Mike, De’Amon, and Miguel

How comfortable are you feeling right now?  Most of us like to feel comfortable.

And yet I increasingly believe that we learn life’s most important lessons when we are uncomfortable.  And I’m not talking about mattresses and shoes.

I’m talking about embracing uncomfortable situations and having uncomfortable conversations.  This is how we stretch and grow and move forward.  Or we can seek comfort and stay where we are.

The National Gathering of NEXT Church is perennially inspiring, fun, and motivating.  Yes, there have been speakers who jolt us and spark new ideas.  The 2020 National Gathering – in particular – promises to make us uncomfortable.

Yay.

Keynoters Mike Mather, De’Amon Harges, and Miguel de la Torre will make us decidedly uncomfortable in Cincinnati March 2-4, 2020.  And this is very good.

One of the questions Brene Brown asks in her book Daring Greatly when trying to figure out an institution’s culture is this one:

What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort?  Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

Let’s say you are sitting in a church pew on Sunday morning and a guy comes in wearing a torn t-shirt and he smells bad.  And he sits beside you.  Or there’s a woman you’ve never seen before who sobs throughout the whole worship service.  Do you approach her?  Or there’s a young man clearly dealing with some sort of brain injury who is sitting behind you in worship and he keeps touching your hair.  All these things make us uncomfortable.  All these things are opportunities to love someone.

Spiritual growth is essential for humans and we have a lot of growing to do if we are going to follow Jesus in a tumultuous world.  And it’s going to be uncomfortable, but also holy and worth it.

I hope you consider welcoming some uncomfortable conversations with Mike, De’Amon, and Miguel in March.  Register for NEXT Church here.  It will be holy and worth it.

Image is one I use when talking with congregations about being uncomfortable in church.  How would you feel sitting beside this guy next Sunday?  And what could we learn from him? And what could we learn about ourselves?

Lin-Manuel, Audie, and Ijeoma

I was getting my haircut last Friday and mentioned to my stylist that SBC had met Lin-Manuel Miranda at Freestyle Love Supreme. She gave me a blank stare.

S and I have talked over many haircuts about Lizzo, Fleabag, and podcasts we like.  I also know from these conversations that our backgrounds are different and I enjoy her company (and her salon skills) very much.  Did I mention that we come from different worlds?

S had never heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda much less Freestyle Love Supreme.  When I told her about a story that Audie Cornish has reported on All Things Considered, it was clear that she’d never heard of All Things Considered, much less Audie Cornish.  When she asked me what I’d learned in 2019, I told her I loved So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and I was looking forward to the Just Mercy movie.  More blank stares.

You know you live in a bubble when everything you reference in a single conversation sounds like a foreign language to other people in the conversation.

“Everybody” I know can identify Lin-Manuel Miranda (and recognizes the lyrics to Hamilton.)  “Everybody” I know listens to All Things Considered (and Morning Edition and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.)  “Everybody” I know has read So You Want to Talk About Race (and The New Jim Crow and I’m Still Here and Just Mercy.)

I need to get out more.

One of the reasons our nation is so divided is because many of us live in bubbles.  We judge those who aren’t as – whatever – as we are.  And the truth is that all of us are ignorant about other people’s culture.

True Confession: I had never heard of Jason Aldean until the Las Vegas Shooting in 2017.

I know nothing about hunting and fishing except what I’ve learned from my father-in-law.  I know nothing about Pakistani food except what I’ve learned from my daughter-in-law.  I know nothing about parrots except what I’ve learned from one of my colleagues.

I know nothing about many, many things.

If we hope to heal the divisions in our nation, our families, our neighborhoods, we need to listen to people who know things we don’t know.  We need to appreciate different kinds of knowledge.  We need to be gracious in the presence of people whose opinions are the opposite of our opinions.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a is an American composer, lyricist, singer, actor, producer, and playwright, widely known for creating and starring in the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton.*  My SBC met him recently.  It was pretty cool.

Image from Freestyle Love Supreme.  From left to right: Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale, Christopher Jackson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Bill Sherman and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

*From Wikipedia

Meghan and Harry

Notice how we call them by their first names as if we know them/they’ve become like other First Name Only celebrities.

We in the former colonies don’t generally get what it means to “be a royal” although we seem to love the weddings.  Do we care because they are celebrities?  Do we care because we wish fairy tales were true?

The New York Times has published five pieces about Meghan and Harry in less than a week so The Gray Lady clearly cares.  But the most important article about them was written last week by Afua Hirsch: Black Britons Know Why Meghan Markle Wants Out.

The couple have been referred to as:

  • “A Breath of Fresh Air”
  • “Rogue Royals”
  • “Turncoats”
  • “Selfish”
  • “Victims”
  • “Victimizers”
  • “Adults Who Deserve to Live Their Own Lives” . . .

and countless other epithets, titles, and characterizations.  It’s interesting that so many people have so many comments.  But racism is the new feature in this royal story.

It’s not merely the “straight out of Compton” comment or the one about baby Archie looking like a chimpanzee.  Racism is usually coded more subtly.  We Western White People in the United States are everyday racists in the way we assume that People of Color live in poor urban neighborhoods and are inherently dangerous.  We make racist comments without even realizing it.  I know I do.

And it must be a nightmare to be followed around everywhere you go. Adele, Drake, and Cher understand this kind of imprisonment, but being “royal” ratchets it up beyond our imagination.  And being a person of mixed race who married the ginger prince feels suffocating even as an observer.

Royal news is a blessed distraction from global disasters and our own political divides.  You know what else is a distraction?  Judging people based on their skin color which has been – sinfully – not just a distraction but a policy in the United States of America.

Leave Meghan and Harry to do what they need to do.  Instead let’s focus on dismantling the everyday racism. I know I personally have a lot of work to do.

Image of Meghan Markle aka The Duchess of Sussex.

Ruth

Many people don’t get family matriarchs.  There’s no homestead to pass from generation to generation.  There’s no special tea cup or piece of jewelry.  There might not even be stories.  (Note: The NY Times shared news of the death of a local “star of New York Real Estate” last week and – as it turns out – her fabulous life story was a lie.)

Ruth Edmiston Hunter’s life was not a lie.  It was truly special and well-lived. And last Wednesday, January 8 her baptism was made complete.

Other cousins reminded me over the weekend that Ruth was the first of the fourteen grandchildren of Victor Chalmers Edmiston and Jane May Gray – my great-grandparents.  This also means that she was the oldest great grandchild of Samuel Edmiston who died at Antietam fighting for the Confederate Army.  There was also a Samuel Edmiston from Pennsylvania who fought at Antietam for the Union Army.  Every war is simple and every war is complicated in its own way.

Ruth was a woman of valor and an accomplished leader of other women.  She graduated from Queens College in Charlotte in the middle of World War II and she served Queens post-graduation in numerous capacities including the Board of Trustees.  She was a longtime member of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church and she will join her husband on the grounds there in death.  Or at least her body will be there.

I have no idea how heaven works exactly but it moved me to tears to imagine the holy reunion with those who have gone before her.  She outlived her parents, of course, but she also outlived her husband, her siblings and each of her ten first cousins.  I’m a little jealous that she gets to see them again however God makes that happen.

In addition to her many accomplishments as an adult, Ruth played Fanny in the Mt Ulla Elementary School’s musical presentation of Christmas with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Included in the cast were her aunt Annie Lou and her cousins John and Sam.

Re-reading the program for that children’s performance, I’m reminded that there was no one left who remembered Ruth as a little girl.  There was no one left who was present at her baptism.  I wonder what that feels like and I pray she was not lonely being the oldest person in her family tree.

I’m deeply grateful that God shared Ruth with us for almost 99 years.

Here’s to the matriarchs and patriarchs of our lives.  Let’s use our days well this week.

Image of Ruth Edmiston Hunter my first cousin, once removed.

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.