Wait. It Could Get Worse?

I met with my doctor last week for my six week post-shoulder surgery check in and things are progressing well.  Great.

Doc: Things are looking good. And now we enter the second phase of your recovery when the physical pain begins.

Me: (?)

Me: Wait.  What? If the physical pain is about to begin, what have I been feeling for the past six weeks?

Doc: That was the psychological pain. You were realizing your limitations post-surgery and getting used to a lack of movement and sleep.

Me: So, for what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure I’ve felt physical pain. And you’re saying it’s about to get worse?

2020 has been the worst in everything from pandemic numbers to election ugliness.  Family gatherings have been cancelled. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have closed. Wedding dates have been rescheduled. 

And now we hear that it could get worse.  

Jesus followers tend to be people of hope, and we who are prosperous Jesus followers find hope easier than – say – believers in the Middle East who have endured a lifetime of war and injustice.  There are poor people in the world who have little hope that they will ever rise out of poverty.  There are powerless people in the world who have little hope that they will ever have the power of self-determination.

Heaven is not just for the afterlife.  And if you believe this too, it’s a good time for us to take 2020 by the horns and wrestle with the pain of these days.  

It could get worse before it gets better.

So how will we cope?  By hunkering down in our own little worlds?  Or reaching out?  (Believe me, I know that reaching can hurt quite a bit, but things won’t get better unless I practice reaching.)

When a Double Standard Makes Jesus Happy

The analyses continue post-election on why our nation is divided and last week’s op-ed by Dana Milbank  is fodder from some interesting and painful conversation.

Americans are deeply, and for the moment immutably, divided by whether or not they’re nostalgic for what had long been a White-dominated country.

Milbank sees this as the crux of the issue.  There are citizens who see the past history of the United States as one that favored them (White People) and they want to return to that time.  And there are citizens who see the past history of the United States as one that was unjust to Native Americans and People of Color, and they hope for a different future.  Yes, this is a simplistic assessment, but it’s worth talking about.

And so I share a story.  

In the church mid-council I serve as a pastor and leader, we have 93 congregations and 28 of them are historically African American churches.  Our oldest African American congregations were founded just after the Civil War when – as enslaved people – they had been relegated to the balcony for worship.  As freed people, they were either banned from the balcony of White churches or they set out to establish congregations of people whose experiences were like their own.  They had endured the humiliation and brutality of slavery together.  And then they experienced the horrors of Jim Crow together.  And then they experienced the battle for equal employment, equal education, and voting rights together.  And today they continue to work for equal rights and equal opportunities, while enduring both monumental and everyday slights and injustices.

In our Presbytery, each congregation has a volunteer liaision assigned to them from something called The Community on Ministry to help with everything from church conflicts to calling a new pastor.  We have Black liaisons serving White churches.  We have White liaisons serving Black churches.

During my first week on the job in 2018, I received a phone call from a member of a White church asking if they could have a White liaison.  And I said, “No.”  It smacked of racism to me.

In 2020, when assigning a liaison to an historically Black church which was beginning the process of seeking a new pastor, I was asked if they could have a Black liaison.  And I said, “Yes.” It seemed like the right thing to do.

Sometimes double standards make Jesus happy.

Every Black person I know lives in a culture dominated by Whiteness.  Most of our politicians are White.  Most of our business leaders are White.  Most characters in the movies are White.  Most of the faces we see in magazines and on TV are White.  Black people know how to negotiate White spaces.  They have had to know this to survive much less prosper.

Most White people I know live in a culture dominated by Whiteness.  We see politicians, business leaders, and media personalities who look White.  We (White people) think nothing of it when we walk into a room and there are no Black, Indigenous, or People of Color present.  Most of us fail to notice. We have – at best – only a trace of understanding about cultures that are not White.

And so the historically Black Church seeking a new pastor gets a Black liaison to shepherd them along in that process.  

Do you understand? I hope so.

Image of one of the remaining Rosenwald Schools on the campus of McClintock Presbyterian Church in Charlotte which is the oldest African American Church in Mecklenburg County.  The Rosenwald Schools were founded in the 1910s by Booker T. Washington and funded by Julius Rosenwald to offer education to Black students in rural communities throughout the South.  McClintock Presbyterian Church was founded in 1865 and they established a school in 1885.  This Rosenwald School building, which is still used today, was built in 1922 to replace the former school building.  It’s still a beautiful space for church gatherings and offices.

 

Holiday Priorities

We have family holiday traditions and we have church holiday traditions. Family traditions might include hanging stockings and visiting Grandma. Church traditions might include a children’s pageant and a Christmas Eve Candlelight service.

This Christmas will be different.

Maybe we can’t visit Grandma or we’ll visit through a window. There won’t be a traditional children’s pageant perhaps, although I know congregations planning outdoor Christmas Eve services even if it’s freezing outside. It actually sounds lovely to me: coats, scarves, candles.

When FBC and BDILE got married in our backyard five years ago, we asked them and the four parents about priorities: “What’s the one non-negotiable thing you want for this wedding day?”

The same could be asked for Holiday Season 2020. [Please don’t jump on me for using “Holiday” instead of Christmas because November-early January is comprised of at least seven observances depending on your tradition.]

What’s the non-negotiable thing you want for Thanksgiving this year? Maybe we can’t see the grandparents, but we can still make Grandma’s stuffing recipe.

What’s the non-negotiable thing you want for Christmas this year? Chances are there won’t be a children’s pageant in church, but maybe there can be a socially distanced Live Nativity outside.

Church leaders are already planning these events. And – as individuals – we need to make plans about own own personal and family Holiday Priorities too.

2020 could give us the most spiritually meaningful holiday season ever. And it’s all about asking ourselves: What is the one thing I need for this season to bring joy? Or what are the three things I need to feel what I need to feel this season after a year of loss and separation?

I have some thoughts.

  • What if we choose financial generosity as our holiday priority this year? My denomination is on it.  Imagine overwhelming our local food pantries and shelters and church emergency funds with breathtaking bounty.
  • What if we simplify our own plans for the sake of lavishing the love on someone who’s had an especially tough year?  The family of a COVID victim.  The family of a violent crime victim.  The family with job loss.

This is the time to consider our personal and family priorities for the holidays.  This is the time to consider what we want 2021 to look like.

Congregations with strong leadership are already preparing – and not just by ordering candles.  They are talking together about How the Church Will Be in a Post-Pandemic World.  This is what all of us who love Jesus need to be talking about as our first holiday priority.

Post-Election Nice

So, it’s a week after Election Day.  How are things going in your congregation? Are people generally happy? Worried? Sad? Not talking about it?

Here’s a real question:  Is your church nice? Are the people nice? Do they act nicely?  Is the atmosphere nice?

How important is it that you are part of a Nice Church.

The Church has been  – unfortunately – in the business of being nice for a long time now, and it often looks like this:

  • We strive to be a “Purple Church” politically which means we recognize that there are both Republicans and Democrats sitting side by side in worship and instead of agreeing that Jesus is an equal opportunity offender as we grapple with issues, we avoid all controversy.
  • We are easily held hostage by families who threaten to leave or withhold their financial support if we don’t do what they want, including what could be considered political acts like continuing to do virtual worship during COVID-19.
  • We forget that Jesus was crucified for breaking spiritual norms and offending people in power.

What’s an already anxious congregation to do?

Post-election, I’m noticing lots of “if only” conversations.

  • If only people made friends with people who don’t look like/worship/vote like them, everything would be fine.
  • If only we had more empathy for each other, everything would be fine.
  • If only we realized that there are good people on both sides, everything would be fine.

We strive to be nice.  But Jesus was not known for being nice.  

In fact, the word for “nice” is not found in the Hebrew or Greek Bible.  Transliterations of Scripture (not translations but transliterations) might choose to interpret a word as “nice” but it’s not necessarily what the writers were saying.  For example:

They tell the seers, “Stop seeing visions!”
They tell the prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right.
Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Isaiah 30:10 in The New Living Translation

“Tell us nice things” is what parishioners tell preachers who make them uncomfortable.  The Hebrew word here actually means “flattering.”

And yet there are so many truths about the world in which we live which are not nice.  Sometimes we congratulate ourselves for placing a Black Lives Matter banner in the front yard of the church building.  Or we  – White Churches – pat ourselves on the back for “partnering with a Black Church.”  Or we call our congregations “diverse” because there is a single person in the pews who doesn’t look like everybody else.

Educating ourselves is such a good idea but it doesn’t necessarily change things.  Compassion is essential but it doesn’t necessarily change things. Peaceful protesting is one of our rights as citizens of the USA, but it doesn’t necessarily change things.

Jesus came to change things.  And sometimes it didn’t feel good, even to his followers.  Jesus was compassionate, brilliant, wise, and good.  But Jesus couldn’t be called “nice.”  Being nice sounds like a weak adjective in a world that requires us to be generous, gracious, merciful, and faithful especially when we don’t feel like it.

One of the biggest impediments of the church today is that we are still trying to be “nice.”  We don’t want to offend.  We don’t want to hold each other accountable.  We don’t want to disturb the peace.

Please don’t merely be “nice” today.  Be brave.  Speak up for what is right. Be open to the Spirit of God however disturbing that Spirit might be.* 

Because:  People are hungry (without food) and thirsty (without clean water) and sick (without health care) and broken (without community) and in jail (without trial or bail money) and unemployed (without sustainable work.)

The Church of Jesus Christ post-election and in the throes of a pandemic is led by One who was not about nice and easy solutions.  Jesus was about a total culture change that turned the world upside down.  Are we willing to go there? 

I hope so for the sake of the Gospel.

Image source.

*Someone on a White Church Pastor Search Committee recently told me that he is “terrified” because it feels like the candidate the Holy Spirit is leading them to call is a Black woman.  I responded, “What’s more terrifying: calling a Black woman or disobeying God?” (I’m not as nice as I used to be.)

 

We Want Easy (and It Will Never Be Easy)

Thriving Congregations. Anti-Racist Organizations. Compassionate Communities. A Country that Respects All People.

I hear people tell me that This Is What We Want. And they are looking for the quickest, most painless strategic plans.

Not gonna happen.

And it’s offensive and maybe even traumatizing to expect quick and painless fixes.

Some LGBTQ+ colleagues pointed out to me this week that the social media offers last week to officiate quick LGBTQ+ weddings in light of Amy Coney Barrett’s approval as a Supreme Court Justice were offensive.  Straight pastors (like me) meant well and yet cutting and pasting an offer on Facebook is a ridiculously painless action.  Where were straight pastors when it wasn’t yet legal for queer couples to marry?  Where are we when our LGBTQ+ clergy colleagues are discriminated against?  How are we helping to change the culture?

We – White People – congratulate ourselves when we have A Black Friend or when we put a Black Lives Matter sign in front of our White Church lawn.  We call our churches “diverse” when we have two Asian families. But are we struggling with our BIPOC siblings in tangible ways that go further than merely learning about anti-racism?  Are we willing to make actual reparations to those whose humanity have been devalued historically?

And when congregations ask me to help them make shifts to become a thriving 21st Century Church, they seem to become very sad when they realize I don’t have an easy recipe to hand them. Like the Rich Young Ruler Jesus talked about – who was told to do a very hard thing – I see many church leaders give up before they even begin to try.  It’s just too hard to consider serving the community that doesn’t look like them or cutting the traditional worship budget in order to broaden their virtual presence.  They are too tired to change.

And so nothing changes.  Or at least nothing substantively changes.

This election week – as cultural divisions have become especially stark – I am trying to process how We The People have landed on such diametrically different sides.  It’s not a new issue, of course.  And this is my simplistic take to be sure.  But it seems to me that there are two basic sides:

  • There’s the side that’s feeling comfortable and the world works for them.  Or maybe they aren’t comfortable at all but they fear that someone else is going to take what comfort they do have. They don’t want or need Big Change.
  • There’s the side that might or might not be comfortable in their personal lives but they see that the world is very uncomfortable for too many people who lack the power and privilege to live safely. They crave Big Change.

Again, this is simplistic.  But change is hard. We who are comfortable must want to be uncomfortable in terms of facing our own complicity. We must be willing to make sacrifices for those outside our bubble.  

It would also be excellent if the misinformation about each other would stop.

So – this is what I’m pondering Election Week.

Note: I’m always grateful for my conversation partners and other denominational leaders and my therapist who stretch my mind and forgive me when I’m wrong.  Their voices are in this post too.

 

Cozy

Proof that sometimes I dally: I’m finally getting around to choosing my Star Word for 2020.

Many of my friends choose “Star Words” for themselves during Epiphany (which is in January for you non-liturgical readers.) It’s a spiritual practice in which we take a single word printed on a cutout star and it becomes “our word” for the new year. Words like: Strong. Open. Patient. Generous.

The word is supposed to remind us and encourage us and inspire us.

If we had known in January 2020 what we know now, we might have chosen different words. Words like: Protest. Safe. Unmute.

I finally chose my word – 11 months late. It’s Cozy.

Cozy is the lens through which I am going through these days:

  • Is this shirt cozy?
  • Will this plant make my home cozy?
  • What would make this meal cozy?

When TBC was teaching young children in a DC elementary school a few years ago, they were talking about foods people eat in Haiti and it so happened that Haiti had just endured an earthquake.  TBC explained to her students what was going on there and one child suggested that they send help to Haitian children. “What should we send?” TBC asked and the student said, “Cozy things.” (They made a quilt of squares designed by the children and sent it to a school.)

Cozy = comfortable and comforting. Cozy means flannel and soup and long hugs.

Feeling cozy is also a privilege that’s not possible for many, many people: prisoners, those living in war zones or on the streets.

Jesus never said we would feel cozy.  He actually said the opposite.  (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”) Ouch.  

Peace – with Jesus – is not about personal comfort.  It’s about deep confidence in the hope that love will ultimately win. It’s about bringing the reign of God to all people and when God is in charge there is true justice, love, compassion.

Breonna Taylor was cozily sleeping in her own bed.  I think about that a lot. 

As we watch election returns tonight (and tomorrow and next week — however long it lasts) some of us will be watching from the coziness of our sofas and some will be in very uncomfortable places.  But no matter what happens, we are called to share comfort with each other.  The comfort of safety.  The comfort of full bellies.  The comfort of clean living conditions.  The comfort of liveable wages.

Cozy is my word, but the point is that it can’t be just for me.  

 

My Dad & Mrs. Merzbacher

For the first several elections of my life, I voted at a local branch of the fire department in Chapel Hill. I went to college in my hometown and so – although I was “away at college” – I voted near my childhood home throughout my freshman through senior years at UNC. There was a free city bus.

My Dad was always there when the polls opened which was either 6 am or 7 am. I can’t remember. But what I know for sure is that Mrs. Merzbacher was sitting there overseeing the election.

As Dad prepared to vote, he always asked Mrs. Merzbacher if I had voted yet.  And because I hadn’t (because I wasn’t even out of bed yet) she always said, “Not yet.”  And then he would phone me in my dorm room and say, “Mrs. Merzbacher said that you haven’t voted yet. Don’t forget to vote.”  (This was before the electorial equivalent of HIPAA.)  I hadn’t voted yet because I hadn’t opened my eyes.

Mrs. Merzbacher was a national treasure who passed away five years ago today.  And because yesterday was All Saints’ Day – as we remember all those who have died in the past year, especially those who have died of COVID-19 – I want to remember her and all those who have made it possible to vote in this country.  Thank you poll workers.  Thank you activists who ensure that people can vote safely.  Thank you election volunteers.

Please vote tomorrow if you haven’t already done so.  These are crucial times and we are privileged to have this opportunity.  Don’t pass it up.

Thanks Dad.  And thank you Mrs. Merzbacher.

A Scary Story for These Days

[I shared this metaphor with my therapist recently and she asked if she could use it. (Of course.) I decided to share it with you as well.]

It’s almost dawn and you are asleep in bed when you realize that there is someone in your home. You hear people walking towards your bedroom and your phone is out of reach, so you hide in a closet.

Outside your closet you can hear voices saying, “Hey, we’re out here trying to help you. Are you okay? It’s safe to come out.”

But you are too scared. Can you trust those voices?

  • Maybe they are police officers who noticed something strange in your home.  Maybe the officers noticed that your front door was wide open or windows had been broken.  And the officers came inside to investigate.
  • Maybe it’s people who have entered your house to rob you or assault you and they know you’re in there.  And they are trying to trick you by saying, “We’re here to help you” when actually this is not true.

You are sitting in that dark place, holding your breath terrified what’s going to happen.  It could go either way.  Even if they are police officers outside your closet door, it doesn’t mean you’ll be safe.  The officers could be a threat to you too, depending on who you are or who they are.

And so you wait. And your heart is pounding.  But you don’t know what’s going to happen.  It could be dangerous out there.  Or it could turn out to be okay.

This is what it feels like the weekend before Election Day for many people in the United States.

We are waiting.  Our hearts are pounding.  We don’t know what will happen next week.  It could be dangerous out there.  It might literally kill us. Or it could turn out to be okay.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them,  for the Lord your God goes with you; God will never leave you nor forsake you.

Like this verse from Deuteronomy, the Bible is filled with verses about God’s protection.  The reality is that terrible things happen even when we pray, even when we try to live a life that pleases God.  And yet love will always win.  Even when it doesn’t seem possible, love will ultimately win.  Scripture teaches us this too.

I’ve recently talked with People of Color who have stocked up on food and supplies so that they don’t have to go out into a world that might be violent in the coming days. I’ve talked with teachers who work with DACA kids who have opportunities to go to college on scholarship but they worry that someone will arrest them or their parents at any moment.  I’ve talked with Muslim Americans who remember that this current administration once issued a Muslim ban.  What could happen in a second term?  I know people from Puerto Rico who – upon being ravaged by multiple storms – were visited by a President who threw paper towels into the crowd rather than ensure the return of electrical power.

People are terrified on both political sides.  And some of us are stirring up that terror.  That’s not my intention here.  My intention is that we would remember the vulnerable who will be most impacted by the election results.

Please pray for those who are living in fear today and who might be living in deeper fear this time next week.  Please be the Church for them.

And may we all drop our weapons whether they are rocks or words.

The Changes Are Permanent (Or – How Things Will Never Return to “Normal” and It’s Okay)

There are moments in our lives when – if we are paying attention – we realize that life is about to change forever and it will never be the same: a child leaves for college (and is actually able to leave and live away from home), a child or sibling or parent gets married, a family member is born or dies.

Although I don’t want to freak you out, the changes congregations have made because of this pandemic are here to stay. There is no “when things are normal again.” I’m not sorry.

For decades, the culture has been changing:

  • Fewer people have been “going to church” since the mid-1970s. And it’s not because preachers are too political or younger generations are uncommitted or families are too busy.
  • Church Membership has become less important than spiritual community-building.
  • Gathering in a church building has never been the point.
  • Spiritual practices (how to pray, how to read the Bible, how to serve our neighbors) are no longer passed on from generation to generation without intentionality.
  • Knowing about Jesus is in no way the same as knowing Jesus.

The congregational changes we have made will be permanent.  At the very least, our congregations will have a both/and future in terms of virtual or in-person worship experiences,  classes, and meetings.  I’m seeing online church gatherings comprised of people who live in other states, who belong to other congregations, who do not self-identify as having any faith, who self-identify as having a completely different faith.  This is a good thing.

But “how will our churches survive financially?” you ask.  If the Tuesday night Bible study is filled with people who are not members of our church, how will be be able to 1) keep track or 2) ask for financial support?  

How will we pay for church buildings if we are not using our buildings?  How will we pay for church staffing if our leaders are serving people who aren’t members?  

I’m looking at other possible permanent changes in the not-so-distant future:

  • Pledging money to our churches will no longer be transactional.  Instead of donating money in exchange for getting first dibs on registering our children for the church pre-school or the privilege of using the sanctuary for weddings or funerals, we will pledge money to support an impactful mission that helps people beyond our own circle of family and friends.
  • Church property will either be sold to fund community ministries or will be used for new hands-on mission initiated by the Church: affordable housing, affordable childcare, job-training for people in transition, mental health facilities. A congregation that merely meets on Sunday mornings doesn’t need a campus of multiple classrooms and offices.  Our church buildings are not trophies; they are tools for mission.
  • It won’t be enough to be better informed.  Good for you if you joined the anti-racism book group.  Congratulations if you know there are two creation stories in Genesis.  It doesn’t matter if your efforts don’t bring transformation. Jesus’ disciples didn’t learn how to follow Jesus for their own self-improvement.  Jesus expected their lives to change so that the world would change.

I’m sorry if this brings you pain.  It pains me a bit too.  (I love a good pipe organ.)  But here’s the crucial question:

Are we willing to give up all the old ways we’ve been the Church for the sake of the Gospel?  Put another way, are we willing to address what breaks God’s heart in this divided, broken, cold world in the name of Jesus Christ – even if it means that the way we’ve been the Church will never be the same again?

What’s Going On Inside?

Some of you know the story about my friend who wouldn’t let anyone into her house.  It was a beautiful – even palatial – home with lovely landscaping on a sunny street.  Even her longtime friends  – people who’d known her for 50 years – would confide in me that they had never been inside her home.

She in no way seemed to be a hoarder.  In fact, she was fastidious about her appearance and her whole life seemed steady and happy.

When she was sick, I took casseroles over and when she met me at the door, she wedged it open just enough to take my lasagna and thank me.  I remember seeing a fine chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the entryway but that was all I could see.

After several years of attempts, this thing felt like a challenge.  I really wanted to see the inside of her house. I brought TBC with me, armed with the Girl Scout Cookies my friend had ordered.

(And now here comes the True Confessions part of this story.)

I instructed young TBC that – when this friend opened her front door – TBC should wedge the door open with her little foot.  It worked.

While handing the bag of Thin Mints through the doorway and then preventing the door from closing quickly, we saw the inside of this house.  Finally.

It was empty.

I don’t know why, but it was empty. No furniture, lamps, rugs, nothing.  The home of this perfectly kempt woman was devoid of any sign of daily living in there.  She was the opposite of a hoarder.

We almost never know what’s really going on inside.  Inside a home.  Inside someone’s head.  Inside another person’s body.

I always feel for people with back problems because we often can’t see any sign of the pain – outwardly.  (We tend to castigate these people who park in handicapped spaces without benefit of a wheelchair or even a limp.)  The truth is that we have no idea what’s going on inside their bodies.

Even for those of us who call ourselves “an open book” there are things nobody knows about what’s going on inside except for God.  This is a long way of saying that we need to be gracious and cognizant of the fact that we don’t know what’s behind a closed door – literally or figuratively.

  • The perfectly happy family is certainly imperfect.
  • The angry child is actually scared or in pain.
  • The impressive organization might be teetering on collapse if we look closely.
  • And the small congregation might be rock solid in terms of deep peace and abiding faith.

This is the perfect time to be lavish grace-givers.  God knows we need to address our fear, our anger, our anxiety, and our irritability with grace towards ourselves and each other.  Grace is what God offers us and grace is what God expects us to offer each other.

Breathe.  The pandemic will be over some day.  And the election will be over soon -ish.