Miraculous Seeds

I am obsessed with this amazing microscopic photograph of seeds.  Just look at it.  Look at the colors, the crevices, the textures.

From this website:

“within even the tiniest of seeds lies the complete genetic information required to birth and structure such organisms as the complex passion flower, or a 360 foot tall sequoia. Seeds are also amazing travelers, either with the help of the wind or by hitching rides with neighboring wildlife. If stored in ideal conditions, seeds can also spring to life, after hundreds of years of lying dormant.”

I realize that a big part of my ministry involves planting seeds, recognizing that the seeds I plant may lay dormant – but let’s hope not for 100 years.  That might be too late for First Church on the Hill.

I plant seeds in Church A that might sprout in Church B.  I plant seeds that hitch rides from Pastor C to Pastor D.

I cannot make a congregation discern God’s will, choose wisely, or become more faithful disciples.  I can only plant seeds.  But get to plant them all over seven counties in North Carolina and beyond.  Best job ever.

Photo by Rob Kessler. Image source.

Mission Rorschach

I see strangers trying to take advantage of our church.

    I see children with no place to play in our neighborhood.

I see the possibilities of installing showers for the homeless in our basement.

I see a really big project that we are too old and financially stressed to pull off.

I see a great opportunity to reach out in the name of Jesus.

I see a mountain of problems letting strangers into the building every day.

I see a lawsuit if one of those kids breaks an arm in our preschool.

I see the many faces of God in our  building every Wednesday.

I see the chance to start a Spanish-speaking after school program.

I see six affordable apartments where we’d once planned to put a parking lot.

 

What do you see?  It impacts how our congregations do ministry.

Marie Kondo-ing Church Buildings

I found myself in a church closet over the weekend and it was an inspirational experience.

I’ve been in a variety of church closets in my life and most of them look like they’ve been overrun by hoarders:

  • Donated wheelchairs, old clothes, and dated non-perishables.
  • Holiday closets with half-melted candles and sad wreaths.
  • Bankers boxes of “important records” – like every bulletin used since the resurrection, ancient photos of Christmas Pageants Past with no identifying names or dates, rubber banded offering envelopes without the money but with names and numbers “in case we need them someday.”

My closet experience last weekend involved none of that.  Not only was everything labeled and stacked neatly, there was room to change my clothes without bumping into random mop handles.  Seriously, I was energized.  You could say that joy was sparked, which leads me to Ms. Kondo.  I’ve written about de-cluttering church before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.

Yes, we need to de-clutter.  But mostly we need to ask ourselves:

What about our Church sparks joy?

This is somewhat related to yesterday’s post about de-cluttering our program calendars.  But it’s more about focusing on what – in Church – inspires joy.  I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to look out upon a congregation on a Sunday morning and not be able to find a single face that looks hopeful/expectant/happy/joyful.  So many times I wonder why people have gathered.  Few seem glad to be there.  Or maybe they are just thinking really hard and their thinking faces look deceptively bleak.  Maybe the average pew sitter is actually filled with the Spirit but they also shun enthusiastic emotion for theological reasons.

Like Marie Kondo, I believe that human beings crave joy and order and beauty.  How are we in the Church offering a community that feels like these things?

 

Minus One

Do you know The Accessories Rule from Coco ChanelBefore you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.”   She was talking about removing a single piece of jewelry or a scarf.  Too much is too much.  Focus on one signature piece.  Or focus on a couple key pieces.  And then go!

Yesterday at an inspiring Pastor Installation Service for one of my colleagues, the preacher suggested taking similar advice from Tom Bandy only this advice is about church programming:

Take at least one thing off your congregation’s program calendar this year.  (Actually Bandy said we should remove two things from our church program calendars, but I’m trying to be gentle with folks who tremble at the thought of changing one thing much less two.)

Most churches are not only stuck; we are okay with being stuck.  Here’s a simple (but not-so-simple) way to give your congregation a little jolt:

Take one big thing off your church’s schedule this year.  How to decide?

  • What program does everybody hate – except for the person or few people who are in charge of it every year?
  • What program has no significant spiritual impact but is very labor intensive?
  • What program is hard to staff with volunteers (because nobody wants to do it)?
  • What program do we do merely because we’ve been doing it every year for over 20 years and we think the neighbors would miss it?  (Maybe they won’t.)
  • What program do we believe we have to do because we are not a church without it? (Example:  Sunday morning Sunday school.)

What if we got rid of it for one year.  Just one year.  And instead do something a little crazy. (Like Sunday School on Wednesday nights or a BBQ dinner at a homeless shelter instead of in our own kitchen just for us?)

What would be the hardest to give up (and does this mean it’s become an idol?)  What would be the easiest to give up (because – really – everybody dreads it?)

What if we focused on a single signature program?  Or a couple of key programs?  And we took off the other ones?

And then go!

[Yes, Coco is still wearing at least six pieces of jewelry here, but she probably started with seven.]

I Love It When People Tell Me the Truth – Personnel Edition

“I cannot recommend her for any kind of pastoral position.”

“He no longer has standing in our denomination.”

“He has a history of denigrating female pastors.”

“She has split the last three congregations she’s served.”

There is enormous power in being a professional reference for a colleague.  And in the role I now have in denominational Mid-Council work, I am charged with doing clearance checks for any pastor who hopes to work within the bounds of our Presbytery.  I’ve done this work in a couple of places now and the joys of doing these “exec checks” far outweighs the burdens.

The truth is that:

  • Every pastor has growing edges.
  • Every pastor is imperfect.
  • Every pastor has ticked off somebody.
  • Every pastor has failed at something.
  • Every pastor has character flaws.

But all we have to do is look at the news from our Roman Catholic siblings to see that allowing pastors who have a history of abusing people to continue in professional ministry is disastrous.

I appreciate and treasure truth-telling.  And truth-telling is not about gossip, agenda, or rumor.  It’s about facts – especially factual truths regarding grave misconduct.

I love it when people tell me the truth – even if it’s a hard truth.  Tell me that I talked too much at that meeting.  Tell me if I overstep.  Tell me when I need to take the proverbial bull by the horns.  It might hurt for a second, but if I trust you, I can handle it.  And if I want to grow, I need to hear it.

We in the Church are often afraid to speak the truth – even in love – and it only hurts us when we don’t.  Thank you, colleagues, when your have shared the truth with me and when you’ve allowed me to share it with you.  And if you have a history of misconduct, it’s best to tell me yourself.  (But even if you don’t, I’ll probably find out.)

Image of Josh Duhamel wanting the truth from a blonde person.

 

Falling in Love With God’s People

This post is inspired by a meeting yesterday. The people around the table were all so interesting and wise and I felt my heart leap.  “I love these people,” I thought to myself.

Long long ago in my dating years, I remember seeing my (then) boyfriend at a distance.  He hadn’t noticed me but I saw him, and frankly, he looked kind of schlumpy.  But it was the moment that I realized I loved him because – schlumpy or not – my heart leapt a bit.  I saw him as he was and still felt the love.

(Note: he proved to be unworthy and those feelings passed.)

In working with Pastor Search Committees – both as the one seeking a call and a search committee member – there’s often talk about falling in love.  Committees fall in love with certain candidates and pastoral candidates fall in love with search committees.  There’s a connection.  Our hearts leap a little bit.

Falling in love with God’s people is not the same as falling in love with the Church.  (Actually, they should be the same because the people are the Church.  But we conflate “Church” with institutions, religion, sentimentality, buildings, and family tradition.)

Spiritual maturity involves increasing our capacity for love.  I believe that the Spirit transforms us to have the ability to love the unlovable.

You know the ones I’m talking about: that super annoying homeless person, the cranky church officer, the always-negative elder, the mean neighbor.  Seeing them through the eyes of Christ is not something we can do on our own.  Believe me, there are people who flatten me and I do not want to love them.  But I can with God’s help.

Are there specific people or kinds of people we simply cannot bring ourselves to love?  (Note: I didn’t say we have to like them.)  Maybe they’ve hurt us or they scare us.  Maybe they are so foreign to us that we can’t begin to relate.

But loving God’s people (i.e. all people) is essential for a healthy spiritual life.  Even the schlumpy, difficult, scary ones. It’s a wonderful feeling when we realize that we love these people.

Image source.

Mercy for Cyntoia

Millions of children on this planet experience childhoods we cannot imagine.  And we don’t want to imagine them.

We might catch a glimpse of unhappy/dysfunctional/traumatic childhoods by watching movies or the news.  From fictional stories as tame as Little Orphan Annie to true stories too horrible to imagine (e.g. the three young women chained in a Cleveland house until their 2013 rescue) we intellectually know that there are children in the world who are at risk.

Yesterday, a young woman who was sentenced to life imprisonment after killing a man at the age of 16 was given clemency.  Her childhood had included a drug addicted mother, rape, and sex trafficking.  And then she committed a heinous crime.  But I’m thankful for Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee who commuted her sentence.

Every day in this country, children are sentenced to prison.  Some of them are totally innocent.  Some have acted out of trauma.  Some are broken and hardened.

And some have been traumatized by the actions of our own government.

We cannot ignore these children and the conditions in which they exist and still call ourselves Pro Life.  As all Americans grapple with issues of border security, we need to examine what it means to be “Pro Life” in these days.  How can we minimize violence against these children?  How can we show mercy?

I’m thanking God today for Cyntoia Brown’s freedom.

And there are thousands of other children who need our compassion.  What is a Church that’s hoping to attract “young people” doing about young people who’ve been traumatized?  (They are in every one of our neighborhoods.)

Image of Cyntoia Brown, age 16, the year she was convicted of murder.

 

Star Words with an (Adventurous) Attitude

I didn’t grow up with – or as a pastor ever introduce – Star Words in church. For the other Epiphany Craft Challenged among us, you can read about Star Words here.  (Thank you RevGalBlogPals.)

Here’s how it goes: You pick a star on Epiphany Sunday (that day we remember that the magi followed a star to find Baby Jesus) with a single word on it and – for the new year – it becomes your word.  Star Words are generally uplifting, aspirational, inspirational words like these:

kindness
caring
sharing
giving
compassion
innocence
gentleness
acceptance
self-control
restraint

Part of the reason I’ve never been into Star Words is because I need something more than these lovely affirmations.  I need something pithier, earthier, slightly (or not-so-slightly) sassy.  Authentic Church World – at least as I see it – is not about a meek and mild Jesus.

And so here are my suggested Star Words for 2019.  Pick one, if you wish.  Save them for 2020.  Or just imagine what your spiritual life might be like if you held tightly onto one of these sentiments/thoughts/aspirations:

  • Pluck
  • Glow-in-the-Dark
  • Hardcore
  • Effulgence
  • Gusto
  • Luminosity
  • Escapades
  • Puckishness (inspired by National Treasure John Lewis)
  • Uxoriousness
  • Swankification
  • Reality

Happy Epiphany to all!

Image by Shawna Bowman who also suggested Star Words of a different sort.

 

 

 

Pretty Mission

Churches prefer to do pretty mission.

For generations, we have written checks from the comfort of our tidy desks in  pleasant homes far from disaster sites and refugee camps.  We have “done mission” on work trips to interesting locations and while the accommodations were not as as comfortable as home, we went, we helped, and we returned to the familiar with a fresh perspective on our own privilege and wealth. Maybe we even made some lifelong friends – more likely from our mission team rather than among the people we traveled to serve.  This kind of mission is certainly valuable.  But God might be calling us to do more.

Sadly, some of the least-likely-to-be-confused-with-Jesus actions I’ve witnessed have been in church settings – especially those moments when congregations had the opportunity to make a lasting impact for good on their own church property but they refused:

  • Congregations who could have turned their fellowship hall into a hot breakfast site but said no “because the neighbors wouldn’t want homeless people coming around.”  Fun fact: the homeless people might be the neighbors.  And they are hungry.
  • Congregations with lots of land and perfect zoning to park disaster relief vehicles or stand alone food pantries on their premises, but they turn down the opportunity “because those trucks distract from our nice landscaping” and “the people who come for food might be criminals.”  True story: some believe that the poor are either dangerous or deserve their financial situation.  And we don’t want to be reminded that people in Louisiana are still dealing with Hurricane Katrina.
  • Congregations with adjacent property that would be perfect for affordable housing but they say no because they might need that lot one day and – besides – are there really people in our community who can’t afford an apartment?

We prefer pretty mission.  But here’s the thing:

Imagine that your church decides to erect a warehouse for disaster relief medical supplies or open a preschool for refugee children or set up a free clinic for pregnant moms.  And maybe it’s not pretty.

But on a huge (and – of course – tasteful) sign for everyone to see as they drive by you share Good News with the world: This is What Ministry Looks Like.

  • “This Warehouse Supplied Health Kits for 25,000 Earthquake Victims Last Year”
  • “This Preschool Provides Hot Meals and Loving Care to 42 Children from Syria Five Days a Week!”
  • “Our Clinic Provided Free Maternal Health Care to 38 Moms in 2018”

If we hope to catch the attention of millennials, tell the world about the authentic impact your congregation is having in the world.

Authentic mission involves partnering with people whom some deem to be undesirable partners.  Authentic mission involves getting our hands dirty sometimes – even when we didn’t plan for it today.  Authentic mission involves getting into the ugly parts of life – side by side with those whose lives are not very pretty.

But we in the Church tend to prefer pretty mission.  We like to think that we can help faraway people without getting too close to them and their trauma.

But the traumatized are among us.  They are right next door or down the street.  I for one am impressed with congregations that emulate God who was rich beyond all measure, but for love’s sake, became human and served the poor and powerless.

Pretty mission might just be killing the Church, slowly but surely.  But God has presented us with so many people to love and serve in these early days of 2019.  And congregations that sacrificially love God’s people are the future.  And it’s a beautiful future.

Lower image from Shenandoah Presbytery in Virginia.  This is a shower trailer for mission teams to use in disaster areas of the United States.  It’s parked in a United Methodist church parking lot, thanks be to God.  Source.

 

 

 

 

What Will We Be in 2019?

I’ll be preaching a sermon about this soon, but have been thinking about it beyond sermon preparation.  What will we be in 2019?

  • Will we be the people who chant “Lock him up” at his political rivals’ rallies?
  • Will we be the people who take advantage of those who work for us by remunerating them what we can get away with rather than what they deserve?
  • Will we make assumptions about people based on their skin color or gender or age?

My hope is that we will be the ones who elect candidates because we are inspired and not because we are demoralized.  My hope is that we will be generous towards every service person who takes care of us.  My hope is that we will see strangers through the eyes of Christ.

That’s all I ask in this new year.

Image of Stargazers by the amazing fabric artist Chris Robert-Antieau.