Category Archives: Uncategorized

2020: Helpful Things We Learned

Yes, it was a rough year. Excruciating actually. You don’t need me to remind you why and how.

But we’ve learned quite a bit in this year of pandemic/election craziness/bitter divisions. Here are a couple things:

  1. Good leaders are good leaders – no matter what’s going on. They know how to pivot when plans need to be changed. They know to accept failures as their own and to acknowledge others for successes. They do not withhold important information from colleagues in order to hoard power. They are permission-giving within the parameters of The Big Picture (which for congregations is to expand the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.) Good leaders ponder how “the worst thing that could happen” might actually open doors for better things (e.g. Moving from 100% in-person Church to a blend of in-person and virtual Church.)  Good leaders are both vulnerable and hopeful.
  2. Proximity determines our truth. Brian Stevenson talks about the importance of proximity in terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we and our neighbors remained employed, well-fed, healthy, and comfortable during these Covid Months, then 2020 was not so bad. And so maybe we didn’t believe that the virus was as deadly as the media said. Maybe we didn’t pay much attention to relief packages debated by our Congress. Maybe we loved these months of working from home. This is the definition of privilege: if it doesn’t impact us, we don’t believe there’s a problem.
  3. Crisis reveals what we value.  Do we hunker down with a year’s supply of toilet paper?  Or do we step up in our charitable giving?  I know people who’ve lost their jobs and are still serving as generously as they are able.
  4. Crisis reveals our politics.  Do we believe that bolstering the financial power of corporations will help our country more than bolstering the financial power of families? Or the other way around?

Special note to Pastor Nominating Committees: if your congregation is seeking new leadership in 2021, please keep what we’ve learned in mind:

  • Please call a leader to be your next pastor – not someone you can control, not someone who will never offend anyone, not someone who fears the congregation more than they fear God.
  • Please call a leader who encourages authentic relationships with a wide variety of God’s children both within and outside the church walls.  The congregation will not impact the community if the pastor has no interest in the community.
  • Please call a leader who knows that the Church is not the building.  The building is merely one tool for ministry and if it’s not being used as often as possible as a tool for ministry, then it’s probably an idol.
  • The Bible is an equal opportunity offender in terms of politics.  If we try to live our lives through the lens of Scripture, each of us will see that we have all fallen short of the glory of God.  We can all do better.

Full disclosure: I am personally convicted by the number of verses about caring for the poor (more than 2000) over the number of verses about building up our own power/coffers/self-interests.  Does your voting record reflect this?

Great things can happen 2021, if we have learned anything from 2020.  

All I Want Is What’s Coming to Me

Believing that each of us falls (monumentally) short of the glory of God, it’s an excellent thing that – actually we do not get what’s coming to us.  What we “deserve” is probably not pretty.  Consider the fact that Jesus came in the form of a human baby not because we had been “such good boys and girls” ourselves, but because we had not.

We do not get what we deserve in this world. 

This is true for those who us who receive much comfort and joy in life and those of us who don’t.  This is true for those of us whose lives have been beset by poverty, illness, and abandonment and those of us whose lives have been blessed by wealth, health, and trusting relationships.

When billionaire Robert F. Smith spoke to the 2019 graduates of Morehouse College, he shocked the room by announcing that he was covering the college debts of any student  graduating with debt.  I remember asking a friend whose nephew was in that 2019 class at Morehouse if her nephew felt cheated because he had worked hard to get through college with no debt. She immediately replied, “No. He was happy for his classmates who were – by grace- given a gift that set them free.”

What gifts will we receive and what gifts will we give this week?

To be perfectly honest, all of us receive more than we deserve.  I did nothing to find myself born into a white family who valued education and could afford summer vacations.  I also had student debt that I didn’t pay off until I was 35 years old.  

The national student loan debt in the United States reached $1.6 trillion in June 2019 according to this report.

Do I begrudge people whose parents paid 100% of their college expenses?  I’m a little jealous – for sure – but good for them.  Some of my friends in college had been blessed with savings accounts from grandparents or full scholarships based on merit.  They are very fortunate.

Everyone I know who currently has or once had student debt worked in college to help cover expenses.  They worked before college.  And God knows they have worked after college and find themselves still struggling to pay off those student loans because the interest is killing them.

What if – in 2021 – all student debt was forgiven in this country?  Or what if $10,000 of each person’s student debt was forgiven? Or what if the interest on each person’s debt was forgiven?

  • Some will say, “This isn’t fair.  I (or somebody in my family) worked hard to foot the bill for my college.”
  • Some will say, “This will help the economy because young adults will finally be able to buy a home or save for their own children’s college.”
  • Some will say, “Those students should pay the price for being irresponsible (or having irresponsible parents) who had to borrow money in the first place.

Again, the truth is that none of us get what we deserve in terms of benefits or disadvantages in life.  I did nothing to deserve to be born into a family with health insurance.  My friend M didn’t deserve being born into a family that never took her to the doctor or dentist because they were both neglectful and had no health insurance.

Do we begrudge people for receiving blessings they did not earn?  I hope not because this is called Grace and all of us need it.  And all of us have it by virtue of the Incarnation of God which we celebrate on Christmas Day.

God didn’t come to earth because we were so good.  God came to earth because God is good.  And merciful.  And gracious.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

Image of Sally from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Hallelujahs in Hell

I had never heard the term “hallelujahs in hell” until yesterday. Apparently that term is used in a Kiss song (which is actually “Hell or Hallelujah“), a semi-famous church video on the topic of eternal damnation, and numerous Good Friday sermon titles.

Yesterday I read it on Twitter.

Eight years ago today, an unspeakable horror occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t need to share more details here and you can look it up if you don’t know the story. But what happened rocked our nation – only not enough for us to change gun laws on semi-automatic weapons.  

My friend Cindy had just died of cancer two days before and so I was foggy when I first heard the story on the radio. Did I really hear what I think I heard?

I have come to know one of the moms who lost her child that day and she inspires me daily.  I knew of her from the first day because her brother-in-law is a friend of a friend.  And I have been praying for her for a long time. 

She is a Christian.  She is the kind of Christian who feels like my sister.  She is the kind of Christian who understands that being wrapped in grief doesn’t mean we have no faith.  She is the kind of Christian who can experience the depths of hell and still whisper, “God be praised.”  She is the kind of Christian who knows that God’s finger is not on every steering wheel, every weapon, every threat.  She knows that we worship a God who weeps, a God who knows what it’s like to lose a child.

Over the weekend she wrote:

It’s a hell’s hallelujah – that which we live. It includes patterns of holding, maintaining and thriving.

20 children.  6 adults.  All have family who survive them.  All have family who will grieve forever.

I believe that one of the highest examples of faith is when we can dwell in the deepest, ugliest, most excruciating hell and still somehow believe that God is with us.  

If you are struggling today: If you are a pastor wondering what all this is doing to your congregation, if you are a health care provider on your last ounce of energy, if you are a small business owner watching your investment slip away, if you are an unemployed person on the cusp of eviction, if you are a person grieving the loss of a loved one from COVID-19 or violence or any malady that destroys the body . . . maybe someone can whisper hallelujah for you today if you can’t say it yourself.

I tweeted Nelba Marquez-Greene a while back:

Strangers in Charlotte are praying you feel especially loved in these days. You continue to be a good Mom.

And she tweeted back:

I’m going to follow you so we’re not strangers anymore.

She and her family established The Ana Grace Foundation for the purpose of “promoting love, connection, and community for every child and family.” She and many others are grieving today and everyday.  And still we cry “hallelujah.”

Image source here.  Please stop whatever you are doing right now and click the link.  And then click the names of those children and teachers and read about them.  And then pray for those for whom today is terrible.

And For My Next Self-Care Trick . . .

I read somewhere yesterday that a pastor who had been leading Zoom calls for her congregation to offer tricks on ensuring personal self-care had a Eureka moment: she decided to cancel the Zoom calls for the sake of her own self care.

Well done, Pastor.

I am taking a little Advent break from writing so that I, too, can honor my need for self care. I encourage you to do what you need to do: cancel the meeting, set aside the unnecessary, add a long walk, limit the phone calls.

Prepare ye the way of the LORD.

When It Hits You

You never know when it will hit you – that sobbing fit or that overwhelming desire to take a nap or that huge craving for a phone call with a friend who will surely say all the right things.

I remember when my Mom died decades ago, I found myself in the fetal position sobbing on a random Tuesday about six months after her death. You never know when it will hit.

My father-in-law died on Wednesday after a long illness. He was blessed with 86 years on this earth – 65 of which he was married to “his best catch.” (He was also an avid fisherman.) The loss starts as a relief but there will be heaving sobs that show up on a random morning, just as there will be foggy afternoons when only a nap with a cozy blanket will help.

It’s hitting some of us that this could be our first Christmas without “everyone.” Clergy, medical professionals, and others are used to spending holidays at work. But even we get to see our loved ones around a big table eventually – in the general vicinity of the holiday.  Many of us spent Thanksgiving with smaller gatherings.  But Christmas feels like it will be harder.

The only Christmas of my life I didn’t spend with my Mom was her last Christmas.  I was a pastor.  My husband was a pastor.  We had a baby and lived five states away.  It was just too hard.

This Christmas will be the first for many of us without someone who has always been there, either because of death or quarantine.  It will be hard.  But it won’t be forever.

In life and in death, we belong to God.

Please. Drop The Ball.

Our Committee on Ministry met earlier this week and I actually asked them to let some balls drop. Let some things go.

Ordinarily I would have given a pep talk to keep up their responsibilities as church liaisons.  Get your paperwork in.  Check in with churches in transition.

Not this month.  It’s time to drop a ball or two for the love of God.

Who among us hasn’t missed a Zoom meeting because it didn’t make it onto our calendars?  Or we needed an afternoon nap on a random Tuesday?  Or we had a to-do list and checked off  fewer items than we might have checked off a year ago.

And perhaps more importantly, can we be gracious when our pastors, elders, or volunteers drop a ball these days?  Can we give them a break?  Can we encourage people to take it a little easier?

It’s okay.  There’s a lot going on.  Drop a ball or two.

Image source.

Where to Give the Love?

Today is your lucky day if you have any love to give.

This scene from Fleabag has stayed with me.  [Fleabag is talking with her friend Boo about the love she feels for her dead mother.]

Fleabag: I don’t know what to do with it.

Boo: With what?

Fleabag: With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.

Boo: I’ll take it. 

Boo: No, I’m serious. It sounds lovely. I’ll have it.

Giving Tuesday – the Tuesday after Thursday Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, First Advent Sunday, and Cyber Monday – is a day of intentional giving to organizations. We all have love to give and some of us even have a little extra money to give as well.

Don’t know where to put that love?  There are so many options, especially in 2020:

  • Your local food bank.
  • Your neighborhood shelter.
  • Your friend who lost their job.
  • The lady on the corner living out of a shopping cart.
  • The man who hangs out in Dunkin Donuts all day drinking coffee because he has no other place to go.
  • Exhausted parents.
  • Lonely assisted living residents.

AND there are countless institutional possibilities:

And then there is always your church, synagogue, mosque, temple.  Any faith community actually being faithful has numerous local projects where you can share the love using your money or your time.

Do you have any love to share?  So many of our neighbors will be happy to take it.  Fun activity for today: give a First Responder a gift card for coffee, groceries, donuts.  Seriously.  If you have a spare $5 or a spare $100 do this today.

Bigfoot, Santa, and Jesus

Bigfoot lives in the Uwharrie National Forest near my home in NC – according to the locals. There’s a cute coffee shop nearby that sells Bigfoot items and features the furry guy pictured in this post in their front window.

There are other Bigfeet (Bigfoots?) living among us in the United States as well, according to true believers.

U.S. Congressman Denver Riggleman became obsessed with Bigfoot some years ago – or, more accurately, he became obsessed with the Bigfoot phenomenon and devotees who would spend big money on group Bigfoot Quests.  He even wrote a book about it.  For the record, he believes that Bigfoot is a myth.

Congressman Riggleman was not re-elected recently and it’s not necessarily  because of his interest in Bigfoot.  It might have more to do with his comparisons between the mythology of Bigfoot and the state of our current politics.  You can read more about it here in this article by Meagan Flynn of The Washington Post:

Bigfoot believers have plenty in common with political extremists on both the far right and the far left, Riggleman said, lambasting a political ecosystem where, oftentimes, “facts don’t matter.”

He believes that the conspiracies swirling around our nation are all about money.  And I think he’s right.  We love money. Regarding the conspiracy theories about our recent election results:

“They’re asking for donations to help in a mythological quest of things that can’t be proven. I saw it with Bigfoot. I’m seeing it with QAnon. It’s about money. And sometimes crazy and money live in the same space.”

Amen.

We not only try to make money over mythologizing what may or may not be true, but many people make money over something as holy as the birth of the Christ Child.  More about that in a moment.

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a real person.  Born in Greece in 270 CE, he was a Christian Bishop living in what is now Antalya, Turkey on the Mediterranean coast. And – according to tradition – he was the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and unmarried people. (For fun, consider how each of those demographics are indeed connected in some way to the Christmas season.) Saint Nicholas Day is December 6.

We have Clement Clarke Moore and Coca Cola to thank for mythologizing the story of St. Nick and making Christmas into a money-making opportunity where – in some magical driveways – people are gifted with Lexus and Range Rover vehicles with big red bows on top. Santa (aka St. Nick) didn’t have reindeer and chimney powers until Moore’s poem laid out his modus operandi and Coke solidified his look in their advertising.

Although many of us minimize the belief that Christmas is actually about the birth of Baby Jesus, some of us have made money out of mythologizing Jesus too. There’s Precious Moments Jesus.  There are Christmas fundraisers.  There are Christmas Carol contests with fabulous prizes.

And there are books – lots and lots of books that offer an image of Jesus that can’t be found in the Bible. (Note: I am not saying that people should not write books about Jesus or theology.  I am saying that making money off of bad theology does more damage than good.)

It’s enough to make us cynical.  It’s enough to make us believe that Jesus is just another myth – like Coca Cola Santa or Bigfoot.

But – here’s the extraordinary thing – it’s possible that in these weeks before we celebrate Jesus’ birth, we will experience something pure and true and good about the God who loved us enough to come closer in the form of a poor baby in a time and place rife with injustice and poverty.

We, too, live in a time when greed rules and “crazy and money live in the same place.”  There is chaos.  There is fear.  And there is also beauty and hope.

God is still with us and we can experience this in the simple acts of love between strangers and friends.  We can keep our eyes open for moments of joy.

It’s not easy for many of us as we stagger through these days longing for what we’ve lost or craving what we’ve never had.  (We need to love the long-ers and the crave-ers too.)  This season is not about flash and noise.  And it’s so not about big red bows on luxury cars.

Let’s not allow mythology to win.  Let’s seek the Truth of this season as we seek the truth of what’s going on in the world right now.

Also, let’s read what the Bible says about Jesus.  We might be surprised.

Images of Bigfoot (top) in the window of Uwharrie Merchantile in Troy, NC. And icon of St. Nicholas of Myra painted by Jaroslav Čermák (1830-1878).

 

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.