A Love Letter to The Church

Specifically, this is a love letter to the Presbytery I serve.

Dear Church,

It’s been a rough year and seven months, and it wasn’t a piece of cake even before March 2020. We have been misunderstood and blamed for the sins of Christians who have behaved shamefully. We have often wandered from the way of Jesus. We have lost trust in each other. We have let each other down.

And yet what the average person doesn’t know – because cable TV and social media don’t cover it – are the exquisite expressions of generosity and love that go unseen by the rest of the world. I want to thank you for the countless things I get to see and hear about every day because I’m privileged to serve on your Presbytery Staff.

Thank you to the rural congregations who have sent checks to the church helping the two Afghan men who have found safety in your community after escaping their home country. Thank you to the people who have collected grocery store gift cards for them and driven them around the county so that they could have job interviews and figure out how to get a driver’s license. Thank you for praying for their families back in Kabul and for making preparations to welcome them as soon as they can get here even though their faith and languages are different from our own.

Thank you volunteers who lead Zoom small groups for youth members on random weeknights. We needed more of you than we expected because more youth signed up than expected and you stepped up to ensure that isolated kids found safe spiritual places.

Thank you to the woman who “just wanted to study what the Bible said about racism” and found herself leading an online book group of 25 people from all over the state. I knew you would be fine, even with the cranky ones.

Thank you to the pastors who keep going even when parishioners criticize you for everything from encouraging mask-wearing and vaxxing to opening up the building “too soon.” And thanks especially to brave elders whose first priority was safety for your siblings in Christ as your friends threatened to “leave the church” if you didn’t do what they wanted.

Thank you to churches who’ve found the funds to subscribe to The Bulb so that your neighbors could have free vegetables. Thanks to that little church with 50 members who serves over 300 people every week and figured out a way to distribute milk and meat in addition to fruits and vegetables. You know who you are.

Thank you for the oldest generations in our congregations who have arranged to leave funds to our Presbytery for everything from supplementing the salaries of young pastors to church development grants. To their children: you will never know how much your parents’ legacy has meant to new ministers and congregations in need of technical upgrades, coaching, and mission project support.

Thank you seminarians for pursuing a calling to professional ministry although your parents wanted you to go to business school. You are essential colleagues and we need you.

Thank you to all who pay attention to the disparities in clergy salaries, the not-so-sexy needs in our cities and towns, and the people who are being excluded from the table.

Thank you to the congregations who realize that they don’t have the energy and capacity to be a Church for the next generations. Thank you for allowing yourselves to die so that something new can be resurrected after you are gone.

I have the unique privilege of seeing all these things every day. Yes, there are some discouraging things I also see. There are some heartbreaking things I see. But the overwhelming activity of The Church I serve is life-giving and hopeful and obsessed with serving “the least of these.” Thank you.

May God bless you as we remember this weekend that we are still reforming.

To God be the Glory – Jan

Image source.

Without Trust We Self-Destruct

For as much as critics dismissed [The Thing movie] as expensive trash, there is an idea here: that fear and paranoia can dissolve the bonds of friendship, camaraderie and citizenship. That they can sap us of our ability to work together and paralyze us in the face of crisis. It is an idea which, in our age of misinformation, public distrust and pandemic disease, lands with heavy force. Written by Jamelle Bouie here

Nobody trusts anybody now and we’re all very tired.” Kurt Russell in The Thing.

Apparently a remake of the classic movie The Thing is happening. We’ll see how that turns out.

Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times wrote an op-ed about the 1982 original recently and his point was that the world today is experiencing a “thing” which has infiltrated our lives and caused us to distrust each other. Parents don’t trust vaccinations. Emerging generations don’t trust institutions. Nobody trusts politicians.

Even those of us who say we trust God actually don’t. Otherwise, we would never worry about medical tests and job searches and what in the world will become of The Church post-pandemic.

Either we believe God’s got us or we don’t. And by this I don’t mean that believers never become sick or unemployed. I mean that God uses everything including terrible things. And God has acted through history as trustworthy. We’re the ones who have screwed up.

Someone said to me recently: “I trust Jesus. I just don’t trust The Church.” And we could exchange the word “Church” with “my pastor” or “the Presbytery” or “the elders” or “religion.” There are countless reasons not to trust The Church. Or those other things. Power, greed, envy – all the human characteristics that make us sinners are especially ugly in settings that are supposed to be about service, generosity, and kindness.

What builds trust in The Church today? Here’s what I’m seeing:

  • Non-transactional blessing. (Don’t offer support to refugees and expect them to join your church in return.)
  • Organizations that exist to serve rather than perpetuate their institution. (Hello Presbyteries and Synods.)
  • Keeping confidences which is not the same as keeping secrets. (No I won’t share your addiction struggles. Yes I will report your misconduct.)
  • Being a safe place for everyone and not just for the dominant demographic. (I’m looking at you “friendly churches” who aren’t actually friendly to everyone.)
  • Authentic kindness (as opposed to “for show” kindness while skewering me behind my back.)
  • Working together for something life-giving beyond ourselves.

It feels like nobody trusts each other now and we are all very tired. And yet there is tremendous hope if we are committed to being trustworthy in a weary world.

The Church is at an important moment right now. Let’s not waste this opportunity because God’s got us. And we have work to do in Jesus’ name.

Who Has the Right to Weigh In on Our Lives?

God bless Kei and Mako who got married yesterday. Mako was Princess Mako, older sister of the Crown Prince of Japan until she married commoner Kei Komuro. It’s been a brutal process getting married for these two.

In a shame-based culture (and most of our cultures are indeed shame-based) it matters when a royal person marries a not-royal person and in this case, all of Japan apparently weighed in on everything from Mr. Komuro’s appreciation of NYC food trucks and his occasional ponytail.

Most of us don’t have to contend with global commentary, But Pastors and our family members often find ourselves the focus of peculiar interest in Church World. Note: People who spend more time gossiping about their pastors than serving their communities offend Jesus. Stop it.

In my own ministry experience as a pastor I’ve heard the following from parishioners. These are exact quotes:

You might be able to find a husband if you wore tighter clothes. (When I was a single pastor.)

This baby is ours and you live in our house, so we can visit him anytime we want. (When I was a new mom.)

What were you thinking having your children so close together? (After giving birth to three children in four years.)

These comments happen to clergymen as well. My spouse has heard running commentary on his facial hair from parishioners for 30+ years. To be fair, he gets lots of positive comments about his Madras pants.

My point is that the communities with which we serve in the Church sometimes feel that they have permission (or an obligation) to weigh in on the style, hobbies, personalities, child-rearing decisions, and purchasing habits of their leaders. If you are a Church Person, please consider before you share your thoughts whether you would share similar thoughts with your doctor or your child’s teacher.

Fall is sometimes the season when pastors are reviewed and reviewing a pastor can sometimes be conflated with opinions about the way pastors conduct their lives. For example, one of my reviews as a parish pastor stated that I was a good mother, as if that had anything to do with my role as a pastor. (Imagine HR sharing in personnel reviews for a banker or a college professor that an employee was a good parent.)

Appropriate comments for a pastor’s review might be: approachable, excellent teacher, effective communicator, strong conflict resolution skills.

Not so appropriate comments for a pastor’s review might be: needs a haircut, not good with babies, aloof.

Part of being an authentic faith community includes loving each other and helping each other be the people God created us to be. It’s not about hair styles and jewelry (“Not too much, Pastors!“) as much as it’s about leadership and spiritual gifts and even loving our enemies.

Who gets to weigh in on our lives? Good boundaries answer that question. And lovingkindness.

Image of former Princess Mako and her husband Kei Komuro who were married on October 26, 2021 in Tokyo.

Separated by Shrugs

Compassion fatigue is not a new thing but there are more demands on our capacity for compassion than ever.

It’s easy to shrug off the needs of the world. . . for some people. “Not my problem.” “They must have made poor choices.

For other people, The Meaning of Life involves addressing the needs of the world. Some of us who claim Jesus as Savior even believe that following Jesus = expanding the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. There is no shrugging.

And then there are people in between the two extremes.

I’m beginning to believe that the cultural/political/social divides in our country have something to do with shrugging.

This is a conversation I had recently:

Me: It’s even harder to be a Muslim person in this country now than it was a generation ago. ____ was walking down the street over the summer and someone threw a bottle at her and yelled for her to “Go back to Arabia.”

(She’s from Pakistan.)

Christian Friend who also knows her: (silence)

Me: I mean she was going to the office and they threw a glass bottle at her head. It really shook her up.

CF: (not a word)

What I wish he’d said:

“I had no idea it was still so hard for people with brown skin to feel safe in this neighborhood.”

“What can I do to support her?”

“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll give her a call.”

When friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors talk about the treatment of People of Color or the poor or the unemployed or the mentally ill, it shows compassion to at least act as if we care. How can people hear real life stories about the disenfranchised and not respond?

I’ve thought for a long time that part of our nation’s divide – especially among Christians – involves what we believers focus on in our relationship with God. Simplistically speaking, there are believers whose chief concern is personal salvation. I have a friend who believes that his #1 calling is to raise a family of believers who will go to heaven because of their personal piety. And I know others who believe that their #1 calling is to serve God by serving those in need. Again, this is a simplistic divide, but it indeed divides us.

Thoughts? Are we separated by shrugs?

Image of Jon Hamm from Mad Men.

Can We Trust the Tour Guide?

Zack was my tour guide in Charleston, SC last weekend for an historic walking tour of the city.

He started by sharing his credentials: his formal education (history major with an emphasis on plantation life) and his experience as a tour guide (three years.) Otherwise, we didn’t know anything about this guy. Would he have an agenda? Would his politics be obvious? Could we trust him to share authentic history? Would he gloss over the realities of the slave trade in Charleston? (This was my first concern.)

Zack gave a good tour and since he only had two hours, there wasn’t enough time to cover everything. He did tell us that “Charleston is the #1 wedding city in the U.S. except for Las Vegas” and I had just been told the same thing a few weeks ago, but about Charlottesville. Whatever.

A tour guide in London with a Beatles Tour once stood in front of a bench at a bus stop and told my family that “Perhaps Paul and John had sat here while catching a bus.” And maybe I met the Queen at Piccadilly Circus.

I love a good tour and trusting the tour guide is essential. Please don’t leave out the ugly parts of a story. Please don’t give us historical fiction. Please share the truth.

Rob Bell once said that pastors are like tour guides. We point out where God is in the ancient story and in today’s story. And I want trustworthy tour guides in my spiritual community too.

  • Please don’t tell me that if I give a lot of money to your organization, God will bless me. (That’s called Prosperity Gospel and it’s a lie.)
  • Please don’t tell me that the Bible says homosexuals are going to hell. (Let’s sit down and look at the Hebrew and Greek together.)
  • Please don’t tell me that God doesn’t call women into leadership. (Again, let’s do a Bible study.)

The truth is – though – that even tour guides interpret things differently. I want tour guides who know what they are talking about because they’ve studied the ancient languages, the historical contexts, and the literary features of Biblical history, wisdom, and law.

Random note: I got a phone call from a nameless man last week that went like this:

NM: I want to talk with someone who can hire the best pastor in North Carolina.

Me: And who is that, Sir?

NM: That’s me. I’m the best pastor you’ll ever meet.

Me (what I wanted to say): Congratulations.

Me (what I actually said): Sir, if you’re a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA or one of the denominations we are related to, please send me your Personal Information Form and I’ll look it over.

NM: What about Jesus? Don’t you care that I’ve been called by Jesus?

Me: Yes, I care very much about that, and that your call has been affirmed by the Holy Spirit through the Church.

Click.

Today we get our news, our history, our theology, our medical counsel, our legal advice, our tech guidance from an array of different people. I believe it makes God happy when we get our information from people who know what they are talking about and have some expertise. Get a second opinion if you wish. Note that professionals interpret their findings in different ways.

Disinformation is tearing apart our nation.

In Texas, Moses is now called a Founding Father in school textbooks. In Montana, one woman started a campaign to keep her part of the state from becoming a national heritage site by making up lies about what it meant to be a national heritage site. (She said it would mean that landowners could not “build sheds, drill wells or use fertilizers and pesticides. It would alter water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land.” None of this is true.

Over the summer, a doctor told members of a church “to avoid vaccination against the coronavirus. As an alternative, she pushed drugs that have not been proven effective at treating COVID-19 — drugs that she also offered to prescribe to the audience in exchange for $90 telehealth appointments.” Not only was that false information, her medical license had lapsed.

What do we see when we observe a slave cemetery or a baptismal font or a church organ or a verse of scripture? What do we see when we notice a person sleeping on the sidewalk or a neighborhood with boarded up windows or a playground with broken glass by the swings. There are many interpretations and it’s important to share as much information as we can authentically share for the sake of what is True.

Image of Zack the tour guide.

What’s the Name of the Parking Attendant?

With the news of General Colin Powell’s passing this week, I remember reading in one of his books about the parking attendants in the garage where he parked every day while serving the State Department.

The garage was so crowded that cars were parked almost on top of each other. It took most drivers awhile to have parking attendants retrieve their cars from the Tetris-esque configurations in the garage. Interestingly enough though, General Powell never had to wait for his car. It was always readily accessible, and this was not even guaranteed for The Secretary.

General Powell knew the names of the parking attendants. He smiled at them each morning and asked how things were going. It’s not surprising that they would be especially kind to someone who treated them with kindness. You can read about this here.

One of the essential characteristics for successful leadership is having the emotional intelligence to notice the people around us. Relational leadership makes the difference between connecting with the community and serving in a closed system. And it’s not transactional. General Powell benefitted from his kindness, but my hunch is that he would be kind whether he benefitted or not.

Do we in our communities know the names of those who park our cars, ring up our groceries and pour our coffee? The world certainly benefits when we do.

“Helping” People Become Whiter

We, in my and other denominations, are dealing with the consequences of taking Native children out of their communities to educate them in Western ways between 1860 to 1978. Helpful White Missionaries taught them the English language, Western table manners, and religious practices that encouraged them to abandon their own culture so that they might prosper in a better culture, a whiter culture. Here is a good article about this tragedy.

It would make their lives so much easier.

When people who look like me protest that they are in no way racist, much less White Supremacist, I think of the Good White Christian People like those missionaries who authentically believed they were “helping” those “poor savage children.”

As a parish pastor in a church outside Washington, DC, we welcomed three children who came to Sunday School on their own. They found themselves in our congregation by a variety of paths and they were all low income and Black or Brown. In the middle of the liturgical year, as we were checking on how things were going in each class, the teacher of the class that included those three children, we learned, was teaching them etiquette lessons. Etiquette Lessons. She was “helping them” learn how to put a napkin in their laps and how to shake hands with adults which was – apparently – as important as teaching them the Parables of Jesus.

For the love of God.

Although I (kind of) like sports, I had never heard of the football player Dante Stewart until yesterday when I read his essay for The New York Times. Please read it here.

As Stewart tells it, he arrived at Clemson University as a Black country boy and he was embraced by White Christians who invited him to Bible studies and prayer meetings. Excellent. What was also true is that he found himself in more and more White Spaces as if being a devout Christian equaled being White.

Through my life, I’ve heard White Christians refer to certain Black people as “good Blacks” or “the Black family who fits it so well” in our church/school/club. Speaking up about injustice is frowned upon in these circles. The Jesus who turned over tables and spoke about the oppressed is not given much attention.

We “Good White Western Christians” have conflated evangelism with making people into our own image. God’s Image is much more glorious and colorful. There is no culture or government or – certainly – political party that has corned the market on being Christian.

It would make OUR lives so much easier if everybody would just dress, speak, live like we (White Western Christians) do.

Perhaps the definition of current religious hypocrisy is expecting people to practice their faith and every other aspect of their lives in the image of the dominant culture of White Western Christianity.

If that’s the case then we – White Western Christians – are the ones missing the point of evangelism.

Image of three Lakota boys before and after they were brought to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA in 1900. (Smithsonian Institution) Source here.

Healing the Nation by Acknowledging Everybody’s Humanity (Including the Annoying Ones)

These two articles made my stomach turn recently: What I Learned While Hunting Humans by Ian Fritz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and Video Footage Amid Unrest After George Floyd’s Death Captures Minneapolis Police Discussing ‘Hunting People’ by Mark Berman and Holly Bailey. Both share experiences in which people with power dehumanized people with less power. I especially hope you read the Fritz article from The Atlantic.

Some of the big stories in the news today include the verbal and physical assault on teachers (who are trying to be safe in the classroom), Asian citizens (who have experienced increased violence against them) and political leaders (especially those who are speaking out in support of the vulnerable and the poor.)

On any given day, we call each other names that dehumanize: savage, illegal, trash, monsters. Many of us consider those who are not “like us” to be less valuable even if the differences are as simple as skin color or family heritage or political party.

The most fundamental thing to teach children in our churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues is that all of us were created in God’s image and each human being is precious in God’s sight. Dehumanizing people strikes me as the least Christ-like thing we can do.

Imagine what a difference it would make if we lived as if we actually believed that – even the most annoying among us – is made in God’s image. It would be a start.

Image source.

Healing the Nation with Moral Consistency

(Wow. That’s a high falutin title.)

After traveling up and down the East Coast this month talking with wedding guests and small town cashiers and overworked barristas in highway rest stops, I’ve been pondering what might possibly bring healing to our nation. I’ve talked with people who believe to their toenails that this President is evil. I’ve talked with people who believe with similar intensity that the former President is evil. Billboards on the highway accuse political rivals of “destroying our values.”

What can be done to bring us together as a people? I have a couple ideas.

The first is a pledge to be consistent in terms of our morals.

Jon Stewart often showed side by side clips of politicians saying one thing in 2020 and the opposite thing in 2021. In 2010 a politician supports the filibuster because his party is in power. In 2020 he opposes the filibuster because his party is not in power. (Note: it was never about what’s right. It was about politics.)

I have a friend who is indeed “pro-life.” He is opposed to most abortions, and he is also against the death penalty. He believes in fully funding Head Start and free health care for uninsured children. His views are morally consistent – or he tries to be morally consistent.

To be “pro-life” while being against funding prenatal care for poor women is confusing.

What if we all pledged to seek moral consistency in the way we live and vote and spend our money? I wonder if this would help us understand each other. Otherwise we are simply engaging in partisan politics that have less to do with what’s best for our country than personal power.

How do our politics and our faith match up? Are they consistent across the board? I hope this is something we’ll grapple with in our faith communities in the coming months.

Image is a quote from Patheos by Dr. John O’Keefe 2016.

Three Weddings and Two Funerals

As of this Saturday, I will have celebrated three weddings and two funerals in four weeks. They are all indeed celebrations. After spending time with Susan Beaumont about liminal times via Zoom last week I’m reminded to relish everything – even and especially the transitions.

Curiosity is underrated I’ve decided.

It’s normal to be curious about what the future holds for a newly married couple. It’s normal to be curious about what happens after we die. And it’s essential to be curious about other people and places if we hope to be well-rounded human beings. And it’s essential to be curious about The Future if we hope to be effective leaders.

Casting a vision for The Church when we have no idea what’s next is challenging. But if we are not curious about the possibilities, we have already failed. Let’s not waste this liminal season.

Image from our drive to Northeastern Pennsylvania over the weekend.