent in certain counties in western Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin do not have college degrees.  (Source here.)

What do we do about this economic divide?  We can start by joining the New Poor People’s Campaign led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.  If nothing else, this movement connects people who would not be connected otherwise.  If nothing else, our involvement helps us to see people who are usually invisible in our busy worlds.

If we talk to people in service professions, we will find our lives enriched and our perspectives broadened.  (So this, too, is a selfish endeavor.)

It’s harder to accuse people of being from $#^% countries or being “losers” if we know that – actually – they are among our hardest working neighbors.

Image from a recent hotel stay.  I learned that the Galt House in Louisville makes a concerted effort to hire formerly homeless individuals for their housekeeping positions.

Lady Doritos

I’m writing from Louisville (still here) where the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board is meeting.  This is my cream in the Oreo cookie between the Annual Event of the Association of Christian Educators (last week) and the selection of General Assembly Committee Leadership (next week.)  But in the throes of Church World, can we talk about Lady Doritos?

When I first heard that Pepsi Cola (the good people who make Doritos) is marketing a snack chip that saves women from 1) making unladylike crunch sounds in public and 2) licking our manicured fingers to clean off the nacho dust, my mind went  – surprisingly – to Dr. King.  One of his sermons was featured in last Sunday night’s Dodge Ram commercial, displaying once again that usurping theological content for secular promotion is an unfortunate idea.  His actual sermon – based on Mark 10:35-45 – was about the problem with marketing.

I imagined Dr. King’s Drum Major Instinct sermon going something like this at next year’s Super Bowl:

You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion.  And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey.  In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love, you must eat this kind of snack chip.”

Alas, PepsiCo does not, in fact, plan to create and market Lady Doritos.  “We already have Doritos for women,” the company reported yesterday.  “They’re called Doritos.”

Thanks be to God.

Just when you think the whole world has lost every speck of sanity, PepsiCo redeems itself.  There will be no Lady Doritos.

May we also redeem ourselves by spending our precious energy creating what truly inspires and transforms the world for good.  Some of us try to do this in the name of Jesus Christ.

Image of some of the tweets that made me laugh out loud yesterday as #LadyDoritos was trending.