Time to Dance

Last December, a colleague asked what was the most fun thing I had done lately. He’s always asking questions like this instead of the “How are you doing?” and so the question wasn’t really intended to offer an intense reflection on my part….but it did anyway.

I was still working my way out of a fog of grief after a difficult year that included losing my grandfather. I felt like a lot of days I was just trying to keep it together out in public; not wind up a weepy pool in the grocery store. Manage grief and stress to give it space but still be a functioning adult. But when I tried to think of the last really fun thing I did, I couldn’t think of anything……I’d been so busy with my work, with my life, that I hadn’t really taken time to have any kind of sustained fun. I wasn’t doing anything creative on a regular basis. I was stretching myself and exploring.

So, in January, I decided to take tap dance lessons. It was something I’d always wanted to do as a kid but never did. However, as a child, if I had a pair of hard soled shoes on, I was going to be “tapping.” I remember once as a third grader dancing up a storm in our upstairs tiled bathroom and finally my mother telling me to stop because it was disturbing the whole house.

It was an exhilarating moment that first rehearsal when I tied up my shoes and did my first steps.  “Look at me, I’m actually tap dancing” I felt my insides screaming. Sometimes I got the steps right, was in the zone and smiling and other times I would kick myself in the shin or twist an ankle but here is what I learned from the experience….

  1. We all have those things we’ve always wanted to try, always wanted to do…What are you waiting for? It will only happen if you make the time for it, carve out the budget for it. You may have to be quiet for a little while to be able to listen to that inner child, that inner teenager or younger adult, in order to let them guide you.
  2. We all need to keep trying new things even as adults. It keeps our minds fresh as we work to try new things. It makes us use new parts of our bodies, new ways of thinking. It also gives us space for new triumphs and new discoveries about ourselves while offering new opportunities to be humbled.
  3. It doesn’t have to perfect, just do it and just own it. I tend towards perfectionism. If I won’t succeed in it, why give it a try. If I can’t be perfect, why bother. And in much of my life others have high expectations of me as well because I have a good reputation that I’ve worked hard for. Having space to begin something new in my life was exhilarating, space to just show up and give it my best, space where I did not have to be perfect or have it figured out. So many of us are hiding in places of comfort – jobs, relationships, marriages, church – because it is hard to step into places we are not known, to begin again, which is exactly why you need to do it!
  4. What is the most fun thing you are doing these days? What have you always wanted to learn more about? What have you always wanted to try? What are you waiting for? Make it happen now…..

IMG_1275 Me after my recital this weekend, which is serendipitously fell on the tenth anniversary of my ordination in ministry.

How Much Do You Want It?

When I moved to Richmond four years ago, I was in the market for a new gym. My new gym had all kinds of fancy equipment and classes.  When you join, they set you up with a meeting with a trainer under the guise of getting to know the gym better and helping you to design a plan for your personal fitness.  Of course, this is not the truth.  It is a pitch with a trainer designed to get you to sign up with them for private training.

After taking me through a round of exercises, my wanna-be trainer asked me a round of questions.  What were my fitness goals? How quickly did I want to achieve them? Of course, I said that I wanted to become stronger. I wanted to lose weight and I wanted to become all around healthier.  It was not just about a number on a scale but of getting back to a place of eating healthier and exercising regularly.  Because the weight thing was something he could hone in on with a fixed number, he asked how much I wanted to lose.  I gave him the figure that nags in the back of my mind but rarely has ever been a number I’ve seen when I stepped on a scale.

Then he asked me a question that has stuck with me, “On a scale of one to ten, how important is it for you to achieve your fitness goals?”  Whoa…It is one thing to say “it is important to me” but another thing to rate its importance in my life.  I suddenly felt a lot of pressure because if I had to be honest, I’d probably have to say that it gets a lot of lip service but meanwhile my actions do not reflect that it is a “ten” on the importance scale in my life.

Of course, he had an end game, he was trying to pressure me to sign up for personal training.  He said that he would suggest me working out with him twice a week, an hour at a time, at one hundred dollars a time.  Ok..seriously, who just has an extra eight hundred bucks a month laying around?  I couldn’t help but think, “I bet that’s what you’d recommend.”  I know he needs to make a living too and so I’m not going to begrudge him or his efforts when he acted like it was crazy for me not to sign up with him right in that moment.

But that question keeps sticking in my mind.  “On a scale of one to ten, how important is this for you?”  I think about it when I want to skip going to the gym, when I want to eat something unhealthy, when I want to procrastinate doing work for school, when I want to spend money frivolously and so on. There are always things we cannot change, cannot control in our lives but most of what keeps us from living the lives we really want is within our power to change.

What is the most important to you? What do you really value? Who do you really value? What work matters the most? What gives you energy?

Does your budget reflect that? Does your calendar reflect these things? On a scale of 1 to 10 how important are these things?

As spring moves into summer, this is a great season to reevaluate. Spend some time with these questions in the coming weeks. Grab a coffee, get up a little early, stay up a little later, take a few hours off work or get a baby sitter but spend some time focusing on what you really want out of life. What can you do in the next twenty-fours to put a priority on the things that really matter? What can you do in the next week to put a priority on the things that really matter? How about in the next six months? Where do you want to be in another one year/five years?

Stop allowing others, a busy schedule, mindless work and mindless time spent on things that do not matter rob you from living the life that you really want.

No more excuses.  What is a ten for you?  How do you adjust your life to reflect it?

Going Not Knowing

It was the summer after my freshman year in college and I was headed to a small town in the middle of nowhere North Carolina to serve as the summer youth worker at a church. Before we were sent out to parts known and unknown, about seventy-five college students had gathered for a week of training. It would be a life changing summer for me but during the training, I was just nervous. In fact, I cried, no weeped, while my best friend hugged me and told me it would be Ok as we were leaving for our respective churches.

Our theme for that week of training was “Going Not Knowing” and focused on the call of Abram. God didn’t give Abram a lot of details, just said to go. God made promises to Abram and told him that his ancestors would be a blessing to the world, and so Abram and Sarai packed up and left. They were going not knowing exactly where they were going, what they would experience along the way, how they would get there, if they would have what they needed along the way.  God said go and so they just went.

The scripture for this portion of Abraham’s story was preached in churches around the world this weekend as it is the Old Testament lectionary text. In a meeting with a pastor last week she mentioned she was preparing her sermon for this text. She talked about how she was planning to explore how GPS systems and our phones have changed us. How we hardly ever go anywhere without some tool to tell us where to go.

I was taken back to that first summer of service. The summer of 1995…man, I’m old. And I couldn’t help but think how the world is different now. When we heard that scripture, we still carried maps in our car. I remember when the pastor of the church gave me directions to find the church and at some point referred to “our stoplight.” “Our stoplight” because there was only one at the time.

Today I would have been able to use google maps to find the church. I would have looked up church members and the youth on social media. I would have looked up Bible studies and games online to be prepared for the summer. I would have researched events in the area to be able to make plans for fun trips. But I just went…..

Yesterday I made plans for a work trip in a couple of weeks. I highly researched my hotels, mapped out distances along the way to maximize my travel and minimize the time in the car. I even have a dinner reservation for a place I want to try on Monday night.

I do personality assessments and so I know not everyone plans ahead quite like that but I believe we have all lost of the spirit of getting lost, of wandering, in our culture. We can watch our favorite TV shows when we want. We can order our groceries, our coffee, from an app and have them ready to be picked up when we arrive. My sister recently talked about how on a family vacation, the kids decided they wanted ice cream and so they looked up where to go and were there eating ice cream in some random town, in some random state, in a matter of minutes.

And I just can’t stop thinking about how that affects us spiritually.

Much like with Abram, God still does not work like a GPS. My path in life rarely feels like it is the most efficient. Seasons of waiting have me looking for everything that may be a sign, maybe an answer that the waiting, that the wandering, are over. Just get me to the next point, the next job, the next relationship; send me an alert for what I’m supposed to learning here.

The Bible is full of wandering though. Abram wandered. Moses and the Israelites wandered. Even the many stories of Jesus’ life are about those he encountered while he was traveling.

As much as I love efficiency and planning, I think we need wandering now more than ever. It reminds us to stop and take a look around. I pay more attention to where I am and where I am going when I am not exactly sure where I am. I learn a city quicker when I take time getting lost. I need to wander to pay attention to the people I’m meeting along the way, pay attention to how God is speaking and working. I need to be reminded that no matter how much of my time and travel I can control with my phone, I cannot control the wild and meandering ways of God. There is purpose in the wild and meandering ways.

If you find yourself in the dessert, on a road, and nothing looks familiar, there seems to be no end in sight, put away the phone, the maps, the technology. Focus on the next step in front of you. Pay attention to what is happening around you. Let your wild and meandering God show you the value of feeling lost.

Just Can’t Fight this Feeling

I can’t fight this feeling that I’m not making enough difference in the world these days. I get out of what feels like very productive meetings, or a good conversation or a good days work and just when I’m feeling in my zone…

I watch a video of workers pulling a crying child out of rubble in Syria. You can watch that here…but it will break your heart.

I see a friend who is desperately trying to get her nieces and nephews out of the war zone and to safety with their mother in another country and everything that can go wrong seems to be going wrong as she navigates the bureaucracy of other countries.

I read articles about the wrong being done to those most vulnerable in our country.

I see children being wheeled out of schools in cribs because of bomb threats.

I get a news update on my phone about another sketchy or shady thing that is happening in politics these days.

And I wonder if what I spend my hours and days doing matters in this world. I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed with the needs that are out there.

How did we let it get this bad?

Will we ever move many churches beyond the conversations about what happens with the church kitchen or complaints about Sunday School rooms?

Will people ever really care about anything more than power?

The hurt and the pain and the fear and the grabbing for power seem to be in the air we breathe.

This is a season of awakening and reawakening.

Many days it feels like a shedding of an old snake skin. The old one just doesn’t fit right any more and we need to get it off in order to be able move on.

I feel my heart is breaking for the world. But it is also breaking apart the things that have been holding it hostage so that it can grow back with a new freshness…so that it maybe be a little healthier than it was before.

I feel my eyes seeing the world, seeing our culture, my culture, in ways I never have before.

I’m writing this not so that you will worry about me…Mom, don’t worry about me because I know you will read this….but I write it because I can’t think I’m the only one.

I can’t be the only who feels a little lost. The only one who is being stirred. The only one who is asking some really big questions about life and purpose. I can’t be the only one. The only one angry. The only one broken. The only one questioning how I spend my days and energy.

My prayer for me..and you, if you find yourself wanting to scream, “does this really matter” or “you’ve got to be kidding me” or even “am I making this world a better place at all”…is that we keep doing the next thing in front of us. We work to be kind to the next person we meet. We try to give people a little extra grace. Give a little more of our resources to make a difference.

It can’t stop there though. My prayer is also that we lean into the pain. We don’t try to wriggle out of what makes us uncomfortable, what makes us angry, what breaks our heart because God is working right there. God is calling us. God is stirring us. God is in the big questions to push us to people, situations and realities we never could have dreamed.

We have to be faithful where we are, all while paying attention with our new eyes, listening to the beating of our new heart and listening to the voice of God. I know I’m not the only one who can’t fight this feeling and I don’t think we should fight it. It is a gift from God. It is a calling. May we answer the call to something bigger than little lives we can easily control.

All Things New

A few years ago, after my uncle passed away, I was sitting around with my extended family going through old family photos when we found the one below. It looked just like me! when I posted it to social media, one of my closest friends even commented, “O that freaks me out. I seriously thought you had your photo taken at one of those old western style places.” It seems there was consensus that this family member is sitting on the front porch of my great grandmother’s farm house and was probably my great aunt. There was argument about which great aunt is pictured but it was agreed she appears to be holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

old family pic I’m not freaked out by the picture, in fact I find great comfort. Knowing my roots helps me to understand myself better. It helps me to feel part of something larger. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of my gifts, the most of my life. Sometimes, that pressure to “not settle for less” keeps from enjoying the moment or making the most and the best of situations right here and now. I like thinking that some distant relative will be looking at a picture of me in the future, and even if they don’t know my name, know they are somehow linked to me.

In ministry we often feel like we have to be the newest, the biggest, the best. Churches are looking for the next big fix. We are looking for the inspirational leader with the suave speak and all of the answers. I used to work for an organization whose vision was to “become the strongest force in the history of this Convention for reaching people with the message of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a difference in our world, and we do need to do things differently but we cannot lose site of where we have come from. Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

When we begin thinking that the future of the gospel rests fully on our shoulders, that we are going to save the church, that we are going to save Christianity, we put ourselves in the God’s position. I literally just had to say to myself in the kitchen last night, you cannot think that you can fix the decline of the church when it has taken over a thousand years to get us where we are today.

No matter our calling, we walk the same path with the same purpose as our ancestors did. We have to figure out faithfully how to live humbly, love mercy and walk justly with our God today. We have to in one hand realize how small we are in the grand scheme of the vast gospel of Jesus but on the other hand realize that we are so valuable that God knows how many hairs on our head, that we have been created for just such a time as this.

Live humbly, love mercy and walk justly with our God.

A Former Life

Recently facebook shared a memory with me. It was five years ago and apparently on that day I was “excited and all aflutter about the possibilities that lie ahead in life.” At the time, I was in the final stages of interviewing with a church to serve as their pastor. I haven’t shared much publicly about my experience as a pastor but now feel these words may be an encouragement to someone or help others understand the challenges of leading the church today.

My first day was April 1, Palm Sunday that year. Really the Easter season was a wonderful time to start work at a church. It is weeks of celebration if you follow the church calendar. We were all hopeful; I was hopeful, the church was hopeful. It was a new beginning.

Unfortunately, the new beginning did not last long. Within two months I started to feel that everyone was really concerned about the finances but no one would come right out and say it. No one really had any idea just how much money the church had in all of their reserve accounts or how much they had been spending. I learned there had been some concerns about whether they would be able to pay a full time pastor, a concern that was shared with previous candidates but not with me in the interview process.

I hate numbers with a passion. I was always getting the wrong answer in math class but could totally justify my result. This was important and I needed to be sure I had the right numbers so I spent hours during the month of June and July surrounded by pages of spreadsheets. I looked at how much the church had been taking in for years compared to what they’d been spending. I looked at how much we were taking in now and how much was left in the reserves and came to the realization that if something drastic didn’t change, we’d be without any resources within the year.

I presented this information to the finance committee and then to the church, because no one else would. I learned that in the fifty one year history of the church there had never been any real discussion about the finances, at least not like the one we needed to have. Each year’s budget was simply based on the budget from the previous year’s budget on paper. Powerful people within the church had been rolling over money from reserves for years without telling anyone. It wasn’t necessarily done with ill intent, they had lived through worse economic times than we were facing now and they assumed things would get better.  They believed there was no need to alarm anyone. They wanted to avoid conflict at all cost. When looking at the finances, I realized that some of the things that had been promised to me in the call process were never actually going to happen. I would lose thousands of dollars that had been promised to me. The person who had promised them to me had no authority to promise them but I didn’t know that. I also learned that the congregation had never voted on my final salary. So, not only was I telling them they were running out of money but they were looking at figures new to them that suddenly seemed like I was getting paid too much. (Let me assure you I wasn’t. It was still more than 10,000 less than I’d been making in a previous job)

Money wasn’t our only problem. Like many churches, we had a number of older individuals and about four young families. One of which was out the door before I got there and another was swinging in the balance the whole time I was there. As is often the case, many of the older adults were ready to give up their jobs and quickly began making their exodus out of positions once I started and the new nominating committee was established. They all wanted to the two young committed families to take on all of their responsibilities. I tried to engage everyone in conversation about taking the opportunity to examine some of our leadership positions, were they really necessary? How could we do things differently? But add the worn out feelings of doing a job for too long with the fear that was rising about money and no one wanted any kind of change, which left us in a terrible bind.

I joke that many times in the middle of meetings I would think, “It is a shame we aren’t recording this right now because it would be the perfect illustration of systems theory in a seminary class.” These members loved their church, understandably so, and wanted to do whatever it would take to keep the doors of the church open. They did not want their new pastor telling them they were at a critical point and so in ways I don’t even think they realized, they worked hard to make me change my dialogue.

Honestly, it was exhausting. It is always difficult to lead people in a way they do not want to be led, but sometimes you just have to go with your leadership integrity even if it means you get beat up some in the process. Here are some things I learned in the experience…

– Sometimes you can ask all of the right questions in the interview process and still not know what you are stepping into. People can only be honest with the truth as they understand it. You are hearing their best version of the truth as they understand it when they describe their church.

– In stressful situations, people are not the best version of themselves. They go into survival mode and it is not necessarily personal when they attack you to survive. However, when a church’s priority becomes keeping the doors open above everything else, the battle has already been lost.

– There are many bigger issues facing our churches that they cannot even begin to name themselves. Learn the history of the church. This church had been formed from a group of people who always had seen themselves as outsiders and had always felt like they needed to prove themselves to those that lived “in town.” To acknowledge they could no longer afford a full-time pastor made them feel like a failure in a deeper more systematic way than they could express.  Another church I’ve worked with recently is having a problem finding a new pastor but the town is dying from around the church. So admitting you don’t need a full time pastor, cannot afford one, is to admit that the town your ancestors built generations ago is dying. The family’s wealth is tied up in land that no one wants anymore. If a minister does not want to move to your area to work with you, who else will.

– For older generations, those jobs they’ve held in the church for decades are the way they have expressed their faithfulness to God. We had a Sunday School secretary who had been doing the jobs for probably fifty years. His generation was encouraged to serve in these positions because we needed them for the church to be successful. This was how they expressed their faith, their relationship with God. I asked him about the numbers he was still collecting, what did we do with them? He did not know. As I probed further with others I learned that the church had not been doing anything with the numbers for decades. He was collecting numbers just to collect them but no one had told him and here he was wanting me to find someone else to take his job because he was tired. He was tired of serving God this way, he’d been doing it for decades after all.

It is hard for this generation to hear that the way they’ve been serving God is no longer needed. If this is no longer needed, what does that mean about the life of faith I’ve lived? At a point where senior adults often feel like they are losing their usefulness in the world, feeling they are using their usefulness at church only compounds what they are experiencing. We have to make tough choices in most churches today but we need to give space to honor the way older generations have expressed their commitment to God. We need to give them space to grieve the changes and honor their service. However, we cannot use all of this as an excuse not to have the hard conversations in the church. In smaller congregations there are just not enough people to fill these positions and many of them now hold no real meaning in a life of someone seeking to be the presence of Christ in the world.

– You cannot save every church. Most of the younger ministers I talk to really do believe in the power of the church. We believe there is hope in dreaming a new dream for what it means to be the church today. We are in ministry because we have hope. The reality is that not every church will survive this season in our history. I’m not saying that is what will happen to the church I served but I came to the place that I realized I was not going to be the person who could move them forward. For me, shining a light on the issues the church had to face and continuing to force the church to face the reality excluded me from being able to move them forward.

Ministers who are facing this, keep a journal because when you leave it is quite possible that you will feel like a failure. You will wonder else you could have done. You will forget some of the awful things that happened, many of which only you and select people knew about, that forced you to make the decision to leave. You’ll need to be reminded that you did try everything at your disposal. You’ll need to be reminded that some of the insecurity you now have deeply embedded came from words and actions of people who were desperate. You will need to remember what you learned during this season, knowing that God can redeem all.

Signs of the Times

Church, are you paying attention?

Our world is crying out and I wonder if we are paying enough attention. Do the things happening in the voting polls last year or the events of this past weekend hold any meaning for you? Are you listening? Because the people are crying out. Church, they are crying out to you. They are crying out for help, for meaning, for someone to show they care.

We wonder today why many of our churches are dying. We wonder how we can get more people in the pew, get them tithing, get them volunteering to take over our responsibilities but those are the wrong questions.

I did a training session last year at a church that was hiring a new pastor and wanted to be aware of what were some of the trends of church involvement, issues new ministers were facing, issues facing young families in their area, etc. One older gentleman tried to quickly cut me off. He spoke up, interrupting me with a gruff, “I don’t hear you talk about Jesus. We just need to get back to Jesus. If people would get back to Jesus they would be in church on Sunday.”

Here’s what I told him….Jesus is in all of it. If we say that Jesus is who he he says he is, if Jesus is relevant to this world, then what happens in the world matters. If this faith is big enough, it should be bigger than what can be contained inside an hour of worship on Sunday morning and Wednesday night prayer meeting. It should affect every area of our lives, it should affect the way we do our work, it should affect the way we engage our community, it should affect the way we treat our neighbors. It should draw us into our communities, draw us away from our often over-filled church calendars.

The world is crying out. Crying out to be loved, to have work, to have food, to have health care, to be able to pay their bills, to be respected. It doesn’t matter where your community lies politically, there are needs you can meet. People from all sides are crying out.

Many say that we shouldn’t let culture dictate the church. That was the cry of this older gentleman. Go back and read the words of Jesus because his ministry was all about meeting the needs of other people, and not just the people that were on the church membership list.

He healed the sick, heard their cries. He fed the hungry. He treated women with respect. He did this outside the walls of the church.

We’ve ignored the signs people are holding outside the church for far too long. The future of the church will look different, like nothing we’ve known in the past.

“We are unsure if the church will survive to the next generation. The answer is not to try harder but to start a new adventure: If talking, trying or tricks work, they would have worked already. They are only going to be solved through new insight into the context, the values and the systemic issues at play in the congregation and within the leaders themselves. In other words, before we can solve any problem, we need to learn to see new possibilities.” (Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger, page 33)

It may mean that we as a church need to stop doing something inside the walls of the church so that we can be the presence of Christ outside the walls. The future of the church may look more like words on those signs we have seen over the last year than the materials on Christian bookstore shelves. But make no mistake, if Jesus is really all that he said he was, he is present in both.

Want new possibilities for the church? Take a look at the signs. They are calling us into uncharted adventures that are frightening and challenging but are also exciting.