When “One Day at at Time” Really Means One Day at a Time

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve practiced a little self-coaching through difficult stretches by taking a few deep breaths and reminding myself, “One day at a time.” Yet I will confess that I’m always only partially successful in taking my own advice. I can’t function well either in my vocation or my family life without planning ahead. What’s happening on Sunday? What’s happening next week, next month, next fall?

Except now, “one day at a time” has become much more literal. It’s like being on the fault-line in the middle of an earthquake. The ground is changing around me, I’m standing here, and I have no idea what it will look like when the shaking is over, or even whether the ground around me will swallow me.

Our church council met on Saturday morning and made the difficult decision to suspend in-person worship on Sunday and for the next 4 weeks. Some felt we were being a little reactionary; at that time the CDC was discouraging any gatherings over 250. By Sunday, the number had dropped to 100; Monday morning, 50, and by Monday afternoon 10. That’s how fast it’s changing.

Social media is abuzz with how churches and leaders are responding to this new normal. Some are trying to figure out how long they should be planning the suspension of their in-person worship. Frankly, I think that’s an exercise in futility. Our local school board at first cancelled classes until April 6. Now, it’s May 4. Others are suggesting that school is over for this school year. Who knows what we’ll be saying by the end of the week? We haven’t been here before; no one knows. One day at a time. Literally. Because that’s how fast it’s changing.

That thumbnail prayer of Jesus gives us a little something to hang onto in the new one-day-at-a-time reality. There’s a reminder about the daily-ness of God’s provision. “Give us today our daily bread” – not tomorrow, not for the weekend, next week, or next month.

The provision that God gave God’s people in the wilderness sojourn was for that day. The manna came each morning. The Israelites were instructed to gather enough for that day, and only that day. The greedy among them discovered that gathering more only got them rotten leftovers.

It’s hard for me as part of a culture of planners suddenly to be thrust into circumstances when making plans for the future is pretty much impossible. Yes, it will pass. Yes, we will get through it. But there is no timeline and no roadmap. One day at a time.

This has forced me also to take a step back in my own faith life; it’s pulled the curtain back on my self-made illusion that I’m in charge and have control over my life and my circumstance. I know that’s never really true, but in my life of relative privilege, I usually live as if it’s so. It’s not.

So, a day at a time. Literally. We’re doing the best we can, making our decisions with an eye towards caution and love for our neighbor, trusting that for this day, God is with us.

There’s that other thing Jesus said. Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the reign and the righteousness of God, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow.”

For Such a Time as This. . .

What a time to be the church, huh? A sign of life in the midst of swirling waters.

Challenging times and difficult decisions, decisions that are at the very heart of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: to love and care for people as the presence of Christ in the world. 

I know that a lot of you are weighed down with the burden of the moment. I am, too. When we make hard decisions, even those for which there really is no other option, no matter what we decide, someone’s going to be disappointed, even angry. Don’t take it personally. That comes with the territory. It’s not about you. 

At our place, we made the decision on Saturday morning to suspend in-person worship for the next four weeks. That seemed pretty radical at the time. It’s only 48 hours later, and the CDC is recommending that we plan on not gathering for the next 8 weeks. This morning, it was no gatherings of more than 50. This afternoon, it’s no gatherings more than 10. 

I came away from our meeting on Saturday with a deep respect for our leaders. They knew the gravity of the decision we were making. Individually, we did not come to the same conclusion about how we should move forward. Yet our conversation was respectful, loving, and imbued with a spirit of how best to love our neighbor. That was community and leadership at its best. I love those people. 

We are carefully avoiding using the language that church is cancelled. It’s not. At our place, it’s just taking a different form. So, yesterday morning I gathered in the sanctuary with a couple of tech people, a pianist, and a small group of singers and we worshiped. Before going live, we gathered in prayer, asking God to use this time to bring us together even though we were separated by distance. The whole experience was not what I imagined it would be. It was way better. We were standing on holy ground, even if virtual holy ground. A remnant gathered though scattered. And while I couldn’t read the comments, I could see on my phone screen the comments that poured in while we were worshiping, people participating remotely, yet still somehow gathered together. For those who weren’t on Facebook or couldn’t tune in at the right time, the whole service was uploaded to our website for folks to join at any time, and as the day rolled on, so did the supportive comments. I did my grocery run this afternoon, and saw a member who said she loved going to church in her pajamas.

What I’m discovering already — even in these first few days that necessitate a different way of being church — s that though we are not together, a strong sense of community persists, and maybe it’s even growing. At our meeting on Saturday, our council members committed to make personal phone calls to all our local residents once a week. I’ve also committed to making 10 phone calls a day, just checking in with people. We send out a weekly e-newsletter; I think for the time being, I’m going to send out a daily e-letter, just to remind God’s people that they are part of us, and they are in our prayers. I’m also designating times when I’m going to invite the whole congregation to be in prayer (thanks, Northwest Synod!). And instead of our midweek Lenten service, I’m going to livestream a brief order of compline. We’re going to use our website to upload printed versions of our livestream services so folks at home can follow along. In these times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are going to do our best to keep people connected. For all of us, what a blessing to have social media, email, websites, and iPhones! 

We got a message from our bishop this morning recommending that all congregations cancel their services. I’m grateful for that word coming from the synod office, especially to provide cover for pastors who would be putting their own ministry at risk were they to make the decision without support from above. 

If you’re a leader, hang in there. Take care of yourself. Make sure to schedule those times that feed you and get your mind off the hard stuff for a while. I’m finding myself even more drawn to spend time in scripture and prayer. Maybe that, too, is one of the blessings of suddenly having everything taken off my schedule. 

If you’re a lay member of a church, give your pastor and congregational leaders some love. They need it. They are feeling the weight and the burden of the decisions and of how to be in ministry to you and with you. Send them an email or note of encouragement. Post something supportive and kind publicly on Facebook. Let them know you are praying for them. Make sure you keep up with your pledge. 

I feel the weight of these times. Yet, I feel unexpectedly hopeful, even excited, for the authentic opportunities we have to be church. For such a time as this, we are church. 

Thank You, Senator Warren

It’s 6:30 in the evening on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

I have had a full and busy day.

I came home to the news that Elizabeth Warren has dropped out of the Democratic Presidential primary race.

I am sad about that.

Full disclosure: I’m not sure that I would have voted for Warren in the Wisconsin primary. There are many things that I have liked about her. She was in my top tier of candidates. I also had reasons to support her competitors. I think my decision might well have been a standing-in-line-to-vote decision.

Still, I am sad.

Warren is in many ways the perfect candidate. She is smart, experienced, a track record of getting things done, the kind of assertiveness that is needed to get things done, an impeccable resume, and on and on. She knows politics and the art of compromise. She has a plan for EVERYTHING. She was a strong candidate. The only down side, culturally speaking, is that she is a woman. I’m not saying that as a personal opinion, but as a cultural observation.

What makes me sad is that a Democratic field that started with six strong female candidates, not to mention a strong candidate who is gay and married, has now narrowed to two old white guys. That’s a step backwards.

A deep and strong sexism exists in our culture. It must be addressed. We can and must do better.

The first step is to acknowledge it. For those of us who are white, male, and in my case, old, to shut our mouths and listen to our colleagues who have been the victims of our patriarchy for far too long. And it is also our responsibility, not only to listen, but to call out sexism when we see it.

I serve on the board of a burgeoning not-for-profit organization. We are a mixture of gifts and talents, all of us strong, smart people. I noticed that the strong and smart women were continually being interrupted by the strong and smart men. Old white men. I called them out on it. It was a tense moment. But it also gave us the chance to look at ourselves in the mirror, acknowledge the wrong, and move forward in a way that gave a much more equal voice to the entire board. We need to do better.

This evening, I am sad. I thought we were better than this. I thought we had made progress. I’m not so sure. We have a long way to go.

Life from the Ashes

I’m the pastor of a congregation that’s really not into Ash Wednesday.

Maybe every congregation where I’ve been pastor has not really been into Ash Wednesday.

Maybe the human community is not into Ash Wednesday. I don’t know. You tell me.

What I know is that the twin themes of Ash Wednesday — repentance and mortality — are not on the top 10 list of things that we pay attention to.

In bible class yesterday we spent a lot of time on the reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the story from Genesis 3 that the church has traditionally referred to as The Fall. The church has spent way too much energy trying to use this story as an explanation for the how evil came into the world. I don’t think that’s really what it is.

Characteristic of the Hebrew scriptures, the text is not interested in explanations; it’s more attuned to a mystery at the heart of human existence. The story offers us a touch point to that thing we all know in our bones. We possess an inclination to yearn for what is beyond us. We bristle at limitations. In trying to make the move from creature to creator, we transgress the divinely established boundaries that were graciously established to give us life. Instead of life, we barter in the ways of death. By our own behavior, by giving in to our deep-seated, but misguided yearnings, we distort and inevitably destroy the gracious relationship that God created and still desires to have with us.

“I’m sorry.” That’s what repentance is. “I’ve done wrong, and I’ve got no excuses.” That’s it. Well, that and a commitment to go in a different direction. It’s not that complicated. That it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I still wonder why it’s so hard to acknowledge that we have done wrong and are in need of a change of direction. I wonder that in my own heart. So, Ash Wednesday. I am wrong. I need a change of direction. Not one that finds the initiative in my own heart. One that by definition needs to come from outside me.

Which is why the ashes that are placed on my forehead is in the shape of a cross. Only the death and resurrection of the Son of God is able to enact that reality that I cannot. The death that I keep on choosing through my ten thousand acts of rebellion are reversed in his death and resurrection. The Ash Wednesday reversal calls us to that life.

Paradoxically, the ashen cross also confronts us with our mortality.

I remember a day in the life of a pastor when I talked by phone with the spouse of a 93 year old who had been diagnosed with a not necessarily fatal form of cancer. “I just hope (s)he’s strong enough to endure the treatment.” The assumption was that if (s)he is not strong enough, the alternative was death.

A few hours later, I made a hospital visit to someone who had been in and out of the hospital for a few months, never with a diagnosis that in and of itself would be alarming. On the day of my visit, the diagnosis came that signals the end. Neither (s)he nor anyone else in their circle of family or friends could change that. We all know we are going to die. (S)he knew that it was going to happen in the next few months. And so it did.

I sometimes marvel at the clever and creative ways our culture denies the reality of death. Despite the fact that we all know that none of us is going to get out of this alive.

I read once that in medieval times, the work of the local parish priest was to prepare his parishioners to die. Ars morendi, I think they called it. The art of dying. On the one hand, I suppose death was much more a reality in those times than it is for us. Lack of understanding, and therefore treatment, of illness and disease made life expectancies much shorter. On the other hand, the mortality rate for humans is still 100%.

I think Ash Wednesday is one small and useful step on the way to confronting the reality of our own death and to embrace it. I don’t know that any of us are looking forward to that day in the same way that we look forward to a visit from someone we deeply love. Yet, I also believe that we don’t need to dread it or deny it. If the central tenet of our faith is true— that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Last Enemy has been vanquished — then there’s no good reason for denial or fear. Because we bear the hope that comes from the promise, we  live these meantime days to their fullest.

So, that ashen cross. And the words spoken along with the gesture, “Remember that you are dust; to dust you shall return.” Indeed they are words that express the reality of human life. And the ashen cross inscribed on our foreheads sears on our bodies and our being the hope that is in us. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

Here’s to life that springs from the ashes.

The Hard-to-Hear Stories We Must Hear

Oh, the stories.

The stories that are so hard to hear, yet that we desperately need to hear.

Sometimes, I think I’ve heard enough stories. (Which is itself a function of my privilege.) Then I hear another story and know that I must never stop listening to the stories.

Here’s the latest one for me.

I serve on the board of a Housing Trust. We are working to bring to the market home ownership opportunities for the working people in a tourist economy with inflated housing prices. I found that one of the multiple seeds of this movement was in the south in the 1950s. Georgia, if I recall correctly. It was in response to African-American sharecroppers who were fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes in response to their registering to vote.

Did you hear that? Did you let that sink in? Lost their livelihood and the roof over their heads simply because they registered to vote.

There is no end to the stories of injustice, violence, trauma, brutality that white America has wreaked on our African American siblings. Every time I start to tell some of those stories with the white people of my white church and white community, I get predictable responses. “That can’t be true.” “Where did you hear that?” “I never learned that.” “They didn’t teach us that in history class.” Precisely. That’s what happens when the majority tells the stories and doesn’t make space for the stories of anyone else.

As a leader in the church, a white man, in an overwhelmingly white denomination, I plead with you to learn the stories. Here are a few places I’d encourage you to start, a beginning to listen to the stories that we never learned in history class. These books represent four of the most powerful, moving, and mind-changing books that I have read in the past few years.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a journalist who spent 15 years writing and researching this book. While it tells the story of the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north after Jim Crow, it does so in a wonderfully readable style. She tells the stories of three families, each migrating at a different time, from a different area of the country, and ending up in different place. She draws us into the stories of these families and particular individuals, people we soon learn soon to care about. At the same time, she fills in the background of the larger history of the migration, the effects it had on families, the collective obstacles and challenges they faced. And she describes not only the racist culture they left in the south, but the structures of racism they found when they arrived in the north.

The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein. As soon as I open up conversations with white people about the racist structures that have resulted in dramatic economic inequalities between white and black Americans, someone is bound to say, “Well, I worked hard for what I have.” And the implication, of course, is that if everyone worked as hard as they did, the economic divide would disappear. Yet, the truth is that the racist structures of our economic system have favored whites over blacks. Former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer captured it with this quip, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” For many white Americans, the accumulation of wealth has come through the great American dream, home ownership. Richard Roth tells the story of how persistently and consistently entities of American government have denied this mechanism of upward mobility to African Americans. In the process, the government has institutionalized with policy the racial segregation of America. With examples from a broad spectrum of time, from places throughout the country, and government entities from the federal government to county and municipal government, Rothstein paints a compelling picture of this persistent structural racism that has denied economic prosperity to African Americans.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read, and for that very reason, one that I think every white church member should read. Baptist argues that the rise of the American economy to become the largest and most prosperous economy in the world would never have happened without the exploitation of enslaved persons to drive that economic engine. Cotton is not by nature an easy crop to grow, and is not by nature even intended to be cultivated. It’s a bush. In pre-combustion engine days, the labor required grow and harvest cotton would make profit impossible– unless there was no cost to the labor. Both the clearing of the land and bringing cotton to harvest required slave labor. It also required the theft of land from indigenous peoples. Northern manufacturers and banks were complicit because they largely relied on the bounty from slave labor to drive their profits. And the proliferation the textile industry in England and New England would never have happened without slave labor. This is the large arc of story that Baptist tells. Closer to the ground he tells the story of the gut-wrenching brutality of slavery, both physical and psychological. The beatings, the separation of families, the sexual exploitation of women, and the list goes on. Though hard to read, I would argue that it’s necessary to understand the evil that fueled the rise of American capitalism.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Race is a made up category. Yet though it is made up, it has been a powerful influence in the lives of both white people and people of color. Xendi takes us through the progression of racist ideologies in American history, using biographical sketches of influential Americans as touchpoints for the iterations of racist ideas. It not only traces the history, but puts flesh and bones on the progression of racist ideologies. If you don’t know the difference between uplift, segregation, assimilation, and anti-racism, this book gives you the historical progression. I would argue it’s an essential progression for any white leader in the church to understand.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you think.

Was It Disrespectful?

Social media has been abuzz about Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic endcap on last night’s State of the Union speech when she tore up her copy of the President’s speech.

Was it disrespectful?

Of course it was disrespectful.

And my hunch is intentionally disrespectful. I don’t think it was a spur of the moment, act-of-passion moment. I think it was carefully planned. She was expecting an act of disrespect. In turn, she was going to demand respect.

Several years ago, I was a part of a group of citizens that arranged to meet with the then governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn. Prior to his election he had agreed to meet regularly with us as a way to be accountable to the promises he had made in support of some initiatives in our communities. We had met with him a couple of times before and he had always been late. He was scheduled to speak at one of our assemblies. He was late, an hour late. On this particular occasion, we had arranged to meet on the top floor the Thompson building in downtown Chicago. It was the “governor’s floor.” We had made a special request to him to honor our time; we were working people who had taken time off from our job and had to travel downtown from the suburbs to meet with him. Our time was as valuable as his. Except that, apparently, in his mind it wasn’t. We sat in the designated room for 20 minutes after the appointed meeting time and began to talk about what we should do. We decided to wait until half past the hour and if he wasn’t there we would leave. At 3:30 we got up from the table in the meeting room and moved toward the hallway.

About that time, the governor and his entourage appeared at the other end of the hallway. “What’s going on here?” he blustered.

“We’re leaving. Our meeting was scheduled to start a half hour ago and you’re late. Our time is as valuable as yours.”

He blew up, shouting expletives, “Who do you think I am? I’m the governor of Illinois. You don’t walk out of a meeting with me!”

One of our leaders quietly responded, “Governor, you are 30 minutes late. Our time is as valuable as yours. You have had a pattern of arriving late, so we specifically asked you to make it to this meeting on time. We demand that you respect us and our time.” In the end, he calmed down, apologized, and we went on to have a productive meeting.

Respect is a two-way street.

If the tearing up of the speech manuscript was one bookend for the State of the Union speech, the other was the very intentional and obvious snubbing of the Speaker of the House by refusing to shake her hand. Those kinds of official greetings are part of the protocol and liturgy of The State of the Union speech. To skip that protocol was also no accident and was as calculated as was Pelosi’s tearing up of the speech. The President’s disrespect is one more example of a man whose stock in trade is disrespect. He has a long history of disrespecting women by objectifying them and demeaning them, part of a larger pattern of disrespect that includes calling his political opponents names, mocking disabled persons, referring to certain countries as sh*thole countries and the list goes on and on.

Respect is a two-way street.

Unsettled by the Visit of the Magi

I must confess regret that for my 30-some years of pastoral ministry, I have not made a big enough deal about Epiphany. Liturgical purist that I too often have been, if it didn’t fall on a Sunday, we didn’t celebrate it. As I do, I looked back through my preaching files, and found no sermon from the last 20 years on the Epiphany gospel from Matthew. That’s really too bad. Because there’s so much in the story of the Magi coming from a distant land to worship the newborn king.

Scholarly consensus holds that the Magi were wealthy and educated, members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion. Early Zoroastrians paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced another religion and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. They came to worship, bowing the knee and bringing valuable gifts. In one of the greatest ironies of the story, God used these scientists who practiced another religion to let King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in on the news that their Messiah had been born.

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East.  From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger.  Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.

As a pastor in the church, pushed by this story to contemplate God’s radical grace, I find it a little unsettling. What could it mean that God led ancient scientists who practiced another religion and lived far outside the geographical limits of Judea to come and worship Christ? What could it mean that God used these outsiders to announce the good news that comes to the world in and through Christ? What, then, does it mean to have faith?

I have been trained and conditioned to think that there is one pretty narrow and formulaic way to come to Christ. For me, it’s always been through the church — preaching, Word, liturgy, sacrament. I’ve always held that the local congregation is the body of Christ through whom God gets God’s work done in the local community. Those are things that I hold dear. Yet the Magi came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who holds on to favorite, cherished ways that God uses to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith, it’s both wondrous and unsettling to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.

When I think about it, I can see that God has been reaching out to embrace me in new ways. A new call and a new setting, learning how to be a good pastor in a very different context. Trying to keep my mouth shut and listen to my siblings of color who are helping me to see my blind spots about race and privilege and who are teaching me what it means to be a neighbor. I’m learning from Asian and African and South American and womanist and LGBTQ Christians that my way of reading the bible is not the only way to read the bible, and certainly should not be the privileged way to read the bible. As always, I learn much about truth-telling from reading classic and contemporary fiction. I’m learning that the whole world, all peoples, all cultures can be the places where God is at work, revealing God’s self and God’s truth to me, to us, to the church, and to the world. While I love to bask in the starlight that I know as the church, I am led to wonder about the implications of the Magi coming to faith apart from the church or outside our formulaic approaches to how faith happens.

I’m still learning to be less suspicious and judgmental about people whose experiences of faith are different than mine or different than what I might think is normal. It’s has been challenging for me. I wonder how many people’s experiences of God over the years I have shattered and slaughtered because they didn’t fit my patterns, practices, and perspectives.

I’m guessing that it will continue to be a struggle and a challenge for me (and the congregation I serve) to proclaim God’s ever-expanding embrace in the midst of my own need to protect and preserve. One lifetime seems far too short to figure these things out. Still, I’m grateful to be on the journey.

(Thanks to Bishop Craig Satterllee and his essay on WorkingPreacher.org for the inspiration for these reflections.)