Go ahead and judge

“Do not judge,” Jesus wisely said, “so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). But that statement – so often quoted, so often misunderstood – isn’t telling us to park our brains at the curb and blindly ignore behavior or speech or actions that are just plain wrong.

For a country that knows little about the Bible, this particular passage is often quoted. Otherwise intelligent people use it as a cop-out when facing uncomfortable disagreements with others. “I don’t think their actions are good or right but, you know, the Bible said not to judge.”

Recently I have heard extreme examples of this passage being trotted out at exactly the wrong time. I actually heard people say, “The Bible tells me not to judge” in response to these situations:

  • A self-professed child molester running for office in Virginia.
  • A renowned racist encouraging people to vote him into office in Washington.
  • Parents in California torturing their 13 children for decades.

No. This is not what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge.” Jesus was more than ready to point out bad behavior and name it for what it was. Jesus judged all the time. When greedy tax collectors and unethical leaders were spreading lies and rumors, Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus’ fury echoed through the temple when he flipped over tables of the money-changers and chased merchants and sellers away from this holy spot (Matthew 21:12). Jesus spoke up against evil. His words and actions clearly defined what was not acceptable to God.

That is the hard work of faith. That racist comment you just heard? Don’t allow it to slide by. That gathering that excludes others based on their gender or orientation? Feel free to walk away. That neighborhood that excludes based on ethnicity or religion? Don’t live there. That business that refuses to serve all of God’s people?  Don’t give them another nickel.

Go ahead and judge. Make a decision about words being spoken, actions being taken, kindness (or lack thereof) being shared, opinions being voiced. Does it look like something Jesus would do? Does it echo the compassion and loving welcome of God? Does it reflect the forgiveness and new life of Jesus’ ministry?

If not, choose not to be part of that. Go ahead and judge – judge what is the best way for you to make a difference. Judge how you can reach out to those who feel forgotten. Judge how you can listen to those usually pushed to the margins.

We are asked to be bold enough to speak up against sin and courageous enough to point out words and actions that do not reflect our faith.

God calls us to make a difference right where we live and work. How can we do that?

Judge for yourself.

No coffee today

Over 8000 Starbucks shops will be closed today. Water will cool, grounds will sit in the filters, creamers and flavors will remain in their bottles, and the mangled and misspelled names will not be written on cups. It is estimated that $12 million in sales will be lost.

Today is a day to learn about racial bias.

Before we jump on the cynical bandwagon to label this as a publicity ploy or as “too little, too late,” let’s congratulate Starbucks on doing something. Too many people and too many organizations – businesses, schools, churches – persist in ignoring rather than engaging the difficult and overwhelming topic of racism.

We came to this place because on May 2, 2018 two African-American men entered a Starbucks and sat down to wait for a friend to discuss a real estate deal. The white manger asked them to leave. When they refused (after sitting for a total of two minutes in a coffee shop where patrons are known to spend hours sitting, reading, conversing, and staring at their computers), the manager 911 as if some kind of emergency was taking place. When the men refused the cops’ request to leave the building, they were arrested.

Starbucks Corporation responded immediately.  The manager was fired, a public apology was given (a real apology, where guilt was admitted and responsibility taken), a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs was funded, and this day of racial sensitivity training was established.

Is it enough? Of course not. I know that because in the weeks since the Starbucks arrest, there have been several other incidences where people of color have been harassed, challenged, or even arrested while engaging in everyday activities.

  • A white woman called police to report an African American family having a barbeque at a public beach.
  • Three African-American artists being reported while renting an Air B and B in a predominately white neighborhood.
  • The black Yale student taking a nap in a public area of her dorm awoke to find campus police staring down at her after receiving reports of an “intruder”.

It isn’t enough, but it’s something. It’s one step on a very long journey towards awareness and the recognition of a serious, deep-seated problem.

If you don’t happen to be a Starbucks employee, how can you engage in racial sensitivity training? Seek out stories from those who have experienced racial bias. It isn’t hard. The stories are everywhere – read, listen, watch.

If the experiences you hear about are not your experiences – wonder about that. I have never been asked to leave a restaurant, never been pulled over by a police officer for no reason, and never been told that I don’t “fit in” because of my skin color. No one is scared of me or intimidated by me because of how I look.

In order to correct these injustices, I first have to be aware that they exist. I can learn and I can respond. All of these small steps – like an afternoon of racial sensitivity training – can add up to make a difference so that all of God’s children are treated with dignity and respect. Let us begin.

Learning about church at the Apple store

Our 180-year-old iconic Congregational church building is nothing like the sleek, white-with-stainless-steel box that is the Apple store. Yet there amidst the array of phones and monitors, I discovered inspiration for the church in the 21st century.

My husband and I entered the store early on a Saturday morning, just minutes after it opened. The place was buzzing – there were people everywhere. The ten employees I counted were busy talking with customers, offering demonstrations, and enthusiastically showing the capabilities of their products. When was the last time any church was crowded with twenty- and thirty-somethings?  Or crowded at all?

We were directed to a woman holding an I-pad (of course) who took our name and promised to quickly find us some help. As we waited, I scanned the staff. I’m willing to bet that few congregations mirror that scene. Young. Multi-cultural. Equal numbers of men and women. People with varying physical abilities. All brimming with enthusiasm about what they had to offer with the conviction that life is better because of it.

When a cheery young man approached my husband to talk computers, I drifted away to glance the displays. It was the church equivalent of someone looking at bulletin boards during coffee hour. Surrounded by people, I didn’t know anyone. I was a bit bored, felt a little out of place, and had no one to talk to. But unlike the experience of many church visitors, I was swiftly approached by a pleasant young woman. She welcomed me and invited me to sit on in a class being held in the center of the store.

As I pulled up a stool, trying to slip into the small group unnoticed, the man leading the class stopped his conversation. Long dreadlocks swung around his face as he flashed a bright smile. “Hi! Welcome. My name is Rashid. What’s yours?” When I answered quietly, a bit embarrassed that I had interrupted the session, he told me he was glad I was there and assured me that I could ask any questions I might have. How many times do folks visit our churches without ever being approached and welcomed?

Rashid returned his attention to the other women sitting at the table, patiently answering questions while detailing basic knowledge about the world of Apple. This was information he must have shared hundreds of times before, yet he spoke with a passion about how these tools benefit his life. His compelling first-hand account made me wonder how many church members have that same enthusiasm when asked, “What does the church do for you?”

Throughout the store, millennials engaged older generations on their technology journey. Many were hesitant, even afraid, to dive into this foreign world of apps and home buttons. Voices of resistance – “I’m not sure I can learn something new,” were met with calm encouragement. “No worries,” the wheelchair-bound employee said, “we’ll take it step by step.” What wisdom does the younger generation have for the church? Are many churches lacking anyone under the age of 40 because we aren’t listening to the knowledge they have to offer? What if the church wondered about new ways to approach old problems?

I love my centuries-old church with its traditional beauty and treasured traditions. This is not an “either-or” scenario. It’s a question of making room for something new and trusting that God can breathe new life into the Body of Christ. We just need to be open to a new vision of what the church can be – and be willing to learn about that in unusual places.

 

Welcome, 2018!

It’s time to put up a new calendar. I always try to buy a calendar that reminds me of adventures from the previous year. The calendar waiting in the wings at our house is filled with pictures of the Rocky Mountains which will bring back memories of snow-capped beauty shared with family and friends.

The “New Year” is a funny thing. For some it is the pinnacle of the holiday season. For others, it’s a “ho-hum” day that slips by without notice. Whatever your attitude about this holiday, it is a moment set aside to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another.

Sometimes people are eager to leave the past behind. If it was a rugged year marred by illness or loss, people can yearn to literally “turn the page” and leave those pain-filled days behind. Some people eagerly anticipate a brand-new year as they bid “good riddance” to days gone by.

The opposite can also be true. For some, these past 12 months hold precious memories they only reluctantly leave behind. Or they are all too aware of experiences that can never be repeated. Perhaps there was a special occasion or a joy-filled celebration shared with precious loved ones that is now slipping into the distant past. Or maybe they said good-bye to someone dear to their hearts and now dread the thought of beginning a new year without that person.

Some people feel December 31st grants permission for a night of excessive partying while those struggling with addiction face the challenge of maintaining their sobriety for another hard-earned 24 hours.

The New Year can be complicated. There is, of course, nothing “magic” about January 1st. The sun will rise as the stars fade into the dawning light, just as they do on 364 other mornings. And yet we have chosen this date to reflect on the passage of time. Perhaps it helps us value the fleeting moments a bit more. Maybe the New Year will help us remember just how precious time is and how swiftly the days – and even the years – go by. Maybe we can be mindful of the people who journey with us and the planet we share.

We can celebrate quietly or don party hats and blow noise-makers. But this humbling fact remains – Human life is brief and fragile. It can change in an instant. That stark fact doesn’t need to be depressing – it just offers an importance awareness that the moments we are given are precious.  However we use them, let’s use them well.

The New Year, with its countdown clock and relentless second hand sweeping toward midnight, reminds me that we worship a timeless God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God offers love and new life every day. No matter what happens, no matter how we arrive at the New Year and no matter what the future may hold, we can be sure that God’s love and strength goes with us.

Wishing you all the best in 2018.

 

 

Praying for tail lights

As my busy family comes and goes, I find myself praying for them…

He inches down our icy driveway while it’s still dark, heading off to work. It’s an hour drive, back roads and highways. Will other drivers be distracted? Has someone been drinking? Will they be careful of the precious (to me) cargo contained in that ancient car? As I see the tail lights pull away, I pray for God’s protection and comfort.

She’s off to her new job, dressed to impress, and eager to make a difference. This baby adult, I’m not sure she realizes just how many dangers are out there. Brimming with confidence, certain she can meet the challenges of the day, she drives off; I watch the tail lights disappear into the dark. Peace, I pray, safety and love travel with her.

I pray for headlights, as well. Waiting for the late-night arrival after a long restaurant shift, never knowing exactly when he will get home. I only half-sleep as I wait for the headlights to flash across the ceiling, announcing his arrival. Will he be tired after work? Will he stay awake as he drives? What about the deer that dart across the road? As I wait to see the headlights, I pray that he be filled with alertness and the reassurance that a warm, loving home is waiting.

headlights

I pray for the headlights that drive across the state as a long school semester ends. A long drive across crowded busy highways, filled with people intent on arriving first and fastest.  I consider all the activities that await his arrival – choosing the Christmas tree, baking cookies, making apple sauce. All of that is on “hold” until the headlights appear, making our family complete again. I look out the window – again – waiting. Send my love to him, I pray, and surround him with your guardian angels.

It’s all we can do, sometimes. Just pray. Wait and watch.

And pray some more.

While they are out of my sight, I entrust them to God’s loving care.

Thirty years of blessings

In November 1987 I arrived at the East Woodstock Congregational Church, young and inexperienced, to begin my ministry. The congregation welcomed me with gracious patience as I made (many) mistakes. They offered encouragement as I grew into my role and discovered what it means to be a pastor.

They taught me about thoughtfulness and caring:

  1. Debbie Sherman filled the parsonage refrigerator with milk, butter and eggs. There was bread and cereal on the counter, along with directions to the (distant) grocery store. I knew I had landed among considerate, caring people.
  2. A “Pastor’s welcome basket” was set up during my first month. Every Sunday I discovered practical gifts like a flashlight, light bulbs, dish towels, cookies, and homemade muffins.
  3. Larry Grennan realized my 2-room seminary apartment wouldn’t provide enough furnishings for the rambling parsonage. He scouted furniture that helped turn that big old house into a home.
  4. George Brown fulfilled his promise to paint my office (upstairs in the brick schoolhouse, at the time) any color I chose – a cheerful yellow. George would swing by the church every afternoon “just to check” if anything needed to be adjusted, fixed, or tidied.
  5. John Davis looked at the spindly wooden chair behind my desk and invited me on an office-decorating expedition to Worcester that included reminisces about his family, work and school.
  6. Barbara Brown spent hours teaching me about relations and family connections in our village. Her gentle suggestions (“Susan, you might want to call this person”) as she reminded me about birthdays and anniversaries of happy and sad occasions helped me establish personal connections with my congregation.
  7. Kenny Marvin walked through the church every morning on the way to work to check on fickle furnaces and quirky water pumps. David Cain did endless chores – emptying trash cans, folding bulletins, raking leaves – to serve the church he loved.
  8. Evelyn Eddy dedicated her life to the missions committee, always finding new ways to help others. Barbara Klare held up autumn leaves each fall as a reminder of God’s creative presence in our lives.
  9. Barbara Barrett taught me about organization and attention to detail with her yellow legal pads and endless energy.
  10. Glen Lessig suggested the revolutionary idea of a computer to replace my typewriter and had the foresight to exchange our ancient mimeograph machine with a speedy Risograph.

They know the value of a good celebration:

  1. The noisy exuberance of children at Rally Day, Children’s Day, Christmas Pageant, children’s choir, and Vacation Bible School.
  2. Quiet beauty of our candlelight Christmas Eve service
  3. Joy and creativity of the Holly Fair
  4. Toe-tapping music of Jazz Sunday
  5. Making a joyful noise on Music Appreciation Sunday
  6. The Fourth of July Jamboree. An amazing, enduring effort that welcomes 1000+ people to enjoy old-fashioned, small-town fun.

They know how to share God’s love. These are the people I depend on in times of joy or tragedy. They live their faith by

  1. Creating beautiful Thanksgiving baskets
  2. Keeping a well-stocked food pantry for times of emergency
  3. Hosting beautiful funeral receptions, surrounding families with love
  4. Providing rides, cooking at the Community Kitchen, visiting the homebound
  5. Holding vigils in times of loss and mourning
  6. Walking with one another on life’s journey
  7. Choosing to become an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming all of God’s people

They have made East Woodstock my home. I am grateful for

  1. Celebrating my marriage with a contra dance
  2. Creating a safe and nurturing place for our children while allowing them space to learn and grow without expecting them to be perfect
  3. Supporting my continuing education with sabbatical leave – 3 times
  4. Reading and discussing my research during my Doctor of Ministry studies
  5. Making it possible for my family to travel to Bolivia, birthplace of our oldest son

There are words and experiences that I will always associate with East Woodstock:

  1. Molasses cookies. Cake walk. Basket social. Chicken barbeque. Men’s chorus.

When I step into our sanctuary, I know I am on holy ground.  This is a place where births and baptism are celebrated, couples unite, teenagers are confirmed, and memories are shared to mark a life completed and a soul gone home. There is a cloud of witnesses offering strength and love to the vibrant, active congregation that gathers to worship and serve.

  1. These are not-perfect people led by a not-perfect pastor, but somehow through the grace of God, together we are the church. And I am so grateful.

Thanks be to God.

Quality Treats

Halloween was about quality, not quantity where I grew up. Houses were spread far apart in our rural area, necessitating car-driven trick or treating. Since that was all I ever experienced, it didn’t seem strange to me.  My best friend and I would spend weeks preparing and trying out various costumes until we cobbled together (never bought) some dress-up creation. A hobo, a flapper, a mummy come to mind. One year it was a huge box with head and arm holes that fit over my body; it was spray-painted silver and plastered with dials, a compass, and a thermometer. Suddenly, I was a robot.  Climbing in and out of the car was a challenge, but I felt very futuristic and modern.

Our Halloween visits were eagerly anticipated by our few neighbors. When we arrived, anxious to knock on the door or ring the doorbell, the door would swing open with a hearty, “Come in!” Waiting for us was a bowl filled with Halloween napkins tied with yarn that were stuffed with (full-size) candy bars and candy corn. Often a short visit for the adults would be required, despite our squirmy insistence that we move on to the next stop. We still had a lot of ground to cover that night. Thirteen or fourteen stops later, Halloween was over for another year, but we could go home to count, sort, and treasure our sweet treasures.

There were of course a few “ringers” in the neighborhood. The over-sticky candied apple at the orchard home or the collection of lemon drops and “suckers” from an elderly widow. That’s when the lesson of smiling and saying “Thank you” kicked in. But mostly our reward was a bounty of goodies, generously and gladly given.

What I realize now as an adult is how fortunate I am to have so many happy childhood memories. Much of my listening time as a minister is filled with stories of abuse or drama, angry or hurtful words in turbulent, unhappy homes. The lack of stability in childhood makes it challenging (not impossible, but more difficult) to create a stable adulthood. Many struggle for decades to overcome damage that was done.

I had the privilege of receiving what every child deserves, but does not get. I had parents who were dependable and loving and who created a safe place to grow up.

If you are someone who had a stable (not necessarily rich or luxurious, but safe) upbringing, take a moment to give thanks for those who loved and protected you.

If your memories of growing up are more troubled, know that God’s desire for you is that you know your true identity – you are a beloved child of God, who is loved and lovable. That unshakeable love is the gift, the treat, that each one of us is offered – on Halloween and every day.