Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Change of Heart – Thanksgiving Edition

This post is not about trying to change your minds about putting marshmallows on sweet potatoes.  There is nothing in me that wants you to put marshmallows on sweet potatoes, but you be you.

This is about changing our minds regarding economic and cultural systems.  (Sounds boring, I know. But stay with me. I’m getting to Jesus.)

I saw this recently and Snopes confirmed it so it must be true.  (Seriously, it’s probably true.)  

One of the most divisive tool used by politicians, media people, and average citizens these days is the accusation that someone is a socialist.  Or someone is a communist.  Or someone is a (dirty) capitalist.  We accuse our enemies of being (pick a word) and then we castigate them.  And we sure won’t ever vote for them.

I’m not an economist, so I won’t try to explain these systems, but John Green can give you a crash course if you wish.

No economic system is perfect.  We tend to compare the realities of capitalism (that some people amass great wealth while many more people struggle to have sustainable food and housing) with what pure socialism would look like (everybody works together to provide food and housing for each person.) And communism might look good on paper, but not really.

As I reflect on the different economic systems and cultural systems in the world, it’s clear that the issues are about our spiritual systems.  Money is the god of many people and making money no matter who gets hurt is their religion.  

Power can be our god and amassing power can become our religion. 

And – wait for it – saving the world can be a religion too.  (Yay us.)

But the Truth is that what will make the world as it was created to be is not any economic system or form of government.  The world looks more like the Reign of Christ when our hearts are changed.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10

Hearts don’t change without divine intervention.  We can call it whatever we want to call it.  We can credit God with our turnaround or not, but it’s still God.

If we make millions of dollars and forget the poor, then money has become our god.  If we refuse to acknowledge that all people – whether we think they deserve it or not – have the right to have food, housing, health care, and education then  meritocracy is our god. (Please read this.)  If we believe that the government can save us, then maybe America is our god.  (Or Denmark.)

Someone wrote recently that it’s a sin to be a billionaire.  Dolly Parton could be a billionaire, but she gives too much of her money away for things like Covid-19 research and literacy programs.  Economists say that the annual salary someone needs to live comfortably varies widely between states.  If you live in Mississippi, a living wage is $58,321.  If you live in Hawaii it’s $136,437.

If you live where I live – in North Carolina – it takes an annual salary of $64,406 to live comfortably which means you can cover living expenses, discretionary expenses, and savings.  Again, this varies by which town you live in and if you have lots of debt, good luck.

In other words, how much is enough for those of us who make a lot more than our state’s annual requirement for a sustainable life?

These are complicated issues and changing any kind of system is a monumental task that few of us want to take on.  But imagine a world in which individual and corporate hearts are changed to become more like Jesus.  

Yes, I am an optimist.  Yes, I have hope.  And yes, I feel despair sometimes.  And there is indeed “a right spirit” that God can stir in us.  

May our hearts be changed this Thanksgiving in these simple ways:

  • We realize that what we want and what we need are two different things, and gradually we don’t want so much.
  • We change the way we see money.  (Financial literacy is a spiritual discipline assuming we use money as a tool rather than a god.)
  • We stop demonizing AOC or Lindsey Graham or whomever it is who gets on our last nerve. (Seriously, stop it.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

The 6 Word Difference

Part-time

Full-time

Job Sharing

Flexible Working

These six words make a huge difference.

If you are curious about what post-pandemic work life might look like, check out the Fortune magazine article* about the U.K. branch of an insurance company called Zurich which found that adding six words to their job advertisements resulted in this:

“women made up a larger share of applicants for top jobs, and, ultimately, the 28 senior women it hired represented 50% of all senior hires, up from women’s 37.5% share the previous year.”

*You can read the Fortune article here but you’ll hit a paywall unless you subscribe.

The work of pastors has always been flexible in that we can take time away  to attend a child’s soccer game at 4:00 pm on a random Tuesday knowing that we have a meeting at 7:00 pm.  In fact it’s essential that pastors and other church leaders take time throughout each day to walk around the block, run an errand or go to a kid’s soccer match if your work hours exceed 50 each week.  It’s a matter of sanity as well as general well-being.

One of the Big Shifts in 21st Century ministry has been the end of “office hours” for clergy.  No longer can parishioners expect to drop in to a pastor’s office for an unscheduled conversation about last week’s sermon or an idea for the mission committee.  Pastors cannot spend most of their time both sitting behind a desk and being out in the community.  It’s not possible.

And a 21st Century Pastor needs to be in the community.

I would rather have a pastor (during non-COVID days) writing a sermon in a coffee shop and meeting with the Police Chief to discuss partnering together to address what breaks God’s heart in that neighborhood than a pastor who holds office hours from 9 to 2 each day working on emails and waiting for someone to drop in, and then heading to the hospital for visitation.

The eternal issue regarding clergy people and our schedules is that there is absolutely no one – No. One. – who knows exactly what we do everyday.  And they can’t.  On any given day, people don’t see us talking on the phone with Parishioner A about the scary mass recently discovered behind their left eye or stopping by to visit the regular church visitor whose husband recently died.  We can’t tell people about serving as a character witness in a divorce proceeding or the conversation we had with the nurse after a hospital visit about her own marriage.  No one watches us exegete a Bible passage or meet with the angry choir member or have lunch with the neighboring priest or review curriculum or plan the officer training retreat or prepare for a meeting.

Actually it’s the fruits of our labors that matter.  If it’s clear that we are not visiting anyone – or arranging for other church leaders to visit – or if it’s clear that we spent only 10 minutes preparing for that sermon or if it’s clear that we have no idea what’s going on in the preschool – and those things are part of our responsibilities, then there’s a problem.

But if we can do our ministry and fulfill our responsibilities the best we can while also driving a child to the dentist or sitting at a computer in our dining rooms while dinner is in the crockpot, then let’s do that.

Working from home for many of us (most fortunate) pastors, educators, researchers, lawyers, and therapists has shown us that flexibility is not only important; it’s expected in both a pandemic and post-pandemic world.

So . . . if you are on a Pastor Nominating Committee or a Church Personnel Committee or a Church Board of any kind, please bless your current or future staff members with the options to be flexible.  Everyone will be happier and you might find that the ministry/work load becomes more fruitful.

It’s not in the Biblical Proverbs, but it should be:

Happy is the servant whose days are spent in a variety of tasks for the sake of all that’s good and faithful.

And if you – in your non-church work – need to be flexible, let somebody know how much you value that option.

Image source.

This is Real

There’s a pivotal scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind when Alicia Nash tries to convey to her husband John – a person with paranoid schizophrenia – what is real. I need to believe, that something extraordinary is possible. Every day of our lives is about what’s real and what’s not real.  Some things are simply factual:
  • The Confederate States lost the U.S. Civil War.
  • The next president has been elected.
  • Over 1000 people are dying daily in the U.S. of COVID-19 related issues.
When we repeat what’s not real or when we imagine what’s not real or when we live as if something’s not real, it messes with our minds.  It’s not beautiful.  In fact it’s dangerous. I trust that God is real.  I believe that God is with us whether we feel it or not, whether we believe it or not.  I believe that those of us who are trying to follow Jesus must live according  to what we know is real:
  • That God is love.
  • That resurrection is possible.
  • That we will be held accountable.
  • That grace abounds.
Are we living – even in these days of conspiracies and widespread sharing of what’s not real – according to the Truth that God created all people in God’s image?  Recognizing each other’s humanity – even when we disagree about what’s real – is essential if we are to convey this Truth. Why would anyone want to follow Jesus if what they observe about Jesus’ followers is not beautiful?  Yes, the world is a hot mess, but I believe something extraordinary is possible.  God expects us to participate in this reality.

Wait. It Could Get Worse?

I met with my doctor last week for my six week post-shoulder surgery check in and things are progressing well.  Great.

Doc: Things are looking good. And now we enter the second phase of your recovery when the physical pain begins.

Me: (?)

Me: Wait.  What? If the physical pain is about to begin, what have I been feeling for the past six weeks?

Doc: That was the psychological pain. You were realizing your limitations post-surgery and getting used to a lack of movement and sleep.

Me: So, for what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I’ve felt physical pain. And you’re saying it’s about to get worse?

2020 has been the worst in everything from pandemic numbers to election ugliness.  Family gatherings have been cancelled. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have closed. Wedding dates have been rescheduled. 

And now we hear that it could get worse.  

Jesus followers tend to be people of hope, and we who are prosperous Jesus followers find hope easier than – say – believers in the Middle East who have endured a lifetime of war and injustice.  There are poor people in the world who have little hope that they will ever rise out of poverty.  There are powerless people in the world who have little hope that they will ever have the power of self-determination.

Heaven is not just for the afterlife.  And if you believe this too, it’s a good time for us to take 2020 by the horns and wrestle with the pain of these days.  

It could get worse before it gets better.

So how will we cope?  By hunkering down in our own little worlds?  Or reaching out?  (Believe me, I know that reaching can hurt quite a bit, but things won’t get better unless I practice reaching.)

When a Double Standard Makes Jesus Happy

The analyses continue post-election on why our nation is divided and last week’s op-ed by Dana Milbank  is fodder from some interesting and painful conversation.

Americans are deeply, and for the moment immutably, divided by whether or not they’re nostalgic for what had long been a White-dominated country.

Milbank sees this as the crux of the issue.  There are citizens who see the past history of the United States as one that favored them (White People) and they want to return to that time.  And there are citizens who see the past history of the United States as one that was unjust to Native Americans and People of Color, and they hope for a different future.  Yes, this is a simplistic assessment, but it’s worth talking about.

And so I share a story.  

In the church mid-council I serve as a pastor and leader, we have 93 congregations and 28 of them are historically African American churches.  Our oldest African American congregations were founded just after the Civil War when – as enslaved people – they had been relegated to the balcony for worship.  As freed people, they were either banned from the balcony of White churches or they set out to establish congregations of people whose experiences were like their own.  They had endured the humiliation and brutality of slavery together.  And then they experienced the horrors of Jim Crow together.  And then they experienced the battle for equal employment, equal education, and voting rights together.  And today they continue to work for equal rights and equal opportunities, while enduring both monumental and everyday slights and injustices.

In our Presbytery, each congregation has a volunteer liaision assigned to them from something called The Community on Ministry to help with everything from church conflicts to calling a new pastor.  We have Black liaisons serving White churches.  We have White liaisons serving Black churches.

During my first week on the job in 2018, I received a phone call from a member of a White church asking if they could have a White liaison.  And I said, “No.”  It smacked of racism to me.

In 2020, when assigning a liaison to an historically Black church which was beginning the process of seeking a new pastor, I was asked if they could have a Black liaison.  And I said, “Yes.” It seemed like the right thing to do.

Sometimes double standards make Jesus happy.

Every Black person I know lives in a culture dominated by Whiteness.  Most of our politicians are White.  Most of our business leaders are White.  Most characters in the movies are White.  Most of the faces we see in magazines and on TV are White.  Black people know how to negotiate White spaces.  They have had to know this to survive much less prosper.

Most White people I know live in a culture dominated by Whiteness.  We see politicians, business leaders, and media personalities who look White.  We (White people) think nothing of it when we walk into a room and there are no Black, Indigenous, or People of Color present.  Most of us fail to notice. We have – at best – only a trace of understanding about cultures that are not White.

And so the historically Black Church seeking a new pastor gets a Black liaison to shepherd them along in that process.  

Do you understand? I hope so.

Image of one of the remaining Rosenwald Schools on the campus of McClintock Presbyterian Church in Charlotte which is the oldest African American Church in Mecklenburg County.  The Rosenwald Schools were founded in the 1910s by Booker T. Washington and funded by Julius Rosenwald to offer education to Black students in rural communities throughout the South.  McClintock Presbyterian Church was founded in 1865 and they established a school in 1885.  This Rosenwald School building, which is still used today, was built in 1922 to replace the former school building.  It’s still a beautiful space for church gatherings and offices.

 

Holiday Priorities

We have family holiday traditions and we have church holiday traditions. Family traditions might include hanging stockings and visiting Grandma. Church traditions might include a children’s pageant and a Christmas Eve Candlelight service.

This Christmas will be different.

Maybe we can’t visit Grandma or we’ll visit through a window. There won’t be a traditional children’s pageant perhaps, although I know congregations planning outdoor Christmas Eve services even if it’s freezing outside. It actually sounds lovely to me: coats, scarves, candles.

When FBC and BDILE got married in our backyard five years ago, we asked them and the four parents about priorities: “What’s the one non-negotiable thing you want for this wedding day?”

The same could be asked for Holiday Season 2020. [Please don’t jump on me for using “Holiday” instead of Christmas because November-early January is comprised of at least seven observances depending on your tradition.]

What’s the non-negotiable thing you want for Thanksgiving this year? Maybe we can’t see the grandparents, but we can still make Grandma’s stuffing recipe.

What’s the non-negotiable thing you want for Christmas this year? Chances are there won’t be a children’s pageant in church, but maybe there can be a socially distanced Live Nativity outside.

Church leaders are already planning these events. And – as individuals – we need to make plans about own own personal and family Holiday Priorities too.

2020 could give us the most spiritually meaningful holiday season ever. And it’s all about asking ourselves: What is the one thing I need for this season to bring joy? Or what are the three things I need to feel what I need to feel this season after a year of loss and separation?

I have some thoughts.

  • What if we choose financial generosity as our holiday priority this year? My denomination is on it.  Imagine overwhelming our local food pantries and shelters and church emergency funds with breathtaking bounty.
  • What if we simplify our own plans for the sake of lavishing the love on someone who’s had an especially tough year?  The family of a COVID victim.  The family of a violent crime victim.  The family with job loss.

This is the time to consider our personal and family priorities for the holidays.  This is the time to consider what we want 2021 to look like.

Congregations with strong leadership are already preparing – and not just by ordering candles.  They are talking together about How the Church Will Be in a Post-Pandemic World.  This is what all of us who love Jesus need to be talking about as our first holiday priority.

Post-Election Nice

So, it’s a week after Election Day.  How are things going in your congregation? Are people generally happy? Worried? Sad? Not talking about it?

Here’s a real question:  Is your church nice? Are the people nice? Do they act nicely?  Is the atmosphere nice?

How important is it that you are part of a Nice Church.

The Church has been  – unfortunately – in the business of being nice for a long time now, and it often looks like this:

  • We strive to be a “Purple Church” politically which means we recognize that there are both Republicans and Democrats sitting side by side in worship and instead of agreeing that Jesus is an equal opportunity offender as we grapple with issues, we avoid all controversy.
  • We are easily held hostage by families who threaten to leave or withhold their financial support if we don’t do what they want, including what could be considered political acts like continuing to do virtual worship during COVID-19.
  • We forget that Jesus was crucified for breaking spiritual norms and offending people in power.

What’s an already anxious congregation to do?

Post-election, I’m noticing lots of “if only” conversations.

  • If only people made friends with people who don’t look like/worship/vote like them, everything would be fine.
  • If only we had more empathy for each other, everything would be fine.
  • If only we realized that there are good people on both sides, everything would be fine.

We strive to be nice.  But Jesus was not known for being nice.  

In fact, the word for “nice” is not found in the Hebrew or Greek Bible.  Transliterations of Scripture (not translations but transliterations) might choose to interpret a word as “nice” but it’s not necessarily what the writers were saying.  For example:

They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!”
They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right.
Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Isaiah 30:10 in The New Living Translation

“Tell us nice things” is what parishioners tell preachers who make them uncomfortable.  The Hebrew word here actually means “flattering.”

And yet there are so many truths about the world in which we live which are not nice.  Sometimes we congratulate ourselves for placing a Black Lives Matter banner in the front yard of the church building.  Or we  – White Churches – pat ourselves on the back for “partnering with a Black Church.”  Or we call our congregations “diverse” because there is a single person in the pews who doesn’t look like everybody else.

Educating ourselves is such a good idea but it doesn’t necessarily change things.  Compassion is essential but it doesn’t necessarily change things. Peaceful protesting is one of our rights as citizens of the USA, but it doesn’t necessarily change things.

Jesus came to change things.  And sometimes it didn’t feel good, even to his followers.  Jesus was compassionate, brilliant, wise, and good.  But Jesus couldn’t be called “nice.”  Being nice sounds like a weak adjective in a world that requires us to be generous, gracious, merciful, and faithful especially when we don’t feel like it.

One of the biggest impediments of the church today is that we are still trying to be “nice.”  We don’t want to offend.  We don’t want to hold each other accountable.  We don’t want to disturb the peace.

Please don’t merely be “nice” today.  Be brave.  Speak up for what is right. Be open to the Spirit of God however disturbing that Spirit might be.* 

Because:  People are hungry (without food) and thirsty (without clean water) and sick (without health care) and broken (without community) and in jail (without trial or bail money) and unemployed (without sustainable work.)

The Church of Jesus Christ post-election and in the throes of a pandemic is led by One who was not about nice and easy solutions.  Jesus was about a total culture change that turned the world upside down.  Are we willing to go there? 

I hope so for the sake of the Gospel.

Image source.

*Someone on a White Church Pastor Search Committee recently told me that he is “terrified” because it feels like the candidate the Holy Spirit is leading them to call is a Black woman.  I responded, “What’s more terrifying: calling a Black woman or disobeying God?” (I’m not as nice as I used to be.)

 

We Want Easy (and It Will Never Be Easy)

Thriving Congregations. Anti-Racist Organizations. Compassionate Communities. A Country that Respects All People.

I hear people tell me that This Is What We Want. And they are looking for the quickest, most painless strategic plans.

Not gonna happen.

And it’s offensive and maybe even traumatizing to expect quick and painless fixes.

Some LGBTQ+ colleagues pointed out to me this week that the social media offers last week to officiate quick LGBTQ+ weddings in light of Amy Coney Barrett’s approval as a Supreme Court Justice were offensive.  Straight pastors (like me) meant well and yet cutting and pasting an offer on Facebook is a ridiculously painless action.  Where were straight pastors when it wasn’t yet legal for queer couples to marry?  Where are we when our LGBTQ+ clergy colleagues are discriminated against?  How are we helping to change the culture?

We – White People – congratulate ourselves when we have A Black Friend or when we put a Black Lives Matter sign in front of our White Church lawn.  We call our churches “diverse” when we have two Asian families. But are we struggling with our BIPOC siblings in tangible ways that go further than merely learning about anti-racism?  Are we willing to make actual reparations to those whose humanity have been devalued historically?

And when congregations ask me to help them make shifts to become a thriving 21st Century Church, they seem to become very sad when they realize I don’t have an easy recipe to hand them. Like the Rich Young Ruler Jesus talked about – who was told to do a very hard thing – I see many church leaders give up before they even begin to try.  It’s just too hard to consider serving the community that doesn’t look like them or cutting the traditional worship budget in order to broaden their virtual presence.  They are too tired to change.

And so nothing changes.  Or at least nothing substantively changes.

This election week – as cultural divisions have become especially stark – I am trying to process how We The People have landed on such diametrically different sides.  It’s not a new issue, of course.  And this is my simplistic take to be sure.  But it seems to me that there are two basic sides:

  • There’s the side that’s feeling comfortable and the world works for them.  Or maybe they aren’t comfortable at all but they fear that someone else is going to take what comfort they do have. They don’t want or need Big Change.
  • There’s the side that might or might not be comfortable in their personal lives but they see that the world is very uncomfortable for too many people who lack the power and privilege to live safely. They crave Big Change.

Again, this is simplistic.  But change is hard. We who are comfortable must want to be uncomfortable in terms of facing our own complicity. We must be willing to make sacrifices for those outside our bubble.  

It would also be excellent if the misinformation about each other would stop.

So – this is what I’m pondering Election Week.

Note: I’m always grateful for my conversation partners and other denominational leaders and my therapist who stretch my mind and forgive me when I’m wrong.  Their voices are in this post too.

 

Cozy

Proof that sometimes I dally: I’m finally getting around to choosing my Star Word for 2020.

Many of my friends choose “Star Words” for themselves during Epiphany (which is in January for you non-liturgical readers.) It’s a spiritual practice in which we take a single word printed on a cutout star and it becomes “our word” for the new year. Words like: Strong. Open. Patient. Generous.

The word is supposed to remind us and encourage us and inspire us.

If we had known in January 2020 what we know now, we might have chosen different words. Words like: Protest. Safe. Unmute.

I finally chose my word – 11 months late. It’s Cozy.

Cozy is the lens through which I am going through these days:

  • Is this shirt cozy?
  • Will this plant make my home cozy?
  • What would make this meal cozy?

When TBC was teaching young children in a DC elementary school a few years ago, they were talking about foods people eat in Haiti and it so happened that Haiti had just endured an earthquake.  TBC explained to her students what was going on there and one child suggested that they send help to Haitian children. “What should we send?” TBC asked and the student said, “Cozy things.” (They made a quilt of squares designed by the children and sent it to a school.)

Cozy = comfortable and comforting. Cozy means flannel and soup and long hugs.

Feeling cozy is also a privilege that’s not possible for many, many people: prisoners, those living in war zones or on the streets.

Jesus never said we would feel cozy.  He actually said the opposite.  (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”) Ouch.  

Peace – with Jesus – is not about personal comfort.  It’s about deep confidence in the hope that love will ultimately win. It’s about bringing the reign of God to all people and when God is in charge there is true justice, love, compassion.

Breonna Taylor was cozily sleeping in her own bed.  I think about that a lot. 

As we watch election returns tonight (and tomorrow and next week — however long it lasts) some of us will be watching from the coziness of our sofas and some will be in very uncomfortable places.  But no matter what happens, we are called to share comfort with each other.  The comfort of safety.  The comfort of full bellies.  The comfort of clean living conditions.  The comfort of liveable wages.

Cozy is my word, but the point is that it can’t be just for me.  

 

My Dad & Mrs. Merzbacher

For the first several elections of my life, I voted at a local branch of the fire department in Chapel Hill. I went to college in my hometown and so – although I was “away at college” – I voted near my childhood home throughout my freshman through senior years at UNC. There was a free city bus.

My Dad was always there when the polls opened which was either 6 am or 7 am. I can’t remember. But what I know for sure is that Mrs. Merzbacher was sitting there overseeing the election.

As Dad prepared to vote, he always asked Mrs. Merzbacher if I had voted yet.  And because I hadn’t (because I wasn’t even out of bed yet) she always said, “Not yet.”  And then he would phone me in my dorm room and say, “Mrs. Merzbacher said that you haven’t voted yet. Don’t forget to vote.”  (This was before the electorial equivalent of HIPAA.)  I hadn’t voted yet because I hadn’t opened my eyes.

Mrs. Merzbacher was a national treasure who passed away five years ago today.  And because yesterday was All Saints’ Day – as we remember all those who have died in the past year, especially those who have died of COVID-19 – I want to remember her and all those who have made it possible to vote in this country.  Thank you poll workers.  Thank you activists who ensure that people can vote safely.  Thank you election volunteers.

Please vote tomorrow if you haven’t already done so.  These are crucial times and we are privileged to have this opportunity.  Don’t pass it up.

Thanks Dad.  And thank you Mrs. Merzbacher.