Category Archives: Uncategorized

If Bleak Was a Color

Dear graduates, you all come from the Middle East, from Syria, born and raised, but also from Lebanon, where you have lived and studied. Well, neither Syria nor Lebanon figure anywhere among the best countries of the world, nor among the best to raise your children in, nor among the safest countries to live in. It is very likely that they rank somewhere near the very end of such listings.  Dr. Nadim Nassar, Speaker of the 87th Commencement of the Near East School of Theology, Beirut  June 15, 2019

The color of hope is bright.  It’s fresh and cheerful and lighthearted.  I’m currently reading Embracing Hopelessness by Miguel de la Torre (which I strongly recommend) and there are no bright colors.  Dr. de la Torre writes:

Hope, as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action.  Hope is possible when privilege allows for a future.

We who hope have physical evidence that bad days will become good days very shortly, that wounds will be healed in good time, that even though we are crashing, there is a safety net that will embrace us and make us safe again.

Millions of people in the world do not have this.  Their bad days continue to be quite bad.  Their wounds fester and become life threatening.  They crash and then crash again and then crash again – because there is no safety net.

According to Dr. Nassar’s commencement address:

In 2018, last year, and for the second year in a row, Switzerland ranked as the world’s best country, followed by Canada, Sweden, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, Australia, United States, France, Netherlands. Nowhere on the list can any country from the Middle East be found; actually, there is no ranking for them.  There is also such a thing as a research analysis report on the best country to raise children in: Denmark ranks first here, then Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada… Again, no Middle Eastern country is anywhere in

As for me, I am 1) enormously privileged and 2) not without hope – especially when I see this photograph of the 2019 graduates of NESSL (and look at all those women) who are hoping against hope that they will be called to serve as pastors of Christian churches in Syria and Lebanon, two extraordinary countries in spite of being crushed for decades.  “Syrian refugee” has become an everyday term for many of our congregations.  But here we see people of hope who believe there is a future for the Church of Jesus in these war ravaged nations.

We who hope cannot forget those who dwell in hopelessness.  In fact, if we choose to put them out of our minds and ourselves dwell in the most selfish kind of hope (i.e. If my people and I are okay, then all is well.) then we might as well admit that we are not Christian.  We are not followers of Jesus.  We are not “good people.”  We are simple people who reinforce oppression and injustice.

So much for a perky Wednesday post.  But bleak is a color too.

Images of the Pantone color Opaque Couche which has been voted one of the ugliest colors ever created and of the 2019 graduating class of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut.

It’s Actually Easy-ish Being Green

There is no official recycling in the building where our Presbytery Office works. And so three of us cheerfully schlep clear recycling bags full of paper and soda cans home to recycle from there on a regular basis.

The issue is that our address doesn’t include regular recycling pick-up and/or it’s available but nobody wants to pay for it.  Not sure.

Congregations are known for eating and drinking and – more time than not – I sip coffee in styrofoam cups while standing in church social halls picturing this in my mind. Styrofoam is not only not biodegradable, but it breaks into little bits and is really hard to clean up.  (Once a refridgerator box full of styrofoam popcorn used for packing blew open before the sanitation crew could pick it on my street and – believe me – it was a huge mess trying to pick up countless beads of Polystyrene blowing in windy Chicagoland.)  Single use plastics – whether they are clamshell containers or plastic straws are a problem for the environment and have been for a long, long time.  Surely we could find lots of real mugs and wash them for the love of God – literally.

Since environmental issues are only going to become more prevalent, congregations need to be on the forefront of being green.  Most denominations will help your church become more responsible: Presbyterians.  Roman Catholics. United Methodists. Lutherans. United Church of Christian. Reformed Church in America, Episcopalians, Unitarians, and free range Christians all have resources.

If we have any interest in serving the needs and interests of our youngest generations, this is one way we can make a statement that we are concerned about their future.  Or we can continue to use styrofoam cups (and toxic fertilizers and environmentally damaging building materials and more fossil fuels than we need.)

And this isn’t about getting popular with the young people.  This is about listening to the Creator.

Note: This would be a helpful and holy summer project for someone to take on in your congregation.  It starts with recycling bins.

I Don’t Look Good in Yellow

I once wore a very pale yellow bridesmaid dress in a spring wedding and it was not a good look for me.  In fact, I was fairly invisible walking down the aisle because the paleness of my dress emphasized the paleness of my skin.  Yellow is not my color.

Someone named Becky G. researched why yellow is considered the color of cowardice here and – whatever the deeper meaning of the color yellow might be  I prefer bold colors.  Give me hot pinks and blues and greens.  They bring out my eyes.

I would like to think of myself as a bold person, but I confess before you and God that I’ve often been more afraid of my parishioners than God.  I am a coward on most days.  (I seriously remember where boldness got Jesus.)

Many of our pastors are only bold when we know our congregations already believe what we are proclaiming from the pulpit.  Some say that it’s best to “preach purple” when we know that our pews are filled with a variety of political persuasions.  The Bible is an equal opportunity offender and there’s already something to offend everybody in Scripture.  But I find that preaching purple rarely pushes God’s people to be bold in faith.  God is calling disciples – and not just professional preachers – to speak up.

What does Scripture tell us about how to treat “the least of these” whether they are children at the southern border of the United States or homeless veterans living under a bridge or elderly people living in isolation in rural America.

But we don’t wish to offend.  We especially don’t wish to offend the people who pay our salaries.  We don’t want to offend co-workers or family members or even those who live under the same roof with us.

The world is not okay and I’m challenging myself – and you – to be bold at least one time this week in the way we speak and in the way we live.

  • There are children living in terrible conditions at the southern border of our country.  This is not fake news.
  • There are millions of people who are not benefiting from the same economy that’s making wealthy people wealthier.
  • There is mind-boggling opioid abuse in small towns in my state and in yours.
  • There is universal bad behavior in the form of verbal bullying and words that break apart rather than build up.

If it helps to consider being bold because it’s patriotic so be it.  It’s patriotic to lift up the Declaration of Independence which says:  we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all (people) are created equal. It’s patriotic to work for an economy to benefit all Americans, for example.

But – beyond patriotism and politics – for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, it’s faithful to lift up Scripture which tells us that all human beings are created in the image of God. It faithful to work for an economy to benefit all God’s children, for example.

Are we willing to be bold out there and speak up when our leaders, our congregations, and our country are being cowardly?  If yellow is the color of caution and timidity, none of us look good in that color – at least in the reign of God.

Image source.

To Those Seeking New Church Calls

This post is only of interest to a small slice of the population: professional ministers seeking new calls in denominations where they and the congregations they are seeking have some choice in the matter.

Now that I have the attention of 20 of you, I have urgent information.  Part of my role in my own current call is to read through Personal Information Forms (we call them PIFs in the Presbyterian Church USA) but they could also be called Search Forms, Resumes, etc.  For the purpose of this post, I’ll just call them PIFs.

I read lots of them.  I read PIFs for churches seeking new leadership. I read PIFs from seminarians getting ready to seek their first call.  I read PIFs from seasoned pastors seeking their second, third, fourth, or tenth call.  Here is what I’ve found:

  • It’s essential that you have someone proofread for spelling and grammatical mistakes.  Please.  You are saying things you don’t want to say about yourself if your documents are full of misspellings and unnecessary apostrophes.
  • Don’t be generic.  You be you.  Almost every pastor seeking a call will write essays lifting up their love for preaching/teaching/pastoral care/administration/mission.  Imagine Nominating Committees receiving piles of essays all saying essentially the same thing.  I’ve grown in my preaching.  I’m told I’m a good Bible teacher.  I have a heart for pastoral care.  I find administration so satisfying.  I’m excited by mission.  What about you is unique and even quirky?  Have you found community with a group of men who live under a bridge downtown?  Have you ever worked with trafficked women?  Do you have a particular compassion for men being released from prison?  Playing with refugee children?  Preaching in a mental hospital? Volunteering in an art class?
  • Don’t seek a generic church.  Know what you are looking for and seek out that church.  Is it a congregation that shows up?  Do they love their church staff?  Do they use their building as a tool for community ministry?  Let them know what you are seeking.  Note: One of the tough situations is when you are tethered to a geographic location and you feel like you will take any position.  What’s tough is that it shows.  Churches want someone called to serve them.  They don’t want a pastor who could serve anyone who can pay them.  It makes me tired just thinking about it. Again, this is very tough because – if you are tied to a certain city/town – you have fewer choices.  I still believe in call though.  You can certainly be called to serve in the place where you currently live.  But it will be a more difficult search.
  • Don’t tell personal stories in a way that will make people feel uncomfortable.  In your essays, don’t tell the story about that time you did a wedding and the mother of the bride choked on roast beef and died during the reception and you offered exquisite pastoral care.  Nobody wants to imagine that.
  • Be open to non-parish ministry.  If you are searching and nothing is clicking,  you can certainly do ministry in a coffee shop, in a taco truck, in a classroom, in a dentist office.  Do that if you need income before The Spirit moves.  God uses everything.
  • Pray.  How is your prayer life through this search?  I always tell search committees that they need to start praying now for their new pastors because they are out there, possibly hearing God whisper in their ears that it’s time to move. And candidates need to be praying for the next people they’ll serve.  God knows how much you need this new call.  But keep talking about it with your Maker. It’s a sweet moment when you and and the people you will be serving meet each other and click.

The search for a new call or a new pastor is arduous work.  But it’s also God’s work.  It’s going to be okay.  Be open to the unexpected.

How Will We Pay for It?

[The “it” here is not about utility bills or other everyday realities of ministry.  The “it” I’m more interested in is New Ministries.]

How will we pay for New Churches? And by “Church” I’m talking about any gathering of God’s people who may or may not know they are God’s people.  I’m not talking about the traditional congregations – of any size – who want a spiritual leader to do all/most of the things: preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administration.

I’m talking about something for the Fleabags of the world.  I imagine something like this:

A church property is re-purposed into affordable housing or a drug treatment facility or apartments for homeless veterans. Maybe they are using the old church building or maybe they’ve razed the old building and something new has been constructed.  But there is still “church space” on the property – and depending on the context/neighborhood, this is what happens there – in my dreams:

  • Sunday – Saturday – 24 Hour Prayer Room
  • Monday – Friday – excellent affordable childcare from 6 am to 9 pm
  • Monday – Friday – every 12 step group that needs space
  • Monday night – Death Cafe (Let’s talk about grieving.)
  • Tuesday night – “What Am I Doing?” Parenting Group (Let’s talk about our kids.)
  • Wednesday night – “What Does This Mean?” Bible Study
  • Thursday night – Interfaith Cafe (Let’s talk with people of different beliefs.)
  • Friday night – Storytelling/Music that Matters (Let’s share stories by theme: shame stories, failure stories, Where-God-Showed-Up-Unexpectedly stories)
  • Saturday morning – Brunch Church (Eat and talk to God and each other.  Also some listening for God.)
  • Saturday afternoon – Craft Church (making pillowcases for refugee children, knitting needle bags for people with substance abuse issues, crocheting blankets for shelter)
  • Saturday night – Pride Cafe for LGBTQ youth
  • Sunday – Church-ish

I would call the whole community Church-ish (stolen from Abby King-Kaiser) and – as you can see – no single pastor could do all these things.  The pastor’s job would be to oversee it and – in a no-financial-worries world – there would be about 3 FT pastors on this staff.

So here’s the thing:  How would we pay for it?

I have ideas for this too, but I’m just brainstorming:

  • On top of the housing/rehab/whatever space are market rate apartments/condos.
  • A big church – or several – to support it.
  • Partnerships with local businesses.
  • There is a pay-what-you-can offering at everything.
  • There’s a coffee shop/tea shop/ice cream shop with proceeds going to Church-ish.
  • The main gathering space is so beautiful, people want to get married there (so they rent it.)
  • Grants.
  • Online giving that makes everybody desperately inspired to make annual pledges.
  • Talking about money openly and in healthy ways.

Also God.  Not Magic Jesus but trust in a God who would be pleased by a gathering of misfits who believe but don’t exactly know what they believe.

So, what do you dream?  And how would you pay for it?

Image Source.

What’s Being Disrupted Exactly?

I’ve been to plenty of perfectly choreographed worship services.  Every syllable of the liturgy was flawlessly executed.  Every note sung by the choir was glorious.  Every word of the sermon was inspired.  The Spirit was present.

I’ve been to even more worship services that some would call imperfect – or even sloppy.  There was the time someone forgot to fill the baptism font. (And one of the ushers recruited a child to come forward with the family carrying a pitcher for me to use.  “I’m the water bearer,” she whispered to me. And the role of “water bearer” was born in that church.)  There was the time a deacon’s scarf caught fire on Pentecost. (And as she tore it off her neck, the pastor leaped up and stomped out the flames to great applause by the congregation.)  There was the time the five year old was reading the Psalm of the day and she couldn’t pronounce her “R”s. (And it was lovely.)  There was the time an elder who’d been recently diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia started playing with the hair of the first time visitor sitting in front of him. (And after the elder’s wife explained what was going on, the visitor smiled and said, “No worries.”) The Spirit was present at each of these moments as well.

Yesterday in Cambridge, England Dr. Paul Brandon Rimmer wrote a “letter of apology” to the Dean of King’s College regarding the “disruption” by his 9 year old son during the Evensong service on Father’s Day.  Apparently young Tristan is a non-verbal person with autism, and yet he expresses delight by making joyful noises when he is happy.  He was happy during Evensong.

An usher invited Dr. Rimmer and his family to leave because Tristan was being disruptive.  This happened in a church that welcomes all – even “the disabled” – according to their communications.

What exactly was being disrupted Sunday night?

  • Was it a performance much like a concert or a play?
  • Was it a worship service with the expectation that everything (even the joyful noise of a young worshiper who cannot speak) is for the glory of God?

[Dr. Rimmer notes that he and his family thought that Evensong was a worship service, but apparently they were mistaken.]

This unfortunate episode in the King’s College Chapel reminds us that we need to ask ourselves in every church-related activity:

Why are we doing what we are doing in church?

  • To perform?
  • To check off a list of “things churches do” whether we truly want to/need to do them or not?
  • To make the church matriarchs/patriarchs happy?
  • To compete with the church down the street?
  • To glorify God and enjoy God forever?

Just wondering.

What’s Up with Fleabag? And Other Church Conversations

It’s always dangerous to ask a Young Person to speak for their generation, but I do it anyway.  I met N at a fundraiser over the weekend.  She is 19 and just finished her first year in college.  She is clearly brilliant and I think she might be governor of North Carolina one day.  I not only liked her immediately, but I also wanted to pick her brain about many things.  (“Have you watched Fleabag?  I’m trying to find someone to talk about Fleabag’s understanding of the Meaning of Life.”)

I asked her about church.  She is not a church person (“at all“) although she is clearly a spiritually reflective person. And I asked her where she found her “church.”  Specifically, I asked her, “Who would bring you casseroles if you were recovering from surgery?”

Note: She probably doesn’t eat casseroles but it was a general question.

Everybody needs church – and what I mean by church here is this:

  1. Church is the community that gets you and wants the best for you.
  2. Church is the person or people who step up when you need a blessing, a prayer, a shoulder, an accountability partner.
  3. Church is the chosen family in which you are safe.
  4. Church is the gathering that shines light on the meaning of life.
  5. Church is the Body that points to the Holy
  6. Church is the community where you belong (see 1-4 above), then you behave (there are norms you come to follow) and then you (finally) believe. (Thank you Phyllis Tickle.  In the 20th Century Church, the order was reversed: believe, behave, belong.)

Also – when Jesus is in charge – Church is

  1. The Body of Christ in the world, changing everything so that life is ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  This includes all that many secular organizations do too:  feed the hungry, house the homeless, love the unlovable, welcome the stranger, work for justice.

I’m blessed to be part of several churches. One of my churches meets in a local restaurant where people share openly about the meds they’re on and the relationships they are in/out of.  It’s where we show up for each other when there’s a Big Event in someone’s life.  This church is called Zada Jane’s.

Another of my churches is comprised of clergywomen who’ve been through things together.  We don’t need to explain ourselves much.  Laughing and crying are a large part of our liturgy in Ordinary Time.

Another of my churches is comprised of extended family who share faith in Jesus with a hearty dose of ancestor worship.  We are just now noticing that the ancestors are not actually worthy of praise sometimes and that’s okay because God is.

I could go on and on but I hope you see what I mean.

My college friend N says that with social media making community is so easy that she doesn’t need church.  For her and her friends, “going to church” is where you made connections – not always with God but with “the right people.”  It feels transactional.

Today, she gets a text about a fundraiser like the one we attended over the weekend.  She gets a message about a meet-up for coffee.  She sees a posting about a group gathering.  These are her people and they are diverse and plentiful.

Someone asked me last week if I’d figured out what’s next for the Church of Jesus Christ (hah) and I’m still working on it.  But Fleabag is part of that discernment because I know many people like the characters in that series.  And there are bright college students who grapple with life’s purpose and there are hopeless young adults who gather for eggs on Saturday mornings with hangovers and there are pastors who keep Narcan in their cars.  And there are the traditional Church People who still gather on Sunday mornings to sit in pews and sing and pray and hear the Word proclaimed and celebrate sacramental moments.

At least on this day, I see lots of kinds of churches that meet throughout each week and throughout each day in traditional and random places.

Some focus on belonging (“Everyone is welcomed.  We love you no matter what.“) Some focus on behaving (“This is how we live – by serving others.”) And some are believers – or people who want to believe – and they want to talk with and about Jesus.

What do you see for the 21st Century Church?

Image from Fleabag (written and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a priest (played by Andrew Scott) with whom she has a friendship.


Where – and When – Do We Read Books about Lynching?

I know where to get books about lynching: library, online, book store.  But where  – and when – do we read them?

Before I go to sleep at night, I’ve been reading Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning  by Claude A. Clegg III which is probably not the choice of Sleep Specialists.  It’s about a triple lynching in Rowan County, NC where my mother was born and my father grew up.  Between 31,000 and 37,000 people lived in Rowan County in 1906 – the year of the lynching and this account states that about 2000 witnessed the lynching of Nease Gillespie (age 55), his son John Gillespie (age 14, 15, or 16) and Jack Dillingham (in his late 20s or early 30s) for the murder of Isaac Lyerly (age 68), Augusta Barringer Lyerly (age 42), John H. Lyerly (age 8), and Alice Lyerly (age 6.)

The three black men may or may not have had anything to do with the murders.  They never confessed to the crime, even in the terrifying moments before they died, according to witnesses.  But on the night of August 5, 1906, they were arrested, removed from the Salisbury, NC jail without trial, hanged, tortured, cut, and shot in front of a crowd of about 2000 onlookers.  Many witnesses took home souvenirs of flesh.

My grandfather was 11 years Old at the time and it’s possible that he or members of his family witnessed that horror – or that he and family members visited the site of the lynching in the days to follow.  People did this.

So when do we – white people – educate ourselves about the realities of white privilege in our nation’s history by reading books about such horrors?  By the pool this summer?  Out on a patio sipping adult beverages?  Before we hit the pillow at night?

Students – I hope –  are assigned these books in class.  But what about those of us who are long past formal schooling?

There are book groups, of course.  There are lectures by the authors.  But my greatest hope is that we also read books that make us uncomfortable in Church.  (Note:  yes we should be reading the Bible too and if the Bible doesn’t make us uncomfortable then we aren’t reading very closely.)

While lots of young and old Presbyterians from Charlotte have been touring Birmingham and Montgomery and Memphis this week, we need to make our own pilgrimages of pain to those places.  I know I’m headed to Salisbury soon to a place once called Henderson Park, about a quarter mile south of the intersection of N. Long Street and Bringle Ferry Road.

Where will you be reading books about lynching?  And where will you be traveling to learn more about a particularly evil part of our history?

Dr. Claude A. Clegg III is Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor in African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Salisbury, NC is his hometown.

Raised by Wolves

One of my Mom Fears is that someone will think my children were raised by wolves.  Believe me when I tell you that HH and I taught each of them how to change their sheets, do a load of laundry, and clean a bath tub.  That doesn’t mean it will happen but they know how to do it.

Living in community means being a good neighbor. And I’m not even talking about “communal living” when everybody shares a kitchen and a car.  I’m talking about picking up after ourselves.  I’m talking about holding the door open for people.  I’m talking about not watching Scream at midnight at full volume when the walls are thin.  I’m talking about appreciating each other – whether that means sending Thank You Notes or Thank You Texts.

Because our nation is so divided and so cranky, sometimes it feels like each of us was raised by wolves – which is actually unfair to wolves who are reportedly excellent parents.

It’s disturbing when people are rude – much less cruel – and this is a good day to treat each other as we would like to be treated.  Every religion holds up their own version of this Golden Rule.  We were not created to be insulting or crude or abusive towards each other.  We were born to show love.

And  so – for the love of God – please don’t let your pet eliminate waste in the stairwell. (This is a real sign from one of the stairwells in my apartment building.)

Be kind out there.


Painful Realizations

Ugh.  Growth hurts.

Preteens literally feel pain in their bones during adolescence.  Hot messes (count me in) feel pain when we realize exactly how hot of a mess we are.  And institutions endure deep pain upon realizing that they can no longer thrive without without re-examining the reason they exist.

We learn so much through pain, but few of us choose the painful route.

In churches, it’s just easier . . .

  • To keep the long term administrative assistant even though she’s kind of a gossip and won’t learn Excel.
  • To keep the long term music director even though he doesn’t play well with others.
  • To keep the ineffective pastor because she’s only 8 years from retirement.
  • To keep half a million dollars in the Cemetery Fund when we need those funds for mission because we don’t want to confront the gentlemen who controls the Cemetery Fund.

And so we languish in our current state of being and there is little spark in our lives (or in our institutions.)  There is hope and light ahead – but only if we wade through some painful realizations.  I’m not going to suggest what they are, but I will say that they are usually obvious to everyone but ourselves.

Trust is required for such moments as these:

  • Do we trust the colleagues and friends who tell us the difficult news that we need to tweak (or overhaul) our lives?
  • Do we trust our spiritual leaders who tell us that the church of our childhood will never come back?
  • Do we trust that God has got this?  AND that God expects us to participate?

I have a fantasy that goes like this: I visit a congregation and they tell me all the wonderful things God is doing among them.  And then they ask me what they could do to expand their ministry and spiritual growth.  And then they actually choose to do those things – prayerfully of course.  And then their ministry and spiritual maturity is expanded!  And then they say, “That was really hard, but God was with us and it was totally worth it.”

Image of the 20th President of the United States.