Category Archives: Uncategorized

Access to Bliss

Who doesn’t love being in a state of bliss?

When we live frantically, our blissful moments are easily overlooked and under appreciated. And yet the slow chewing of a perfect piece of chocolate or the sweet intimacy between partners or the deep ecstasy of noticing a bluebird on a slow walk has cathartic properties.  My therapist recently mentioned something about my “access to bliss” and I’ve decided I’d like to increase my access.  It’s not about accumulating more chocolate.  It’s about appreciating the chocolate.

“One of the quickest pathways to bliss is to experience a life-threatening illness.  All of a sudden life’s sweetness and tragedy unfurl before us.  When we hear that we may only have a short time to live, life seems especially precious.”  Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age by Mary Pipher

Bliss happens when a sick child has a really good day.  Bliss happens when the test results show no more cancer.  Bliss happens when there’s a death sentence reprieve.

It occurs to me that there are millions of people in the world who live with such a high misery quotient that they have virtually no access to bliss.  They live in refugee camps or detention centers.  They are trapped in broken bodies with clear minds.  They have no hope and no reason to be hopeful.  They have lost almost everything after a flood or fire or storm.

On this Friday full of possibilities, how can we offer someone easy access to bliss?  Seeing those who need it is the first step.

Labels (and How They Mess With the Spirit of God)

I like the wine and not the label.  Does that make sense?

I was re-watching the red wine/white wine scene in a previous season of Schitt’s Creek and thinking about labels the other day.  Especially in Church, we are good at labeling.  I know I am.

I always thought this character – David – was goofy and vain.  But this scene taught me that he is also confident and comfortable in his own skin.

Labeling messes with God’s creation.

Where I work we have “black churches” and “white churches.”  We label people to be poor, rich, strong, weak, old, young.  Young colleagues referred to me as “a crone” once about ten years ago and it broke my heart a little bit. They meant it as a compliment but my brain pictured this.

Maybe because Church is an organization, we organize the people  We lump them together as:

  • The choir members
  • The Church ladies
  • The legacy members
  • The homebound
  • The nominal members
  • The big givers

There is nothing wrong with descriptors, but each of us is more than one thing.

A post against labeling might seem trite, but how we see people determines how spiritually healthy our congregations are.  I hear churches tell me that they are a “small church” or a “poor church” as if it sums up the whole of who they are.  It doesn’t.

We are rich with diversity even if we look alike.

I have been told by Pastor Nominating Committees the following:

  • He seems to be great but we aren’t ready to call a gay pastor.  People will think we are A Gay Church.
  • We aren’t ready for a black pastor (on our all white church staff.)  In fact, it would mostly be hard for him.
  • We aren’t looking for an woman pastor.

We really limit the power of God, don’t we?  Sometimes the people we label negatively or say “we aren’t yet ready for them” are – possibly – the ones God is sending our way.  We might like the idea of calling a pastor who will stretch our souls and our understanding of who is supposed to lead us, but when it comes down to it, we stick with safe choices/what’s we’ve always done before.

I’d bet that congregations with a low incidence of labeling tend to be growing congregations.  That teenager with braces?  They might be an excellent deacon.  That person who doesn’t say much?  They might have a lot to say on the governing board.  The outcasts?  The fringe people?  The queer ones?  (See – I’m even labeling them here.)  All might be the perfect souls to visit people in the hospital or run the next community dinner or play an instrument in worship.

Relationships help us overcome labeling people as any one thing.  And maybe God is telling us that – ready or not – the people we consider least likely to lead (because we have labeled them least likely) are the ones God is choosing.  None of us is any one thing.

Image of Schitt’s Creek’s David (Dan Levy) and Stevie (Emily Hampshire) in the wine aisle. 

What Works in 21st Century Ministry: It Depends

It used to be true in my denomination (and it’s still true in some denominations) that every seminarian was required to follow the exact same path to ordination and every congregation was required to follow the exact same path to find a new pastor and every pastor was expected to be like every other pastor.  Although there are still many “shalls” in my denomination’s Constitution, there are more “ordinarily-s” and this is a good thing.

  • Should seminarians be required to take Clinical Pastoral Education? It depends. CPE is great for discovering insights about ourselves, for practicing our bedside manner and for familiarizing ourselves with Hospital World.  But if you’ve worked as a registered nurse for ten years prior to seminary, you might not need CPE.
  • Should an Interim/Transitional Pastor become the “Permanent” Pastor ? It depends.  There might be a situation in which allowing the “Temporary” Pastor to become the “Permanent Pastor” is the healthiest decision for a congregation.
  • Should a congregation sell its building and set up their ministry in a storefront? It depends.  Maybe that storefront location will expand their ability to be the Church in the world. Or maybe not.

The route to thriving 21st Century Ministry is all about health: What best nourishes each future or current pastor?  What’s the healthiest path for a congregation taking into account its current situation?

What’s healthy for one congregation is unhealthy for another.  And who gets to make these calls?

In my denomination, everything is done by committee.  There are committees who walk alongside seminarians.  There are committees who walk alongside congregations in transition.  And here’s the thing:

We can’t know what’s healthy for a seminarian or a pastor or a congregation unless we have authentic relationships with them.

It’s obnoxious and audacious for me to counsel somebody if I don’t know them.  And so – congregations – this is the beauty of denominations working together to help you thrive and be the church you were created to be.  Seminarians: we want you to be the best prepared spiritual leaders possible.  We don’t know what God has in store for you, but we want you to be ready for it.

This is about trust.  This is about connectedness.  This is about relationships.

This is what’s required in the 21st Century Church.

Would the pastors pictured above be good for your congregation?  It depends.

Images from Left to Right are from the websites of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Charlotte – Graduation 2019, and Andover Newton Theological Seminary at Yale.

Magic Jesus?

‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ John 11:21

Many – if not most of us – treat God like Santa.  We act as if there’s a cosmic quid pro quo, and yes, sometimes karma is a thing.

But even a cursory read of the Bible reminds us that this is not always how it works.  God will not save a dying child just because I beg for it.  God does not cure your cancer if you worship more regularly.  God doesn’t not strike down my enemies, even if I double my financial giving.  God is not Santa.  God is not magic.

Although it feels like a guilty pleasure, I loved bingeing on Netflix’s Messiah last weekend.  In a nutshell, it’s the 21st Century and there’s a charismatic spiritual leader born in the Middle East who seems to perform miracles, or maybe he’s a con man or insane.  Sound familiar? He is called Al-Masih (“the messiah” in Arabic.)  Also the CIA and Mossad are involved.

Some believe that he’s the Second Coming of Jesus.  Some believe he’s the First Coming of the Savior.  Some believe he’s a mesmerizing human being with a clinical Messiah Complex.  Some believe he’s a gifted scam artist.  We will have to wait until Season 2 to find out the truth.

Spoiler Alert:  There’s a moment when it looks like Al-Masih is going to heal a child’s dying dog but instead he allows the dog to die which confuses and devastates the boy.  The point is that “The Messiah” is not a magician who fulfills our every wish.  Al-Masih is “serving God’s will” which is not the same as our will.

Although this is an imperfect series (and some Hate. It.) I appreciate the reminder that God’s ways are not our ways – something God says through the Hebrew prophets – but we tend to ignore/forget/wish it wasn’t true.

God doesn’t fix things the way we want them to be fixed.  This is really important to remember as a person who is trying to follow Jesus.

Jesus came to show us what the love of God looks like so that we might carry on and try to do the same.  The message of Jesus saves us but not in the ways we might think.  Human beings will continue to suffer illness and tragedy.  We will all endure measures of pain and we will all die.  And yet faith comes into play in the thick of all that.  Living in mystery is part of God’s plan – at least for now.

Some of us will be cured.  All of us can be healed.  It’s part of the mystery.

Being present and compassionate with each other is part of our life’s purpose.  I, for one, believe this happens best in the context of church, but the truth is that some churches do more harm than good.  Some teach heresy.  Some make everything about themselves.

And yet God will be God no matter how badly we misunderstand.  If we are serious about living out our human purpose, we will try to understand using tools like spiritual relationships, prayer, service, and gratitude.  If you can develop those tools apart from a community of faith, you are exceptional.  Most of us need to be held accountable in a church, synagogue, mosque, ashram, monastery, kibbutz, or small group.

I’d love to hear what you think about this series.  Love it? Hate it? Feels like Real Housewives of Dilley, TX?

Image from Netflix.

 

Crying in Church

I have been known to cry in church and – as a worship leader – I have seen others cry in church.

There was the guy who arrived late and left early who would sit in the back corner pew and weep throughout the service.  We never found out who he was because he avoided being greeted by an usher. He looked very sick and after a few weeks he  stopped attending.

There was the self-identified “born again atheist” who wiped away tears during an infant baptism.  There have been couples exchanging wedding vows to whom I whispered, “It’s okay.  Take a deep breath.”  There was the older gentleman who never sang the hymns because they made him cry.  His wife had been a leader in the choir before she died.

Church is an excellent place to weep with or without holding someone’s hand, and God knows there are plenty of things to cry about these days and every day.

Just as we need spaces for public singing in the 21st Century – birthday parties, sporting events, and church are the only ones I can think of – we need space for having a good cry, preferably with people who won’t shame us, blame us, or “at least” us.

On the Sunday before Christmas a couple weeks ago, I sat in a church pew and wished that everybody could have been there.  It was the morning after “the longest night” and HH’s church offered a time for healing and wholeness after the sermon.  People were invited to come forward one by one for either a blessing or a prayer or an anointing with oil – or all those things – with one of the pastors.  They could kneel, stand, or sit.  HH rightly would never share what members of the congregation whispered in his ear, but I can guess.  Some of us need to make a confession.  Some of us need to ask for help.  Some of us need to say to another human being that we feel utterly broken.  Some of us need to acknowledge that we are profoundly grateful.

To share these deep expressions with another human being is something that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

To watch it happen in living color made me weep.  And I wasn’t the only one.

We in the Church hear all the time about how institutional Christianity is dying.  But as long as the world is a hot mess, as long as people need community, as long as we can offer space for our deepest spiritual needs, there will be Church.

We can be this Church in 2020.  In fact, we won’t thrive as the Church in 2020 without authentic community.

Mosaic of my HH during a Service of Healing and Wholeness in December 2019.  Happy Epiphany.  We all have gifts to share.

Ten Years from Today

Attention all Church People: Envision standing in your church sanctuary on the first Sunday morning of the year 2030 Or maybe you are in the fellowship hall or family life center or gymnasium or classroom or the parking lot on the first Sunday ten years from now.  What do you see?

It’s quite possible that your church will have closed for many reasons.  Maybe the church building has been re-purposed as affordable housing or maybe it’s become a Chinese Restaurant.

It’s possible that you won’t be alive in 2030 (and maybe I won’t be alive either.)

It’s also quite possible that our congregations will be thriving. What the thriving looks like might surprise us a decade from now.

Ten years ago, most of our congregations didn’t have online giving much less phone apps for instantaneous donations.  Ten years ago some people now leading congregations were not allowed to lead.  Ten years ago most wedding ceremonies were celebrated in church buildings.  Ten years ago – according to this study – 25% more Americans were church members.

And those numbers will continue to plummet.  Just last month Pew announced in their “19 Striking Findings from 2019” and the #2 Finding added to the anxiety of millions of church people:

The decline of Christianity is continuing at a rapid pace in the U.S. Around two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) describe themselves as Christian, according to Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019. That’s down 12 percentage points since 2009. At the same time, the share of “nones” – religiously unaffiliated adults who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has reached 26%, up from 17% a decade ago.

The decline might in fact be “church membership” rather than “Christianity” but several people forwarded that article to me for my reaction.  Frankly my reaction is that this is an excellent opportunity to be a more faithful Church.  God does God’s best work in anxious times – especially if we get out of the way.

On the cusp of the first Sunday in 2020, we would be wise to zero in on what God might be doing around us.  In these days, following the way of Jesus seems urgent.

We’re Back. What Will Be Different?

Now that most of us are back to work, how many New Year’s Resolutions have already gone out the window? Frankly I appreciate what Bernice King tweeted about resolutions:

Don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Determine what kind of everyday human you want to be. And decide if that human will be for goodness, justice, peace, and love. And envision if that human has dreams that will lift humanity. Then the moments, years, and minutes will matter.

Yes, I want to make selfless determinations and compassionate decisions, and I want to envision being the kind of human who dreams noble dreams.

AND I hope to stop eating so much sugar.  This article by Tara Parker-Pope inspires me: Make 2020 the Year of Less Sugar.  AND – not only do I know that milk, bread, and salad dressing all have sugar in them, but the Church will try to feed me such things as soon as today – my first day of Let’s-Eat-Less-Sugar.

There will be candy in the staff kitchen and sandwiches at the long meeting and cookies at every church supper.  There will be wine at dinner parties (even church dinner parties, my teetotaling friends.) There will be cake at staff birthday celebrations.  There might even be sugar on the vegetables for those of us living in the South.

How can the Church help?

It makes me queasy to consider Church to be a self-help organization. It’s true that Church can help us find forgiveness and peace and purpose.  Church can entertain us.  Church can support us through grief and addiction.  Church can open up connections in the community.  Church can even hook us up with childcare.

But the fundamental purpose of Church is not to support the members – although sometimes our call to serve means serving each other within the walls of the Church building.  The Constitution of my denomination says that the mission of the Church is one and the same with God’s mission:

“to announce the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation.”

The purpose of the Church is to fulfill God’s purposes and – yes – God wants us to live our best lives and not ruin our teeth or livers or brains by consuming too much delicious God-given sugar.  We are missing the point, though, if we think this is the only purpose of the Church: to serve, entertain, support, and delight us.

Recovery Churches exist to help those living with addiction so that they can support others.

Yoga Churches exist to help center those seeking focus and awareness so that they can focus on and become more aware of others.

Craft Churches exist to value the art of making things for the sake of sharing those creations with others.

Or something like that.

If we are healthy and have more energy, we can serve others better than if we are sick and listless.  Church World can help with this or Church World can sabotage this.  Questions to ask in your spiritual community:

  • Does our hospitality invite healthier living? (Resolution #1: More fruit and veggies and less fat and sugar at eating events.)
  • Does our culture encourage people to make confession, ask for help, accept brokenness?  (Resolution #2: More acceptance of imperfection and less shaming about messy lives.)
  • Do we reward staff, volunteers, and members who work “all the time”?  (Resolution #3: Not just more Sabbath time but any Sabbath time.)

I’ll be working on my sugar intake.  I pray our congregations will be working on healthier hospitality, broader acceptance, and remembering that even God took time to rest. Happy New Year!

Image of some of my favorite sugar sources. 

Trends That Will Determine Life and Death in the 2020s

Alan Murray – the President and CEO of Forbes Magazine – asked “some of the smartest people we know” their ideas about their predictions for the 2020s and you can read about that here and here. For the record, Alan Murray is also one of the best & brightest.

Among the ideas of Forbes’ best and brightest* include:

  • Cell-Based Meat (i.e. Plant-Based Meat 2.0)
  • More Tech Tools for Farmers
  • Increasingly “Morally Load-Bearing” Businesses in order to save capitalism.  It can’t just be about profits.
  • More Partnerships Between Business and Government
  • Less Emphasis on Academic Resumes and More Emphasis on Actual Competencies
  • Crispr Changing Our Medical Care Forever
  • Data Privacy as a Civil Right
  • Prioritization of Face to Face Contact
  • Ensuring that every Supply Chain is Inclusive and Efficient

[*Note: These are the “Best and Brightest” in terms of business and economics but Forbes didn’t ask the “Best and Brightest” in the non-profit/spiritual community world.]

Here’s my shot at Trends That Will Determine Life and Death in the 2020s – with all due respect to Alan and Forbes.

  1. Our fundamental health will be determined by what we feed ourselves everyday: the food we eat, the media we consume, the emotional environments in which we live, and the spiritual grounding we cultivate.
  2. Farmers will need more than tech tools.  They’ll also need fair compensation, and clean water and soil.
  3. Capitalism without justice for “the least of these” will result in global catastrophe and war.  Business leaders with souls will be in high demand.
  4. Partnerships between business and government, business and educational institutions, government and communities of faith, non-profit organizations and business, government and educational institutions will be the norm. We won’t excel without each other.
  5. Competencies will determine staffing more than degrees.  The minister of visitation will be the one gifted in pastoral care whether she has an MDiv or not.  That fancy degree will impress your Mom, but your inherent and developed gifts will be what gets you the job/call/vocation/position.
  6. Crispr is cool, but God will still be God.  To quote Ethel Johnston Edmiston, “It’s amazing what the LORD has let us learn.
  7. Our privacy will continue to be breached but there will always be parts of us that only God knows. Our deepest prayers will always be our own no matter who knows our geo-location or playlist.
  8. Being there for each other – face to face and live and in color – will be everything. Knowing how to create and find authentic community will be THE must-have life skill.
  9. Designing the supply chain – whether we are talking about the pipeline to call new spiritual leaders or the pipeline to recruit rural health care providers will need to ask at every step:  who is not at the table? We have got to include everyone because everyone is served best when everyone is included.  Please read this book.
  10. We will continually need to ask ourselves: Why?  Why am I pursuing this goal?  Why do I expect this outcome?  Why do we continue to do it this way? Why am I telling this story? Why does this feel right?  Why am I spending my time this way?

The 2020s are full of possibilities.  Even if you read what The Pew Research Center has to say at the close of 2019 and are bummed out about #2  (i.e. The decline of Christianity is continuing at a rapid pace in the U.S.) there is great hope and incentive to change the way we are the Church.  Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

Is This About Me? Or Something Bigger Than Me?

I was attending a clergy ordination once and there was a Moment for Children during which the children of the church came down front to sit with the soon-to-be-ordained person for a story.

Candidate for Ordination:  Does anyone know why we are here in church this afternoon?  We were just here together this morning.

Child: Because we can worship God anytime?

CFO: No.  We are here because this afternoon because I get to be a pastor today.  This afternoon is about me.

Yikes. This person apparently never read The Purpose Driven Life much less Calvin’s Institutes.

Ministry is not about us.  It’s not about:

  • Being in charge of something.
  • Standing in front of the congregation.
  • Showing people how gifted we are.
  • Running a popular program.
  • Telling people what to do and how to do it.
  • Drawing attention to ourselves.

This is true whether we are church leaders or politicians or PTA presidents.  The questions we need to ask ourselves with every important action:

  • Is this about fear or faithfulness?
  • Is this about what’s good for me or about what’s right for the whole?
  • Is this about perpetuating my power or is it about sharing power with others?
  • Is this about myself or is it about my country, my community, my God?

We are in the throes of difficult days and 2020 will almost certainly be filled with anxiety and division. I get that many of us are in survival mode.  But we have to trust in something bigger whether – for you – it’s God or Country or Cosmic Justice.  We are called to a higher purpose.

May God bless our nation as our nation is divided and our institutions are no longer as trusted as they once were.

Although I don’t agree with everything Rick Warren or John Calvin have written, I do believe that life is not about me.  And it’s not about you.  The future of our world depends on understanding this.

Image is the first page of Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life.

Church Mergers – And That Time God Merged with Us

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy;‘ Luke 1:35

I preached last weekend among a congregation celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the merger that created them.  Two churches came together on December 14, 1096 and became a new church with a new name.  They used the building that one of the two churches had historically owned.  These days their congregation is small and currently without a regular pastor.  Would we say that this was a “successful” merger or not?

Congregations merge together for a variety of reasons.  Some merge for the sake of survival.  Perhaps if they merge and “become one” they will not only survive, but they will thrive with more people and more capacity to serve others.

Some merged congregations “become one” in name only. All too often one church is absorbed by the other and it’s painful when a congregation loses their identity.  Many mergers ultimately fail.

Please read this recent article in Christianity Today about church mergers.  New ways of merging congregations might be our call for the 21st C. Church.

In this season, we remember that God merged with humanity in a particularly intimate way.  Did that merger “work”?  Yes and no.

Although Jesus modeled what an life obedient to God looks like, few of us live our lives in Jesus’ image.  And how do we know that we are living in Jesus’ image?  Jesus explains it this way:

“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matthew 11:4-5

Church mergers that “work” are the ones during which congregations seek to become one with God.  The fruits of these mergers including healing and hope in the neighborhood.  People who have been blinded by anger and bitterness regain their sight.  Those who cannot walk alone find support until they can steady themselves. Today’s “lepers” are welcomed.  Resurrection is a daily occurrence.  And the poor don’t have to look for good news; it’s brought to them wherever they are.

100% of our thriving congregations understand that God is With Them as surely as God was with Mary.  She joyfully welcomed that mysterious news that the Holy Spirit would come over her.

How many of our congregations are excited about the Holy Spirit coming over us in the new year?  This is the kind of merger that makes all other mergers – with other congregations, with other organizations, with the neighbors – possible.  We who serve in the image of Christ – or try to – can expect amazing things to happen.

Image source here.