Category Archives: Uncategorized

Off to the Desert

Photo courtesy of The Presbyterian Foundation

I’m with colleagues at Ghost Ranch this week. Peace be with you.

Disinformation Destroys Church Too

Hey, remember that time – at a PCUSA General Assembly – when they let a Muslim officiate during Communion? Remember when $10,000 of church funds was given to the Angela Davis Defense Fund in 1970? Oh, and that time that Presbyterians forced all congregations to support same sex weddings?

This illustrates Disinformation shared by a troublemaker. Photo from the Presbyterian Historical Foundation

Not one of these things is true any more than Sarah Palin ever said that she could see Russia from her house or that the current resident of The White House is an actor since Joe Biden supposedly died in the 1990s.

There’s misinformation and there’s disinformation. Misinformation is untrue but it is shared mistakenly and not for devious purposes. Disinformation is untrue and is created to cause mayhem and disharmony.

One of my favorite Tweets from last week is this one:

This illustrates misinformation as shared by a Baptist preschool.

Every Day’s a School Day as my friend AAM says. If we hear something that sounds off, we have a duty as citizens and followers of Jesus to check it out. Sodom and Gomorrah is not about gay sex. Mary Magdalene was not married to Jesus. And your pastor doesn’t work one day a week, even if they don’t keep regular office hours.

Again, if you hear something strange/disturbing/scandalous, you can do either of these two things:

  • Research it. (This is the faithful, curious response.)
  • Spread it. (This is the divisive, unholy response.)

And in the interest of learning new things, I’m headed to Ghost Ranch this week with other PCUSA Mid-Council Leaders. There might be new posts or maybe not.

May every day be a school day for each of us.

There Are No Republican Fire Stations or Democratic ERs

From Eboo Patel’s excellent book We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy:

Here is what diversity lookes like in the city of Mostar, located in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you work for the Croat Catholic fire department, you don’t reponnd to the burning buildings of Bosnian Muslims, even if you happen to be closer. And if you work for the Bosnian Muslim fire department, you let the flames engul croat Catholic homes. They have their own fire department.

We don’t do it that way in the United States of America. When Florida (a politically red state) experiences destruction from Hurricane Ian, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – of course – vote to send relief to Florida. When the horrific shooting occured at Sandy Hook in Connecticut in 2012 (a politically blue state) Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – of course – voted to send emergency relief to Connecticut.

Rescuers evacuate residents from the Avante at Orlando assisted living facility on S.R. 436 in Orlando, Fla., due to flooding from Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Actually this is not true. It should be true. We do not support our neighbors based on their political proclivities, their religious background, or their ancestry – right?

Actually, in the past week, there have been politicians, tweeters, and cable news commentators expressing their opinions that those who disagree with us – politically – should not receive assistance. They are not “on our side.” They “do not deserve to be saved.” They are “those people.”

This is the opposite of what Jesus teaches. For God so loved the world . . . Not “the Christians” or “the Jews” or “the good people” or “the locals” or “our people.” Jesus died for Nancy Pelosi and Ron DeSantis and Joe Biden and Donald Trump and Ilhan Omar and Tucker Carlson and the MAGA lady in the Orlando retirement community who is trapped in her apartment and the Democratic Socialist on their roof in Pawleys Island. We have got to get over this notion that some people are not deserving of rescue, love, or forgiveness.

Yes, this annoys me too. What if I believe they don’t deserve it? (News Flash: Not one of us deserves the grace we receive in this life.)

Here’s the infuriating thing about The Gospel: the slackers, the greedy, the heinous, and the undeserving are all people Jesus loves. Errr. It’s enough to make us Pharisees.

A blessed World Communion Sunday, my friends.

Six Things Every Pastor Needs

I’m inspired by this post by Rev. Anne Russ in her blog Doubting Believer called “How Not to Lose a Pastor.” (Thanks KM.) Church people: please read it and remember that your pastor is a human being with priorities that lean more towards service, vision, and spiritual maturity than carpet, dress codes, and institutionalized traditions that have little in common with The Gospel.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with six things every pastor needs to excel in parish ministry:

  1. Appreciation for the absurd.
  2. Fearlessness.
  3. A backbone.
  4. A coach.
  5. A spiritual director.
  6. A therapist.

Ministry is funny. Not “let’s-make-fun-of-the-ladies-in-hats” funny, but “I-thought-I’d-write-a-sermon-this-morning-but-instead-spent-time-talking-down-someone-spitting-angry-that-the-bittersweet-bush-has-not-been-trimmed-and-is-blocking-the-stair-rail” funny.

Celastrus bush – also called bittersweet.

Ministry is not for the fainthearted. In many decades of professional ministry, I’ve been yelled at, threatened, and gossiped about. I’ve had sacks of dirty diapers dumped into my driveway and someone intentionally broke all the planters on our patio. And this was from church members. Especially when we are dealing with people’s comfort zones (i.e. what they’ve always done/had/assumed), it can be scary – for them and for us – to challenge those things for the sake of the Gospel.

Ministry requires an appreciation for conflict. There will be conflicts about everything from which tune to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (Converse or Beecher) to whether or not to lease church property to build affordable housing. Conflict is good. Conflict helps us clarify our priorities and understand each other better. If someone is doing something annoying Go. Talk. With. Them. We are all on the same team (i.e. Team Reign of God) and if we do not seem to be on the same team, we need to talk about that.

Ministry requires coaching. So, you used to manage a bank or an office. Congratulations, but it’s not like managing a church staff. Coaches help us discern how to talk with the choir director whose sister is the Clerk of Session. Coaches help us talk through negotiating a sabbatical. Coaches help us navigate church politics.

Ministry requires spiritual direction. When it feels like all we are doing is managing programs and answering emails, a spiritual director reminds us to look for God in the mundane. When we are overwhelmed, a spiritual director reminds us that we are not Jesus.

Ministry requires therapy. Some of us are traumatized. Some of us are bitter. Some of us are hot messes. Some of us believe we are God’s Gift to the Church. These things will wreck our ministry if we don’t address them.

I for one believe that professional ministry is a joy. It’s also ridiculous, scary, and laden with controversy. But mostly it’s a joy.

Grappling With Ideas Makes Jesus Happy

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus in Matthew 22:37

On the way to TBC’s wedding weekend last Thursday, HH and I saw a billboard that we wished we’d photographed. There was a preacher holding a Bible with his name and the name of his church in the corner. And the headline – in quotations – said, “The Bible Answers Every Question.”

HH and I – punchy from being in a car for a couple hours – immediately offered examples of questions not answered in the Bible:

  • What do you want on your pizza?
  • How old is our dog?
  • What’s the best flavor of ice cream?

Again, we were punchy.

I was in a meeting last week that involved grappling with ideas and the majority of people were not happy about it. The ideas included these:

  • Does God want us to talk about hard things (like abortion, racial justice, climate change)?
  • Can we be in Christian community with people who are our political enemies?
  • Does God want people of different races to be the Church together?
  • Do we in Smalltown, USA have the responsibility to love people in Smalltown, Israel?

Over and over again, I hear people say that it hurts the Church to be political – in the pulpit or anywhere in the church building.

Over and over again, I say that the pastoral is political (thanks RGBP) and that Scripture is an equal opportunity offender in terms of politics. Over and over again, I say that we are called to be non-partisan, but church decisions on mission, pastoral care, and budgets are always political:

  • Do we offer an after school program for DACA students whose parents are undocumented? (This is a pastoral decision with political ramifications.)
  • Do we collect money to send to disaster relief to Ukraine? (This is a budget decision with political underpinnings.)
  • Do we put a rainbow flag on our church signage? (This is a hospitality decision with considerable political connections for some churches.)
  • Do we partner with a church with a different majority skin color to do Christmas Eve together? (This is a worship decision with political implications.)

The loudest voices at last week’s meetings said that talking about and making statements about issues like race, human reproduction, investment policies, and unfair systems are unnecessarily divisive. It was clear that not everybody in the meeting was on the same page in terms of “politics” and yet – again – the loudest voices were opposed to grappling with ideas. It could split the church. It will only make people angry.

My friends, we are talking about faith issues here and the least we can do is wrestle with what God is calling us to do and be. If you don’t believe that abortion, climate change, apartheid, gun violence, or LGBTQA+ issues are faith issues, I worry about your commitment to live faithful lives. Yes, people of faith disagree about those issues. But if we close the door on talking about them, we stop growing in spiritual maturity.

Committed believers are not afraid to discuss hard things. Consider that Jesus was unafraid to grapple with hard things during his earthly time: health codes, Sabbath policies, idols, relationships with enemies, money, power, and divorce. Jesus was also killed for his words and actions, and we can expect people to become angered to the point of violence. But people of faith – by definition – should be able to talk and pray together without fear of personal injury.

Does the Bible answer all our questions? Yes and no. We clearly have to grapple with the whole message of Scripture and not cling to a single verse that supports our own established opinion. If you are pro-choice on abortion, don’t clench these verses too tightly. If you are against abortion in all circumstances, don’t think you’ve absorbed the full understanding of Psalm 139. I don’t know that the Bible has answers about thousands of random life questions. I do know that Jesus loves it when we take our faith seriously and that means studying Scripture by looking under, around, before, and after holy verses seeking God’s Truth and not our own.

God gave each of us brains. And Jesus reminds us that loving God with our minds is part of our responsibility.

Three Weddings and No Funeral

We have finished our family wedding season. SBC was married more than once to the same lovely person in April. And TBC celebrated her marriage (which happened previously in a courthouse) last weekend. Now we rest.

As I shared last Saturday night during the toasts, when FBC was born, my mom died two months later of cancer. When SBC was born, my dad died four months later of cancer. When TBC was born, nobody died. All three of these kids saved my life. Or – better said – God saved my life through them . . . and Jesus.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t written a blog post lately and this one is just about the family. And I’ll have more to say eventually. But mostly I’m thinking about how incredibly fortunate and privileged we are.

If you helped us raise our kids – thank you. A Nana and until 2020 a PopPop – plus Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Sibs, Nibs, Teachers, Coaches, Team Parents, Teammates, Pastors, Church Members, Five Different Preaching Groups, The Pearls, Playmates, Classmates, Their Friends’ Parents, Neighbors, That Scary-Looking Lady in the Grocery Store Who Turned Out to Be Beautiful, Roommates, Authors, Movie Makers, Professors, Counselors, Principals, Doctors, Nurses – Especially The One Named Gabriel on Christmas Eve at the University of Chicago Hospital, X-Ray Techs, Scholarship Committees, Bosses, Mr. Pat At Bradlee Shopping Center. And Now Lots Of In-Laws.

They’ll keep on being our kids no matter how long they (or we) live. Our hearts are full.

“Everything is So Great”

Maybe we are forcing ourselves to say this in light of (never ending) pandemics, inflation, and grief, but every single person I’ve talked with in the last 24 hours has told me – with what looks like utter sincerity – that Everything Is Great.

You’re out of the woods, You’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night,
Step into the sun, step into the light.
Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky
Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart, hold onto your hope,
March up to that gate and bid it open.

I’ve heard it from multiple church leaders, three public school teachers, two maintenance people in my building, a restaurant server, and a barista. When those words came out of their mouths, if I was looking at them (i.e. not on the phone) their faces were almost glowing with a can’t-fake-that kind of lilt in their voices.

What’s going on?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana reminds us that hope is not a prediction, optimism, charging into the future, toxic positivity, cause and effect, the opposite of despair, solace or future-proofing. We in the Church would be wise to memorize Appendix 1 of Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved because it is our tendency to say things that gloss over pain and trauma. (“Yes, Mr. R. had a heart attack but I had a heart attack once and it was the best experience of my life.” This was spoken by the preacher at Mr. R.’s funeral.)

Aren’t Christians supposed to be upbeat? Christ is risen! Yay.

It’s easy to ignore the pain of the world for the sake of our own sanity/happiness. And it’s also easy to become overwhelmed with the pain of the world to the point of becoming unable to find joy in anything. How can we be at peace when millions of people are homeless? How can we sleep well at night while refugees are trying to raise children in plastic tents in the desert?

It’s a complicated world and finding joy in life doesn’t mean we aren’t also standing with the vulnerable. (Note: if you are not standing with vulnerable people in any way, especially if all your bills are paid, please consider sharing.)

It’s energizing to move forward with a vision and a purpose. I’m find that many church leaders are ready to leap into new ventures they’ve never done before. I’m hearing teachers say that their students – starving for socialization and learning – are like sponges in the classroom. I see that organizations helping congregations build affordable housing are overwhelmed with requests.

God is using what we’ve been through to bring glimpses of good. We are not totally out of the woods, and flying monkeys might be in our future, but some things are pretty great right now. There are indeed things to celebrate.

Drinking

No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. 1 Timothy 5:23

Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise. Proverbs 20:1

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and all manner of other believers drink alcohol. Of course many choose not to, and some pretend they don’t. But many do. We all know about Jesus turning water into wine.

A couple weeks ago, HH and I went to a Scotch whisky tasting event at one of our favorite restaurants and – seriously – it was as much a cultural event as it was a luncheon with tastes of whisky. I turned to HH at one point and said, “We should lead a clergy trip to the distilleries of Scotland.” #PresbyterianMotherland

I know next to nothing about whisky and had never tasted bourbon until I was elected to an office in the Presbyterian Church USA whose national offices are in Louisville, home of more than ten distilleries. #Kentucky Bourbon

I find these kinds of things (tastings, tours, lectures) about alcohol interesting. One of my favorite books is The History of the World in Six Glasses. And yet, in the back of my head (and not very far back) drinking makes me nervous.

I grew up in a teetotalling nuclear family with a history of alcoholism on every branch of the family tree. I know dozens of clergy who struggle with alcoholism, not to mention devout followers of Christ who self-identify as alcoholics. The majority of congregations seem to have at least one Twelve Step group meeting in their building.

“Problem Drinking” is extremely common.

I saw a tweet recently that said: “In 50 years, drinking will be like smoking is today. We’ll wonder why so many people did it.” And perhaps this comment was made because

  • “Excessive drinking (such as binge drinking) increased by 21% during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Scientists) estimated that a one-year increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic will result in 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure, and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040″ according to this article by Massachusettes General Hospital (December 2021.)
  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.
    1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.
    1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
    50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
    Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.  Source.

Those of us with mental health challenges can comfort ourselves with either healthy or unhealthy practices. Unhealthy: overdrinking, overusing painkillers, overeating, overworking, overspending. Healthy: Forest bathing, Blue minding, praying, deep breathing, healthy eating, exercising.

Sometimes it’s easier to drink.

One of the trends for the Future Church involves creating authentic community. What’s tricky is that – for generations – we in the institutional Church have considered ourselves friendly and hospitable when the truth is that the Church has historically excluded, shamed, banished, and shunned those who make us uncomfortable. Most people – especially those of no particular faith – do not consider Church to be the place to go for Beloved Community. We can shift that – but only if we see people as God’s children rather than potential members.

We are in a unique position to offer friendship in a world where it’s hard to make friends. We are in a unique position to offer new perspectives for comforting and loving ourselves. But because the world often sees us as judgmental and abusive, it’s going to take some shifts in everything we do and are as Church.

We can start by loving ourselves and others as God loves – with more compassion and less judgment. Not as easy as it sounds. Imagine drinking to remember rather than drinking to forget.

A Primer on Student Loan Forgiveness

I’m neither an economist nor an accountant, but I am a pastor with thoughts on loving our neighbors, praying for those who persecute us and taking advantage of vulnerable people. I leave the argument to three people who speak to the issue of student loan forgiveness better than I can:

From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, US Representative from the 14th District of NY. A Tweet from 8-27-22

From Mary Jacob (used with permission), Executive Director of Families Helping Families of Greater New Orleans

My final attempt to help those that don’t understand the student loan game.

Mortgage: At closing, you know exactly what you will pay back. Interest is calculated monthly. Extra payments pay down principal.

My Mortgage was $135k for a 30-year loan in 2004. Refinanced once for lower interest rates and terms. We made a couple of lump sum principal payments and the house was paid off in 2021. That’s 13 years early.

Student Loan: Interest is compounded daily. Extra payments go toward future payments, not to pay down the principal. If you don’t make a monthly payment because you are paid up in advance, your interest is still calculated daily.

I was told if I made my payments on time (I never missed a single payment nor paid late) loan would be paid off in 20 years. I won’t say the college financial aid rep lied to me. What I will say is she probably didn’t understand it herself.

I was also told about the Public Service Forgiveness. Make 10 years of payments and the rest is paid off. Well, when I applied, I was told my loans weren’t eligible.

I borrowed $45,000 in student loans

First 10 years I paid $275/month = $33,000

Next 15 years I paid $550/month = $99,000

1 final lump sum payment = $16,000

Total $148,000

Mortgage $135k paid off in 17 years for a total of $183,000.

Student Loan $45k paid off in 25 years after making a final $16k payment for a total of $148,000.

Yes, you can say everyone should know better, but chances are you wouldn’t have known any better either.

We are told over and over that your way out of poverty is through education. Yet, the poorest, most vulnerable, first-generation college students are just happy to be living their dream and trying their hardest to escape the cycle of poverty.

What the government should do is take every penny people have paid toward interest and apply it to the principal and preferably stop charging interest. This would probably pay off many loans. At the most, the loans should be set up like a mortgage.

Anyone who reads this and doesn’t understand the system is broken doesn’t want to understand.

From Leslie Streeter, Columnist for the Baltimore Banner

Black Americans paid taxes during segregation for pools they weren’t allowed to swim in, fountains they couldn’t drink from and buses they had to ride in the back of. So…miss me with this “Why am I paying for school I didn’t go to?” At least this is about uplift, not hate.

Helping those burdened by ever mounting debt is one way to make life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness possible for those who don’t yet have those “inalienable rights.”

Pastor Royal. (Or Why Do We Call Ourselves Dr?)

In the U.S. Army, three stripes designate a soldier who is a Sergeant (Grade E5.) In the U.S. Navy, it also means Sergeant. You’re a Sergeant in the U.S. Marines if you have three stripes plus two crossed rifles below. Three stripes and a star mean you are a Senior Airman in the U.S. Air Force.

In the academic world, three stripes on an academic robe mean you have a doctorate. It could be a PhD or a EdD or a DSM or (clergy’s personal favorite) a DMin. Law School graduates receive a J.D. but they use the designation of “Esquire” after their names rather than “Dr.” before their names.

I have a DMin from Columbia Theological Seminary in Christian Spirituality and – I confess before you and that excellent faculty – I am fine with never being called Dr. Edmiston. For me, it felt like continuing education with a degree at the end during a time when my children were very young and I needed time twice a year when I could read a book without distractions.

For congregations I’ve served, it meant something different. It meant “our pastor has a doctorate which means we are the kind of church who has a pastor with a doctorate.” They gave me my robe with three stripes and it’s the robe I still wear.

When a (usually male) Christian calls me a girl or wants to argue 1 Timothy 2:12 with me, I confess to feeling joy when I don that doctoral gown. (And if I have the energy, I invite that person to join me for an exegesis session in Greek.)

For those who’ve been chided for not being smart enough because of skin color or heritage, being called Dr. is evidence of serious academic chops. For others of us, it’s simply a feel-good title. (Note: in the church I served while I was working on my DMin, all three of my predecessors were known as “Rev. Dr.” when actually each of them had an honorary doctorate given by a Christian college that appreciated being included in the church budget.)

I wrote in yesterday’s post about a job called Astronomer Royal. That’s the actual job title for Queen Elizabeth’s personal astronomer. And I mentioned that it would be fun for each of us to add “Royal” to our jobs no matter what they are: Dentist Royal. Barber Royal. Meatpacker Royal.

And yet – for clergy – calling ourselves Pastor Royal feels like heresy. According to the Bible, we are a royal priesthood, sure. And also Jesus is the only King of Kings. We who follow Jesus as leaders, as disciples, as servants are called to be humble. Ministry is not about us. And yet I recently heard one seminary graduate tell me – when asked why they wanted to be ordained – say “I want to be called ‘reverend‘ so people will respect me.” Honest. But wrong answer.

I do not begrudge those of us who call ourselves Dr. Whatever. And also, some of the best pastors in my denomination do not have any version of doctoral degree and they don’t need it. I hope that congregations searching for new leadership do not misunderstand what a doctorate means and insist on calling a pastor who has one.

If your pastor has a PhD, it means they are academically inclined. They can speak and/or read multiple languages and they are experts in a field that they find fascinating and maybe we will too.

If your pastor has a DMin, it means they took extra courses to focus on a specific piece of professional ministry (preaching, teaching, administration, etc.) They may or may not be better pastors than those without a DMin. It’s not the DMin that makes a leader effective.

If your pastor has an Honorary Doctorate, it means they participated in a college or university graduation and it’s customary to gift them with a hood and robe. Ben Affleck has one.

Great leadership is not about degrees or honors. It’s about emotional intelligence and humility and curiosity. And if we are in fields that requires some sort of professional education (physician, engineer, cosmetologist, electrician, therapist, teacher, physical trainer, pastor) it’s our responsibility to be lifelong learners.

Have a Happy Labor Day Week.