In Search of: A Wonderful, Bountiful, Not Bad, Pretty Good Day

AlexanderRemember Alexander? He’s not the only one who suffers bad days.  (This post was inspired by this article.  I feel for him.)

Sometimes our days are filled with First World annoyances.  And sometimes people experience unspeakable horror.  Unspeakable horror seems to be winning.

There is always more to do than we get done in a given day, and we can respond to this cosmic reality in several ways:

  • Lie awake in bed regretting our time management decisions.
  • Work more.  Rest less.
  • Assess the good witnessed/achieved/experienced that day and give thanks.

My work schedule varies every day.  I have a list of things to do, and my day might or might not turn out the way I planned.  Maybe your days are like this as well.

But there is good each day.  I – for one – can’t survive without daily assessing what I witnessed or achieved or experienced that was life-giving and redemptive.

  • Who was loved?
  • Who was heard?
  • What was appreciated?
  • How was God honored?

And then we try again tomorrow.

Whether we try to follow the way of Jesus or not, we can all be kinder to each other. We can do the right thing, even if no one is watching.  We can give someone else a really good day.

Image from Judith Viorst’s book.  Illustration by Ray Cruz.

Beyond “Thoughts & Prayers”: How About Some Orientation?

I have always loved orientation days.  compass

As I write this, I’m on the cusp of my latest orientation:  GA Co-Moderator Orientation with Denise in Louisville today and tomorrow.  Look out, people.  We are getting new PCUSA email addresses.

Information brings power.  I like knowing where the restrooms are located.  I like knowing what’s expected of me.  I like having access to calendars and phone numbers.

As we still reel from Dallas and Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, I – like many – are frustrated by merely offering our “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families.  As many preachers noted last Sunday, the Good Samaritan did more than offer “thoughts and prayers” to the beaten man on the side of the road.

I’m wondering if we need to be – or to seek out – orientation counselors.  Please note:  this is not an opportunity to offer mansplanations to “those people.” Please, no.

We live in a world in which we are exposed to people and places that are unfamiliar to us, especially if we are able to travel or go away to school or take a new job on the other side of the country.  [Note: if you travel or go to college or move to a new place and do not meet anyone who is not like you, you’ve missed a God-given opportunity.]

Or maybe our only contact with people who are Not Like Us is through media where each of us – on any given day – can find ourselves at a march in Dallas or a parking lot in Baton Rouge or a campaign rally in Portsmouth, NH. These opportunities to visit unfamiliar places and explore new worlds and meet new people require some effort though.

Now more than ever, we need effective orientation.  What seems confusing to us might become understandable if we learn about the history behind the culture.  What makes us judge-y when we watch news reports might be understandable if we knew the norms and customs of the hometown crowd.

We live in a world full of unfair judgments and destructive mythologies and it’s killing us – sometimes literally.

We’ve “heard things” about (a person, race, ethnicity, religion, gender) but we actually don’t know what we’re talking about until we have firsthand conversations and personal experiences.  There’s quite a bit of misinformation out there about human beings with whom we share a planet who might look/worship/speak differently from the way we look/worship/speak.  Imagine allowing ourselves to be oriented according to what the-already-oriented can teach us or show us.

Imagine serving as someone else’s Orientation Counselor  – not like the know-it-all OCs who lord over their experience, but like the ones who help you carry your mini-fridge up three flights of stairs.

How can I help?” is a good question, especially if we mean it.  It’s so much more than saying, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

 

 

Everybody Should Get This

green-mountainsI’m headed back to real life today after a couple days celebrating HH’s 60th birthday in Vermont.  It was lovely.  We ate really good food.  We experienced God’s nature in technicolor.  We stared into space with few immediate worries. We worshiped with a church on Sunday that addressed important spiritual issues and nobody got angry/shot/banished.

At dinner last night, my sweet HH said, “Everybody should get this.”  He is right.

Everybody should get a vacation.  Everybody should get at least one standing ovation in life.  Everybody should get dessert after a great meal.  Everybody should get his birthday celebrated or her election honored.  Everybody should get to go to a peaceful protest without being shot at.  Everybody should get to drive in the wee hours – if we wish – without being shot at.  Everybody should get to play in a public playground without being shot at.  Everybody should get to make a living without getting shot at.

My heart is filled with gratitude.  I have married a generous person who loves me.  I have enough money to take a vacation.  I have healthy children who are happy and interesting.  I work with fantastic people.  I live in a house with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.  I have a cell phone, a laptop, a double-wide fridge, an extra bathroom, and a team of people who mow my big yard.  I am an enormously privileged human being.

Everybody should get this.  I reject the notion that – for me to “have this”  – some people are doomed to the poverty class.  This is not true.

Everybody should be treasured and well fed and rested and honored.  We are in big trouble, cosmically, if we don’t get this.

My Name is Jan & I’m the White One

baptismal fontThe day after Denise Anderson and I were elected to be Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, I found myself on the hotel elevator alone – which was rare – headed down to the lobby for our next thing.  The doors opened about halfway down and a young man got on the elevator, saw my C0-Moderators’ stole and blurted out, “Oh hi!  You’re the white one.

Yes.  I am The White One.  My name is Jan.  I think of myself as white.

My skin is pale.  My people are from Europe (although the Irish were once considered Black.)  Sometimes “blackness”  has less to do with skin tone than level of oppression.  Quite a few of us have varied and colorful DNA.  I’m not sure that even the palest among us is 100% “white.”

But I think of myself as White.  I am biased about race.  I am a perpetuator of racial prejudice.  I am so thoroughly privileged that I only notice it a tiny fraction of the time.  I am uncomfortable around people of other races sometimes to the point that I say or do awkward – sometimes even asinine – things.

Examples:

  • I don’t think I’ve ever touched the hair of a black person without permission – although maybe I have – and yet I often talk about hair with friends whose hair is different from mine because it’s easy to talk about.  Stupid maybe, but easy.  I honestly would like to have Samira Wiley‘s hair and basic head shape but my head is lumpy. So I’ll see a woman who looks amazing with hair different from mine and I’ll want to talk about that as if a stranger’s hair is something I have the right to hold forth about.  Note:  I’ve noticed that when people feel awkward – especially women of every color – we comment on each other’s clothing or hair or shoes.  I once went into a church meeting and a person literally said, “Oooh a boucle skirt and top from Talbot’s.”  It felt weird.  I am not my clothes/hair.  Neither are you.
  • I expect Black friends (or Asian friends, LGBTQ friends, etc.) to be my teacher and explain “their people” to me.   “Why do Black people ___?”  This is ridiculous unless it’s genuinely a joke.
  • I assume a lot of things that people of color cannot assume:  that I will not be shot if pulled over in my car with a broken tail light, that I belong in the fancy department in Nordstrom, that I am smart, that I can live in any neighborhood I can afford, that I can get a bank loan based on my credit score (and not my skin tone.)
  • I think I can sing “We Shall Overcome” without a monumental sense of irony.

On this day, exactly 60 years ago I was baptized.  Many of us were baptized for purely sentimental reasons.  But if we are serious about those vows we will quake in our shoes:

“Do you renounce evil and its power in the world, which defies righteousness and love?”
Response: I do renounce them.

“Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?”

Response: “I do renounce them.

We have witnessed evil and its power in the world this week.  Much of that evil has been race-based.   We are afraid.  We are angry.

Or worse:  we are indifferent.  We go about our vacations or our cook-outs or our business without once pondering what we have done to contribute to/perpetuate racial prejudice in our families, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our country.

I remember visiting a local church in my Presbytery on Sunday, July 14, 2013 – the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin.  I felt sick.  I craved  God’s Word.

Not only was there no mention of this trial or the agony of  a 17 year old boy’s death without anyone being held accountable, but the sermon – clearly pulled from a seasoned preacher’s file – referred to “the new play on Broadway called ‘Hair.’”   Jesus wept.

What can we do besides “think and pray”?

  • Read this book.  Talk about it with your friends.
  • Correct people – out loud – when they say something racist.  (Note:  you have permission to do this to me too.)
  • Talk about race in our families.  I’m talking to you, White families.
  • Spark conversations by doing privilege exercises in classes, training retreats, etc.  Here are some.
  • Register for this conference.
  • Plan to register for this one in 2017.  Seriously, take a group. Registration for the 2017 conference in Kansas City (April 27th-30th, 2017) opens in January.
  • Read books – fiction and non-fiction  – by people of color.

One way to change the world is to change ourselves.  I for one – The White One – am focusing on this right now.

Name Above All Names

Jesus BillboardI counted five electronic Jesus billboards on a visit to Minnesota recently.  One could be seen from my hotel window.

They were each part of a loop of other electronic messages that included ads for everything from yogurt stores to insurance companies.  I don’t know whether the red, white and blue color scheme was tied to the recent Independence Day holiday or whether it was a “Jesus and America” message or whether somebody just liked those colors.

I’ve been trying to find out who paid for these signs and what they hoped to convey, but no success on that front.  (Minnesotans:  if you have information on this, please weigh in.)

Because I can’t find out anything about these particular billboards, I can’t know the hopes and goals of the folks who paid good money to project the name “Jesus” high up along the highways outside Minneapolis.  I wonder:

  • Do they hope that simply seeing the name “Jesus” along the highway will bring a serene reminder to believers?  Calm down.  Don’t worry.  Think about Jesus.
  • Do they hope that seeing the name “Jesus” – for non-believers – will spark curiosity to the point that some people might check Jesus out when they reach their destination?  Hmm.  Jesus.  I should pick up a Bible and read about Jesus this weekend.
  • Is it a reminder that Jesus is watching us?  I’m going to slow down and obey the speed limit because . . . Jesus.
  • Is it some kind of weird competition with billboards like these?

I got home from MN after not watching or reading the news for a couple days to learn that someone named Alton Sterling was shot by at least one police officer in Baton Rouge on Tuesday.  Mr. Sterling apparently had a criminal record but on the day he died he had been selling CDs in a store parking lot, and it’s not clear that the police were aware of his previous crimes.  It seems to me that – criminal record or not – nobody deserves to be executed in a parking lot.  It’s not even clear if he himself had a gun, although some believed he did.  From the video, it doesn’t look like he was pulling a gun on anyone.

I wonder if having an electronic Jesus billboard overlooking that Triple S Food Mart parking lot might have helped.

Someone or several someones decided it was worth their money to project Jesus’ name along popular Minnesota highways.   But I wish there were more people who simply exemplified Jesus in parking lots and on playgrounds and along sidewalks than people who want to put Jesus’ name in the sky.   I’m at the point, though, where I’m willing to try anything – anything – to stop these shootings of black men.  For the love of God, what is wrong with us?

POSTLUDE: I wrote this post before Philando Castile was shot four times by a police officer in Minneapolis after being pulled over for a broken taillight.  No Jesus sign would have mattered.  Dear God, how do we convince people that Black Lives Matter?

Image taken along a highway in Minnesota yesterday.

 

20-Somethings

PathsI’ve convinced that the Twenties are the hardest decade.  For every Mark Zuckerberg or Alexander Hamilton, there are millions of 20-somethings who are trying to figure out who they are, what they are called to do and be, with whom they will spend their lives, and why they exist.  Bless them.

Yes, the other decades are tricky.  HH and I spent a decade trying to keep our kids alive. We spent another decade trying to juggle their lives and ours.  Now, on the cusp of our sixth decade (for him; I’m already there) we will try to avoid cancer, heart disease, and an insecure retirement.

What is The Church doing for 20-somethings beyond praying that they will connect with our congregations and teach Vacation Bible School?

I am the mother of three 20-somethings.  They may or may not ever connect with a traditional congregation again.  What they want includes:  meaning, support, community.  What they don’t want: guilt, pressure, fakery.

Some of our congregations are demographically bereft of 20-somethings.  Maybe we live in retirement communities or expensive neighborhoods or places where there are no jobs or colleges.  Some of our congregations are demographically blessed with 20-somethings.  How can we serve those in the most difficult decade?

  • Be flexible.
  • Offer authentic support.
  • Love them for who they are.
  • Assume they are smart.

Twenty-somethings often become thirty-somethings who are somewhat more settled. Sometimes they have children.  Sometimes they have a desire to serve in their communities.  In the meantime, we can be the kind of community that any follower of Jesus of any age would want to be a part of.

Although I Don’t Want to be THAT Person . . .

I have an exceptionally good life.  Honestly, I can’t think of many people whose IndigoSlaveSaleSC1769-smlife is better than mine in terms of family and friends, health and prosperity, opportunities and grace.  I am blessed, lucky, privileged, and randomly fortunate.

I celebrate Independence Day today, recognizing that this is historically a white holiday.  There was independence with the signing of The Declaration – but not for everybody.  Even our forefathers who were against slavery owned slaves.   And women, of course, could not own property, vote, or consider themselves “autonomous”   – although with Independence Day came the ability to divorce and have child-custody rights.  There was some semblance of freedom for women –  except of course for women of color, most of whom were slaves.  Women of color have always been the last to be free.

So, I don’t want to be that person who always mentions the underside of what is good in our culture.  I don’t want to be Debbie Downer at the barbecue.

And yet – for people with my skin tone, no matter how hard we have worked – much of what makes America great came on the backs of enslaved people.  Slaves (along with free Blacks) built The White House and Capitol. They worked in and for our oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities.  Their servitude made our colonial economy thrive.  Important reading for this national holiday is this.

Happy Birthday, America.  I love my country and that’s why I want us to be better than what we are now.  We are a better country than the gun violence, the torture of our enemies, the toxic water, the law enforcement disparities, and the everyday racism convey.  We are not only better than this; I believe we were created to be better than this by almighty God.

And so I celebrate today.  But let’s not forget that there are many people who are grieving that our beloved nation is not what it could be.

Image of a poster  from 1769 in Charleston, S.C.

Random

kokpitDuring my sabbatical in Turkey in 2009, TBC and I were in the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul half a dozen times. We always ate at the Kokpit Kafe while waiting for flights to smaller cities in Turkey.  Every flight went in and out of Istanbul.

Yesterday another terrorist attack happened.  Once again, innocent people were randomly killed.

I have no words of wisdom here.  Just a reminder that our days are not guaranteed and life is precious and evil brings random destruction.

With that in mind, I pray that our congregations in conflict will stop treating each other disrespectfully.  I pray that pastors who have lost the energy and the will to love their people will step aside.  I pray that colleagues will not sabotage each other for the sake of power.  There is so much good work to do.  A world beset with random violence has no time for church foolishness.

Image of the Kokpit Cafe in the Ataturk Airport where over 35 souls perished yesterday.

 

Re-Entry

All of us have moments of re-entry into our Normal.  We return home from vacation.  We’re released from the hospital.  We get back to work after an out of town conference.

spacecraft-re-entry-4When natural and technological bodies enter the earth’s atmosphere from outer space, they do it in one of two ways:

  1. Uncontrolled entry” is what happens when space debris or asteroids come crashing to earth.  Sometimes they careen into a perfectly tranquil setting.  Sometimes they plummet into the ocean never to be seen again.
  2. Controlled entry” is what happens when NASA guides a spacecraft back home. This orderly process is called EDL:  Entry. Descent. Landing.

I prefer to be space craft rather than space trash, of course.  I’d rather keep the careening and the plummeting to a minimum. Gliding is good.  Crashing is not-so-good.

When I re-enter after being away, I’ve learned to choreograph the transition if at all possible.  Add a buffer day between vacation and returning to work so that there’s time to recover/do laundry/re-fill the fridge.  Clean the house before leaving so that we don’t return to a mess.  Clean sheets changed before leaving make the first night home so much sweeter.

Today I re-enter my office for the first time in almost two weeks.  It hasn’t been a time away like other times.  I left as a commissioner to the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.  I return as one of two co-moderators of that Assembly with 103 weeks of added service to the church in my future.

Co-Moderator or Moderator of the General Assembly is not a paid position.  The Office of the General Assembly expects this to be a half-time job and since I am sharing this job with another pastor, we will each be giving about a week each month to our denomination.  We hope to model a new way to serve in this office to show that it’s possible to continue in “regular ministry” while also being co-mods.

I’ve planned a gentle re-entry to my “real job.”  Yesterday was a work day but it was spent in an off-site meeting with a single focus.  Today, there will be catch-up meetings and some debriefing about what happened at General Assembly and looking forward to shifting roles and schedules and wading through ten days of office emails and voice mails.  It might feel uncontrolled.  But I trust that God will navigate me.

Taking gentle care of ourselves is surprisingly difficult.  We who are in helping professions or have helping personalities tend to be self-care challenged.  But this is why God invented naps and pedicures and automatic email responses and Sabbath.  I won’t get everything done today, but that’s just fine.  We never get everything done.  It reminds us that we don’t actually spin the planets.

As we come and go this summer, may our re-entries be controlled, may our descents back down to earth be smooth, and may we all stick our landings. Thanks to all who have committed to praying for me and Denise in the coming 103 weeks.  We both need and appreciate it.

 

Assuming the Worst (Let’s Not)

Church trolls are the worst.Trolls riding Slugs

Like run of the mill trolls, they denigrate our character and malign our motives.  But in Church World, their demonization of people and selective truth-telling has cosmic  – as well as earthly –  consequences.

Attempting to set records straight with trolls is basically a waste of time.

Nevertheless, it’s not true I want to turn the PCUSA General Assembly into a year-round Wild Goose Festival.  It’s not true that the other Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly said that we Christians are just like the Orlando shooter.  It’s not true that the Presbyterians prayed a Muslim prayer at General Assembly.   (What is true:  I find Wild Goose inspiring and fun.  We Christians are often guilty of doing violence against LGBTQ people.  And one of our interfaith guests at the General Assembly said something in his greetings about Allah which means “God” in Arabic.  Note:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all Abrahamic religions.  We all worship the one true God.  Also, our Stated Clerk actually apologized for “anything that might have offended.)

A bigger issue is this:  Why Do We Assume The Worst About Each Other?  

Why are we quick to believe that someone on the other side of the theological fence is evil? Why do we spread half-truths about people?  Why do we take words out of context in order to create a better story?  Why do we presuppose that someone we don’t like or don’t know has said/thought/done something vile without knowing what we’re talking about.

Trolling is the cousin of gossiping, and we would serve God well to stop doing both.  Random lie-spreading is just evil.

Before TDA and I decided to stand for co-moderators of the PCUSA General Assembly, we asked former moderators their best advice.  These two suggestions were shared more than once:

  1. Go to the rest room every chance you get.
  2. Brace yourselves for evil.

Duly noted.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Regarding #1 – just ask if we’d like to visit the rest room before we speak/preach. And regarding #2 – If you hear something that sounds off (e.g. Jan eats babies, Denise worships the Sun God) please check into it.  This goes for your neighbors and church friends – and church enemies – too.  Thank you – for the sake of the gospel.

Image of trolls-riding-on-slugs statues on sale at Big Lots recently.