Relationships Are Not Tidy

Since seminary, I have lived:

  • alone in a house with a dog
  • with a spouse and a dog
  • with 1, 2, 3 children (in rapid succession) and a spouse and a dog
  • in an empty nest with a spouse and a dog
  • alone in an apartment with no dog

Living alone for a Myers Briggs Introvert can be heavenly for several reasons and one of them – maybe the loveliest reason – is that I can organize things the way I want.

Look at my kitchen cabinet.  No clutter. Orderly. Color-coordinated.  Exactly how I like it.

My tools are always where I placed them last. My fridge holds no expired food. Every book is in its place. And it’s lonely.

I can hardly wait until HH joins me in Charlotte in late April but our home will not look like this.  Every one of us who resides with another human being knows that people load the dishwasher a certain way.  Some of us leave dirty dishes in the sink.  They will be random piles of paper.  It’s the price we pay for living with our loved ones.

Relationships take work beyond deciding how to load the dishwasher.  They can be messy and that’s kind of the fun part.  Figuring out how “we” will set the table or make the bed is all part of the glorious work of being in relationship.  When we love the people we live with, it’s easier to let the occasional laundry on the floor thing go. (Note: sometimes I leave my laundry on the floor.)

We negotiate and compromise when relationships are important to us. One of my hopes for the people who serve in Our Nation’s Capital is that they will come to care about our country and each other enough to negotiate and compromise.  When we focus on winning, we are engaging in Level 3 Conflict which is a terrible place to start.

Who will be the heroes and patriots willing to engage in the messy work of building relationships across the political aisle?

Who will be the disciples of Jesus willing to engage in the messy work of building relationships beyond church walls?

Who will be the people willing to engage in the messy work of building relationships beyond our comfort zones?

Our future as a nation, a Church, and a people depends on building relationships.  And here’s the cool part: we have spiritual  resources to help us out.

Jeremy Bearimy

The finale of The Good Place came at the perfect time last week. (This recap has spoilers.)

By the time HH and I will get to live in the same home again, two years and two weeks will have passed.  We chose to do this to ourselves partially by choice and partially not by choice, but my primary request to God for these commuter marriage months has been this:  Please don’t let HH die while we are living apart.

My parents died young.  As a pastor I’ve buried precious people who died every age from hours old to 100 – literally.  I’m in the life and death business and so a television show written by a philosopher about the afterlife was bound to attract my attention.

By grace and providence HH and I were in the same time zone sitting on the same sofa to watch the series finale and it occurred to me – one more time – that one day one of us will have to say “goodbye” to the other one.  I want to do this really well when the time comes.  And I hope the time doesn’t come for many years.

I long to see my parents again.  I would love to see Cindy and Margaret and Anne and Mason and RS and Ethel and Bob and Lucille.  I would love to see Zack and Scout too.  I look forward to spending some eternal time with CM.

When last week begins with a beloved NBA legend and his daughter dying suddenly with seven other souls on their way to do something they all love and ends with a nation’s democracy teetering on destroying itself, The Good Place finale has been a soothing balm.

My life started in The Southern Part of Heaven only to loop through relationships and dreams and births and deaths only to circle back to find myself  back in North Carolina for the last years of my professional life. It’s clear that Jeremy Bearimy could be a real thing (maybe on earth as it is in heaven?)

HH and I listened to James Taylor’s new autobiography over the weekend and – again – I’m amazed at how life loops and circles around.  (Note: Break Shot is an excellent and quick 90 minute listen.)

Here’s an explanation of Jeremy Bearimy.  Here’s where you can watch the series finale (Season 4, Episode 13.)  And here’s where you can find a lifelong place to figure out the loops and circles about who God is and who we are.

I believe this to be true:

“The Good Place, like its architect, always found happiness, and sometimes beauty and deep meaning, in the mundanity of life.”  (Alan Sepinwall in Rolling Stone.)

I look forward to having daily mundanity with HH again – later this year.  And I ache for those who don’t have it anymore.

Have a lovely week, everyone.  And be kind to each other.

When Bullies Win

I try to let it go when bullies win.

I try to surrender my disappointment to God and trust that God will bring justice to an unjust situation.

And the weird thing about bullies is that they often do not consider themselves to be bullies at all.  They see themselves as:

  • Smart
  • Tough
  • Successful
  • Savvy

Actually they are afraid.  They are afraid to be vulnerable.  They are afraid to fail.  They are afraid that they aren’t the smartest or strongest or most powerful person in the room.

I’ve known some bullies and they can be Life Destroyers.  It’s easy to let thoughts of them control our sense of peace.

So, on this day when you might work with a bully or read a bully’s tweet or hear a bully’s voice here’s something we can do. (I learned it from a pillar of the Church named Maybelle.)

Try to see that person through the eyes of Christ.  Where we see a threat, I believe God sees a broken, terrified person who is loved by God but has never been loved unconditionally by anyone else.  Or maybe they have been loved unconditionally, but they can’t love themselves enough to believe it.

Loving bullies is the only thing that helps, and we pray that  – in the meantime  – the harm they wreak will be reversible.

Image of Regina George in Mean Girls not to be confused with the Olympic sprinter.

Lost Ticket-no grace

I made two serious parking mistakes yesterday morning:

  • I parked in the garage that doesn’t validate parking tickets.
  • I lost the unvalidatable parking ticket.

This means I forked out $21 for a parking spot that should have cost me $6 and as I pushed the “lost the ticket” button on my way out of the garage, the machine spat out this special receipt:

Lost Ticket – no grace.

Maybe there would be grace bestowed upon me by the Voice In The Machine.  “I was just at the doctor for less than two hours.”  Maybe the disembodied voice would have mercy on me.

Nope.

Grace happens when we receive what we do not deserve. Mercy happens when we do not receive what we deserve. Two different things.

Church is in the grace business AND in the mercy business.  It’s been this way since the First Century if the Church has authentically followed Jesus.  When most of the First Century world cast out disabled children and “sinful women” the Early Church took them in and loved them. When most of the world left widows to fend for themselves, the Church provided for them.

This is what the Church has always done if we have been faithful to Jesus’ teaching.  This is what we do today if we are faithful to Jesus’ teaching.

I know congregations who welcome undocumented immigrants who haven’t followed the rules.  I know congregations who re-purpose classrooms for transitional housing for people coming out of prison.

We who believe God calls us to offer grace and mercy are often called fools.  One woman snapped at me in church years ago and accused me of being a “do-gooder.”  I wish I actually did as much good as she seemed to think I did.

It’s interesting to me that the poor seem to offer more grace and mercy than the rich – and maybe that’s an unfair assessment.  But people who have experienced their own need for grace and mercy seem more willing to offer it.

On this very day in the year of our LORD,  we are going to see less grace than rudeness.  We will witness less mercy than cruelty . . . unless we are very fortunate or we make the commitment to offer grace and mercy ourselves to those who don’t deserve it.  Weirdly it’s a joy to do this.

What Breaks God’s Heart? Wealth Tests

Yesterday the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of the legality of denying green cards – or even temporary entry into the United States – to poor people.

I actually don’t have much to say about this except that it’s the opposite of what the Bible teaches.

With all due respect for the separation of Church and State, I also want to live in a nation known for how we treat “the least of these.”  One could argue that we’ve never been that country.

And I believe this breaks God’s heart.

 

Things We Can’t Speed Through

Of course we want pain to dissipate quickly.  Of course we do.  “I want to sit interminably in agony facing the unknown,” said no one ever.

The County Sheriff called me early one evening over 30 years ago to help him tell one of my parishioners that her husband had died in a car accident.  G & C were the parents of two young daughters.  When C saw me walk in with the Sheriff, she knew it was terrible news.  G had just left to run an errand.  In fact, I had seen him on that errand just an hour before.

I’ve never forgotten her first words upon hearing the news:  “I wish it were a year from now.”  C had hope that it would get better.  But the present moment and the next several months would be utter hell.

We generally like to speed through feelings. We prefer to speed through deep discernment.  We even like our food fast.

But we can’t speed through the big things:

  1. Healing After Trauma
  2. Spiritual Discernment
  3. Intimate Relationships

75 years ago today the Auschwitz concentration camps were liberated by the Soviet Union.  Just yesterday the family of Kobe Bryant lost him and his 13 year old daughter Gianna.  The two traumas are totally different and yet both have left human beings with lifelong repercussions – as all traumas do.  The first directly impacted over a million people who were inmates in the camps.  The second took the lives of nine people.  Both indirectly impacted many more millions.

We can’t speed through trauma and trauma is rampant throughout the world these days.  This means we need to be gentle with each other.  Someone you meet today will be dealing with some level of trauma.  Be kind.

In my denomination, it takes an average of between 9 and 18 months to call a new pastor.  This is especially frustrating for people in the fields of business and education and medicine.  In those professions, the processes for recruiting and hiring new bankers, teachers, janitors, dentists, police officers, and accountants is generally swift.  Not so much for finding a new spiritual leader because it’s about the Holy Spirit and sometimes the Spirit speaks slowly and humans listen even more slowly.

We can’t speed through spiritual discernment and please believe me when I say that it’s better to be without a settled pastor than wish you didn’t have one.  The wrong pastor can damage, hinder, and confuse God’s people.  Let God lead the process and – while you’re at it – notice in scripture how God rarely calls the obvious leader. Someone you know might be on a pastor search committee. Be patient.

We can’t speed through relationships if we want them to be meaningful.  All important relationships take time.  Our kids need unscheduled conversation time.  We need time with our partners to talk about more than calendars.  Our friends deserve our time.  If we hope to have a relationship with God, it will take time.

Relationships break for millions of reasons but they all seem to relate back to time.  We need time to listen to each other – which is more than waiting for our turn to talk.  We need time to share stories – sometimes over and over again.  We need time to disclose fears and hopes.  There is someone in your life today who will need more than a quick DM or text.  Be attentive.

[Note:  We cannot humanly have intimate relationships with more than a handful of people.  It’s impossible.  It’s healthy to keep boundaries and protect the time we and our closest loved ones need.]

It’s Monday and the week ahead will be busy.  Chances are that every week is busy.  Let’s take our time.

Image of the oldest working astronomical clock in the world made by the clock maker Hanuš in Prague in 1410.  Read the interesting story about this clock here.

When Churches Want a Pastor Who Can “Bring In Young Families” . . .

Children in church 1

[Note: Just like yesterday, this is a re-post I wrote a few years ago that resonated with people.  I finish up the class I’m teaching Friday and will write new posts for next week.]

Almost every church I’ve ever known has wanted to Attract Young Families.  The reasoning behind this includes the following:

  • If we don’t regenerate, everyone will eventually get old and die.
  • It’s energizing to have young people around.
  • Younger members can do the work that older members can’t/won’t do anymore.
  • Older members tend to be on fixed incomes and younger working members are needed for their pledges.
  • Young families (i.e. mom, dad, and kids) remind us of church when we were (or wish we were) part of young families.

There are a few things wrong with this reasoning, including the fact that “attracting” people in general feels manipulative – as if people are “targets” to be used for our own purposes.  Yuck.

Let’s be honest about the “why.  Are we saying that we want these rare and valuable Young Families for what they can give to us?

What if  – instead – the “why” of this demographic quest was about feeding souls and sharing authentic community?  I always hoped – as a young mom – that church would provide adults that could help me nurture my children.  I always wanted to know that – if my kids couldn’t come to me or HH with a problem – they would have other trustworthy adults to whom they could go (and they did.)

Young families are great.  Old families are great.  Families made up of child-free couples are great.  Families of single people are great.  Imagine if every church simply wanted A Pastor Who Could Bring In Broken People.  Now that’s a church.

Also, the days are gone when Young Families were present in worship every Sunday.  The statistics are in about how the definition of “regular worship” has changed since the 1950s.  (“Regular” used to mean weekly.  Now it means once or twice a month.)

Instead of seeking a Pastor who can bring in those vaunted Young Families, we need to call a Pastor who knows how to shift congregational culture.  The culture in which we live and move and have our being has changed, but we are killing ourselves trying to maintain a dated congregational culture.

News flash:  Most pastors will fail at “Bringing in Young Families.” Families of every kind are drawn to communities that are in touch with real life.  For example, check out Carey Nieuwhof’s recent post about why even committed Christians do not worship as regularly as they did in previous decades.  At least two of his “10 Reasons” specifically impact cultural changes connected to Young Families.

So how can we be the kind of congregation that welcomes Young Families for more than their energy and wallets?  We can:

  1. Be real.  Deal with real issues in sermons, classes, retreats, conversations, prayers.
  2. Listen to parents’ concerns.  Listen to children’s concerns.
  3. Ask how we can pray for them.  And then pray for them.
  4. Allow/encourage messiness.  Noses will run and squirming will ensue.  There might be running.  There will definitely be noise.
  5. Check our personal Stink Eye Quotient.  Do we grimace when a baby cries?  Do we frown when the kids are wearing soccer uniforms?
  6. Refrain from expecting everyone to be the church like we have always been the church.
  7. Help parents, grandparents, and all adults become equipped to minister to children and youth.  How can we learn to offer such loving hospitality to the younger people in our midst that they will always experience church as home?
  8. Do not use children as cute props.  Yes they say the darndest things during children’s stories, but they are not there to entertain us.
  9. Give parents a break.  Really.  Help struggling parents get coats and hats on their kids.  Hold an umbrella.  Assist in wiping spills.
  10. Give parents a break administratively.  Make it easy to participate. Minimize the unnecessary.

It’s also okay not to have Young Families in our congregations depending on the context.  Some neighborhoods have very few young ones living nearby.  But there are still people who crave some Good News.

I want a Pastor who can minister to whomever lives in the neighborhood in the thick of these cruel and beautiful times.

Image is a popular one that shows up in lots of random blog posts.

Dear Pastor Search Committee

[Note:  Ken McFayden, Richard Boyce and I are teaching Transitional Ministry Training this week in Charlotte and writing a fresh post is not going to happen today.  Here’s one from 2013 that might be appreciated, especially if your congregation is searching for new leadership.]

Dear Pastor Search Committee,

The truth is that you are the most important committee in the church.  Your choices will impact the future of your congregation for the rest of that congregation’s life.

No pressure or anything.  But here’s the good news:  God wants to direct you. Your job is to discern and listen and then act in faith, not in fear.

Having said this, I get that you don’t want denominational staffers to tell you what to do, but there might be some insights that we can contribute as entities who do this All The Time.  You don’t have to take this guidance, but honestly, we want you to have the best pastor possible and these tips will help.  You can find this out now or you can find this out later.  So please consider the following:

  • For the love of God, please don’t judge pastors by their gender, hair style, skin color, accent, age, or (even) education.  Maybe she went to the local community college for a really good reason.  Maybe he studied at Harvard but he’s a jerk.  Perhaps they have fabulous hair, but they also have the pastoral skills of a carrot.  Maybe she won preaching awards but she’ll stab you in the back.  Maybe he’s quirky and yet there is a holy aura about him.  I’ve written about pulpit candy before in this blog.  Don’t choose pulpit candy.
  • If you consider yourselves to An Amazing Church, congratulations.  But do not assume that all candidates believe you are all that.  If you come off as arrogant (“If we should deign to call you . . .“), if you believe that everyone will be clamoring to be your pastor, if you believe great candidates will come to you – beware.  The candidate you really want is not that shallow.
  • If you consider yourself to be a church with little to offer, stop it.  You deserve a strong pastor.  Keep in mind that your community needs a shepherd who will teach you how to make disciples and love people.  Don’t settle for someone without the energy to serve you well.
  • If several candidates have turned you down, stir up the courage to have someone contact the former candidates and ask what you could have done better.  Make it clear that you truly want to learn how you could be more hospitable, transparent, authentic.  And listen to those comments.
  • Give people space and yet keep them informed.  Don’t interview somebody and then fail to be in touch for a month.  Acknowledge receiving their resumes.  And when they come into town, do not insist they look at certain neighborhoods while simultaneously offering a salary package that makes that neighborhood out of their financial reach.
  • Tell the truth.  Don’t hide skeletons.  Don’t forget to mention the misconduct of your former pastor or the full financial picture of the congregation.  It will not be pretty – or fair – when your new pastor finds out the truth the week after her/his installation.
  • Don’t rush.  It’s better to have no pastor than have a pastor who’s a terrible match.

Your congregation deserves a pastor who will understand you, love you, lead you, admonish you, and challenge you.  Pray for that person.  Your next pastor is out there but it might take a while for you to find each other.

Grace and peace, Jan

Repeating Lies is a Spiritual Problem

No lies about your neighbor.  Exodus 20:16 in The Message

Scientific American magazine reported about something called the Illusory Truth Effect in December 2019 and it’s part of the ongoing conversation about why there is so much disinformation being spread these days.  From disinformation about vaccines to misinformation about “what the Bible says” it’s not a good time to be a lazy person.  If we hear that Senator X has a zipper problem or Pastor Y misuses her church credit card, we need to dig deeper.  If we hear those rumors more over and over, we need to dig even deeper. From that Scientific American article:

The Washington Post recently reported that there are “more than 350 instances in which [Trump] has repeated a variation of the same claim at least three times.” In fact, Trump has repeated some false claims more than 200 times—for example, his claim that his border wall is being built.

If I tell people over and over again that I was a Rhodes Scholar, I might even start believing it myself.  But it’s not true.  And it’s an easily provable lie.  But if I tell people over and over again that the Pastor of Big Church on the Corner is an ineffective leader, her reputation will be damaged.  And it’s harder to prove or disprove such a comment.

The world is awash in disinformation and misinformation which threatens our democracy, our health, and our souls.

Many people believe that:

  • President Obama is Muslim.  (Note: It would be fine if he happened to be Muslim.  But it’s not true.)
  • Today’s U.S. economy is the best it’s ever been in the history of the United States. (Note: The economy is great. But it’s currently not the best it’s ever been in our history.)
  • “The Wall” is under construction at the Mexican border.  (Note: Photos widely shared of the promised Wall were actually taken of a different wall in Calexico, Calif.  In other sections of the border, new fencing is replacing old fencing contracted prior to President Trump’s election.)

These lies have been repeated so many times that millions of people believe them.  That’s the Illusory Truth Effect: if someone says it over and over again it “becomes true” in the minds of those who keep hearing it.

Unfortunately the lies that millions of people also believe have to do with their inherent worth.  Millions of people are told every day that they are not worth being loved, that if they are loved it’s conditional or transactional.  This is a lie.

Here is the God’s honest truth (and I mean that literally):

Every human being is worthy of unconditional love.  Every skin color. Every gender.  Every orientation.  Every culture.  Every ability. Every religion.  God created each of us worthy of love.  We in the Church need to repeat that fact over and over and over again – not because it is an illusion but because it’s eternally True.

For God so loved the world . . .

Not just white people.  Not just healthy people.  Not just successful people.  Not just Americans.  Not just educated people.

All people.  The world.  This is the Truth and souls are damaged if we fail to live accordingly.  Let’s make a point of spreading this True Information as often as possible.

White Churches: Your Next Pastor Might Not Be White

I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful
tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated
hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America. I definitely think
the Christian church should be integrated, and any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it fails to be a true witness. But this is something that the Church will have to do itself. I don’t think church integration will come through legal processes. I might say that my church is not a segregating church. It’s segregated but not segregating. It would welcome white members. Martin Luther King Jr on Meet the Press April 17, 1960

Someone asked me a couple weeks ago, “How can we get Black People to join our church?”  The people asking were White Christians and they were hoping to become more racially diverse.

The answer to this question is complex, but here are some initial followup questions:

  • Why do you want your congregation to be diverse racially?  Did you hear that diverse congregations are popular with Millennials?  Has it occurred to you that a segregated congregation doesn’t look anything like the kingdom of God?
  • Are People of Color (truly) welcome in your worship services and other events?
  • Do people treat new worshipers – especially people who don’t look like the majority of worshipers in skin color, age, abilities – like rare birds who are stared at and tiptoed around?
  • Is your staff diverse? This is a big one.

Depending on your congregation’s polity, Bishops, Church Elders, Pastor Nominating Committees, and Personnel Committees have the power to interview and hire/call pastors, educators, administrators, and music leaders. Especially when it comes to calling new pastoral leaders, there’s pressure to select a combination of Jesus/Rock Star Pastor.  There is also pressure to select a pastoral leader who will make everybody comfortable.

[Note: Jesus probably made a lot of people uncomfortable and Rock Stars can be divas who prioritize making themselves comfortable.]

If your congregation’s neighborhood is changing, it makes sense to call a pastor who reflects those demographic changes.

If your workplace, your children’s classrooms, and the stores in which you shop are racially diverse, it makes sense to have a church staff that looks like the office, the classroom, and the Target where you and your family spend your time.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that there are segregated churches and there are segregating churches.  Yes, most of our congregations are racially segregated.  But the great sin is that most of our congregations are also racially segregating.

Image from Thrivent Financial with ideas on how we can serve others on this national holiday.  If nothing else, write a letter of thanks to a first responder, take food to a shelter, or volunteer where needed today.  Thanking God for prophets of justice like Dr. King.