Connecting the Dots

How do we discern God’s will for ourselves?  I’m in the discernmentconnect-the-dots business and I’ve found that:

  • It’s not magic.
  • It’s not discerned in isolation.
  • It’s not revealed without some level of discomfort.

In other words, we don’t uncover God’s will for us  by opening a Bible and pointing. Community affirmation is essential.  (i.e. we cannot “call ourselves”) And God rarely calls us to do something easy.

When Denise Anderson and I were discerning whether or not we were called to stand for Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) we grappled together and with others.  No bird flew through the window with a golden envelope.  The community encouraged us (although there were a couple naysayers.) And it semi-terrified us.

So now I find myself loving life as one of the Co-Moderators and in the past several weeks I am connecting the dots regarding where God might be leading us as the Church.  It’s not magic.  It’s not a solitary effort on my part and Denise’s part.  It’s a little scary.  But it’s also holy, hard, amazing, and inspiring.

On the cusp of the weekend when we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his example of human rights work, these are the days when it’s becoming clearer that we are called – as followers of Jesus – to do the same in the 21st Century Church. There are dots being connected all around – between refugees and victims of hate crimes, between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, between old and young.

What is God calling you to do and be here on the cusp of this MLK weekend and on the cusp of our next President’s inauguration?  It’s not only a great time to be the Church; it is an especially important time to be the Church.

How are you connecting the dots?

What Dylann Roof Deserves

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dylann Roof was sentenced to death yesterday for the murder of nine innocentcharleston-nine people.  It’s possible that he could be sentenced to death again in the future if found guilty in his federal trial. Does he deserve to be killed for what he did?  Most of us would say yes.  Is it our place to kill him?  I would say no.  That’s God’s call and God’s call alone.

Let’s talk about what we deserve.

I don’t deserve what I have in this life.  I won the lottery jackpot when I was born to parents who loved me and had the capacity to provide everything from new shoes to braces to summer vacations.  They had the emotional and psychological abilities that caused me to attach to them in a healthy way so that I could connect with other people easily.  They encouraged me to get a college education and they supported me financially as much as they could.  And because of those early years, I had other opportunities that paved the way for me.  And I was born with white skin in the United States of America  – an enormous advantage.

I have made life mistakes that might have capsized a different person’s life.  I have fallen short of the glory of God in some ways that everyone knows and in some ways that only God knows.  I do not deserve what I have in this life.

But by grace I have been saved – and not merely in cosmic, eternal terms.  Grace saves me every day.

Dylann Roof committed  an evil. ignorant, unspeakable, punk crime.  He deserves to die for this crime.  Not one of his victims’ family members should have to have endured what they endured over the past months and days.  But killing him is not our call.

And allowing the government to kill someone in our name ruins us as human beings just a little bit.  Or a lot.

Image of the victims of the June 17, 2015 shooting in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) – Bible study member and manager for the Charleston County Public Library system; Susie Jackson (87) – a Bible study and church choir member.Ethel Lee Lance (70) – the church’s sexton; Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) – a pastor who was also employed at Southern Wesleyan University;  Clementa C. Pinckney (41) – the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator; Tywanza Sanders (26) – a Bible study member; Daniel Simmons (74) – a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw, SC;  Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) – a pastor; also a speech therapist and track coach at Goose Creek High School; Myra Thompson (59) – a Bible study teacher.

 

Quote from the sermon “Loving Your Enemies” (Strength to Love, 1963)

Thinking about My Brother Franklin Graham

interfaith-leadership-by-eboo-patelA Jew, a Muslim, and four Christians sat around a table yesterday in Chicago and my soul was fed in a holy way.

I’ve been thinking about Franklin Graham a lot these days, especially since I was in his home town last week.  I drove up to Billy Graham’s gate just to pray for Franklin’s father who lives on the other side of that gate.  I deeply admire Billy Graham.

I  follow Franklin Graham on Twitter and he is my brother in Christ, but his tweets do not usually feed my soul. In fact, sometimes they trouble my soul and not in a this-is-good-for-me kind of way.  Sometimes he quotes scripture – the same scripture I quote – but I long for a conversation with him about how he applies those holy words to some of the choices he makes.  (If he knew me, he’d probably say the same thing about me.)

I find that I agree with my Jewish and Muslim friends more than my brother Franklin these days.  I am looking daily – especially in these weeks before the inauguration of the next President of the United States – for people who resemble Jesus.  Sometimes the ones who most resemble Jesus to me are not Christian.

I am trying to resemble Jesus myself.  And this book is helping me.  [Note:  It’s written by a Muslim man.  Sometimes interfaith conversations make me a better Christian.]

Muslims, Jews, and Christians share the heritage of Abraham.  While we differ on what we believe about Jesus, we share a common God and we share some of the same holy stories.

Christians who voted for Mr. Trump and I share the same Savior.  While we differ on what we believe about immigrants, women’s health, the poor, and white supremacy, we probably share some similarities on those topics too.  We probably all know immigrants whom we admire.  We probably all want women to be healthy.  We probably all want people to have food and shelter.  We probably all know people whose skin color is not like our own whom we care about.

Eboo Patel’s new book is a must read for navigating 21st Century life with people who are not like us.  The world is become more – not less – diverse.  We have got to figure out how to live with each other.

Eboo is specifically talking about interfaith relationships, but his wisdom can be applied to other relationships too.

  • What do we share?
  • How do we seek to learn from each other?  (Or are we stuck scolding each other?)
  • How do we enrich civic spaces (schools, parks, hospitals) in accordance with the diversity of those who spend time there?

These are the days when we need to educate ourselves.  Is there someone we don’t understand?  Is there someone we hate/avoid because we don’t know them and we don’t want to know them?

As a person who is trying to follow Jesus, I want to know what I don’t know.  (See my previous post.)  It makes me a better person.  It makes me a better Christian.

Not Knowing What We Don’t Know

hidden-figuresTell me your story,” I blurted out to a stranger at Montreat last week.  Not sure why I didn’t just start with “Hi” but the stranger quickly became a friend because he told me his story.  He looked like a hipster which means I’d pegged him as one kind of person when actually his story informed me that he was another kind of person.

Erroneous assumptions cause problems.

I’ve been in situations because people assumed things about me based on my job, my age, my gender, my appearance.  And I have my own personal problem with making erroneous assumptions about other people.  We call this implicit bias.

The God who knows the truth about us (and especially those things we would die if everyone knew about us) calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s easier to do this when we know peoples’ stories.  When we don’t know what we don’t know we are not just ignorant; we are dangerous.

I am a little less ignorant about systemic racism after reading Waking Up White – the book Denise Anderson and I are asking everybody in our denomination to read.  Before reading the book, I didn’t know that the GI Bill was – in the 1950s and 1960s – only for white men.  What this means:

  • White men got their college educations paid for or subsidized which means that . . .
  • They graduated from college without loans which means that . . .
  • They could buy a home to build equity which means that . . .
  • They  could afford to move into better and better homes with higher tax rates which means that . . .
  • Their schools were better which means that . . .
  • Their children could get a good education which means that . . .
  • Those children could get into better colleges and perpetuate the advantages.

So, if Black men didn’t have access to the GI Bill . . .

  • They either couldn’t go to college or they had to borrow money for college which means that . . .
  • They started their adult working lives at a disadvantage and also . . .
  • Even if they could get a good job and buy a home, there were only a few neighborhoods they could get a mortgage to buy a home because of red-lining (and being considered a poor financial risk) which means that . . .
  • They lived in less desirable neighborhoods which means that . . .
  • Their property tax rate was lower which means that . . .
  • There was less funding for their schools which means that . . .
  • Their schools had fewer resources which means that . . .
  • Their children had a disadvantaged education which means that . . .
  • Their educational futures were limited which means that . . .
  • Disadvantages were perpetuated.

Do we see the “systemic” part of systemic racism?  Nobody alive today initiated systemic racism.  It’s been set up this way for a long long time.

This is a long introduction to why I recommend that we all see the movie Hidden Figures this weekend.

Many white people not only do not know this story which is part of American history, but we also do not know the extent that racism has been an everyday reality for citizens of color in the United States of America since forever.

Not only are we ignorant when we don’t know what we don’t know; we are also dangerous.

Note:  I write this on the day that a man has killed innocent people in the Ft. Lauderdale Airport and while information is still coming in, one tweet I read which was sent to Ari Fleischer who was in the airport when it happened is this: Are they screaming or ?   

One more time:  Not only are we ignorant when we don’t know what we don’t know; we are also dangerous.

1000 Under 25

college-conference

You’ve seen the lists:

  • Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list was published yesterday highlighting “today’s leading young change-makers and innovators in the U.S.” Many of them have experienced enormous financial success before their fourth decade on this earth.  Good for them.
  • South Carolina honors 20 leaders under 40 each year through The State magazine.  They include young mayors and business leaders.
  • Billboard published their 40 under 40 list last fall declaring that “today’s superstars wouldn’t be topping charts, filling arenas, and disrupting the music business without the vision and hustle of these pioneering young executives.

As writer Julie Rodgers tweeted yesterday “The 30 under 30 lists are cute and all, but I’m looking for 70 over 70 in 2017.  Where’s the love for our elders?”

Amen.

Nevertheless, I want The Church to know that there are 1000 under 25 who are spending the last days of their college winter vacation at the Montreat College Conference learning about being the hands and feet of Jesus, discovering their life’s purpose, serving faithfully in the business world, waking up to systemic racism, considering work as Young Adult Volunteers, and strategizing for social justice.  Actually most of them are younger than 25.  But their leaders are here too and most of them are under 35.

The Church is not dying; it’s reforming because we are here.”  J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA reminded us of this truth yesterday.

Like an anthropologist studying exceedingly rare creatures, I’ve been asking around about these unicorns who have shown up at Montreat this week:

  • Do they all have a romantic idealism about saving the world?
  • Do they all hope to go to seminary one day?
  • Are they really here because they just wanted to get out of their parents’ houses for a couple of days before returning to college?

Actually many of them said that – get this – they want to be active in local congregations when they get out of school and start their first jobs.

Dear Church People:  Please do not waste this opportunity to welcome the participation and leadership of the young adults who cross the thresholds of your church building doors.  For the love of God (literally) please do not shatter their optimism with un-Jesus-like behavior. Please do not assume that you know what’s best for them.  (Maybe they don’t want to work in the nursery.)  Please listen to them when they tell you what they know.  They know a lot.   Sincerely, Jan

Also:

  1. Consider ordaining high school students and college students to the office of Ruling Elder.  Yes, they will be leaving town soon, but they have spiritual insights that we need to hear. And (with my co-moderator hat on)  Denise Anderson and I are often asked to select ruling elders to serve on committees and task forces. We would love to have a larger pool of leaders under 40 to consider. National church service is excellent experience both for the wider Church and for these young leaders as they discern their life’s calling.
  2. Allow young adults to mentor you.  I occasionally talk about co-mentoring – like here.  Yes, there’s wisdom that experienced/older leaders can share with not-so-experienced leaders but we have so much to learn about how to be a 21st Century Church from people who are turned off by a 20th Century Church mentality.
  3. Make intergenerational participation more than cosmetic. This, frankly, also goes for other kinds of inclusion (race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.)  It’s not enough to have a variety of participants.  We are best served by a variety of leaders.

The Church is not dying; it’s reforming.  There are over 1000 college students proving that before my eyes this week.  Thanks be to God.

Image from Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center on 1-2-17.

A Deeper Bench

Imagine how good your basketball team is if your sixth man is LeBron James. lebron-on-the-benchLast year during the NBA playoffs, Lebron James offered to sacrifice his place in the starting lineup to be the Sixth Man if it would benefit his team –  the Cleveland Cavaliers.  He was willing to take a seat if it would get his team closer to winning the Eastern Conference.

This is not a post about basketball, though.

Many of our congregations are small and we believe our “bench” of volunteers is not strong.  We don’t know what we’d do without Mr. B teaching his Wednesday night Bible study because “there is no one else who could do it.”  Ms. C. has been in charge of coffee hour and flower arrangements and Vacation Bible School forever because she is good at those things and why change?

But I wonder if our bench is deeper than we’ve noticed.

This week, I’m at my denomination’s College Conference and more than 1000 college students and their pastors have come to talk about diversity and how God is nudging us in our relationships with God and each other.  They’ve come with ideas and callings and dreams.  Yes, they are busy college students.  But they won’t be in college forever.

And while there are probably some future seminarians in the room, most of the students I’ve talked with have plans to go into secular work after college.  These are our future church elders and deacons and teachers and worship leaders. Maybe.

It’s possible that their church participation won’t continue after college, but the fact that they are spending their winter vacation coming to a church conference makes me assume they take their faith somewhat seriously.

I wonder how we might continue mentor these students for leadership and be mentored by them in terms of doing effective ministry that will impact future generations.

But we don’t have any young people!” you might say.

And there could be many good reasons for this.  But my hope is that one of the reasons we don’t have young people is not because no one would ever take a seat to let them be in the starting lineup.

Don’t Read to Me. Talk to Me.

I am a big fan of reading books to children.

I am not a big fan of preachers reading sermons to me.  I also find it less and less inspirational to read unison prayers or responsive liturgies from church bulletins.  And this article helped me figure out why.  From Doug Chaplin:

carrie-fisher-as-leiaLiturgy should give us “words for speaking, not for reading” – which brings me to Carrie Fisher.

In her 1990 interview with Terry Gross, Carrie Fisher – who was in her own right an extraordinary writer – was asked, “Have there been lines you’ve had to read during your career that you didn’t think quite work that you really wanted to rewrite?”

Her response:

“General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. I have begged you to help… I have placed information vital to the survival of the rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it.”

Her point was there are some words that sound great on paper but they don’t convey the way people actually talk to each other – even in outer space.  Some lines make us all sound more like an R2 unit than a real person.

Liturgy can be like that too.  Doug Chaplin suggests that these words might sound too pious/formal/stilted/unnatural for our liturgy – especially if we are supposed to be talking to God.

churchtimes

Frankly, I use some of these words in my day to day conversations but I’m a card-carrying professional minister.  I probably would not use words like “incarnation” or “fellowship” with my local barrista.  And it’s not that these words are actually “complex.”  It’s just that they do not connect most people with God.

God is real.  God’s heart breaks.  God’s Spirit calms me.  God’s presence helps me.

I am increasingly more connected to God when worship offers more time for silence than for repeating words – however beautiful – if those words sound like a recitation of somebody else’s sentences.  I am definitely not moved when a sermon is read to me rather than preached. I need stories. And I need an invitation to make God’s story my own.  I need a glimpse of authenticity regarding the preacher’s story too.

Don’t read to me.  Talk to me.  Make the story real.

Image of the future General Leia Organa with gratitude for the life of Carrie Fisher.

2017: The Year of Dignity

God gave each of us inherent worth and value; accept it in yourself, discover dignity-mosaicand encourage it in others, and peace may just be possible.  Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Depending on who you talk to, 2017 is slated to be The Year of The Rooster or The Year of the Deal or The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

I’m hoping for something different.  A mentor recently recommended Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Dissolving Conflicts and it was the last book I read in 2016.

We live in undignified times.  

We are about to inaugurate a President who was recorded saying words that would have gotten him expelled from most elementary schools. At least one Pulitzer Prize-winning fact check organization has had a field day with his statements.  And to make matters worse, at least half the nation seems to hate this man.

There are some who will hate him and relish in schadenfreude no matter what he does in 2017.  And there are some who will love him and excuse his missteps no matter what he does in 2017.  So what’s a person to do?  Especially a person who is trying to follow Jesus.  Especially a person who loves this country.  Especially if we want to embrace our own human dignity and act accordingly.

dignity-by-donna-hicksDonna Hicks (the author of Dignity) writes that “dignity” is not the same thing as “respect.”  All human beings are born with an inherent dignity and worth.  We don’t have to respect everybody though.  Respect is earned.

My hope is that the 45th President will earn our respect and one of the ways he can do that (for me) will be to treat  women, refugees, Muslims, People of Color, and undocumented workers with dignity.  He will earn my respect when he pays attention to the needs of the poor.  He will earn my respect when he listens to people without waiting for his turn to talk.  He will earn my respect when he does not use the Presidency for personal gain or for the personal gain of his children.  This is my prayer.

In the meantime, we must treat him with dignity as a child of the living God. This is not always as simple or as easy as it sounds.  I will need divine help.  The President-Elect’s words have already hurt people I love.  His threats have already made a tangible negative impact on their lives.

But today brings a new year. And as a new spiritual discipline, I’m going to try to make 2017 The Year of Dignity  – at least in my own head.  My hope is that it will change my heart.  And as a bonus, maybe it will also help me with bad drivers, rude people, cranky people, bullies and Duke fans.

The mosaic shows 2016 highlights of human dignity acknowledged by ordinary people – and the Pope.  Clockwise from top left  1)  Pope Francis washing the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu, and Copt refugees in Castelnuovo di Porto, Italy, 2) LGBTQ support group meeting in Charlotte, NC  3) a man helping a child with special needs in Glasgow  4)  an aftercare worker comforting a trafficking victim in Guatemala City, 5) Muslim and Christian volunteers feeding the homeless in London, 6) a U.S. soldier visiting orphans in South Korea.  Not only do we belong to God; we are all created in God’s image. Amazing.

Good-bye 2016

As I  go semi-radio silent for the rest of 2016, here are some of my favoriteobama-waves-good-bye finds from the past year.

[Note:  I am a late-ish bloomer so what I discovered recently you might have discovered years ago.  Feel free to share your own discoveries in the comments if you wish.]

These are not in any particular order.  But all of these things have changed my life for good in the past year:

  • Standing for Co-Moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly is the way to go.  The 222nd General Assembly was the first time that Co-Moderators (rather an a Moderator and Vice-Moderator) could be elected . . . and we were elected.  The pluses include having an officially equal partner in this ministry and being able to model a healthy way to divide the travel responsibilities. Denise and I are committed to being away from our respective homes and jobs no more than 10 days a month (each.)  Usually it’s been more like 5-7 days away per month (each.)  This is doable  We hope to model that you don’t have to be retired or away from your regular job terribly much to serve as Co-Moderator.
  • Colson Whitehead is an extraordinary writer.  The Underground Railroad was my favorite novel  in 2016.
  • Chance the Rapper is the real thing.  Blessings keep falling in my lap.
  • Sally Kohn speaks the truth.  I’m not really a fan of the term “correctness” whether we are talking Political Correctness or Emotional Correctness, but we have got to learn what she calls Emotional Correctness if we are going to be a civilized nation.
  • Hydration Serum with Peptides by Lucrece makes me feel better.  I turned 60 in 2016.  Although I’m a big fan of wrinkles because it means your face is doing what it’s supposed to do (smile, frown, think hard) I also want to look kind of fresh faced . . . for a 60 year old.
  • Being 60 years old is underrated.    This is worth a whole blog post but you’ll just have to trust me on this one.
  • These are great days to be the Church.  Maybe the best of days because God does God’s best work when the world is a hot mess.  And the world is a hot mess.  As church participation continues to dwindle in most parts of the United States, congregations who have lost their reason to exist (clue:  Jesus didn’t die for church buildings) will continue to close and congregations that make an impact to care for the poor, the hungry, and the broken will continue to grow.  [Note: “best of days” means it’s good for God but probably stressful for God’s people.  500 years ago was no picnic for Christian Reformation leaders either. Luther was excommunicated less than 4 years after hammering those 95 theses into the church door.]
  • Hamilton was ubiquitous in 2016 among the privileged, but it continues to be the finest piece of art created in a long time. Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

We have holy work to do in 2017.  The nation is divided. The incoming administration does not seem to plan to prioritize the poor.  Fake news and vulgar behavior have become the norm.

This time next year, I hope we can look back and say that there was justice for those who have experienced injustice.  I hope we can look back and recall scientific breakthroughs, great art, feats of heroism, and another World Series win for the Cubs.  Okay – I’d be happy without another World Series for the Cubs, but it would be nice.

Happy New Year everyone.  May God bless each of us with strength.

So . . . Now That The Baby’s Born

christmas-ladderI believe the birth of Jesus changes things here and now.  

If it doesn’t, then Christmas is merely about presents and food and parties and a sentimental old story.

So*. . . what’s next?  If we believe the light of Christ has come into the darkness, we will want to let that light shine, right?  But sometimes shedding light on darkness is uncomfortable.  Cockroaches run when the lights are turned on.  Lies are revealed when light shines on them. Sometimes those lies are whoppers.

Among my personal favorites from a lifetime of professional ministry:

  • You are an only child.
  • Your uncle died in the war.
  • Your mother left the family for several months for cancer treatment.

Sometimes we lie to protect others.  Sometimes we lie to protect ourselves. Sometimes we lie to promote our agenda.

This article–  from what I believe is one of most reliable newspapers on earth – talks about today’s ubiquitous topic:  fake news.  Its twist is that political conservatives are accusing mainstream news outlets of being purveyors of fake news too.  It’s not just about outrageous stories coming out of new services called 100percentfedup.com or Huzlers.  Some fake new sites have real-sounding names like Bipartisan Report and ABCnews.Com.co.  A good list to check out is here.

But this morning’s article is about conservatives accusing journalists from top notch journalism schools with deception.

We live in a time when someone can repeat a lie over and over and over again to the point that people start to believe it.  But we need the truth – both politically and spiritually.

The truth will set us free, but first it might make us miserable.  The truth is that there is deception on all sides and it’s often hard to figure out what’s factual. Example:

  1. The Atlantic magazine reported on November 2nd – as did many outlets – that an African American Church was burned in Greenville, MS in November with “Vote Trump” painted on the wall.  This story was used as an example of more brazen racism as a result of Trump’s candidacy.
  2. The NY Times reported on December 21 – as did many outlets – that an African American member of the church was charged with the arson (so ostensibly it wasn’t a politically motivated event after all.)
  3. News outlets on both sides took these stories and used them for their own political purposes saying either that a) “Trump’s candidacy/election is incendiary“or b) “These accusations against Trump’s candidacy/election are false.”

Pontius Pilate once asked, “What is truth?” and it continues to be an excellent question.

From the NY Times story today: “We now live in this fragmented media world where you can block people you disagree with. You can only be exposed to stories that make you feel good about what you want to believe. Unfortunately, the truth is unpopular a lot. And a good fairy tale beats a harsh truth every time.”

So how do we connect our faith in the One called the Light of the World with what’s going on in our divided nation today?

Jesus said:  ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

  • Read a variety of sources from media outlets.
  • Be critical thinkers.
  • If something you read makes you really, really angry, do your research.  It might not even be real.
  •  Here are more ideas for discerning real from fake news.

We who follow Jesus are called to be different.  I believe this and hope you do too.

Image of Christmas Ladder by Christian Ryan.

*h/t to my HH.