Category Archives: Uncategorized

Love Makes Us Courageous

There is a dearth of courage in these days and I’m struck by how much courage was required in the weeks and days before that first Christmas. If your devotion to God is deep enough, you have the courage to marry a woman carrying Another’s child when called to do this. You have the courage to believe it when God says a child – your child – will save all creation from shame and death.

Annunciation by Patricia Brintle (2011)

Deep love moves us to make sacrifices for others. Deep love helps us take risks on behalf of the common good. Deep love inspires us to defend the weak even if it brings criticism upon us.

As I look at both sides of our two major political parties, I observe very little courage. Our leaders seem to forget that they are elected for love of country and not to perpetuate political power.

As I look at our Church leaders, I see that many of us are tossed and turned by the loudest voices, especially if those voices threaten us. I know pastors who succumb to what’s easy over what’s faithful, and I understand how hard it is to speak up against bullies. And yet, if our love for God and the message of Jesus is strong, we do not fear speaking the truth in love.

Love makes us courageous. Not only do I hope our love for the weak, for our loved ones, for the LORD make us courageous, but I hope that when we witness others speaking out and stepping up because love has made them courageous, we will stand with them.

Things Your Pastor Will Not Tell You

. . . but I will because I want your church’s ministry to thrive.

Image source.

It’s 2022 church budget time, and while there are necessary but uninspiring items to consider (building utilities, insurance, copy machine upgrades, snow removal/lawn care) it’s very inspiring to consider how your congregation will make a difference in the lives of neighbors – both local and global. It’s also inspiring to consider how you will honor and appreciate your leaders.

These two things are true: 1) Most pastors do not take vows of poverty upon their ordination and 2) Most pastors do not enter professional ministry to become wealthy.

There is nothing holy about poverty. Jesus regularly spoke about money in ways that remind us that poverty is more about the greed of the wealthy than the choices of the poor. If a pastor is poor while serving as a full time church worker, there’s a problem. (This is true regarding all full time employees, but I’m focusing on pastors here, and specifically Protestant pastors who don’t live in rectories and support families.)

I’m defining “poor” as a situation in which you have to choose between paying your grocery bills and paying your rent/mortgage. You are not poor if you can’t afford every new Apple product or a European vacation every summer.

If pastors* are burdened with their daily bills (as opposed to their daily bread) they cannot focus on the things that help their congregations thrive. Resentments can build. Pastors might treasure their parishioners and they might feel deep spiritual satisfaction from doing professional ministry, and still they need haircuts and new shoes.

If you appreciate your pastor, please let them know. A happy pastor is more likely to have a happy congregation. Again – it’s not about getting rich; it’s about alleviating financial anxiety.

Here are a few things your pastor probably needs to tell you but won’t.

  • A Cost of Living Adjustment is an appreciated gesture that says “we recognize that your expenses are going up because ours are” and “we can’t do much in terms of a raise, but we can do this.” The Social Security administration recommends a COLA of 5.9% for 2022 and that might sound like a lot but somebody out there believes that it’s financially necessary in this economy.
  • Paying pastors the recommended minimum salary for the entirety of their tenure says, “You were never worth more than the least amount of money we had to pay you.
  • Serving a position for years/decades without ever receiving a raise or a bonus or extra weeks of vacation says, “We couldn’t replace you for this salary, so thank goodness you are still around.”
  • Acknowleding your pastor’s birthday, ordiversary (the anniversary of their ordination), or other occasions (examples: earning a doctorate, death of a parent or sibling, serving during an especially difficult season like a pandemic) builds relationships and conveys that you’ve noticed your pastor is a human being.

Church people: please pay attention. I know one pastor who buys gift cards for their church staff and makes it look like those gift cards are from the congregation because they are mortified that the church doesn’t appreciate the staff well. When staff members write Thank You Notes to the elders, the elders never even notice that they have never budgeted for staff gift cards. They never ask “who is paying for these?

This post might sound like a bit of a rant, but it’s actually about relationships. If you appreciate anyone in your life – your pastor, your office manager, your dry cleaner, your dental assistant, your sister – please let them know. In the case of church workers, they almost always work more hours than your realize. I know some clergy who work for about $12/hour when you do the math.

The Presbytery (geographic area of churches) I serve doesn’t require congregations to give their pastors raises or provide even a cost of living adjustment. But it’s the right thing to do – especially if your pastor has done their best during this pandemic. Appreciation is an act of hospitality. And hospitality is a spiritual practice.

Let’s practice in real life what we say we believe. I know that budgets are tight. But they (budgets) also show the world our priorities.

*Although I write about pastors, please insert the words Christian Educator, Youth Director, and other staff roles here. Be kind to your musicians. Lavish love on the ones who clean the building and set up chairs. Baby Jesus smiles at this behavior.

Twinkle Lights

If our dog Spense would tolerate it, he’d be wearing them too.

They are not too glaring, not too faint. And in our house they are everywhere: on a jade plant, on a fig tree, along the entry hall. I’ve only stopped with my bedecking of all things in twinkle lights because we ran out of AAA batteries.

While retail stores play “We Need a Little Christmas” I’m thinking more along the lines of “I need a few more twinkle lights.

For Christians, this is a season when we acknowledge that there is a darkness only God can overcome.

As far as light shows go, I’m a huge fan and that goes for many of us. Festivals of Light abound throughout the world in both spiritual and secular contexts:

  • The Hindu festival of Diwali involves conquering darkness with light.
  • The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah recalls when a single jar of oil lasted eight days so that the Jews could rededicate the temple in Jerusalem.
  • Loi Krathong involves floating a small basket of lights down a river to thank the goddess of water in Thailand and other Southeast Asians countries. This festival is often celebrated along Yee Peng when latterns are released into the skies as believers ask for forgiveness of past sins.
  • Winter Illuminations is a festival in Japan to remember the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
  • Kwanzaa requires the lighting of a single candle each night for a week to lift up seven common principles of African American culture.

Seriously, there are literally hundreds of light shows out there.

We like our light festivals for many reasons and one is that they are pretty and awe-inspiring. And there is religious significance – although sometimes it’s mostly about the beauty.

I need beauty right now.

Yes, Jesus is returning according to the liturgical calendar and we Christians are recalling that The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And there is sorrow and distress and something new to worry about called Omicron. And Stephen Sondheim is dead.

And if you, too, need beauty and you aren’t sure that even God can help, please look for the twinkle lights. They will be subtle, but they are popping up all around us. Yes, they make things appear more magical, and there is also a promise attached that goes far beyond commercialism. The promise is that there is hope even when we don’t see it. Hope is more like a flicker than a blinding torch. It’s easy to miss it when it comes in twinkle form but it’s out there and in here.

May something twinkle with light in your life today.

Seeing Life Through a Lens of Gratitude

When I was a young pastor in my twenties, a young man phoned me the Friday morning after Thanksgiving and he was furious. His whole family had gathered at Grandma’s for Thanksgiving dinner. They had enjoyed a feast together with four generations. And then Grandma took a nap while everyone went home to sleep off their turkey and fixins. And sometime in the late afternoon or evening, Grandma had died in her sleep.

What a great way to go.

She had just relished a fine dinner with her family and she had spent the day with her children, grandchildren, and great-children. And then she died without pain in her own bed.

Again – her grandson was furious. How could God take his grandmother on Thanksgiving weekend and ruin that holiday forever?

There are different ways of looking at life and it’s beyond looking at half-empty or half-full drinking glasses. There is often something deeply valuable in times of loss and discouragement. The grandmother who dies on Thanksgiving Day. The disappointing college admissions letter. The difficult diagnosis.

One of the gifts of aging is looking back to see the blessings that arose after loss. I’m not saying that God gives us loss to teach us lessons. I’m saying that God uses everything, including loss to bless us in some way.

The Japanese art of kintsugi involves repairing broken things with gold or silver so that the veins/cracked places shine. It reminds us that scars are evidence of healing. Scars are beautiful in that they remind us that the bleeding stopped, that the wound healed. Scars remind us to be thankful.

In the coming weeks as we celebrate holidays and gatherings and disappointments and losses, it’s a spiritual practice to see life through a lens of gratitude. May it be so.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving and First Sunday in Advent.

Image of a kintsugi bowl.

“We Learned Some Very Sad Things at School Today”

This is a post about how we teach our children about difficult things.

I know someone who was very upset to learn that her first grader’s class was participating in the DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Program.) Her other children had participated in DARE as older students, but now it was being taught to six year olds. But just as she was ready to slam the school system for introducing the subject of marijuana to her first grader, she learned that he had a classmate who volunteered in class that, “In my family, we call it weed.” Clearly, at least one family was already dealing with drug use.

[Note: The DARE program is not without its problems. Some studies have shown that it is not only ineffective; some students who have participated in that program had a higher incidence of drug abuse as young adults.]

One of the classic decisions parents must make is: when do we share difficult things with our children? Do we fling open the doors and encourage questions early? Or do we shield our children from life’s heaviness so that they can “be children” for as long as possible?

When do we talk with our children about adoption (especially if the children are adopted)?

When do we talk with our children about sex and birth control?

When do we talk with our children about our nation’s history of slavery and creating different laws for people depending on the color of their skin?

I was struck by the tweet posted above regarding a 10 year old’s comment that “we learned some very sad things in school today.” Does learning about how the pilgrims treated Native Americans make white children hate themselves? Does it make students less patriotic? I don’t think so.

Every generation carries the baggage of the generations before us whose actions – in the words of the apostle Paul – have fallen short of the glory of God. At any given time, there has been a dominant culture who treated others unfairly. Depending on the generation, those treated unfairly have been Native American or female or African or elderly or disabled or queer or Mexican or Haitian or Muslim or rural or children. There are stories of mistreatment and abuse and cruelty and injustice.

When do we teach our children those stories? The truth is that many grown adults don’t even know those stories. How many of us are just learning – in adulthood – about the Tulsa Massacre or the Trail of Tears or the World War II Interment Camps? How many of us know about smallpox blankets and the Tuskegee¬†Study of Untreated¬†Syphilis?

Let’s not complain about Critical Race Theory being taught to our schoolchildren – which it isn’t – when we haven’t even discussed when schoolchildren should learn about basic United States history like the Underground Railroad or Juneteenth or Emmett Till.

A church member once said to me that we (the Church) needed to get back to Genesis Family Values and I asked him if he’d ever read the book of Genesis.

I like the idea of teaching difficult stories to children – in loving, thoughtful ways – as sharing sad stories with them. Sometimes life is sad and human beings make mistakes that hurt people. And this is when we also tell children that God loves us so much and God wants us to love each other in the same way.

As we remember the first Thanksgiving in this country and all the Thanksgivings since, let’s be brave enough to tell the truth and faithful enough to repent.

Cozy Bible

Weekend Edition Sunday reported the story of a new genre of crime literature last Sunday: Cozy Mysteries. Think Murder She Wrote for a new generation. It got me thinking that I need Cozy Bible these days.

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Come to me, all who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Sometimes we need to wrap ourselves in these words of comfort. Sometimes we need cozy Bible.

Dr. Phyllis Trible famously wrote a book about the least cozy verses in Scripture and I know all those. Jesus said some discomfitting words that push me to address things I wish I didn’t have to address. Just as the Biblical world was a disturbing and cruel place, our world today is terribly disturbing and cruel.

And yet there is hope and beauty and comfort.

Just as true crime – and the books and movies that portray it – can be bloodstained and gruesome, it’s good to know that there are mysteries available today that involve cake and home decorating for those who need cozy. Sometimes we all need cozy.

(But then we need to study the uncomfortable bits too.)

Image from a scripture quilt you can purchase on Etsy here.

Re-Learning Social Skills after COVID

FBC is a teacher who’s shared that – in addition to the challenges of teaching students both in person and virtually during a pandemic – it’s obvious that many students have forgotten how to act in social situations. He has a student, for example, who was last in class with friends in the 7th grade and now that student is in high school. The student forgot that picking your nose and then eating the findings from said nose in a public place is not okay. (Not okay anywhere if you ask me.)

I’m hearing similar comments from church people – not necessarily involving nose-picking though. It’s as if we’ve been isolated for so long that – at least on Sunday mornings – we’ve forgotten how to interact with our siblings in Christ.

Here are some obvious things that may not seem obvious anymore:

  • The mask goes over both your nose and your chin. Be a good neighbor and wear one even if you’ve been vaxxed unless you are outside. A friend passed away last week (after being vaccinated) from complications from COVID because she was living with invisible issues that made her vulnerable. Please note that wearing a mask is one way to love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Don’t make comments about one’s post-COVID appearance like “Are you pregnant or just carrying around some extra COVID weight?” “You hair got so gray during the pandemic.”
  • Continue to smile and say please and thank you, even if you are wearing a mask.
  • Notice people. Do they need a door held open? Help with packages? Yes, we are weary/busy/cranky from 19 months of COVID, but we can still be pleasant/observant/kind.
  • Send gift cards. Maybe we don’t feel comfortable sending a casserole or muffins to new parents or recovering friends, but we can still help them with meals via Uber Eats or DoorDash.

I’m struck – more often than I wish – by people both in and outside the Church who tell me how nasty church people can be. Some don’t want to move into leadership positions becase they are afraid of what they’ll see and hear. A person said to me just yesterday that church is where she learned to gossip. Another told me last week that she had to leave her church when see saw the level of contempt some members had towards each other.

Jesus wept.

Authentic community only happens when we treat each other the same way we would treat Jesus. No fake flattery. No comments about how friendly we are, when we are actually only friendly to our friends. No ugly comments shared with smiles on our faces wearing really good lipstick.

How can we be a healthy Post-Pandemic Church? We can begin by treating each other like God’s valuable children.

Be especially kind to veterans today.

Image of Queen Elizabeth who is nothing if not socially skilled.

Sometimes We Get It Wrong

I was visiting a church in the country recently and was told the story of their beginnings. Less than 200 people lived in the village but a new rural highway was coming through town and it was decided to build a church along that highway because – surely – travelers driving between Florida and Maryland would stop, if they happened to be driving through at 11 am on a Sunday morning, and join them for worship. Never mind that there was another church of the same denomination less than five miles away. Never mind that most people don’t stop for Sunday worship if they are traveling up and down the East Coast. Even a hundred years ago, few people had that kind of piety.

The church never thrived as they imagined. The highways travelers didn’t stop for anything but gasoline.

I know another church – actually several – who believed in the mid to late 20th Century, that if they only installed a fine pipe organ, people would come for Sunday worship, for weekday concerts, for holiday sing alongs. The organs were installed but it didn’t make much difference to anyone but the current members. And even some of the members weren’t happy to spend so much money on a pipe organ.

No.

Sometimes we get it wrong. We have a vision. We think it will “grow the church.” Sometimes our visions are wholly about glorifying God and sometimes they are actually about glorifying ourselves.

Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and never has this been truer. Discernment involves noticing the culture around us and whatever Post-Pandemic Culture will look like, we need to pay attention. Do people stop on highways to attend worship if they happen to be driving by a church building on Sunday mornings? Do most people listen to organ music on the radio? What will truly transform people in the name of Jesus Christ?

This is the question we need to ask God as we pray for guidance moving forward.

Image of a fountain in a church courtyard. This wasn’t their best idea.

That Time A Bald Eagle Almost Hit My Car

Yesterday was one of those almost perfect days.

I was driving to Candor Presbyterian Church in Candor, NC for their 100th Anniversary driving through four counties through spectacularly colored leaves when what looked like a pterodactyl swooped down from the trees on my right immediately in front of my car and then ascended up to the trees to my left. It was one of those moments of grace that had me praising God for the rest of the trip. I’d never seen such a gleaming white tail and head on a bald eagle. It’s wing span must have been something like 7 feet long and 5 feet wide. It was exhiliarating.

And then I got to worship with a congregation of 8 members joined by an additional 40 souls who sang and told stories and shared photographs and prayed and listened to a fine sermon together. And then we ate and talked some more and I was privileged to spend a little time with the two oldest members – both about to celebrate birthdays in December. A 95 year old matriarch and a 93 year old matriach. What an enormous privilege.

And then I got to make the same drive back to Charlotte without a bald eagle sighting but with the knowledge that I have the best job on earth and I was on my way to another church to celebrate the ordination of a new young pastor who came to us in a grace-drenched way that I won’t go into here. But clearly God is good and there are extraordinary moments of grace with every new day.

As I sped toward Charlotte after my visit to Candor, I saw a truck with a flag attached to the truck bed and it was hard to make out what the flag said. I assumed it was celebrating a sports team or a political candidate. But once we slowed down coming into Charlotte, I saw that the flag this this: “Kill ’em all. God will sort it out.”

Like I said, it was almost a perfect day.

There are people everywhere like that truck driver who don’t get it. God creates beauty like bald eagles and maple trees and nonagenarians and butter cream frosting and ordinations of excellent new leaders and time on the front lawn with colleagues and friends and lemonade and more cake.

Yes, the world is a hot mess. Yes, there is ugliness and life is not fair. And God continues to create and call and gather and take our breath away. I experienced near perfection yesterday. The love of God overcomes the hate of the world every day.

And I even got to see a bald eagle.

Image from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (No, I didn’t take it while driving.)

In Life and In Death

I once thought “Till death do you part” meant separation when a partner dies. I realize now some commitments last until we’re both in the grave. There are parts of you that I strive to carry on. Or perhaps, they carry me. Daniel Jonce Evans to Rachel Held Evans in the introduction to Wholehearted Faith

I think and talk about death more than the average person, to the point that when our children were little, someone asked them if their mother was a funeral director. My own funeral bulletin has been written for many years and I update it on January 1st annually.

I really hope to see my parents again on the other side, along with Cindy and Margaret and little Katie and now Molly. I don’t believe that Revelation 21:16 is about the physical dimensions of heaven as much as it’s about a vision that reminds us that our future rests in God’s hands. If there are twelve gates, that’s lovely. But my faith doesn’t rest on how many gates there will or will not be.

My mother-in-law who became a widow over the past year has said that she feels very close to her husband in spite of his death last December. She feels him near. I was thinking about this in light of what Dan Evans wrote in the introduction of his wife’s last book. She started this book before her shocking death in 2019 and her friend Jeff Chu has finished it.

I agree with her husband that we continue to be carried by those who have left this life, and we will be connected until we join them on the other side – whatever that even means.

I find joy in seeing my grandparents’ dining room furniture in my sister’s house. I love Chummy in Call the Midwife because she reminds me so much of Cindy. I am still connected with Margaret through her children and the grandchildren she never got to meet. I still contact Katie’s mom on Katie’s birthday. She would be 27 now.

It’s a blessing to feel connected with people we love in spite of death.

My parents are still dead, and I still miss them and there are other children who lost a parent this week and that will never be okay. In life and in death, we belong to God and those words mysteriously fill me with peace. What is also true is that we belong to each other even in death. There are parts we strive to carry on. Or they carry us.

This post is dedicated to Molly Lowry and her family.