Imperfect for Each Other

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

I know lots of love stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonic Boom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are called to be the healthy Church.


Read This Book

Maybe – like me – you can identify people who have been wounded by the Church:healing-spiritual-wounds

  • The young wife who was instructed by her pastor to return to the husband who beat her because God wants women to submit.
  • The other young wife who – after sharing with her small group that she and her husband had decided to separate – asked her to leave their small group.
  • The young gay musician whose church fired him when his secret was revealed.
  • The older man who was humiliated before a church council with accusations of stealing from a business partner and then publicly cast out of the congregation.  It was found later that – actually – the business partner was stealing from him, but no one ever apologized or welcomed the banished man back.
  • The (many) young men and women whose memories of church include sexual abuse by a pastor or youth leader.
  • The young woman who shared with her pastor that her father had abused her but was told she must have done something to entice him.

Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

And I’m not even talking about the little wounds:

  • A child wearing her soccer uniform to worship (because she came from a game) who was told during The Passing of the Peace that “I see you didn’t have time to dress for the Lord today.
  • The childless woman on the church playground who was told by a church lady that God rewards the faithful with fertility.
  • The new member who overheard two long-time members in the Ladies Room shred another church member with gossip.
  • The Church Elder who sabotaged the new pastor because he never wanted A Lady Minister.

Maybe you yourself have been wounded by the Church.  I am so sorry if this has happened to you.

Carol Howard Merritt‘s new book  is part memoir, part spiritual reflection tool, and it’s a stirring choice for both personal and group reading. While a book about personal wounds could inspire us to sit around complaining about our negative experiences, it instead offers hope and resources for healing.  Each chapter ends with exercises that both set the stage for recovery and offer opportunities for relationship-building if using this book with a small group.

Especially in these days when we often find ourselves anxious, Healing Spiritual Wounds offers calm for the soul.  It would be an excellent Lenten book study choice.  Seriously – it would make an excellent Lenten book study choice.

Read it, my friends.  It will inspire lament, forgiveness, and community.



Valarie and Eboo Make Me a Better Christian

interfaithAfter Valarie Kaur’s powerful address at the Montreat College Conference in January, more than one participant said on his way out, “We’re all Sikh now.” Actually those participants still identify as followers of Jesus rather than Guru Granth Sahib, but their point was that they were profoundly inspired by Valarie’s message. They resonated with her call to embrace revolutionary love. They recognized similar themes between Sikhism and Christianity.  The two faiths are different but they inform each other.

Eboo Patel was raised Muslim and was influenced by Roman Catholic and Buddhist theology before founding Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago.  As we’ve particularly observed over the past month, many see other religions as a threat or a barrier to peace.  Eboo and IFYC believe that religion can actually be a bridge that bolsters peace.  As some wish to ban Muslims from our country, it’s essential to note that 3.3 million Muslims already live in the United States, most of which were born here.

Eboo was born in Illinois.  Valarie was born in California.  I was born in North Carolina.  Our faiths are not the same.  But we are all Americans and our faiths can inspire and inform each other.

I am a better Christian for reading Eboo’s books and hearing Valarie’s stories.  I am a better Christian when I embrace the Jewishness of Jesus and when I treasure the faith of my Jewish friends.  I have learned from practicing Buddhists and followers of Bahai.  I am not afraid that being with people of other faiths will diminish my faith in Jesus.  In fact, I’ve found that it enhances my faith in Jesus.

Our model for interfaith relationships comes from Jesus who befriended women from Samaria and Tyre/Sidon. (Note: They were not Jews and he did not force them to become Jews.)  He shared stories which made the  Samaritan the hero and the Roman centurion a saint.  Jesus expects us to learn from each other and minister among each other. It’s part of our calling.

Next steps:  Start a Daughters of Abraham book group.  Take this IFYC Interfaith Literacy Quiz.  Attend an interfaith rally to support immigrants or refugees.  Visit a mosque or a synagogue or a temple.  (Call first.  And take cookies.)

Your faith will expand and your circle will widen.  And don’t we need this more than ever?

Safe Church 101

jan-reading-bookJust like in the 1980s, congregations throughout the United States are deciding to become sanctuary churches for undocumented immigrants.  You can learn how to be a sanctuary congregation here.

But that’s not what this post is about.

As I travel around the country talking with congregations and mid-councils about what I see, it occurs to me that growing and thriving churches are safe churches. Carol Howard Merritt’s new book Healing Spiritual Wounds got me thinking about this.  I’ll be reviewing her book later this week (spoiler alert:  you should read it) but today I’m pondering  – not so much how to heal after unsafe church experiences, but – how to prevent unsafe church experiences in the first place.

It’s no surprise at all that sexual abuse by priests in Boston and everywhere have gone unreported and unpunished because we in the church are a ripe venue for all kinds of abuse.  And more likely than sexual abuse is emotional and spiritual abuse.  This happens because:

  • We believe being Christian = being obedient to our spiritual leaders even when they are bullies.
  • We cling to the heresy of niceness.
  • We are afraid of personal retribution if we stand up to gossip and misinformation.

Abusers thrive in this environment.  It’s easy to see how a church shifts from being a community of broken people seeking spiritual comfort to a community of indifferent people wanting to steer clear of conflict.

How can we become safe as congregations and governing bodies?

  • Stand up to bullies.  Church institutions are the last place we should tolerate bullies – even if the bully is the pastor or the church pillar.  When we observe bullying behavior, we are called to say something.  (Yes, this is scary.)
  • Remember that all human beings are created in the image of God.  This includes people we might hate, people we might not understand, people who look/speak/think differently from ourselves. When we see a new person who is LBGTQ in a church full of straight people or a person who has dark skin in a church full of light skinned people or a person who is broken in a church full of seemingly not broken people, we stand with them.
  • Remember that not one of us has cornered the market on God’s Truth.  We might be wrong. We might be dead wrong. Listening to other perspectives is not about waiting for our turn to argue.  When somebody says something that makes our blood pressure rise, consider asking questions to learn more instead of shouting that person down.

Ask yourselves – regarding your congregation:

  • Is it safe to admit to failure here?
  • Is it safe to show vulnerability?
  • Is it safe to be different?
  • Is it safe to share another perspective?
  • Is it safe to disclose illness?
  • Is it safe to express doubt?
  • Are leaders trustworthy?
  • Do they expect the best of us?
  • Do they welcome us in spite of our imperfections?*

If not, it will be hard to flourish as a community of faith.  And it will be hard to flourish as a Presbytery/Conference/Association/Diocese.

We are in a unique time in terms of Being the Church.  The Mainline varieties – especially – offer spiritual community in a more broadminded atmosphere.  But we need to be worthy of calling ourselves “a spiritual community.”  Although our religious institutions say we are all about building a beloved community, all too often we are not even safe (much less beloved.)

But things can be different.  We can become safer than we’ve been in the past.  This begins by seeing each other through the eyes of Christ.

*Note: If our imperfections involve criminal activity, parameters will need to be established to be sure others are safe too.

Image: reading Carol’s book on my most recent flight.

Ruling vs Governing & Why It Matters to Churches (and Countries)

A mentor shared with me yesterday that there is a difference between amy-way-or-the-highway leader who rules and a leader who governs.  My denomination ordains Ruling Elders but the Sessions on which they serve are called governing boards – and the way we lead makes an enormous difference in terms of the health of our organizations.

“Rulers” tend to:

  • Make decrees
  • Dictate
  • Eliminate those who disagree with them
  • Be bullies

“Governors” tend to:

  • Preside over
  • Oversee
  • Consult with
  • Guide

Consider pastors and other church leaders who rule with a heavy hand.  People fear them more than they respect them.  They may or may not get things done. But if they do, it’s not because the body necessarily agrees on the mission.

Pastors and other church leaders who lead in partnership with others – especially with a team of diverse perspectives and outlooks – create trust and a sense of respect for other voices.  They get things done but it takes longer.  Yet in the long run, the work sticks.

How do our congregations or church councils work?  The present and future health of our organizations depend on the answer.

Note: This also applies to Presidents.  Image source.  

Tough Assignment

“What can we do?”loveyourenemies1

I’m hearing this from people who are outraged, hurting, frustrated, and/or depressed. What can we do beyond march for justice? What can we do about political actions with which we disagree? What can we do to relieve our anger?

I was talking with college students yesterday who have heavy academic loads and part-time jobs, and clearly they don’t need another assignment.

But I have a tough assignment for all of us who are struggling with the current political atmosphere.  In schools and churches and neighborhoods and families, we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable around –  if not estranged from  – people with whom we disagree.  What can we do?

  • Send money to organizations working for issues we support.
  • Volunteer for those organizations
  • March for refugees/immigrants/women/LGBTQ people to show broad support.

All these actions are important.  But here’s a tougher assignment I’m suggesting: Invite someone on the other side of the political aisle/someone you hate/someone you don’t understand/someone from a demographic that makes you uncomfortable . . .  and invite that person for coffee or tea.  Or ice cream.

Do not talk about politics.  Do not talk about religion.  Tell your story.  Share the names of your kids or your dog or your parakeet.  Talk about what you do for fun these days.  What was your childhood like?

It’s harder to hate someone when you know their story.

If you are a praying person, agree to pray for each other.  If you are a brave praying person, pray at the end of your time together.  And agree to meet up again.

We have got to break out of our bubbles.  We have got to broaden our personal relationships and information sources.

One of the things I’ve appreciated about the protests in support of refugees is that many Christians spanning theological lines have joined Muslim and Jewish folks and people with no faith tradition to stand for refugees.  Keep in mind that refugees, by definition, are in danger if they stay in their homeland.  Keep in mind that Jesus was a refugee. Keep in mind that all of us are called to support the weak and vulnerable.  This is what makes us human beings.

Please join me in this tough assignment.

Image quotes several verses from the Bible:  Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27-28.

“That’s Just the Way It Was”

protestors-rally-at-jfk-airport-against-muslim-immigration-banI travel around talking  with Presbyterians about assorted issues and one of those issues is Race. As I speak with mostly White audiences, I often ask:

What is your first memory about race?

Among the answers shared:

  • The Black kids and White kids never sat together in the cafeteria at school.
  • We had a Black housekeeper who was just like family. 
  • Our housekeeper always ate in the kitchen but we ate in the dining room
  • I had Black friends at school but we never visited each other’s homes.
  • There were “Black Churches” and there were “White Churches” and everybody kept to their own race.
  • There was a Black woman who did the ironing at our house late in the afternoon after her other job.  My mother often commented that she liked her because she was so quiet.

And many times, these comments were followed up with:

That’s just the way it was.

It was accepted as A Fact Of Life that Black people worked for White people, women served men, and children did as they were told.  Even when we experienced unfairness or abuse, we were expected to buck up and accept it.

That’s just the way it is.

The world is different now.

I’d like to believe that we recognize now what we didn’t recognize 100 years ago or 50 years ago or even 25 years ago:

  • that all human beings of every color, age, gender, sexual orientation, creed and nationality are created in the image of God.
  • that no person is an object to be used by another person
  • that all people deserve dignity and basic human freedoms
  • that it is the responsibility of every human being to serve the vulnerable, the weak, the powerless.

I believe that these sacred assumptions are backed up by the Holy Scriptures of all three monotheistic religions.

The world is different now . . . except when it’s not.

Last week’s decrees against refugees and certain immigrants coming into the United States were decried by believers and unbelievers alike who represent a variety of political perspectives.  It was a terrible week in that the new policies signed by executive order made our nation unrecognizable.  It was a wonderful week in that people of faith stepped up to say This Is NOT The Way It Will Be.  This is not who we are as Americans.  This is not who we are as human beings.

It’s a good time to be a follower of Jesus.  It’s a good time to take a stand even if we’ve never taken a stand before (because we didn’t think we could or that we had to.)  It’s a good time to re-read Bonhoeffer.

It’s a good time to change what we can change for the sake of a Power greater than ourselves or any executive order.

Image of protesters at JFK airport over the weekend challenging the refugee and immigrant travel bans.

Could Walls and “Extreme Vetting” Revitalize the Church?

. . . while the gospels instruct followers of Christ to help the poor, oppressed, maligned, mistreated, sick, and those most in need of help, Christians in America have largely supported measures that have rejected refugees, refused aid to immigrants, cut social services to the poor, diminished help for the sick, fueled xenophobia, reinforced misogyny, ignored racism, stoked hatred, reinforced corruption, and largely increased inequality, prejudice, and fear.  Stephen Mattson

This Sojourners article about American Christianity shares a  difficult truth.  Onelasalle-street-church
of the sermons in the stash I carry around the country is called “What Do We Love More Than Jesus?” and the reality is that we love quite a few things – often ridiculous things – more than we love Jesus.  Stephen Mattson notes that  “it appears that the sole purpose of (American) Christianity is to selfishly protect people’s own self-interests instead of sacrificially serving others.


Before we turn on each other or continue to act self-righteously (“my brand of Christianity is holier than yours“) I am beginning to see these anxious days with new eyes.  The daily news that brings deep anguish to many of us (e.g. The Wall, reviving the Keystone XL pipeline and Dakota Access pipelines, deporting undocumented workers, closing doors to refugees) also brings opportunity.

“Conservative Christians” and “Progressive Christians” alike are united in concern for Syrian refugees.  Building a wall instead of a bridge seems especially un-Christlike.  Having a leader who bragged about assaulting women has united both women and men who are ashamed to call such a person President.

But there is hope.  This could be the time when we step up.  This could be the disaster that moves us to get off our sofas and go volunteer or organize or reach out to just one vulnerable person.

I know it feels overwhelming.  I know that systemic change takes a long time.  But if we are not moved to stand up in the name of Jesus now, we never will.

In the words of Stephen Mattson:

These presidential orders, which will refuse help to many of the world’s most vulnerable individuals, are what many Christians voted for. This is the fruit of their political labor, but it’s not the Fruit of the Spirit. In fact, love, joy, peace, happiness, and self-control are notably absent from the current administration.

If we do nothing else, we can intentionally choose to love, to seek joy, to offer peace, to share happiness, and to control ourselves in the name of Jesus Christ. We can show the world what it looks like to follow Jesus.

Because God is God and we are not, it’s quite possible that God can use even walls and “extreme vetting” to revitalize the Church.  Things are so dark for so many these days that there becomes no place to turn but to The Holy.

God can use even these days.  And God will definitely use us.

Image from LaSalle Street Church in Chicago.


Marching for Women of Color

I’d like to see a million White women march to the grave of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or Audre Lorde, or perhaps to the campus of Spelman College to offer a formal apology to Black women. Jamilah Lemieux

women-of-color-and-white-womenOne of my first memories about People of Color is from my preschool years. The woman who took care of me and my two little brothers while both of my parents worked outside the home was named Thelma.  That’s what we called her.  I have no idea what her surname was.

What I remember is that Thelma carried my brother everywhere.  What I don’t remember is why I never asked my parents: “Who takes care of Thelma’s children while she’s taking care of us?”  I would see her children in the front yard when we took her home at the end of the day and wave from the car window.

Women of Color have a harder time living their lives than anyone else on the planet.  Check out this site.

In my profession, I know that Women of Color have a harder time being called to pastoral positions in ministry.  African-American churches often interview and hire only male African-American pastors.  Korean-American churches in my denomination might call a Korean-American clergywoman to serve as an Associate Pastor or a Youth Pastor, but rarely the Head of Staff.  Many Women of Color in my denomination serve predominantly White churches or multicultural churches.  I secretly ponder how we might shift this for the sake of the Future Church.  The best pastors I know include Women of Color but those same women are often overlooked.

Although last week’s March for Women drew record crowds and many Women of Color joined in, the crowds – at least in Chicago – were very White.  This article and this article offer insights on why.

Question to all who marched last Saturday – male and female, from west coast to east coast and harriet-tubman-graveinternationally:  If there was a march to the graves of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Audre Lorde, or perhaps to the campus of Spelman College would you go?  I hope that I would.  And I hope there would be words of lament and apology spoken for Thelma and all other Women of Color who made it possible for White Women to prosper.

I wonder if something like this is in the works.  Please let me know if you hear.

Top left images from AfroPunk and The Help.