Gabriel Still Speaks

Seeing Shepherds Daniel Bonnell“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people . . .”

Just as Jesus was born during anxious times, we will celebrate Christmas 2015 in a time of bitter disagreements and alarming realities.

But there is enormous hope ahead – especially if we become the hands, feet, and voices of this Good News of Great Joy.  Part of being 21st Century agents of Good News involves knowing when to step back and when to step up.

Here are a couple thoughts about that.

  • Please step up if God is calling you to some scary new purpose.  Note that this is not about you/gaining power/getting a job/climbing a ladder.
  • Please step back if you are no longer called to serve a particular ministry or if the work sucks the life out of you. My friend John Vest wrote about this last week.  He (and Seth Godin) are right.
  • Please step up if you see injustice.  I was talking with a colleague yesterday about whether it’s best to pull out a camera phone or pull out of our indifference when we witness wrongdoing.  Of course, it depends. Sometimes we need to do what Feidin Santana did. Sometimes we need to do what Shannon Johnson did.  Both are life-threatening, but there are also non-life-threatening ways to step up: look people in the eye when we greet them, notice the invisible people out there, give when we can.
  • Please step back if you find yourself in a hot mess this season.  We are entering Ground Zero for family drama and many of us tie ourselves in knots trying to fix the unfixable.  Sometimes all we can do is take a step back and breathe and recognize that God is God and we are not.
  • Please step up if you can do some small thing for a neighbor.  Maybe just be there.

One of my favorite Gabriel sightings was a few years ago when I spent Christmas Eve in an ER with TBC awaiting test results for some mysterious (it-could-be-cancer) maladies.  As midnight drew near, a nurse entered the room with a broad smile saying, “Behold I bring good tidings of great joy!  The tests are negative!”  The nurse’s name tag said “Gabriel.”  Seriously.

We can be Gabriel too, not because we can save people but because God uses us to save people.  Merry Christmas Everybody.

Image Source.

Most Intriguing People of Faith in 2015

HH and I flipped through the TV last week and caught a glimpse of a couple Jesus Marc Chagallpeople Barbara Walters considers “most intriguing.”  Intriguing is an interesting word.

We can be intrigued by what’s beautiful, dangerous, mysterious, brilliant, or even evil.  BW considers celebrities to be intriguing.  I personally find people intriguing when they are stunningly thoughtful and compassionate in a world where it’s much easier not to be.  So, here are some of the folks I would like to know more about in the new year:

  1. Mandy Patinkin.  Actually I know a lot about this actor and have appreciated him for years.  But he has also become an outspoken supporter of the Syrian refugees and was spotted by someone (as reported on Facebook last week) helping a Syrian family navigate the NYC subway system.  He describes himself as “Jewish with a dash of Buddhist” belief.
  2. Larycia Hawkins. Dr. Hawkins is a Christian and an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College in IL.  I love Wheaton College.  I love that she wore a hijab to show support for Muslim women.  I do not love that she was suspended for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  Her dissertation was Framing the Faith-Based Initiative: Black Church Elites and the Black Policy Agenda and I’d like to hear more about that.
  3. Pete Docter.  The man who taught us it was okay to be sad in Inside Out is a Presbyterian Christian who also wrote Toy Story, WALL-E, and Up.  I love it when brilliant, creative people are unafraid to talk about their faith.
  4. László Nemes.  I’m not sure I can bear to watch his movie Son of Saul, but the interviews about the movie – written and directed by Nemes, who is a Hungarian Jew – make me want to try. Unlike other Holocaust movies, Son of Saul was created not to make us cry but to make us feel like we’ve been hit by a truck.  The world can be so unspeakably cruel, sometimes we need to face it and then try to change it.
  5. Ani Zonneveld.  I first heard Ani speak at the Wild Goose Festival in 2013 representing Muslims for Progressive Values.  She is an imam in Los Angeles and her ministry challenges what most Americans have heard about Islam.  Check her out.

What people of faith intrigue you?

Image by Marc Chagall of the very most intriguing person of faith.

God in School

Jewish, Muslim & Christian Leaders at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD following the Paris attacks.

Jewish, Muslim & Christian Leaders at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD following the Paris attacks.

En esa región había unos pastores en el campo, turnándose para cuidar sus rebaños por la noche. Entonces un ángel del Señor se les presentó , y la gloria del Señor los rodeó de resplandor , y tuvieron gran temor . Pero el ángel les dijo: ” No temas ; para ver – os doy nuevas de gran alegría para todo el pueblo : Para os ha nacido hoy, en la ciudad de David, un Salvador , que es el Mesías , el Señor . Este será una señal: . Se encuentra un niño envuelto en pañales y acostado en un pesebre » Y repentinamente apareció con el ángel una multitud de las huestes celestiales , que alababan a Dios y diciendo:
‘ ¡Gloria a Dios en las alturas ,
y en la tierra paz a los que está a favor ! “

In Mrs. Basile’s Spanish 3 Class long ago in a galaxy far away, it was our assignment to memorize the paragraph above just before winter break in the 11th Grade.  You might recognize it as the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14.  It’s the part of the Christmas story that Linus recites in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I can still recite it today (but this is not a post about the educational benefits of memorization.)

This was a public high school assignment in a class with at least one Jewish student  and others with no affiliation.  No Muslims were in the class as far as I can remember.

Nobody threatened the school officials over that assignment.  Nobody accused Mrs. Basile of trying to convert the non-Christians in the class. Yes, she could have chosen a passage to memorize in Spanish that did not involve the birth of Jesus (“the Messiah, the LORD”) but she chose one of the best known accounts of Jesus’ birth in Scripture.

I remembered this last week when schools were closed in Staunton, Virginia after a world geography teacher had assigned her students to write the Shahada in Arabic calligraphy.  The New York Times covered the situation here.  I also thought of this story when I heard about Dr. Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton professor who said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God – and was subsequently suspended from her job.

A couple of other thoughts:

  • If all it takes to convert someone from Christianity to Islam is to copy calligraphy, then that Christian faith was a bit wobbly in the first place.
  • While Muslims, Christians, and Jews understand the means and meaning of salvation differently, we are indeed  – historically – all people of The Book and the children of Abraham.
  • Now more than ever, we must teach world religions in our public schools – not for the purposes of conversion but for the purpose of understanding the history and highlights of each faith.  Yes, this will be tricky.

One of the things I loved about raising our children in a religiously diverse school system is that it was safe for them to ask and answer questions among their peers.  Among the conversations in the school cafeteria:

  • From a Muslim student to a Christian student:  “Why do some of you wear ashes (on Ash Wednesday) and some of you don’t?”
  • From a Christian student to a Muslim student:  “Why do some of the girls wear hijab and some don’t?”
  • From a Christian student to a Jewish student:  “Is Hanukkah like Christmas, only for 8 days?”

Our children could ask and answer those questions.  As a person who grew up in a predominantly Protestant Christian hometown, I can tell you right now that I couldn’t have answered those questions about the differences between Christian denominations, much less about other world faiths.

I write this as a Christian – theologically conservative and theologically progressive, depending on the topic but trusting that the way of Jesus  is the best way to live.  I also write this as a person to believes that The Prince of Peace came to people of every faith and of no faith.

Let’s give each other a break and trust God.

Photo from Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.  This service was highlighted by The Huffington Post as one of The Top 15 Religious Moments in 2015.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” (John Cleese)

John Cleese and a Lemur

Game changer:  About 20 years ago, I asked a pastor just starting a new (and what would be his last) call to serve a church how things were going and he said, “I’m having a blast.”


It had never occurred to me that professional ministry was supposed to be fun. Spiritual satisfying?  Intellectually challenging?  Yes and yes.  But fun?  My Calvinist heritage runs deep.  We are not fun people.

But we could be.  And if we want to be creative and effective, we will be. So, I am accepting The Carol McDonald Challenge to work John Cleese’s quote about play and creativity into a post.

While there’s no one recipe for sparking creativity in the Church, I look to smart people to shed some light.  Tom Kelley is one such smart person and he wrote this last week.  He suggests that creative leaders do these three things:

  1. They build core enthusiast communities inside and outside of their organizations.
  2. They achieve big change through a series of small experiments.
  3. They jump-start their innovation journey with storytelling.

We in the church do not create robots, furniture, or nail polish, but we do create spiritual communities that transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ.  (At least that’s my personal faith statement for the Church.)  So how would we translate Tom Kelley’s insights for Church World?

  1. Have fun.  I know a church that gave out t-shirts to every volunteer who stayed with “Max” at night so that his spouse could rest.  Max had dementia and wandered all night – or wanted to.  Those who helped with this project got a t-shirt that said, “I Spent the Night with Max.”  Mrs. Max loved it (and she gave her permission.) And it gave the diversity of wearers occasion to say to the curious something like this:  “We take turns at my church hanging out with Max from 7 PM to 7 AM so that his wife can sleep.”  Voila.  Funny. Fun.  Servant Leadership.
  2. Try things.  We love to institutionalize everything but let’s stop that.  Instead try new ideas: We are skipping Christmas Eve services this year and inviting all members to invite a family with no church over for dinner.  Or we are caroling on the street corner this year and not at the nursing home.  Or we are giving gift cards to every resident at the shelter instead of buying socks and gloves.  Or we are taking hot chocolate and coffee to the firefighters and throwing them a surprise party.  Just because we are trying something doesn’t mean we have to do it next year or even next week.
  3. Teach people that they have stories to tell.  I’ve been told that I have a lot of stories and interesting things seem to happen to me. Actually this is true for everybody.  Either we aren’t paying attention or we don’t believe our stories/we are important.  Look around and notice what’s going on around you.  I saw three Santas sitting on a bench smoking last weekend. I wish I’d asked them their story.  More than statistics and mission statements and exegetical analyses, people remember stories.  Tell the ones that explain something mysterious. Tell the ones that uplift and make us feel hope.

One of the reasons that Denise Anderson and I hope to be elected  Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly is because we love the church, we want church to be a creative community, and we believe ministry is fun.  Thanks be to God.

What to Do About Steve?

crateEvery morning on the way to work I pass Steve who sits on a black crate selling Streetwise magazine.  I know his name is Steve because he once asked me to vote for him by name in a recent “best Streetwise vendor” contest.

I have never seen Steve sell a single magazine.

But he is friendly – wishing everybody a good morning.  He is consistent- proclaiming the same message every day:  “Streetwise!  Get your Streetwise!  Good morning!  Have a great day!  Get your Streetwise!”  But nobody buys his magazines.

It could be because:

  • Fewer people in general buy paper magazines.
  • You can also get Streetwise – or at least some of the articles – online.
  • They have Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts so there are other ways to connect with the organization beyond buying the magazine from a vendor.

This is an organization that helps unemployed people who are often homeless find purpose.  They are connected with other well-respected organizations that serve at-risk city people.  Who can argue with their mission?

According to Wikipedia, Streetwise “had the largest readership of any street publication in the United States” in 2003.  The operative words here are “street publication.”  Times are now harder.  Donations are down. Leadership changed.  But still there are struggles.  And I wonder if Steve feels like his efforts are in vain.

So, two things occur to me:  1) Maybe Steve is fine not selling magazines and maybe he’s not.  I don’t know if you can get fired for not selling a share of the magazines, but if that’s the case, I worry about his future in this enterprise.  And 2) does this scenario remind us of other struggling organizations?

  • We are friendly, but people pass us by without much interest in what we have to offer.
  • We are consistent in our message, but that message doesn’t attract much interest.
  • Funding has diminished over the years.
  • Not so long ago, we were well known and well respected but these days, fewer people look to us for wisdom.

I think about Steve more than he knows, perhaps because his struggles sharing Streetwise remind me of our struggles sharing the message of Christ as the Institutional Church.  Actually, I have great hope in the Future Church because there is so much more than being “friendly” and we are starting to get that.  And in a perfect world, the Church includes Steve and everyone else who passes him by each morning.

Stuff Church Offers (That the World Needs Right Now)

Children_singing_11_4_12I was listening to Daniel Goleman on TED Radio last weekend talking about the 21st Century generation’s unique developmental journeys.  He said that we are witnessing the first generation of human beings who are learning empathy, conversation and compassion via social media.  Or not.

What will it look like when a whole generation learns how to make friends, engage in conversation, navigate conflict, and date primarily via social media?  We all know that it’s easier to be mean and trollish on social media than it is to be mean and trollish face-to-face.  What if the next generations never learn how to connect up close and personal?

Goleman says:  “Emotional intelligence begins to develop in the earliest years.  All the small exchanges children have with their parents, teachers, and with each other carry emotional messages.”

Social media is not the most reliable venue for sharing emotional messages.  We who use email every day have had experiences when we misread the tone because email doesn’t convey tone.

So . . . how can the Church impact this reality?

There are several things that Spiritual Communities offer that cannot be found in few other venues.  For example:

  • Communal Singing – Only in church and professional baseball games do random people stand and sing together.  It doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune or not.  We make music together. Seasonal tip:  Go caroling.
  • Compassion Curriculum – Jesus felt compassion which means that his very bowels were moved (splagchnizomai in Koine Greek) when connecting with people in need.  We teach compassion in church as we relay ancient stories and core beliefs to our children and adults.
  • First Response Training – I wrote about this a couple weeks ago, but to reiterate:  we cannot assume that people know how to take dinner to families with new babies or folks recovering from surgery.  Church is one of the few communities to teach such crucial life skills in a culture of busy-ness and family disconnectedness.

For this reason and many more, I believe that the institutional church will thrive in the 21st Century.  It won’t look like it looked 50 – or even 20 – years ago.  But there is so much we can share that is sorely needed in a world craving connection.

From Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah

Prom 2007My friend MaryAnn McKibben Dana wrote about Trevor Noah recently and my NYC kids and I had just seen a live taping of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah the day before.  All three of us had also seen The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in previous years and – like child birth – I had forgotten how long it actually takes to transition from the uncomfortable waiting until The Moment when you get to see that long-awaited face.

One of the fun things about these shows is that – when you order the tickets – you have no idea who the guest will be.  Last week we saw Spike Lee (interesting but not as scintillating as I expected although I loved his outfit) and in previous years, we’ve seen Jeff Garlin, Owen Wilson, and an academic figure I can’t remember.  Dream guests:  Michelle Obama, Claire McCaskill, and Aziz Ansari’s parents.

But this post is not about that.  It’s about color.

If Jon Stewart had anything to do with the selection of Trevor Noah as the satirist who would follow him – or with the selection of Larry Wilmore for the program that follows The Daily Show – he is as On Top of Things as I always imagined.  Yes, we need women as late night TV hosts, but we have long needed more color at least as much.

The world is colorful.  I am increasingly aware that 1) if my world looks Just Like Me in every office, shop, theatre, and train I can become blind to reality and my perspective is sheltered and limited.  And 2) our planet has got to come together and recognize each other’s humanity regardless of race, religion, creed, political proclivities, and gender or sexual orientation.

So, back to The Daily Show.  When Jon Stewart was the host, the audience looked a bit like a hipster NPR crowd.  Smart, sarcastic, left-leaning, well-educated.  But last week, the audience was remarkably different and it was surely because the new host is not only funny and smart and poised, but he is a mixed race South African 30-something who speaks six languages.

The audience reflected this.  In the pre-show conversation, audience members self-identified as being from Barbados, France, Greenland, Italy, Egypt, and South Korea.  He spoke German with a German student.  Racially, everybody was there. Religiously, I can only guess we were as diverse a crowd. There were several women wearing hijab.

It was a thing of beauty.

This is not just our future, sisters and brothers.  This is our present and it’s a wondrous thing.  When we live our lives solely with people who are Just Like Us, it’s easier to sort the world into Us and Them, Black and White, Christian and Not Christian, American and Foreigner.  And it becomes easier to forget that the One whom we Christians try to follow was – himself – brown and Jewish and – like Trevor Noah – a polyglot (Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek) who would find Western Life foreign if not faithless.

We White people sometimes feel offended when others speak of our privilege, and yet here is what we can do with that privilege:  open doors, seek out fresh voices we haven’t heard from, and thank God for diversity (because God created the world that way.)

Image is one of my favorite photos of FBC’s prom night nine years ago in Arlington, VA.  This was, is and will be our world, thanks be to God.

My Friend the Fashion Designer

I am not a haute couture kind of girl.  My basic outfit on these chilly days are Jay Kosblack leggings and a long sweater, and only occasionally do I change my earrings. But on Monday in a NYC coffee shop, I met a stranger bedecked in designer clothing who became my brother in Christ.

We could not be more different, from our religious upbringing to our socio-economic status.  The rings on his fingers were probably worth more than my car.  His travel stories rivaled National Geographic’s.  His friends are the kind of people we read about in business and entertainment magazines.  But we found ourselves sitting side by side at a coffee bar on a random Monday morning.

This is what we are called to do in life:  connect with people who are not like us. If we live in rural towns with little diversity or in neighborhoods where everybody looks alike, there are fewer obvious opportunities to connect with The Other – or so it seems.  Actually, we may look similar, but we don’t have to scratch very deeply to discover an uncomfortable opinion or a life experience unlike our own.

God coming to live among us is the ultimate example of connecting with The Other.  For an array of reasons – from laziness to busyness – we do not take the time or make the effort to connect with those whom we do not understand or already “know.”  We prefer to hang out with our own tribe.  It’s understandable. It’s easier.

But uniting in spirit with people who are Not Like Us is one way God grounds us.

I was not looking for this experience last Monday.  And yet it happened by grace in a coffee shop that brews a mean cappuccino.  I was more likely to pay attention because I was relaxed and enjoying a day off in a faraway place, but what if we practiced the spiritual discipline of looking for these holy connections in our own neighborhoods?  These are the things that don’t happen when we spend our days sitting at our church desks holding office hours.

Image is a design by Jay Kos.

Called to the Dirt

“We are animated dirt. Soil and life joined. From living ground we were made; to living ground we will return.” Diana Butler Bass in Grounded

We were at a family birthday party several years ago when TBC told me that she had discerned her life’s work:  “I’m called to the dirt,” she said.

As the great granddaughter of farmers, she would be joining a family trade,  but in a way that would be unrecognizable to her 20th Century ancestors.

It occurs to me that – upon the birth of Jesus for which we prepare this season- God was called to the dirt.  God became dirt.  For a more eloquent & complete breakdown of this, please read Grounded– Diana Butler Bass’ most recent book- especially Chapter One.

I love Diana’s insight that spirituality as we have experienced it has been a horizontal endeavor marked by tall steeples and elevated pulpits.  But the marks of a God known as Emmanuel- God with us– is a wholly different concept.  This God not only became dirty by engaging in earthy, gritty human life.  But this is a God willing to die in the thick of human imperfection and injustice.

All of us – farmers, preachers, clothing designers, baristas- all of us human beings are called to the dirt in order to nourish the world with all that is good.  It’s the most basic of Advent messages.

Choosing Church

 I found myself on Advent 1 in Brooklyn on vacation with extraordinary choices:  Sleep until noon or arise with the sirens? Drink exquisite coffee from TBC’s 4th floor window overlooking the neighborhood or from one of countless patisseries lining the sidewalks?  

It would be so easy not to choose church. 

There are many deterrents to choosing church even if we are spiritually or generationally disposed to do so – especially in an unfamiliar town.  

  • What if the sanctuary seats 400 and only 40 show up?  (Been there.)   
  • What if it’s one of those churches that makes newcomers stand up and introduce ourselves.  (Please don’t ever do that.)
  • What if the music not only fails to inspire, but it separates us from God.  (Ugh – “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music)
  • What if the message offers no hope in light of LaQuan McDonald or The Planned Parenthood attack?  (Because we need a word of hope.)
  • What they call themselves “a friendly congregation” in the opening words but there is no one to hand us a bulletin when we wander in? (Also the Wednesday class sounds interesting but there was no time or location mentioned- just a friendly heads up.)

TBC & I were lucky.  We experienced the living God on Advent 1 in an actual church building as strangers greeted us warmly and the music stirred us and the message was exactly right. And even if the opposite had been true, I’ll still be back, if not to that particular church gathering then to another in another town.

I still choose church.  

It can disappoint us and infuriate us and even hurt us.  But where else can we gather with all kinds of people who have spiritual longings and bankruptcies? Where else can we shake our fists and weep and express our profound gratitude and smile at elderly people and wave little waves at babies and sing together and mention out loud that we need prayer for great or small things?

I still choose church.  But I also marvel when I meet strangers who still choose church.