The Gift of Cancellations

Although I don’t believe that God has zapped us with a new virus to contend with, I do believe that God uses everything to bring some kind of good.  To reiterate: COVID 19 is not good.  But God takes what’s ugly, ordinary, scary and turns it into something beautiful, extraordinary, and comforting.

Our schedules are suddenly opening up because all kinds of events are being cancelled.  Some of the cancellations are heartbreaking.  Some are a relief.

Time is a huge gift and today I receive the personal gift of another birthday.  I’ve been given more time than either of my parents and I don’t take that lightly.  There are gifts in losing my parents early – like I never saw them get old.  But I particularly miss them on my birthday.

I’m grateful for these years and – with all these cancellations – I’m grateful for time that’s opened up in the coming days and weeks.  How will we use this newfound time well? That consideration is – in and of itself – a spiritual discipline.

What a wonderful time to find extra time. Enjoy every moment. And be safe out there.

Image of my mom just days before I was born. She was 23 years old.

Thank You for Serving Behind the Scenes

Some of us need to be the smartest/prettiest/most important person in the room with a mike in our hand and our names featured prominently.  And some of us prefer to serve behind the scenes – so far behind the scenes that almost no one’s aware of our contributions – however profound.

This post is about honoring those national treasures who work behind the scenes.

HH and I were officiating at the memorial service of a retired parishioner from Hungary years ago in Our Nation’s Capital, and we were aware that he’d had some kind of role in WWII.

We realized that his role was more significant than we’d known when his former colleagues eulogized him with words like this:

  • __ was always interested in keeping the women and children safe.
  • __ risked his own life and reputation.
  • __ never got credit for the sacrifices he made.

We had had no idea that our quiet parishioner had been a behind-the-scenes force for good in the Hungarian Resistance.  We’d just known him as a retired man with a lovely accent.

No organization – much less a church organization – can thrive without behind-the-scenes support.  It could be that they perform thankless tasks that nobody sees (clean out the kitchen refrigerator, dust all the books in the church library, regularly phone the home bound members to check on them.) Or it could be that they perform tasks that are so confidential that only the need-to-know people actually do know (the attorneys who donate their legal expertise, the wealthy member who pays a struggling family’s mortgage.)

Thank you, behind-the-scenes people.  Thank you for having the great idea but not getting credit for it.  Thank you for repairing the faucet in the ladies’ bathroom.  Thank you for representing us in court. Thank you for being a character witness at the court martial. Thank you for being on call for psychological emergencies.  Thank you for driving __ to chemotherapy every Tuesday.  Thank you for leaving oranges for the pastor’s kids.  Thank you.

We need you.  We appreciate you.  We can never repay you.

Image of the set of Hamilton as imagined (and eventually constructed) by one designer we know by name – David Korins – and countless carpenters, electricians, and artists we don’t know by name.  They did a good job literally working behind the scenes.

How Do We Get the Courage?

HH and I saw this sign painted on the side of a building recently and I was struck by the “take.” 

These days call for great courage but how do we get it? It takes courage to stand up to bullies.  It takes courage to speak the truth in love.  It takes courage to fall in love.  It takes courage to leave someone we love but sometimes we need to do that too.

How do we get courage? Do we simply “have” it somewhere deep inside?  Or do we “take” it from someplace else?

Greek word studies from Bible verses don’t help much.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Matthew 9:2

“Take heart” seems tame.  Other translators say “be of good cheer.”  Imagine that you are crying your eyes out while drooling on yourself and making dying animal sounds and some fool says, “Be of good cheer.”

The Greek word is θαρσέω (tharseo) which literally means something like “be you having courage” or “be bolstered from within which supports unflinching courage.”  A mouthful.

I like the idea of Taking Courage.  We saw that sign painted on a building in London and maybe “taking” versus “having” is a semantic difference.  Brits say “take” and we say “have.”

But consider this:  Scripture tells us many times that God will give us what we need.  Maybe we won’t get what we want, but we will get what we need.

  • The people wanted a political ruler. They got a poor rabbi who loved them enough to die for them.
  • The people wanted power.  They got a teacher who told them to love people without power (“the least of these”)

I could go on and on but you get it.  Maybe God grants us courage deep within and when we need it, it shows up.  But what if it’s something that comes from outside ourselves?  What if we can’t possibly find in ourselves what we deeply need?

Imagine that God presents us with an overflowing platter of gifts every day: courage, patience, hope, goodwill, generosity, faith, love, resilience.  We can have anything we need from that platter if we will only take it.  Usually we either ignore the platter or we pick around it or we refuse what’s on it.

Especially in these days, we need to take courage off that platter and use it for the sake of other people and ourselves.  It’s a scary time, people.

Take courage.  Just take it.  I believe God is offering it to us.

We Took Surgical Gloves to London . . .

. . . and antibacterial soap (purchased before everybody hoarded it) and antiseptic wipes.  We were there for a family event (TBC got engaged!) and I’m happy to report that we don’t seem to have Covid 19.

We wiped down everything from the airplane tray tables to the hotel TV remote, We disinfected the seat belt buckles and the door knobs and the elevator buttons.  We were those people.

[Note: we did not need our surgical gloves, but if anyone had needed surgery, we were ready.]

During the time we were away, Seattle Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church USA asked each of their 45 congregations to cancel worship for the sake of protecting the gathering parishioners. And Christ Church in Georgetown, DC asked each of their 500+ members to quarantine themselves after their Rector was diagnosed with the virus.

I’m reminded of the four Episcopal nuns in Memphis who refused to leave the city during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878.  They stayed to care for the sick while most of the city left to avoid the illness.  And each of them died.

How do we remain faithful in times like this?

As a church leader myself, I suggest two things:

  1. Love God with your mind as well as you heart, soul, and strength.  Really, Jesus gives us permission (and the commandment) to do this.  God invented both science and scientists and we are called to use the brains God gave us.
  2. Tempting God is frowned upon according to that time Satan tried it.

The Twitterverse reminds us that #SoapIsAmazing and all it takes is regular washing with soap.  You can sing “Happy Birthday” or just count to 20 while washing up.

God blesses us with smart people who share what they know and – we hope – tell us what they do not yet know.  And we are called to use our God-given brains.  This is not a good time to introduce a Common Cup for communion.  This is not a good time to encourage The Kiss of Peace every Sunday morning.

This is a good time to be compassionate and to pray for the sick, the caregivers, and those poor people in cruise ships.

This is a good time to pray for the scientists.

This is a good time to be patient with our decision-makers.

It’s not the first time there has been a pandemic such as this and it won’t be the last.  But it’s another opportunity to show people what faithful living looks like.

Be safe out there.  Wash your hands.  You probably don’t need surgical gloves.  You definitely don’t need to hoard the Purell.

Leaping

  • Lords do it on the tenth day of Christmas.
  • Lizards do it when things are chaotic.

Today – February 29, 2020 in the Gregorian calendar – marks the leap day of a leap year.  It’s fun to be born or get married (congratulations A&D) on Leap Day.

Leaping in general is fun.

This is my last post until I return on March 10. I’m taking time to learn some new things and then stopping from doing much of anything, although I hope to fit in a little leaping of my own.

See you March 10th.

Image of an ancient sculpture of a woman leaping over a bull found in Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete. (Circa 1600–1500 BCE)

Taking Time to Stop

She goes and she goes and she goes.  And then she stops.

I am blessed with two aunts over the age of 90 and a few more who are merely in their 70s/80s.  Actually, my Aunt Sarah turned 100 on Monday. Maybe I’ll be there one day and maybe I won’t.

At a family event in the past year, the daughter of one of these national treasures told me that she’s glad her mother could be there, but it will take her about three days to recover.  As we age, it takes longer to bounce back.

Lent is a good time to take time.  I find that I need it to recover from things that didn’t require recovery before:

  • Weekend retreats.
  • The death of loved ones’ loved ones.
  • The news.

It used to be true that I only needed to recover from traumatic things closer to home.

Recovery language is used for everything from physical illness (including addictions) to trauma to ordinary grief – if there is such a thing as ordinary grief.  I tend to recover by stopping.  I just stop.

When was the last time you simply stopped?  It’s really hard to do if you are a Type A person who judges herself by how much she gets done out there.  I watch Randall on This is Us and want to yell “Go take a nap You are worth having around even if you stop working/worrying/providing.”  And there are those who will only stop when they get sick.  And then there are those who don’t stop when they get sick.

We might need to stop today.  Stop spinning.  Stop running.  Stop bouncing.  Yes, taking Sabbath is one of the big ten, but stopping is beyond Sabbath.  Stopping is stopping.  No phones.  No social media.  No cleaning up. No appointments.

It’s the second day of Lent.  We don’t think we can afford to stop, but we can – if only for a little chunk of time today.

Image of a piece of whirling silica which apparently can spin faster than anything else on earth but I don’t really understand the science.  Top quote is from my father about his FBC.

What Are We Willing to Give Up for Someone Else?

Maybe you’ve decided to give up sugar or meat or chocolate for Lent.  Whatever.

I wonder if we would be willing to give up something for someone else for Lent.  Almost every day of my life, I’m in conversations with Good Church People about their anxieties regarding their congregations.

You know these anxieties.  They have to do with survival.  They are worried about “the young people” or the cash flow.  But there is a reliable cure for this.

If we are willing to give up at least some of the things we love about our church for the sake of those who are not yet with us, we will thrive as a congregation.  For example:

  • Would we be willing to give up some of the back pews in the sanctuary if it meant that young parents could rock their babies or play quietly with older children in the newly freed-up space?
  • Would we be willing to give up the dress code if it meant that people without clean clothes would feel welcomed?
  • Would we be willing to change the music for people who experience God’s love with different instruments?
  • Would we be willing to offer some educational offerings off church grounds if it meant that people would feel safer?

What would you be willing to give up for your neighbors to join you in spiritual community? It’s a real question for those of us who want our congregations to grow.

Something to ponder on this Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.

Image of removing church pews from a church sanctuary.

The Holiness of Pancakes

If you’ve ever had Chocolate Chip Pecan pancakes from Zada Jane’s in Charlotte or the Pumpkin Pecan pancakes at Blueberry Hill in the southern Chicago suburbs or the Potato Pancakes at Walker Brothers in the northern Chicago suburbs, you know that eating pancakes can be a religious experience.

Pancakes are forbidden for most Whole 30, Keto, or gluten-free eaters.  The historical reason why Christians eat pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday is to get all the sugar and butter out of the house before swearing them off for Lent.

Pancakes are a treat.  Good pancakes are heavenly.  Pancakes that appear to show the images of Jesus and Mary are . . .  interesting, mostly for what it means to see Jesus and his mother at breakfast.

We who long for deep meaning and purpose seek signs.  A burning bush would actually be terrifying and who would believe us?  A blinding light knocking us off our horse on the road to Damascus seems a little over the top.  But gentle signs – we prefer those: like that still small voice (which is also translated as “sheer silence.”)

Or we try really hard to find signs where there are no signs.  Is the fact that I didn’t get that job a sign that God has better things for me?  Or is it a sign of misogyny?  Is the fact that the Person-Of-My-Dreams is alternately abusive and sweet a sign that I’m called to be with this person to save them?  Or is it a sign that I need to get out fast?

We look for what we want to see and this is one reason we need a community.  We need people who will tell us the truth we don’t want to hear.  We need people to pick up our pieces after we’ve been shattered. We need someone to take us out for pancakes when it’s been a rough week.

I call this community Church.  At its best Church lavishes truth, healing, and comfort on all who gather and we do this because we have seen the power of truth, healing, and comfort that God offers.

Take someone out for pancakes today or take yourself out for pancakes.  And look for signs from God about what we are supposed to do and be today.  Chances are, today will have to do with telling someone the truth, healing a broken spirit, or comforting the grief-stricken in the name of the One who created us to be holy.  The signs are all around us that this is what the world deeply needs.

Image of a pancake sold on eBay in 2007 for $338 because of its likeness of Jesus and Mary (or Moses and Elijah)

 

We Are Not What People Think of Us (But It Feels That Way)

Somewhere along the way The Church evolved from a “hospital for sinners”* to a club for people who’ve got it together. At least this is true in the White Church.

Sure, we know we are not perfect.  But we like to give the impression that we are perfect-ish.  Or at least we minimize what others might consider imperfect.

What would people think of me if they knew that:

  • My child attempted suicide?
  • My spouse lost his job?
  • My morning routine includes taking two anti-depressants?
  • My marriage is a sham?
  • My father’s in prison?
  • My daughter wants to marry a woman?
  • My dog has fleas, my son has head lice, and my furniture has bed bugs?

Some of us say that we don’t care what people think, or we don’t care what they think anymore (because we’re older now.) But even the most confident among us has a touch of fear that people will learn that things are not perfect over at our place and they will judge us and maybe even reject us for it.

Repeat after me:  I am a Hot Mess and it’s okay.

We are not what people think of us.  But sometimes it feels that way.

What if people think I’m a loser and they’re right?  What if people think I’m ugly and they’re right?  What if people think I’m stupid and they’re right?  What if people think I’m a bad parent and they’re right?

First, put on some Lizzo and let it fill the air.  Secondly, remember that God made you and you are the unique and beautiful agglomeration of DNA and experiences that deserves love and respect.  It’s okay if people judge us as long as we know – to our bones – that we are created in the image of God.  And frankly, we always need some of God’s people around to remind us that we deserve to be treasured.

We are not what people think of us.  We are what God thinks of us – and yes, we have fallen short of perfect big time.  But nobody needs a Savior if things are perfect.  Have a good Monday.

Image from the movie After Lucia (2012) and thank you SPC.

*Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) supposedly said that the Church is a hospital for sinners not a museum for saints.

Church Home

When you picture a church building, what does it look like? A traditional brick structure or a white clapboard edifice?  A glassy modern building or a school gym?  An auditorium or a theatre?  Stained glass or clear glass or no windows at all?  A central pulpit or an elevated pulpit off to the side or no pulpit?  A chancel or a stage?  A narthex or a welcome center?  Pews or movable chairs?

Newer congregations (those established sometime in the past 50 years) seem not to be as attached to their buildings as congregations in older churches.  Believe me, if you worship in a church sanctuary that dates back to the 18th or 19th or even the early 20th Century, people are attached to that building.

New church buildings – if new church plants meet in a church building at all – don’t have Tiffany windows and hand carved pews.  It’s easier not to become attached to the building when it doesn’t feature soaring arches and cozy cushioned pews.

But longtime church people are very attached to their church buildings. Very. Attached.

In a changing world, the church building becomes The Constant for many.  And today, more and more churches are closing after a slow death.  Some are being sold to other congregations. Some are being sold to developers.  And the pain must be excruciating for those who have loved both those buildings and the people who once prayed there.

So yesterday, I was meeting with leaders from the 1001 New Worshiping Communities in our denomination and was told a cool thing:  sometimes when churches decide they don’t have the capacity to continue, they give their buildings to new congregations just getting started.  S. was telling us that sometimes the older members of the former church come back to worship with the new congregation in the old church building.

The people are different.  The music is different.  Maybe even the language is different.

But the older members sometimes come back.  It’s the place where they got to know God.  No matter who’s there, God is also there.  It’s their church home.

Image of one of the prettiest little sanctuaries in the United States: Union Church of Pocantico Hills, NY.