During my tenure as a pastor in Northern Virginia, I remember seeing photos of a church event in the 1950s in which 25 men dressed in drag for a “fashion show.” It was held in the Fellowship Hall and a note by one of the old photos says, “Oh well – – it’s been fun and we ourselves have got some good laughs. And got to know each other better. We’ll just cross our fingers and hope the audience gets a laugh out of our theatrical attempts.”
In the 1950s, this was considered good clean fun, albeit just a little bit sexist. Men dressing as women is different from white people dressing as black people or anyone dressing as Nazis. I get that.
What I honestly don’t understand is why so many people consider dressing in drag is so threatening today.
There’s legislation in Arkansas about banning drag events on public property or “within 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) of churches, schools, parks and libraries.”
The Governor of Missouri expressed concern that middle school students in Columbia “were subjected to adult performers during what is historically a MLK day celebration… Parents weren’t clearly informed of the contents of the program, and adult performances are not diversity.”
Clearly drag events – including bingo nights and story times – are considered “adult performances” that confuse children and teens. Just as clearly though, in my mind, is that the Super Bowl is coming up and these same leaders have no problem with cheerleaderseven though their performances might also confuse children and teens into thinking that women’s bodies are for entertainment.
Can someone explain why professional cheerleaders are wholesome and drag queens are not?
To the Pastor: “We need for you to take a class on preaching/worship leadership/administration.” (Ouch for Pastors who already consider themselves to be good preachers, worship leaders, and administrators.)
To the Music Director: “We invite you to spend time attending a conference to hone your skills and get some fresh ideas.” (Ouch for Music Directors who believe themselves to be in no need of improvement.)
To the longtime volunteer Confirmation Teacher: “We thank you for serving in this role for so long, but we would like to give someone new the opportunity to teach Confirmation.” (Ouch! I thought the kids loved me – especially that part of Confirmation when we talk about church history!”)
To the longtime Chairperson of the Annual Fried Chicken Fundraiser: “The elders have decided that the Annual Fried Chicken Fundraiser needs to take a break. We have had a hard time getting volunteers to cover it and we’ve actually lost money on it for several years.” (Ouch for the Fried Chicken Fundraiser Chairperson. “But this is my thing! I’m going to leave the Church if I can’t be in charge of the Fried Chicken Fundraiser.“)
Note: Each of us have a long list of harmful things we have been told about ourselves or our activities which are not true. I’m not talking about power plays or mean criticisms or cattiness here. I’m talking about those hard truths we need to hear for the sake of clarity and healthy relationships and our ability to expand the Reign of God.
It’s not only uncomfortable to say hard things like:”It’s time for a change in the way you do things.”
It’s also uncomfortable to hear hard things. One of the best things we can do as leaders – in any context – is be open to receiving uncomfortable feedback.
What often happens is:
Deafness: As if nothing was said at all. Example: Pastors to whom (conflict-averse) leaders attempt to say, “You really need to take a preaching refresher” but no refresher course is considered much less scheduled.
Defensiveness: The one receiving hard truths reacts with hostility and anxiety, and probably offers a threat: “Fine. If I can’t lead the youth group, I’ll just leave.”
Congregational war-mongering: The offended one lines up their supporters and it’s war. Gossip, ugliness, and basic unChrist-like behaviors ensue. “It would be better to destroy the Church if I can’t have my way.”
Obviously this is about trust. If we trust our parishoners, our leaders, our colleagues, our siblings in Christ, we can both say and hear hard things. What’s also true is that for millennia, church people have been saying hurtful and untrue things.
If we are told something uncomfortable, consider:
Is the person sharing the difficult thing as a lone ranger making a personal swipe? (I once had a Personnel Committee member tell me it was “time to go” where I was pastor. He had gone rogue and the Personnel Committee had not asked him to have this conversation with me.) One might say he simply didn’t want a female pastor.
Ask the person who is sharing the difficult truth, “Are you sharing this on behalf of the whole church?” (If so, they should have brought at least one other person with the authority to have this conversation with you.)
Ask trusted others if this resonates with them too. Trusted colleagues will indeed be able to speak to hard feedback.
A common Call to Confession in my faith tradition is: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (Thank you John the Evangelist.) Part of our own spiritual growth – if we believe we were created to serve rather than to be served – is to let hard truths sink in. We cannot grow if we don’t embrace the truth that we can and need to do better.
Do I need to listen more and talk less? (Ouch. Yes. It’s true.)
Note: I’m on study leave this week and this is my last post for January. Thanks be to God.
It’s come to my attention that Church People find it difficult to say hard things that need to be said. We confuse being nice with being lovingly faithful. Too many church leaders are conflict-avoidant because we forget that speaking the truth in love is a thing.
A church elder leaves worship in a huff, red-faced and slamming doors on their way out. No one (from the Pastor to another elder) contacts this church elder to find out what’s going on. No one thinks to/has the courage to invite this elder to talk.
At the last staff meeting someone snapped, “You always make things about you!” to another staff member. Ouch. And that comment was never addressed in a way that promoted a “we-don’t-talk-like-that-to-each-other culture” way.
A lavishly pierced person came to worship last Sunday and nobody talked with that person. But one of the ushers who was busy ushering noticed. In a healthy church, that usher would point out to the leadership that the pierced visitor was not welcomed. Can we have an honest conversation about people who make us uncomfortable and try to change the way we welcome them?
The pastor has figured out that a married church leader is inappropriately in relationship with another married church member. So awkward because both couples are friendly with each other and have children who are friends. The pastor hestitates to have a confidential conversation with the church leader because it could result in that leader needing to step down. But she’s such a good worker!
Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.
Effective leaders – especially faith leaders – must be equipped and willing to address conflict. There is no healing without it and to fail to address conflict only leads to more layers of dysfunction and pain.
Are seminaries teaching students how to mediate conflict these days? It’s not something I was taught except by experience and yet I’ve noticed that – with zero exceptions – leaders who know how to address uncomfortable matters with the spirit of Christ are the people serving thriving congregations.
Some churches are run by bullies. Sometimes the bullies are the pastors. Sometimes the bullies are the longterm members. Freeing a congregation of bullies makes it possible to become the Church we are called to be.
Our former NC Senator Jesse Helms hailed from Monroe, NC. which is a lovely town in our Presbytery. It’s the county seat of Union County, known for Klan rallies back in the mid-20th Century. And today, there’s a restaurant in town that offers Drag Bingo.
This is not to say that Monroe has gone Full Wokeness. In fact, a colleague was sharing that many Good Christians are not happy with East Frank Superette & Kitchen. (I ate there recently and had one of the best sandwiches of my life, for the record.)
All the usual accusations about establishment with any drag activity have been expressed by disapproving locals: they are grooming children, etc. There have even been protests outside the restaurant during Drag Bingo Night. And how did this restaurant respond?
They served free food and drinks to the protesters. They offered authentic hospitality to those trying to run them out of town.
First of all, if our churches are not doing something controversial, maybe we aren’t following Jesus very closely. Jesus, we will recall, offended all kinds of religious leaders, power brokers, and rule followers. Jesus wasn’t crucified for chucking little children under his chin. He was crucified for offending Herod and the religious hierarchy.
We sometimes miss the point in Church World. We sometimes forget what Jesus said. We sometimes follow societal norms to the detriment of the Gospel. We can do better loving those with whom we disagree.
Thank you East Frank Superette and Kitchen And – friends – do yourselves a favor and try them out if you are in NC. And let’s be a more hospitable church.
Our FBC works for a Northern Virginia school system and one of his recent assignments was to film a practice session for The Capitals, the NHL team in Washington, DC. Capitals Captain Alex Ovechkin recently broke Gordie Howe’s all-time record to score his 802nd goal.
This article tells of the exciting day when 802 fourth and fifth graders from Arlington, VA public schools were invited to attend the Capitals’ practice. Each class got to have their photos taken with Ovechkin. Each student received a t-shirt. Every child had learned how to spell “Ovechkin” making signs to wave during the practice.
What the article doesn’t report is that all the school bus drivers also got to pose for photos with Ovechkin and each received a gift card from The Capitals to enjoy a lunch out. The Capitals didn’t have to do this, but it was a simple gesture to build community and show appreciation.
We in the Church say that we want to be relational. We want to reach out into the community. We want to connect with neighbors. The Capitals, who practice in Arlington, VA, show us how to do this.
Every congregation has neighbors like the volunteer fire department or the local sheriff’s department or the postal workers or the sanitation workers or the school teachers and staff. When was the last time our congregations contacted them to ask if there was anything they needed? (And then we provided it.) Have we ever hosted a “thank you” event for them? Or have we given small gift cards to all the employees in their building?
Why do we do this? I can tell you why we don’t do this:
We don’t do these things so that our neighbors will join our churches. It’s never about that.
This is not a transactional activity. Maybe (like the gift cards for the bus drivers) we don’t even share publicly that we’ve offered this kindness.
Community is created when we show appreciation, when we honor the overlooked, when we consider those who make our lives better/easier/safer.
You would never have known about the gifts cards to bus drivers if I hadn’t shared this via FBC. It wasn’t done for the sake of public relations. It was done for the sake of building community. So simple.
I wish I could share the personal stories shared with me over the last months since the Dobbs decision on June 24, 2022. They are stories of procedures involving non-viable pregnancies and abortion-like procedures involving human tissue that is not technically fetal material. What’s true is that if a pregnancy is not viable or if a procedure needs to be done involving other non-viable tissue, a woman can indeed have a legal procedure that removes those tissues. What’s also true is that – depending on the state – the courts would have to be involved before the procedure is cleared and some doctors won’t even try to get clearance.
But I can’t tell those stories. They are not my stories.
Here is a story that I can share because a writer named Nicole Walker already shared it. If you read it and think, “It’s extremely rare for this kind of thing to happen – a preteen assault victim who finds herself pregnant,” for example – please know that I have known dozens of women who have disclosed similar experiences to me as their pastor. I’ve been contacted by mothers and grandmothers who have asked for help for their daughters and granddaughters.
On this 50th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I mourn the loss of choices for women like Nicole Walker for whom “abortion at 11 wasn’t a choice; it was her life.“
We still live in a world that doesn’t value women as independent, beloved, precious children of God. God has given us agency but some seek to take that agency from us. And yes, we humans sometimes (often?) make poor decisions. And also God is gracious and God loves even the shamed and blamed among us.
What does it mean to be Pro-Life today? We need to read scripture through that lens. And we need to pray for divine guidance. And we need to remember that everyone reading this loves someone who has had an abortion. And we need to remember that loving the unborn more than the born is not okay.
Fun fact: no one technically dies of old age. Yes, older parts wear out. But there is always a medical cause of death: lung failure, complications from skin cancer, COVID, traumatic brain injury, bubonic plague, flesh-eating maladies.
It was reported that both Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II died of old age, probably because it’s considered unseemly to say that they died from renal failure or COPD. The royal industrial complex doesn’t want us considering those royal kidneys or lungs. Same with Pope Benedict. He passed ostensibly because he was 95, not because diabetes or heart disease or complications from childhood tuberculosis.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I think about death a lot. The disadvantage of believing I wouldn’t live past 60 is that I never imagined that retirement planning would be necessary. The advantage of realizing that I have and will continue to live past 60 is that I have adventures to plan. And I love adventures.
Within the last few months, I was talking with someone I don’t know and she said, ‘There used to be a Presbyterian Pastor named Jan who wrote a blog. Something about artists.” Have you ever read it?
I said, “I think it’s me. And I still write it.”
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I thought she was dead.“
Not dead yet. But this is a glimpse into what my future holds. I’ll be less active and less “out there.” People will think I’m dead before I actually pass away. God-willing we will all grow older with lots of adventures.
Like Sister André, I am a female, white, religous, chocolate-eating, wine-drinking, still-working, not isolated human. And by providence, I don’t yet have cancer or a flesh-eating disease. But I would appreciate not living until I’m 118.
Nevertheless I am grateful every day that I’m still alive. I’m grateful that you’re alive.
(Note: There have been times when I couldn’t say I was grateful to be alive. If you are uncertain about the value of your life, please contact me or someone on your team.)
I have almost a hundred first and second cousins, including the “once-removed” kind, and I can be obnoxious about it in that I act that it’s some kind of achievement. I did absolutely nothing to be born into this family. I’m here because of a cosmic lottery.
I feel proud, comforted, and loved in this family. Moving back to NC in 2018 brought me closer to where my parents grew up and subsequently, I run into cousins on the street sometimes and almost every where I go, someone asks, “Are you related to _____ Edmiston?” Yes, I am.
Last Friday, I visited with a couple of my nonagenarian cousins. One of them shared that she has become close to her husband’s niece who is now raising her own grandchildren after a series of tragic circumstances. Addiction, incarceration, and early deaths have required her to raise two children as an octogenarian herself.
When the children’s mother died, the octogenarian grandmother asked my nonegarian cousin (her aunt) if they might be able to have a memorial service in her livingroom, and she agreed. They wanted something small. And so Patricia (not her real name) hosted a funeral and in the course of serving refreshments afterwards, she got to know the two children. Wherever they live with their grandmother, there is no place to ride their bikes, so P invited them to bring them to her house on Saturdays and bike around her cul-de-sac. P also learned about other small things the children needed – apart from material things: a place to take a break from their grandmother’s house, etc. And she’s stepped in to offer support. “I want them to know they have a family.”
This is the fundamental task of the people of God: to remind people that they have a family. We need people who make us feel proud and comforted and loved. Sometimes we are related by blood. Sometimes we are related by marriage. Sometimes we are related by choice. Sometimes we are related by sheer providence.
I recently reread Donna Hicks’ books – Dignity – and she lifts up the notion that “honoring people’s dignity is the easiest and fastest way to bring out the best in them.” This is an essential learning for bosses, teachers, colleagues, parents, and – of course – pastors.
Everyone needs to know that they have a family. Part of our calling is being that family when we can do it.
About the image: It’s a copyright free photo of somebody else’s family, but we looked like that – all white, lots of kids, gathering regularly for the family reunion. Today, our reunion photos include cousins who are black and brown along with the white ones, thanks be to God.
One of the joys of my life is sitting with people as they try to figure out what God is telling them. Seminarians wonder about their Call to Ministry and what they’ll do after theological school. Church officers wonder if God is telling their church to “go big or go home.” Pastors wonder if God is calling them away from a particular congregation and – if so – where are they supposed to go next?
Coming off the journey of the Magi who followed a star, we are most likely not going to get a star to indicate our path. But there are other ways that God leads us.
I shared before about the excellent This American Life episode called Baby’s First Christmas and in one of the segments, Allen – who was training to be a shopping center Santa – mentioned someone he knew named Pastor Don. While in graduate school for a counseling degree, Pastor Don’s professor asked:
“How many of you have people who are already coming to you for counseling?”
Don and a few other students raised their hands. Then the professor said, “I’m going to be honest with you. If people aren’t already coming to you, getting a degree from here probably won’t change that. You’re either the kind of person people want to confide in, or you’re not.”
I believe this to be true. Effective pastors often attract people and their spiritual questions long before they start seminary. It’s just something they were born with.
This is not to say that – if nobody ever asked you about the meaning of life prior to seminary – you aren’t called to professional ministry. But I will share that through these years of ministry myself, I’ve heard time and again about pastors who should have been professors, or pastors with weak emotional intelligence, or pastors with no people skills. Is God calling you to be a professional minister? Listen for clues from what trusted people have observed about your gifts.
Some of us land in an occupation because that’s what our parents did and it takes enormous courage to step away from that family business. What if God calls you to be a librarian in a family of chefs? What if you are called to be a dentist in a family of farmers? (Whether we like it or not, we’ve all witnessed what happens when the family business involves royalty but all you want to do is move to Montecito.)
Fortunately, most of us are privileged with many choices even when we aren’t Royal. And some choose seminary.
Actually fewer people are choosing seminary or theological training these days for a number of reasons from “I’ll never make enough of an income to pay back my student loans” to “The institutional Church is in decline to the point that there will be no churches sooner than later.”
Yes, the Church is changing (thanks be to God.)
And also there will still be roles for professional church leaders in the future.
All these choices involve spiritual discernment. What do you find yourself already being called upon to do? What sparks special interest in your soul? What feels like a true fit? What nudges are gnawing at you?
I was told – along with my classmates in our Introduction to the Old Testament class – to drop out and choose another vocation if there was anything in the world – other than professional ministry – that we could possibly do. I couldn’t think of anything.
I was an unofficial pastor before I was an official pastor. Seminary and subsequent experience helped me hone my skills and fill my toolbox. This doesn’t mean that I’m holier or smarter or dumber than those called into politics or medicine or mechanics or bartending. It just means that – for now – God has called me to this and I’m grateful. I never want to be doing anything God is not calling me to do.
What is God calling you to do and be? Listen and watch for signs. Even if you don’t seem to be the typical _____, it doesn’t mean it’s not your calling. I had never see or met a clergywoman until my first day of seminary and I ended up here. And yet here I am almost 40 years later.
Where is God calling you? And where are you clearly not called to be?
In physics, The God Particle refers to the Higgs Boson which was discovered in 2012 after scientists had been searching for it for 40 years. The Higgs Boson is – in the words of this English major – the subatomic particle giving mass to all other particles. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but I’d like to focus on the God part.
Driving home yesterday, I was listening to the NPR radio show “On the Media” about the fragility of the world as we begin 2023. Climate change, in particular, continues to threaten the planet. Fires. Hurricanes. Hunger. Famine. Flooding. As Brooke Gladstone reported, we’ve become accustomed to “doom and gloom.”
Friends – perhaps we are also living in the thick of our own personal doom and gloom. The levels of trauma, addiction, injustice, inequity, mental illness, and random catastrophies are overwhelming. And yet, there is at least a particle of God – the One who “gives mass” to all other things – in the midst of even the most overwhelming.
Scientifically speaking, the God Particle gives energy to weaker particles. Theologically speaking the God Particle gives energy to weaker particles.
The fact that it took 40 years for scientists to figure this out is just fun. (According to the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures: It rained for 40 days while Noah was floating in his ark. The Israelites wandered for 40 years on their way to Canaan. Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days. There are 40 days between the resurrection of Jesus and the ascension of Jesus.)
I witnessed a miracle yesterday that speaks to this truth about God and life. I love someone who was in the depths of misery years ago to the point that his bones and blood and soul were all weak with pain. His choices had been dangerous. His vision was cloudy. His perspective was cloudier. Those of us who loved him felt crushed. And yet there was a particle of hope in the midst of the agony. And a lot of people prayed.
Here’s what happened: that particle of hope activated the particles of hopelessness to the point that a massive, life-giving spark occurred. It wasn’t immediate, but it also didn’t take 40 years.
Yesterday this person I love was ordained to church office. His faith is strong. His life is good.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
At the closing of the “On the Media” segment on Fragility (and aren’t we all fragile?) Brooke Gladstone says this:
“Okay, so we don’t have much agency when it comes to the thermal death of the universe. I wish there were a pill (that helped us be less afraid.) All we have is a little free will: making the decision not to despair.”
My friends, please believe me when I tell you that even in the worst moments of life, even when God seems far away or non-existent, there is still a particle of God in the middle of everything. Do not despair. Do not be afraid.