Taking a Break

I’m away this week taking some Sabbath time.  Take gentle care of yourselves.  Breathe.  See you soon.

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
   and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
   says the Lord, who has compassion on you. Isaiah 54:10


Pastors Overwhelmed

I read recently that a young clergywoman in a Mainline denomination took her own life last week.  I don’t know her name or anything else about her, but this breaks my heart.  A gifted child of God who was called to professional ministry considered death by suicide as an option and she took that option.

If you have a pastor or if you know a pastor, please offer that pastor a break.  Share encouraging words. Contribute to a gift card to Door Dash or Air BNB.  Write a quick note.  Please.

Here’s what pastors do not need right now:

  • Your complaints about online worship.  Maybe you hate it.  Maybe you like it.  But your pastor is trying to do their best.  Help them.  Give them the equipment or volunteer hours or funds they need to do this.  Volunteer to preach or find a guest preacher to give them a Sunday off.
  • Your accusations that they aren’t working very hard, especially if they are working from home.  Actually, work is different now for everybody and it’s spilling into all hours of the day and night. Pastor Parents of young children are dealing with a lot right now – just like people in other occupations working from home.
  • Your political frustrations.  Yes, the world is divided and hot.  Do not criticize your pastor for trying to serve God in the thick of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. Encourage your pastor to speak the Truth in love.
  • Your efforts to go rogue.  If your leaders have voted to hold off on in-person worship, don’t organize a coup and gather at the sanctuary with cranky signage.  Your leaders make decisions based on the law and the health of members and staff.  Let them lead.
  • Your hand-wringing.  Yes we all worry about when we’ll get back to some semblance of normality.  Your pastor might be worried too.  Don’t pile on.
  • Your ghosting.  This is not the time to stop participating in worship gatherings or Bible studies.  This is not the the time to refrain from making financial contributions.  While you disappear, your pastors are working harder than ever to lead the church.  They can’t disappear themselves.
  • Your negativity.  This is actually a great time to come together as the Church.  The Church has so many new options for making a difference in your neighborhood, your town, your corner of the world.  What new thing is God calling you to do and be?

What I’m not saying:

I’m not saying we should be skipping happily through the day.  People are grieving everything from the loss of human life to the loss of human connection.  We miss so many pre-pandemic things.

Your pastor feels this in a deeply spiritual way, as well as in an emotional, physical, and social way.  Be a sibling in Christ.  Recognize that these are not easy times for your spiritual leaders.

They deserve God’s grace too.

If you are overwhelmed and need help, please contact your doctor or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Today is the 16th. Tomorrow will be the 17th.

This is one of those blog posts that makes me want to say, “I’m fine. I don’t really need for you to offer sympathy or anything.”  Just a heads up.

Today marks the anniversary of my Mom’s death from metastatic breast cancer, and unlike the previous Death Days, today marks the moment I’ve lived longer without a mother than with one.  Ugh.

And yet I’m lucky I had her for 32 years.  I’m lucky to have had a mom into my young adulthood, and a really stellar one at that, when much of the world doesn’t get that random life benefit.

Today is the 16th of September and tomorrow will the 17th.

34 years ago on September 17 – and pre-HIPAA – Mom’s doctor (and a family friend) told me on the phone while I was in the kitchen of the manse of my first congregation in rural NY that her cancer had spread.  “It’s in her lungs and bones. It’s even spread to her toe bones,”  he said.

I asked him if I should quit my job and come home and – of course – he said he couldn’t tell me that.  But he did offer this, “I don’t think she’ll be alive a year from now and there’s no way she’ll be alive two years from now.

He was trying to give me a general time table.

  • That afternoon, on September 17, 1986 I met HH on a blind date.
  • We were married in 1987 and Mom was there.
  • And on September 16, 1988 she died.

So today’s the 16th of September and I remember those last hours with Mom in a morphine coma until she finally stopped breathing while I held her hand and told her she was the Best Mom Ever.

And tomorrow will be the 17th when I’ll remember the first time I saw HH’s face.  Terrible things happen and then – if we are very fortunate – healing things happen.  And we thank God for that.

The world is literally and figuratively on fire today and yet there is hope for healing.  We all need to be healed and God knows that.  And I’m so grateful.

Why Congregations Make Decisions That Keep Them Stuck.

I’m reading 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape The Future of Everything by Mauro F. Guillen and it finally makes sense – why congregations make decisions that keep them stuck.

Let’s say that your congregation is deciding whether or not to turn a house they own into a shelter for abused women and children.  The non-profit managing local domestic abuse assistance is doing most of the work.  They are making the necessary house improvements at no cost to the church.  They are training the staff.  They are coordinating with the local police and court system.  They’ve been looking for suitable housing for a shelter for years and this particular house – owned by the church – is perfect.  The mission outreach of the congregation could make a positive impact in the community in an area with great need.

The elders vote against it. Several of them asked questions like:

  • What if we want to sell that house for income?
  • What if someone in the church wants to rent it?
  • What if the Boy Scout Troop could use that house one day?

This is called “loss aversion bias.”  We make bad decisions, Guillen writes, because “people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses rather than locking in equivalent gains.”  We are more afraid of loss than we are excited about possible growth.

This is why a congregation decides not to change the purpose of their unused Christian Education wing.  This is why a congregation decides not to start a new ministry with immigrant children.  This is why a congregation turns down the opportunity to partner with the other houses of worship in town to build affordable housing together.  What if it doesn’t work?  What if we can’t actually do it?  What if we regret it?

This is why we fear the possibility of a family “leaving the church” even if it means that new families would join.

Economist Theresa Wiig from the University of Belgen in Norway has found that “losses loom larger than gains” in the hearts and minds of those with the power to make impactful choices.  This feels especially true for churches.

Our longtime church people have memories of a different time when nobody talked about domestic violence much less did something about it.  Fifty years ago, we didn’t address racism or drug abuse or mental illness or poverty or substandard education – unless we sent checks and studied about it but kept our distance.

Today the most effective congregations in terms of bringing on The Reign of God (something Jesus talked about quite often) are hands-on, entrepreneurial, relational, risk-taking churches.  The churches – of any size – who are addressing the sorrows and hurts of their community are thriving.  Younger generations are generally meeting-averse but they will take a Saturday to serve their neighbors.  There are people in our congregations who can indeed see the benefits of hosting an important mission project in their church building or becoming known for a signature calling.  And the benefits are not merely selfish (so that “new members will come.”)  The benefits are that love of neighbor is pleasing to God.  It’s why we are the Church.

Our bias to loss aversion has become neutralized a bit during this pandemic because we’ve had no choice but to adapt.  We could shut down, or we could adapt.  Most of us have adapted.

And when it’s over and there’s a vaccine, we can’t go back to fearing losses more than anticipating wins.  God is always doing a new thing.  We get to participate in these new things and that’s part of the miracle.

Faces of Power

This article in last week’s New York Times is a good topic for discussion.

It shows the head shots of 922 of the most powerful people in the United States – the police chiefs, judges, military leaders, business executives, university presidents, news media executives, book and magazine publishers, music producers, studio heads, fashion executives, and professional sports team owners.  You can see on the image here that the ones highlighted in yellow are People of Color.  The rest are White.

This is not surprising.

When I hear White People say that “the Blacks” or “the Asians” or “the Hispanics” or whatever are “taking over” I assume they are afraid of losing their privilege in the world. But representation matters and we can do better in terms of including leaders who come with different life experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives.  And several studies show that diversity is good for business.  This is old news.

We in the Church are barely scratching the service in terms of being inclusive.  Congregations seeking new pastors like the idea of calling a person who is not from the dominant culture of that church.  But there is a great deal of work to do before that can happen in a healthy way.

For fun, I wrote down the people I consider to be the most powerful in my own denomination.  Some of them hold high offices and titles.  Some are behind-the-scenes leaders.  Some are the go-to people for conferences and workshops on everything from anti-racism training to church vitality events.

I am not going to name them.  You can come up with your own list.  But I was encouraged by mine. Among those I personally consider the Faces of Power in my corner of the Church of Jesus Christ are:

  • 7 White Males
  • 7 Black Females
  • 5 Black Males
  • 5 White Females
  • 3 Latin Females
  • 1 Native Female
  • 1 Asian Female
  • 1 Asian Male*

They range in ages from their 30s to their 60s. They lead from pulpits and board rooms.  Their platforms all involve making the world better by making the Church better.

I’m encouraged by the diversity of these faces and yet I recognize that my choices may not be yours.  (Most of mine could also be called Most Likely To Get Into Good Trouble.)

And while The Church of Jesus Christ is remarkably imperfect, we are slowly, slowly moving toward being the rainbow God created us to be.  It’s painful – especially for the prophets on my list who get roughed up out there.  But – unlike the 922 pictured above – my list is trying to shift the culture for the sake of Jesus.

Shifting the culture for the sake of Jesus is what all of us are called to do.

*Although you don’t know who you are, my apologies for not categorizing some of you in the fullness of who you are.

Empathy Week: Hearing (and Believing) Each Other’s Stories

Trust – especially between people of different political perspectives – seems to be at an all time low.  I (a White person) was telling a friend (who is a White person) about what happened to another friend (who is a Black person) involving a server in a restaurant who ignored her place in line and gave the next table to a White couple when it was actually her turn.  “That wasn’t about racism,” my friend responded.  “The server was probably really busy and just didn’t see her.”  Exactly.

Some of us don’t believe that Tamir Rice was merely playing in a park before he was shot by police, perhaps because he wasn’t our son or our child’s friend. He must have done something threatening that prompted the police to shoot him.

I can retell the stories of Black friends being pulled over in their cars for no apparent reason, but it’s not the same as if those friends share those stories.

Again – empathy isn’t everything.  But it’s something.  Empathy helps us to humanize each other and understand each other a tiny bit better.  And when we know each other’s stories, our capacity to empathize with them grows.

Zoom meetings are perfect for story sharing and relationship-building.  My brilliant friend S suggested that our Anti-Racism Ministry Team begin our meetings with a relationship building question that everyone is invited to answer.  The first time we did this the question was one of my favorites:

What is your earliest memory about race?

One by one on Zoom, we shared a personal story and then invited someone else to share their story until everyone had the opportunity to share.  And voila!  We had made connections that had not been made before.  While you might scoff at spending 20 or 30 minutes at the beginning of a meeting sharing stories because we are not getting into the “real business” the truth is that those minutes of relational time are priceless in terms of making connections.

Here are some other questions that prompt a little self-revelation:

  • What is the story of your name?
  • When and where were you baptized and what have you been told/remember about it?
  • When was a time you felt the presence of God in an especially deep way?
  • When did you experience someone doing exactly the right thing to support you?
  • What’s the best present you’ve ever received?

Imagine opening every business meeting, every small group, every Bible study, every book study with a common question that people are invited to share.  Believe me, this is what people crave: deeper relationships, a sense of being known, an opportunity to share a glimpse of their lives.

And relationship-building bolsters trust.

These story times are the little tastes of dessert in our day.  We see each other in a new ways.  We see the world in new ways.

So – your spiritual discipline today might be to ask someone – individually or in a meeting  – to share a story about themselves.

Stories change us.  And maybe they will make us more empathetic.

Image of the painter Joe Lopez standing with one of his works from The Gallo Series.  You can read his story here.

Empathy Week: Literature by People Whose Lives Don’t Look Like Ours Builds Empathy

I remember finishing Crime and Punishment at a bus stop on my way home from work years ago and the end so blew me away that I couldn’t stand still. I walked all the way home, about five miles.

Despite never having been a Russian man, much less a 19th Century impoverished criminal racked with paranoia, I deeply felt the impoverishment, the paranoia, and the guilt of Rodian Raskolnikov.  His agony was felt deep in my guts.

This article by Molly Worthen sparked today’s post.  She interviewed scholars and students for her article and writes this:

This is the gift of liberal education: the invitation to read a book and think about both the variety and the common threads of human experience across time, space and culture. “Empathy extends beyond trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” said Ms. Holloway, the student at Oberlin. “Success is not part of that definition, really. The act of listening is a form of that empathy. You’re willing to attempt to understand.”

Reading authors whose life experiences are totally different from our own is priceless for bolstering our ability to empathize – although having empathy is not enough in terms of changing the world.  See yesterday’s post.

All their lives, People of Color in the United States have been given reading assignments, book club suggestions, and everyday reading materials that portray the life experiences of White People.  To Kill a Mockingbird. Romeo and Juliet. The Hardy Boys. Lord of the Flies.  The Great Gatsby.  All “classics” to be sure.

On today’s high school reading lists, students might also find Song of Solomon, The Joy Luck Club, Persepolis, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on their reading lists and yet we can do better.  There are so many new novels by people and about people whose life experiences show White People a different reality.

If you are interested in some small semblance of walking in another person’s shoes whose life might be very different from yours, consider these excellent books by authors of color.  I dare you not to be moved in your gut.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coats
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

There are literally an endless list of novels to read that exquisitely take the reader to a new place with a new lens.  Empathy isn’t everything but reading novels by authors whose lives don’t look like our own is one way to nourish it.

Image is a pencil drawing of the lead character of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky by an unknown artist. The name Raskolnikov means “schismatic.”

Empathy Week: Actually Empathy Is Not Enough

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. Benjamin Franklin*

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is hot as part of a holistic curriculum for children these days, and it’s been said for a while now that EI (emotional intelligence) is a better predictor of success in the world than IQ (intelligence quotient.)  Teaching empathy is not only possible; it’s become a movement.

Most of us want our children to be Good Humans.  How does that happen?

Being sympathetic is not enough. To say “I feel sorry for that person” keeps us separated from someone’s pain.  They are sick/lonely/poor – but we aren’t, so off we go with the rest of our day.

Being empathic is not enough.  To say “I feel your pain” isn’t even possible most of the time.  I cannot know how a gay person, a black person, a Gen Z person,  a refugee, or an imprisoned person feels because I’ve never been any of those things.  I can try to imagine and my imagination might be pretty good.  But still I cannot know.

God calls us to be compassionate and my resident theologian HH has studied this for most of his professional life.  The Bible refers to Jesus “having compassion” upon people six times in the New Testament.  The Good Samaritan has compassion on the injured stranger.  The Prodigal Son’s father has compassion for his wayward child.  The Greek word here is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) which literally means to be moved in one’s bowels.

It’s the opposite of “I hate your guts.”

It means “I feel love for you in my deepest guts.”  It’s a verb which implies being one with someone – which is so much more than feeling sorry for them or identifying with their pain. (Note: this is a great article about how literature can take empathy to new levels.)

The Good Samaritan didn’t merely feel sorry for the guy on the side of the road or imagine how much his wounds must have hurt.  He took responsibility for the stranger’s wounds himself.  Sort of like Jesus.

And so, here we are living in a world of conflict and violence.  After George Floyd’s murder all kinds of people who had never considered police brutality or the unnecessary death of Black men suddenly included support on their Instagram accounts.  Some marched in peaceful protests for the first time in their lives.  And then so many of us stopped.

We’ve done our part.  We’ve spoken up bravely on social media. And now we’ve reverted back to sympathy and empathy for our Black and Brown neighbors.

This is not where Jesus stopped.  Jesus never stopped speaking up and walking with those experiencing violence and injustice, racism and sexism.  It was not a temporary activity to stand up to injustice.  It was his life.

Having sympathy for people might be an essential part of our lives.  Feeling empathy for those who suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually, politically might be an essential part of our lives.

But neither of these actions are enough.

  • How are we standing with people in pain?
  • How are we speaking up?
  • What are we doing every day to the point that it’s who we are to seek understanding and hear the stories.

ESPN footbal analyst Kirk Herbstreit – God bless him – broke down in tears saying this over the weekend:

The Black community is hurting. … How do you listen to these stories and not feel pain and not want to help?

Empathy is not enough. We must be moved to do something to help, to become the kind of human being who stands alongside those in any kind of need.

Now more than ever, the Church must speak up and be the ones who help in tangible, transformative ways.

Popular image from a recent BLM protest.  And a note about having Black friends.  (Most White people don’t actually have any.  Read here.)

*Someone shared that Benjamin Franklin didn’t actually say this, although it’s attributed to him all over the place.  Whether he said it or not, it’s true.

Empathy Week: How Can We Come Back Together in a Divided Nation?

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Jesus in Matthew 10:34-39

There is no rejection more painful than family rejection. Brene Brown

The country I love is more divided than I’ve ever remembered.  Not only does it bring All The Feelings (shame, grief, sadness, resentment, and a crushed heart) it also reminds me of what Jesus said about how we will be rejected when we try to follow Jesus.  I’m not talking about the platitudes.  I’m not talking about the upbeat Bible verses.  I’m talking about disagreeing on who God is and who God calls us to be.

When we Christians deeply disagree to the point that we cannot talk with each other anymore, it makes me profoundly sad.  The upcoming election is bringing this up for me like no other time.

Is Jesus divisive?  Sadly, yes.

As a lifelong long Christian, I believe that the Bible teaches that:

  • Jesus died to show us the depths that God would go to show us how much we are loved.  Can we even get our minds around this – that God would die for us?  I can barely comprehend it.  This cosmically defeated sin and evil, and yet sin and evil are still real.
  • What happens on this earth matters.  It’s not about “getting into heaven.”  It’s not about telling the poor, the enslaved, the desperate that they will get their justice in heaven.  No. No. No. Jesus prayed “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  If we ignore the poor, the sick, the outcast, the people we assume are not like us while we are alive, we are in utter disobedience to the God who made us all.
  • There are at least two forms of justice in the world today just as there were at least two forms of justice when Jesus walked in Palestine: one for the dominant culture and one for the people who are not in the dominant culture.  And this is a sin. If you are a young white man who is caught high on weed in a public place, you will most likely be sent home.  If you are a young black man who is caught high on weed in a public place, you will be arrested and possibly shot.  Please connect with me in the comment section if you’d like me to share evidence of this from the public record.
  • Jesus has called us not to be sympathetic (“I feel so sorry for you.“) and not to be empathetic (more about that tomorrow) but to be compassionate.  Jesus was “filled with compassion” more than once in the Greek Bible and this involves walking alongside those in pain.  Not feeling for them.  Not imagining how they feel.  But being with them in their suffering.  Emmanuel = God with us.  And we are supposed to do what Jesus did.

So here’s where the division comes in – especially for Christians.  When the basic tenets of my faith (see above) are at odds with the basic tenets of your faith, our politics are informed accordingly and we are at odds.  We see the world differently, even though we both identify as followers of Jesus.

As a follower of Jesus:

  • I will vote for candidates who show a semblance of love towards the people God died for.
  • I will vote for candidates who understand that there is no peace in the world without justice, especially for the poor, the sick, and the outcast.
  • I will vote for candidates who show compassion.

And because of this, I find myself profoundly sad because this divides me from family and friends.  And yet, Jesus told us this would happen.

And this is the labor many of us carry today.

Image from a window in a Geneva, Switzerland church sanctuary  Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.

Isabel Wilkerson Explains It All

America is an old house.

If you’ve ever lived in an old house, you know that there is always work to do to keep that house structurally sound. Ancient roots have messed with the foundation. There are four layers of shingles covering up a damaged roof. Old destruction caused by critters can’t be ignored any longer.

Nine years after The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson has blessed us with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.  It’s such a good book and if you are a preacher, prepare to be drenched in sermon illustrations. Ms. Wilkinson brilliantly describes the United States as an old house that needs to address the cracks in our foundation.

The Institutional Church is also an old house.

There is always work to do in terms of learning about God and the history of God’s people and our history as God’s people.  There are repairs to make (and I’m not talking about the church roof or the lighting in the sanctuary) and sometimes it feels easier to ignore them . . . until we cannot ignore them any longer.

As my own corner of Church World grapples with systemic racism, as we try to become an anti-racist Church, the subsequent issues involves fear. Hot topics always invite what could be difficult conversations.

I believe that congregations willing to have difficult conversations are dynamic and theologically faithful.  They are confident that God’s truth will be lifted up and they don’t fear that “people will leave” when there are differences.

I love my brother’s response to differences in theology when debating certain issues:  “I’m just not there yet.”  It’s a generous thing to say, making the assumption that he might one day shift in his views.

There are churches with Black Lives Matter banners in their front lawns.  There are churches offering Bible studies about racism.  There are churches delving deeply into the history of White Supremacy in the Church.  And there are churches ignoring that there is a problem.

Just like an old house, The Church of Jesus Christ – especially in the United States – needs work.  Ancient biases have messed with the foundation. There are layers of mythology covering up a damaged structure. Destructive assumptions can no longer be ignored.  (Except many congregations are indeed ignoring them.)

Not doing the work to tear down and rebuild and repair will eventually cause the whole thing to crash.  And so, we need to face the truth about what lies behind the walls, underneath the foundation, and above our heads.

Do. Not. Be. Afraid. That. People. Will. Leave. Your. Congregation. If. You. Talk. About. Hard. Things.  Yes, they will leave.  And others will join you.

Please read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.  She will explain it all.