Is It Possible for People to Change?

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell from the 2022 movie “Spirited”

The Bible says “yes.” My therapist says “probably not.” In Scripture we are shown examples of people who changed over the course of their personal lamenting, confessing, repenting. Encounters with the Almighty – in any of those Three Persons (Creator, Christ, Holy Spirit) – will change a person.

And yet, in conversations with my therapist I’m told not to get my hopes up. (“It’s the hope that kills you,” as they say in Ted Lasso.) As many will go home for Christmas to spend time with parents and siblings, there is hope that Dad will finally be proud of me or Sister will not be so cruel or Grandma will not ask about my love life. As a pastor, I hear these stories and it puts a layer of dread on the holidays that are already dreadladen in other ways for so many people.

The movie “Spirited” asks the question, “Can people – particularly mean, selfish people – authentically change? It’s a Christmas movie so you can guess the answer without watching it. (Note: I’ve now seen it twice and can’t decide if it’s really good or really not good.”)

Life is short.

For those of us who grieve during these weeks around all the holidays, there is abundant awareness that some we love are no longer here and we play numbers games in our heads: “I’ve now spent more Christmases without my parents than with them.” “This could be the last Christmas for ____.” Pro Tip: listen to Anderson Cooper’s podcast on grief here or wherever you get your podcasts. The Stephen Colbert episode is especially poignant.

My life experience has taught me that we need to address trauma that haunts us, bitterness that stifles us, and resentments that blacken our own souls. Many (most?) people die without resolving past hurts.

Life is too short to avoid dealing with @#^!. I’m not saying that we must continue to subject ourselves to abuse by acting that the things that obliterated our joy can or should be easily forgotten. I am saying that things can be different. We cannot change someone else, but we can change ourselves. And part of changing ourselves might include accepting the fact that ___ will never change and then make decisions around that.

All I want for Christmas is for all of us who are unhappily estranged to take steps to change this season. Not New Year’s Resolution kinds of changes that fall away by January 4th. I’m talking about therapy and prayer – not necessarily in that order.

Life can be different. But it takes the will and the effort to change. I pray that each of us has an encounter with the Holy that helps us where we need it.

Where “Woke” Goes to Live

“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:14

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The Gospel of Matthew 25:13

“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” is a beautiful German hymn with lyrics based on the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids in Matthew 25. If only they had all stayed awake.

Waking up is one of the core themes of the Christian season of Advent. Wake up! Jesus is coming and we need to prepare. Wake up! We are called to do the work of Jesus: bringing good news to the poor, releasing those who are held captive, helping the blind see, and freeing those who are oppressed. (Note: If this is a political statement for you, note that Jesus said it first.)

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to be where “the woke” go to live and I’m not just talking about a physical place. I’m talking about a spiritual place.

Where do we live spiritually? In a hellhole of pessimism marked by hopelessness and utter darkness? In a perennially anxious state marked by constant handwringing over world circumstances? In a blindly naive land of privilege where God is good (to me) and all is well (with my world)? In the already/not yet reign of God?

One political figure has said repeatedly that his state is “where woke goes to die.” He is referring to the political usurping of the term “woke” meaning those embracing “Critical Race Theory.” I invite all who oppose “Critical Race Theory” to read The 1619 Project or What Kind of Christianity or The New Jim Crow or Tacit Racism or The Color of Mind or Waking Up White. These books were all written by historians or educators who have deeply researched and pondered issues of race in the United States of America. If you believe these books are wrongheaded, reading them will not sway your thinking. Go for it.

Jesus calls us to wake up from all that keeps us poor in spirit, enslaved by toxic systems, blind to the Truth, and oppressed by our own or other’s chains. Wake. Up. We are also called to wake up from those things we are and do that perpetuate oppression.

It’s in the Bible, Christians.

Imagine a Church of Jesus Christ where the woke live. It’s a place and a faith space where the world looks a little more like heaven on earth. It’s a place where the poor are seen and the mocked are loved and those held captive by cruel systems are freed and Jesus reigns. It’s good to be “woke.”

As a person of faith in Jesus Christ, I am not afraid of flag-burnings or even Bible burnings. I’m not afraid of looking at the painful stories of our nation’s history. I’m not afraid to look at my own family’s history of slave ownership or possible lynching participation. God calls us to lament and repent. And so that’s what I’m committed to do.

Wake up. Jesus is returning. Will we continue to celebrate blindness and oppression?

Image is sunrise over Jerusalem.

Reframing The Stories that Traumatize Us

In my first pastoral call, there was a family in town who’d gathered for Thanksgiving at Grandma’s House since it was difficult for her to travel. She was in her 80s and fragile. She lived just down the road from the church building.

After dinner prepared by her children and grandchildren, she announced that she was taking a nap. About two hours later, someone checked on her and found that Grandma had died in her sleep. There were several options for framing this family narrative:

Narrative One – What a great way to die – in your sleep after a feast with loved ones.

Narrative Two – Thanksgiving is forever ruined because it’s the day Grandma died.

  • Narrative Two-A – I am so angry at Grandma for destroying Thanksgiving.
  • Narrative Two-B – I’m furious at Mom for letting Grandma eat so much pie.
  • Narrative Two-C – Why did Dad insist we all play Monopoly while Grandma napped? If we’d played Taboo, the game would have been shorter and someone would have checked on Grandma earlier.

Regrets and second-guesses and blaming ourselves and others can go on and on in our family storytelling – until somebody helps us see the story with a different perspective.

This is why we need therapists. They help us reframe our experiences – even those traumas that stay with us.

I’m not saying that trauma can be forgotten easily. I’m not saying that those who’ve traumatized us should be quickly forgiven without protecting ourselves from future anguish.

I’m saying that our perspective is not always the intended or true perspective. Sometimes what we saw and heard and remembered are not the whole story.

A brief “death note” was found on the phone of the Walmart shooter in Virginia last week which included these words: “I was harassed by idiots with low intelligence and a lack of wisdom. The associates gave me evil twisted grins, mocked me and celebrated my down fall the last day.” According to Walmart employees and victims’ family members, the fallen included “a kind man and loyal employee” (Randall Blevins), “an outgoing, social man who battled a brain condition and spent 10 years working at Walmart” (Brian Pendleton), and “a hardworking father of two” (Lorenzo Gamble.) The shooter, who was a supervisor, was considered both “overly aggressive” and “friendly” depending on who you ask. For another example, watch The Patient on Apple TV. There is a young man who sees every facial expression or comment as an offense against him by strangers and acquaintances. He becomes a serial killer.

I write these things today because many of us are angry, anxious, and unforgiving. Many of us have been traumatized by others via gaslighting, rumor, betrayal, and run-of-the-mill neglect. Some of us are upset enough to take out our grief and fury on others.

Things can be different. With Advent we welcome new possibilities.

Starting with a God willing to show up in human skin, we are invited to reframe our own stories. That parent who was “never home” when we were children might have been working extra hard to provide for us. That teacher who picked on us might have been kicking our backsides to reach our potential. That family story we tell might be retold in a way that brings relief and even joy.

Again, there are indeed mean and cruel people in the world. And there are also people who’ve tried to do their best but their best disappoints. And there are also people who’ve royally screwed up which impacted our lives too.

Reframing the stories of our lives might help us move forward.

How wonderful that that grandmother died on Thanksgiving Day after celebrating a feast with the people she loves the most. Thanks be to God.

Image Source.

Random Love

Random hate is an everyday part of our culture. FBC sent me this and I wish I knew who wrote it:

Gay people aren’t shooting up straight clubs.

Black people aren’t shooting up white grocery stores.

Latinos aren’t shooting up Walmarts.

Jewish people aren’t shooting up Christian churches.

The violence is coming from one demographic: Alt-Right Radicalized Men.

And I would add that their violence is random.

They are being fed a diet of hate and misinformation by commentators posing as journalists, power hungry people posing as political leaders, and false preachers posing as Jesus followers.

Only God can overcome this depth of evil with good. And yet we are instruments in God’s work. What if we replaced random violence with random love. Not just “random acts of kindness” but authentic random love. That barrista who looks exhausted or that grocery store clerk who looks bored or that dog walker who looks cold – just look them in the eye and thank God for them. And smile. And maybe say a little prayer to yourself that they would feel loved today.

I am thankful for the array of people who live in this world God made. I’m especially thankful when I find myself in situations that look like the Reign of God in the world. How about you?

And if you know who wrote the piece above, please let us know.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Image source (and the article is good too.)

Rethinking The Stewardship Campaign

“Campaign” is an interesting word when discussing ministry. We just endured political campaigns with a continuing campaign in Georgia. Military operations are called campaigns involving specific geographic areas.

I don’t know who invented the term “Stewardship Campaign” but for decades congregations have engaged in such annual programs to create their budget for the next year. Deborah Rexrode wrote here for NEXT Church that most Stewardship Campaigns involve “filling out a pledge card to make a commitment to the annual budget of the church where we are a member.”

Yuck. I am not inspired.

Stewardship Campaigns often have themes: Growing in Grace, Stepping Up and Out, Digging Deeper, Now is our Time. I’m guessing that the average 30 year old is not moved by the pithiest of theme names. It’s possible that the average 60 year old is not moved either.

I want to be a part of an organization that makes a difference. As a follower of Christ, I specifically want to be part of a spiritual community that makes a difference to the glory of God in the name of Jesus. I will not give money to support structures for the sake of supporting the structures. The Church is not the ministry. What the Church does is the ministry. The Church is the tool to do ministry.

Speaking of hard truths, I wonder if we should never again have a “Stewardship Campaign.” We are not trying to conquer anything or safeguard anything (like a military campaign.) We are not trying to “win” (like a political campaign.) We are trying to expand the reign of God. How’s that going?

In our post-Christendom culture, it’s obvious that many of our churches will close in the next 5-10 years. And it’s not just about church size. I know many thriving congregations with less than 50 members changing the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ. They feed twice or three times the number of people who sit in their pews on Sunday mornings. They provide needle exchanges for addicts who outnumber their membership rolls in their rural counties. They provide social and educational gatherings for disabled neighbors who never make financial contributions to their budgets.

Churches that serve only themselves need to close. You are a social club – and you might be a meaningful and beloved social club of people who appreciate getting together each week. But you can do that at a diner.

People support impactful and inspiring mission with their money and their time. I want to be a part of a vision that changes the world for good. I want to raise my children in a community that shows what the love of God actually looks like. That’s how they learn it – not by being lectured to or criticized (“Kids today are lazy/selfish/uncommitted.”) We don’t learn it by being on committees that discuss the same issues (e.g. the boiler, the carpet, the people who toss trash in the parking lot) month after month.

Jesus moved people. Thriving churches also move people because they look like Jesus.

So instead of a “campaign” how about sharing what we’ve done this year and what we hope to do next year that has and will move people in the name of Jesus and ask for buy-in.

We want you to be a part of this ministry to immigrants that’s changing lives. We want you to join us in serving those who need a safe place to sleep. We are sharing fresh vegetables to 250 people every week and we want to keep loving our neighbors this way. We are providing space for laundry facilities for the homeless, meeting space for the addicted, safe space for Trans kids, garden space for immigrants, financial education for young families, spiritual direction for children, day care for seniors.

And we have a vision that our church can be a light in darkness and a haven in this difficult world and a way station for those passing through in need of support.

It’s not a battle or a contest. It’s a vision sparked by the Holy and it makes us feel closer to God and to each other. It’s a vision that looks like what Jesus was all about: healing, befriending, forgiving, welcoming, holding accountable, loving. I want to be a part of that church.

Image source.

“I’m Hearing Good Things”

 “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus in Luke 7:22

Sometimes people send emails or texts saying, “I’m hearing good things” about The Church where I live. Love that. And I always want to know what they are hearing.

  • I hear you have a great staff.
  • I hear your churches are taking some interesting risks.
  • I hear your churches are addressing racism.
  • I hear your churches are building affordable housing.

Our staff is indeed great because we collaborate well, trust each other, and can share hard things.

Some of our churches are calling pastors they wouldn’t have called even 5 years ago. Not all the churches but some of the churches are taking faithful risks to call leaders who don’t look like previous leaders.

We have been requiring anti-racism training for a couple years now and lots of our leaders haven’t taken the training yet. We’re working on it.

And yes, several of our congregations are building/planning to build affordable housing both on their campuses and on properties donated or purchased in other neighborhoods because housing is a crucial issue where we live.

Thanks be to God.

As we celebrate the bounty of our lives in the next week, it’s a fine time for our congregations to dig deeply into the reasons why things might not be going well.

Have you heard these not-so-good things lately?

  • Young people aren’t coming to church anymore.
  • We can’t afford a pastor.
  • Nobody wants to volunteer.

Better conversations might be:

  • How are we building trust in our congregation?
  • How are we partnering with other churches or organizations for mission?
  • What are we doing to address conflict between members or groups of members?
  • If not racism, what hard realities are we addressing as a congregation? Poverty? Addiction? Domestic Violence?
  • What risks are we willing to take to help our church thrive? Invest in a life-giving mission project? Call a leader who doesn’t look like our previous leaders?

If God is leading us, we can take on the not-so-good things and become a congregation that helps the blind see, the lame move, the deaf hear, the ostracized accepted, the dead resurrected, and the poor feeling hope. These things are possible both literally and figuratively.

When I hear good things about the 21st Century Church and it’s always from those congregations who have abandoned the notion that the Church is about us to remember to the truth that the Church is about loving God and neighbor. I can’t wait to hear good things about your church in 2023.

Hard Truths: Decisions We Make That Are Closing Our Churches

I am the person charged with sharing resumes (we call them “Personal Information Forms” or PIFs) with Pastor Search Committees looking for temporary pastors. Churches hire temporary pastors when they need a Transitional Leader before calling their next “Permanent” Pastor or they can only afford to have a pastor for the next 12 months – unsure if they can afford a long term leader, or they know they can only afford a part-time pastor.

I remember sharing three PIFs with the committee of a small church who could only afford a part-time pastor, and in a moment of sharing Too Much Information, I said, “Here are three PIFs – two retired pastors who don’t drive at night and a young pastor searching for a first call. If you don’t call the young pastor, you are deciding to close your church.”

Yep. Maybe I said too much, but it was true.

I wrote about the issue of church leaders making decisions that will inadvertently but eventually close their church in 2015 here. It’s still a difficult truth that we continue to make decisions to close our congregations.

Although I’m repeating myself, I still maintain that these decision will result in church closings. It might happen next year or in five years. But until we shift the culture of our congregations to become most concerned with our Neighbors, our Organizational Structure, and our Partnerships (some of which will be unlikely) we are not going to be able to survive in the future much less thrive. FYI: Jesus calls us to thrive to the glory of God.

  • The decision to make our pastor the professional Christian, believing that it’s the pastor’s job (and only the pastor’s job) to do ministry.
  • The decision to morph into a club, more worshipful of our building than God.
  • The decision to perpetuate an institution rather than make disciples or love our neighbors.
  • The decision to choose mission that either separates us from the community we are trying to serve (“We’ll send money but we don’t really want to know those people“) or elevating ourselves over the community we’re trying to serve (“We go help those people because they are too uneducated/irresponsible to help themselves.“)
  • The decision to become landlords (renting our property to “tenants”) over engaging in relational ministry (using our buildings as tools for ministry with partners whose names and needs we actually know.)
  • The decision to choose the wrong pastor or to choose not to listen to the right pastor.
  • The decision to do ministry on the cheap even when we could afford more.
  • The decision to forego basic building maintenance to the point that maintenance becomes impossibly expensive.
  • The decision to allow ineffective volunteers and paid staff to keep their jobs too long.
  • The decision to leave the praying, the Bible study, the continuing education to the person who went to seminary.
  • The decision to hold our pastor to impossible standards.
  • The decision to devote our congregational efforts to something less than God.

The truth is difficult. But we have a choice and many of us are choosing to close our churches in the not-so-distant future.

Who Needs to Step Away for Ministry to Bloom?

Sometimes we don’t know that actually we are the ones keeping our congregations from thriving. Ouch.

Last weekend I experienced one of the greatest joys in professional ministry: I was invited to return to a congregation I served for many years to celebrate a church anniversary and witness how much they have accomplished to the glory of God since I left. Fairlington Presbyterian Church is not a large church in terms of membership but their impact is enormous. Not only have they done what many/most churches do (serve dinner at shelters, offer space to 12-step groups and other congregations, collect money, furniture, and non-perishable foods for those in need) but they opened a computer training lab over 20 years ago which has since trained over 5000 adults from over 99 countries in computer skills. And they will be dedicating Waypoint – an affordable housing community with 81 apartments in the coming week. God is amazing.

Before worship last Sunday, we all gathered to tell the story of how Waypoint came to be, led by the Pastor Juli Wilson-Black and – in a circle – each person shared a piece of the story. The best contribution – for me – was when one of the elders who was a leader when I was pastor and who continues to be a leader today said something like this:

We couldn’t move forward with our next big thing until Jan left.

Yes! And I’m so grateful that God called me away. After 27 years in parish ministry (5 in my first call and 22 in my second) I”ve been able to do some cool things that I could not have imagined.

Sometimes we are the ones who have to step away for ministry to bloom.

All church leaders can name people who get in the way of congregational growth.

  • There’s the long term member who says “no” to everything new (and threatens the church either by withholding money or sabotaging the vision.)
  • There’s the church pillar who doesn’t want anything to change until after they die.
  • There’s the elder whose only power in life is in the congregation (being in charge of the candlesticks is better than not being in charge of anything at all) and it’s more about the power for that beloved child of God than Jesus.
  • There’s the pastor who needs to leave but can’t find another call.
  • There’s the pastor who is tired and should retire, but retirement is another decade away in their timeline.

I once worked with a person who – upon being advised to consider leaving their church position – commented that they hoped that – if they did leave – everything would fall apart like a Jenga tower, because they couldn’t bear for the church to thrive after they left.

Okay – this is terrible. To hope things fall apart when we leave is the opposite of healthy leadership. If we are good leaders then things will bloom after we leave because we have equipped others, we have shifted the culture, we have cast a common vision. Unfortunately too many of our congregations may find that – after their current pastor leaves – things fall apart because the pastor did everything themselves or they never moved their church from a 1970s model of ministry or there was never a clear vision.

Who needs to step away for ministry to bloom in your congregation? With humility and grace, we need to acknowledge that it might be us. Thanks be to God for those leaders (clergy, educators, musicians, elders, deacons, volunteers who’ve “run” the same program for over a decade) who constantly ask, “Am I still the right person to lead? Or do I need to get out of the way?”

Consistency

(And I would add “PRAY.”)

There are several Scripture passages about being consistent in our life and faith. I’m not going to try to proof text here. But as we go to the polls today in the USA, let’s be consistent in terms of what we say we believe and in how we vote.

  • If you love your LGBTQA+ friends and family, please vote for candidates who will prioritize their civil rights.
  • If you love pre-born babies, please vote for candidates who also love babies who are born along with older children supporting programs like Head Start and healthy free school lunches.
  • If you worry about the Ukrainian war, please vote for candidates who do not support Putin.
  • If you are concerned about high gas prices, please elect those who force corporations (including oil companies) to pay their fair share in taxes.
  • If you live by a set of ethics and morals and you want your children to have similar ethics and morals, please elect officials whose ethics and morals align with yours.

I will never understand LGBTQA+ people and allies who vote for people who don’t support them. I’ll never understand those who oppose abortion but don’t support food and housing resources for children and their families. I don’t understand those who see innocent citizens of Ukraine suffer and think Putin is a “great leader.” I don’t understand how citizens worried about inflation don’t want to tax billionaires who don’t pay their fair share in contributing to this country. And I really can’t understand people who are generous, kind, honorable citizens who support candidates who are greedy, mean, and dishonorable.

My trust is that God will use whatever happens in this election. The Israelites eventually reached the Promised Land. But it didn’t have to take 40 years. I pray it doesn’t take 40 years for us to reach where God is leading us.

Do You Know These People? (Every Church Should)

Please read this article. It’s about the realities of rural homelessness featuring Sandra Plantz, the homeless liaison for school kids in Gallia County, Ohio. One of my favorite parts is this:

Every school in Plantz’s district has boxes of supplies — children’s underwear, toiletries, prom dresses — and she is always looking for ways to destigmatize the process of getting those items to the students who need them. At River Valley High, they are stored in the Raider Room (named for the school’s mascot), which also has a shower. She brings kids in and out to do various school-related chores so that visiting the room is not seen as a sign of poverty. When one of her students, a cheerleader, stopped coming to school because her unstable housing situation made it impossible to do her hair in the morning, Plantz bought her a $14 hair straightener from Walgreens and put it in the Raider Room.

Sandra Plantz, homeless liaison for Gallia County, Ohio Local Schools.

Sandra Plantz is a hero and I wanted to send her money. And so I tracked her down and heard back from her about what the Raider Room needed next. And then it occurred to me: I wonder if every school system in the United States has local Homeless Liaisons for their students.

Yes, they do.

Where I serve the Church in North Carolina, we cover seven counties and not all of them are rural. Every Church in every county in the United States needs to know the name of the Homeless Liaison in the place where your congregation is located. There are homeless students – more than we realize – in each of our counties. The very least our congregations can do is partner with the liaison in your county. Find out what they need. Form a relationship with that liaison office. Help those students with anything that would possibly make their lives more comfortable.

It could be a winter coat. It could be a hair straightener. For the love of God – literally – we can prevent kids from living in shame because their families struggle with homelessness.

If you live in my own Presbytery, here are the people you need to know:

  • Anson County – Mary Ratliff, Administrator Student Services
  • Cabarrus County – Amanda Smith, McKinney-Vento Liaison
  • Mecklenburg County – Courtney Lacaria, Community Support Services
  • Montgomery County – Tracy Grit, Associate Superintendent, HR
  • Richmond County – Kim Childers, McKinney-Vento Liaison
  • Stanly County – Beverly Pennington, Student Services Director
  • Union County – Lori Spruiell, Title 1 Specialist

Look up the names of the liaison in your local county government and contact them. Schedule a meeting. Invite them to lunch. Find out what they need.

Find. Out. What. They. Need.

If you do not live in the Charlotte Presbytery area, google “homeless liaison” in your home school district. And make friends with them. This is an essential task for this week. Holidays are coming. Winter is coming.

Send money to Sandra Plantz in Ohio and also connect with your local school district. You might be surprised how many housing insecure students attend your local schools. They are our neighbors. They are our children.