Category Archives: Uncategorized

You Are My Favorite

My grandmother used to tell each nephew who visited her that he was her favorite.  After she died, I remember them scrambling to figure out who saw her last.

I tell each church that I visit that they are my favorite too.

It’s not that I’m a love-the-one-you’re-with kind of person.  It’s just that I want to give attention to the ones standing right in front of me.  I’m also likely to claim that my favorites are the ones who deserve attention at this very moment.

So yesterday, I made a Merry Christmas video with our staff and I named the six counties in our Presbytery which are each my favorites in their own way.  This is all fine except that there are seven counties in our Presbytery.

And so today and throughout the holidays, my favorite churches are the Montgomery County Churches.  I was just in your midst last weekend!  You each fed me cake in October!  You are loving and creative and wonderful.

You are my favorites.

Merry Christmas to the 98 congregations in our Presbytery of seven (not six) counties.  In all seriousness, one of my favorite things is working for and with all of you.

Image is of some of my other favorite things.  Also, when did the song “My Favorite Things” become a Christmas carol?

Making My Day

What makes your day?  Here are some of the things making my day during Advent:

  • The pastor who tells me that they’d like to consider a satellite location with a Spanish speaking pastor a couple miles from their primary campus.  Their leaders are praying about it.
  • The pastor who tells me that their congregation is hoping to partner with a developer to construct affordable housing.  They are in deep discernment about it.
  • The elder who tells me that his team of volunteers has several requests to construct and transport shower pods for post-hurricane disaster sites and they are making that happen.  They are praying for additional volunteers.
  • The pastor who gives me a tour of their building which includes showers for the homeless in their neighborhood.  They are in prayer about what they can offer the neighbors next.

I could go on and go.  It’s seriously like Christmas around here. This is what Incarnation looks like.

It’s also true that I have the power to make somebody else’s day, and you do too.  If we can open doors, grant permission, say ‘yes’ then we can help make Incarnation happen too.

Folks are stressed out all around us. Let’s make someone’s day.

Image of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971)

What Does Our Faith Compel Us to Do?

“… my faith compelled and compels me to find a way to address the needs of the stranger.”  The Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, here

Have you ever been compelled to do something others might consider ridiculous?  But you had to do it. And you had to do it not for your own resume or for your own pleasure or to draw attention to yourself, but because it’s the compassionate thing to do?

You just had to do it because of a deep inner tug moving you to . . .

  • Use vacation time to help with someone else’s disaster recovery.
  • Give money you were saving for a trip to pay a stranger’s bills.
  • Adopt a child you can’t afford.
  • Risk arrest for the sake of speaking up about what’s right.

When was the last time your faith in God moved you to do something wholly impractical or even dangerous?

One of the divides in our nation seems to be about this.  There are People of Faith who cannot help but offer themselves in hands-on ways.  And there are People of Faith who consider hands-on actions to be too political.

On December 10, hundreds of leaders from a variety of faith traditions gathered at the Southern border of the United States near San Diego to protest the treatment of migrants hoping to apply for asylum.  About 32 were arrested, including several in my tradition.  The social media comments have illustrated the differences between those who feel compelled to “do something” and those whose responses range from “God will take care of this problem” to “these protesters are liberal agents” to “being Christian means following the law.”

I was once asked in a pastor interview if there was any issue I would ever protest if they called me to be their minister.  (This is was outside Washington, DC – the protest capital of the nation.)  I answered something like this:

Any issue? Of course there are things I would protest.  Wouldn’t you?”

Can you think of anything you would risk arrest to speak out against or for?  What would that be?

My hope is that – as People of Faith – there are many things we would stand up for or against.  Some of us have schedules or family responsibilities that keep us from traveling to San Diego to support asylum seekers. But we thank those who are compelled to participate.

And some of us roll our eyes or openly criticize those willing to be arrested in support of asylum seekers.  But I ask, “Is there anything you would be willing to stand up for/speak up against for the sake of what you say you believe?”

Making New Friends as Adults (or The Community I Left in IL and the Community I’m Building in NC)

I was reading the website of a non-denominational church in my neighborhood today and it really ticked me off.  The website is attractive and alluring even.  It’s all about finding community.  You can enter through multiple portals. (This is good.)  You can connect with people “like you” – married, single, whatever.  (This is also good.)

But it’s not real.  What they don’t tell you on that website  – and it would probably not be obvious until you indeed made some friends – is that there are no leadership positions if you have ovaries – except in the kitchen or as a mentor to other women.  And there are absolutely no leadership positions – or follower positions for that matter – if you are queer.

There are many queer people and/or people with ovaries in this neighborhood.  And there are many lonely people in this neighborhood – so the possibilities of luring people with fake inclusion are high.

What’s real is that people – all kinds of people – are seeking authentic community.  This is not news.  Making friends as an adult is hard, especially when you move to a part of the world where you didn’t grow up or go to college.

A Pastor’s Community is tricky because our role is preacher/counselor/spiritual guide/professional Christian.  We have friends in our congregations, but we must maintain good boundaries which can be difficult when you become intimately involved in someone’s life – as their Pastor doing pastoral things.

How do you make real friends as an adult – especially if you have a job that values strong professional boundaries? I’m figuring that out with the help of people I (or my insurance company) pay in hopes of better discernment.

When I say (sometimes our loud) that Jesus is my closest friend, I might sound ridiculous/pious/self-righteous, but it’s true.  HH is the closest version of human friendship but Jesus is the Total Package.  I have church friends, college friends, wine friends, family friends, dog friends, art friends, food friends, travel friends, and Christmas Card friends.  But there are parts of my life that each of those groups doesn’t know/don’t want to know about me.

Part of my call story is the stark realization that – even though he did not have ovaries and lived in ancient Palestine – Jesus was the only human being (alive, dead, or resurrected) to know me completely.  I felt that in ineffable ways on a lonely night in Chapel Hill over 40 years ago.  Because of this the Incarnation tops the Resurrection as my go-to favorite theological tenet.  I don’t particularly care if Mary was a virgin or not.  I do care that The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. (Thank you Eugene Peterson.)

How do we make friends as adults?  We do the best we can.  We love people and accept them as they are.  We are curious about them and interested in what happens to them.

Since moving to NC last spring, my new friends have included four retired people who eat at Shomar’s every day, a stand up comic and a sex therapist who work as servers in the corner restaurant, MK who works at Midwood Smokehouse (do you see a pattern here?) and lots of wonderful church leaders.  I am grateful.

I’m grateful for friends who invite me to meet them at The Thirsty Beaver and friends who invite me to fundraisers.  I’m grateful to those who accept my invitations to go to plays and walks in the neighborhood.  Thankful for neighbors who taught me the correct way to pronounce acai and those who offered tips on finding a salon and a hardware store.  (Still looking for a new dentist and internist.)

I’m headed back to IL in a week  – since HH is still there, and it will be great.  But just as I found community in the Midwest, I will continue to find new community here.  May you find new friends who get you in the coming year.

What (Good) Memories Do Our Children Have About Church?

I officiated at the wedding of a young adult and his fiancee a couple weeks ago.  I’ve known this young man since he was a preschooler because I was his pastor and the mom of his best friend.  The boys grew up together in Church going to Preschool, Vacation Bible School, and Confirmation Class.

He’s not a church person now, although he has an appreciation for Christianity His fiancee also grew up in Church.

So when we talked about their wedding ceremony, I asked him what he remembers about his church experiences that he might like to include in their wedding liturgy.  I was thinking about favorite scriptures or songs or prayers.  He immediately said, “Yes, definitely.  I would like everybody to light candles like we used to do on Christmas Eve.”

I should not have been surprised.  Christmas Eve Candlelight services are among the most beautiful of traditions.  And everybody gets a candle.  And everybody gets to participate.  And everybody is warmed by the light.

And so we had a candle lighting at B & L’s wedding, and it was lovely.  At the end of the service, I lighted the bride and groom’s candles and they lighted the candles held around them until everybody’s candle was aflame.  And then we blessed the newly married couple together.

It’s not just true for children and youth.  Spiritual practices that involve sights and smells and tastes and feelings are among the most memorable in our worshiping communities.  My favorite memories from the church of my childhood and youth include the taste of the grape juice and the feeling of kneeling in the soft white Confirmation dress my mother made.  I remember sliding along the wooden pews and passing the smooth round offering plate.  Tastes. Feelings. Smells.

What memory making are we doing in our churches?  Even if your congregation doesn’t have children, there are adults who appreciate the smell of fresh communion bread and the sight of Chrismons on the sanctuary tree.

The sounds of organ music or drums or guitars with songs and hymns and babies crying and preached words and prayed prayers are all meaningful for many of us.  But God’s children will remember mostly how they felt in Church: warm, welcomed, included, safe – perhaps by candlelight.

Are You More Afraid of God or of Your Congregation?

Maybe “afraid” is the wrong word.  We are called to be in awe of God and – frankly the power of a God who can lay the foundation of the earth and command the morning can be terrifying.

But you know what I’m talking about, Church People.  Many of our leaders are afraid of:

  • The Big Donor who threatens to leave if you aggravate him,
  • The Church Ladies who rule the kitchen (and the church parlor and the Sunday morning Bible study and the . . .)
  • The grandchildren of the beloved former pastor who won’t stop talking about how much better Church was back then,
  • The Cranky Person who complains about everything,
  • The Gossipy Person who holds court in the church parking lot,
  •  The Angry Person with the unibrow who disapproves of you,
  • The Judge-y Person who gives the stink eye to everybody wearing blue jeans or soccer shorts on Sunday mornings.
  • The Person who has run ___ for over twenty years who complains about doing it but won’t let anybody else do it.

Are we more interested in pleasing God or our congregations?

If we spend most of our time pleasing church members, our congregation is dying.  No exceptions.

Imagine this conversation instead:

  • How is this decision going to please God?
  • How is this purchase going to please God?
  • How is this new hire going to please God?
  • How is this mission project going to please God?

These are the discussions our church leaders need to be having.  Authentic ministry is about pleasing God which leads to spiritual growth, expanding the reign of God, and changing lives for good in the name of Jesus.

Sometimes the church people who claim to love the church most are actually the ones who are inadvertently killing it.  Please believe me when I say that congregations longing to please God are going to thrive – no matter what the size, location, or demographic.

My hope is that this conversation will happen in our churches in early 2019 – for the sake of the Gospel.  (Thanks for considering it.)

Image source.

Rethinking “Political Correctness”

You know how people dislike “political correctness”?  Or at least some people do.  [Note: Our current president was elected because some appreciated that he was never “politically correct.”]

So here’s the thing:

Imagine that you’re at a dinner party sitting around a table with several young female friends and the lighthearted topic is about having babies.  One person shares that she’s so fertile, she gets pregnant when her husband simply looks at her.  Another person comments on how wonderful it is to have a newborn.  You happen to know that one of the women present is having fertility issues and this is a tender topic for her.  You change the subject out of respect and care for her.

Imagine that you are on the board of an organization that’s planning a scholarship fundraiser for high school students and someone suggests having the event at The Plantation Club which 1) has no people of color as members and 2) is called The Plantation Club.  You suggest that celebrating at a place called The Plantation Club will make some people uncomfortable – especially the black and brown students.  Plantation = house with slaves, especially in the Southern United States.  It would be like having a Jewish School fundraiser at the historic home of a Nazi.

Imagine that you invite your new neighbors over and you forget to ask them if they have any food restrictions.  You cook up a feast of pork ribs and bacon-laced beans but when the neighbors come over, you learn that they are Muslim vegetarians.

Maybe it’s not always about political correctness.  Maybe it’s about hospitality.  The purpose of good manners is not to show off how poised and fancy we are; it’s about making others feel comfortable and welcomed.  It’s about putting other people at ease.

So, say “Merry Christmas” to your Christian friends and “Happy Hanukkah” to your Jewish friends and “Happy Holidays” if you aren’t sure.  If somebody tells you that using the word “Jew” as a verb is offensive, believe them.  If people tell you that “picnic” is what Christians used to call the gatherings at lynchings in the Jim Crow South when white folks would bring baskets of food to watch someone get tortured, don’t say, “We can’t say anything any more!”  Instead acknowledge that every day’s a school day and thank them for enlightening you.

Maybe political correctness is not about politics at all.  Maybe it’s simply about being human beings who treat other human beings with respect.

Image from 2017 story about Dairy Queen restaurants posting these signs last Christmas.  Again, this looks less like “political incorrectness” than hospitality and respect for country and those who serve.

Mom’s Greatest Hits

I was sitting in a beautiful church sanctuary over the weekend at the memorial service of C’s mother, and I said to A. sitting beside me, “This sanctuary is gorgeous. I don’t think I’ve ever been in here before.”  A. replied, “You were here for my wedding 30 years ago.”  Oh right.

My mother had just died weeks before A’s wedding and I was in a bit of a fog.  New baby.  No mother.  Broken heart.

I found myself tearing up during C’s mother’s eulogy because it was all so true and so real.  And it was so beautiful.  [Note: you definitely want an English major writing your eulogy and obituary. C is an excellent writer.]

30 years before, we scheduled FBC’s baptism just after Thanksgiving, and everybody gathered to celebrate at my and HH’s home in NY.  I was cooking for a crowd.  I can’t remember if it was my sister or my brother who said it, but when I set out all the food, one of them said out loud, “What is this?  Mom’s greatest hits?

I had prepared Mom’s Greatest Hits for Sunday dinner after FBC’s baptism.  I thought it might be a comfort and we all needed comforting.  My Mom was gone.  And I was a new Mom.  It’s what I needed to do.

On the other end of life from infancy – if we are particularly blessed – a good memorial service is like a taste of heaven.  A good memorial service makes us want to be a better person, inspired by a life well-lived. We leave with new energy and a spring in our steps and hearts full of gratitude for what was.

We were gifted Saturday with some of the Greatest Hits from the life of C”s lovely mother: stories of her childhood and college years, stories as a young married lady and as a young mom, stories about how she used her God-given gifts to make others feel loved and welcomed.

The world would be better if everybody’s Greatest Hits were like this.

Today we find ourselves two weeks from Christmas when there will be joy and happy surprises and also anxiety and pain.  We have the power to be our best for the sake of others so that their anxiety and pain will be minimized.  We have the power to embrace the best of life as a thank you to the One who made us.  We have the opportunity to re-set our priorities one more time.

I love the final words of my friend’s eulogy for her mother:

Go to the party.  Take the trip.  Eat the chocolate. 

Thanking God today that this advice was among the Greatest Hits of C’s Mom.

Image of my mother’s recipe for Cherrio Pie which doesn’t include Cheerios.  Notes in her handwriting.  Still miss her.

This post written in loving memory of JWL (1929-2018)

Hello Church Personnel Committees: Holiday Edition

The holidays are a terrible time to learn that you are being laid off. But Re-Organizing = Personnel Changes, whether we are re-organizing to save money or to staff for a new way of being the Church.

Reading about the plight of 14,000 General Motors employees who recently learned that the automobiles they’ve been building will no longer be built is painful, especially when the news was announced openly in the press prior to telling those employees.  Ouch.

Even in non-profits and especially in church settings – we do not always treat our paid employees in a way that resembles gentle Jesus meek and mild.

It’s important to treat God’s people with respect – especially if we hope to be who we say we are as People of Faith.  Here are a couple of tips that reflect healthy leadership when the church is reorganizing:

  • Tell employees personally that they are being laid off before announcing it publicly via email or Big Meeting. (For the love of God.)
  • Tell staff members personally if someone on the staff is retiring or leaving before announcing it publicly via email or a Big Meeting. (It helps makes the staff feel like they are more than “the hired help” or an afterthought.)
  • Include staff in discussions about re-organizing the church prior to making big decisions. Although they might disagree with the plans, they won’t be caught off guard and they might have some helpful insights. (From the for profit world: “one of the biggest and most fundamental mistakes companies make is failing to engage people, or at least forgetting to do so early enough in the process.“)

Simple actions that help our colleagues feel appreciated and respected – even when we need to reorganize.  A really good article from the business world is Reorganization Without Tears by McKinsey and Company (2016).

Bonus tip for Church Personnel Committees:  honor your staff this Christmas.  They will be working especially hard.

Depressed in December

December is rough for people missing loved ones – especially if this is the first year.  The truth is that the 31st year is no joke either.

Situational depression is real especially in times of unemployment, underemployment, grief, loss, regret.

But mental illness is something different.  When you have no energy to take care of yourself.  When you self-medicate for the sake of getting through the day or night.  When you work very hard to keep up appearances, do your job, plug along even though it’s exhausting.

Most of the people I know who live with depression deal with more than situational sadness.  It’s a chemical issue that requires professional shepherding.

Shepherds are a part of the Christmas story and it’s interesting that people who were not considered particularly respectable would play such an essential role in an event that changed human history – whether you believe in Jesus or not.  They are part of the narrative that’s repeated often in December.

We need shepherds.  We need someone to wrangle us back into the fold and protect us from wolves when we wander.  Whether we are situationally grieving or certifiably depressed, we need shepherds.

Can you be somebody’s shepherd in these weeks before and during and after Christmas?

Image of Pete Davidson who has talked openly about his own mental illness.