Leadership, ABD

I’ve heard it said that anyone who led well in 2020 earned a PhD in leadership. Recently, however, I’ve come to understand that we’re all actually sitting ABD – all but dissertation. The Delta variant, then, is when your second reader writes to say that the argument in page 88 could be bolstered if you read some obscure 500 page book. Delta Plus is when you realize that your footnotes are correct by the Chicago Manual of Style volume 8, but they published volume 9 while you weren’t looking.  Leadership is hard. Leadership in a pandemic is hard and requires constant vigilance and updating. It seems many are content with ABD and are letting the suggestions of their readers go unanswered while enjoying drinks with those who would say, “don’t worry about that crap.”

John 6 provides an interesting study in long term leadership. The chapter opens with the crowd following Jesus numbering in the thousands. They’d seen him perform healings. They’d heard him challenge the religious powers-that-be. They were intrigued and wanted to know more, so they followed him out of town and into the wilderness. Suddenly, it was dinner time and the crowd of 5,000 men (plus women and children) were hungry.  With five small loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd because sometimes, leadership is meeting the immediate needs of people to keep them safe. The next day, however, when the crowd tracks Jesus down again hoping for more signs (and more fish sandwiches), Jesus begins to teach them some of the more difficult lessons of discipleship – I am the bread of life, my flesh is food indeed, you cannot come to the Father unless you are called – you get the idea. The chapter that began with swollen crowds ends with so many turning back that Jesus begins to wonder if even the 12 will leave him.

True leadership is not about being popular.  It doesn’t kowtow to the loudest voices. Nor does it hope to soothe the feels of the misinformed. Most of the time, leadership requires political savvy to bring as many people alongside as possible, but sometimes leaders have to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead toward what is right, no matter the consequences to their ego, re-election campaign, or pocketbook. To be quite honest, being a leader means risking being unpopular and, as is evidenced by Jesus, occasionally losing some folks along the way.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’ve done everything right as a leader since March of 2020. There have been plenty of times I’ve moved too slowly, waited too long, or been indecisive.  But, as I watch school and government leaders, abdicate their leadership roles, content to stay ABD, while major corporations, whose goal is only profit, somehow stumble onto what is right by mandating vaccinations, I can’t help but throw up my hands and ask, “what the actual f*ck is happening?” None of us signed up for leading in a pandemic, but all of us who are leaders signed up to make hard choices, whether we knew it or not. Hard choices might be unpopular with a loud-mouthed minority who can be a pain in the neck, but when they are scientifically proven to save lives, well then, mask up and require the jab because if you think you’re tired of leading now, just wait until epsilon, zeta, eta, and theta come calling.

Let’s not settle for ABD. Pick up that book your second reader suggested. Fix those footnotes. Do the hard thing because only when we all lead for the good of all of humanity will we see this thing end and finally get that PhD in leadership we’ve all been promised.

The Work of Lament

       One of the things I remember most vividly about seminary is the mantra of self-care that the faculty tried to instill within us.  Take your day off.  Eat right.  Exercise regularly.  Get a spiritual director.  See a therapist.  Advisors, Deans, random professors, even visitors to campus who had recently graduated would remind us, again and again, to take care of ourselves.  They did so, I assume, because they hadn’t, and knew the cost.  Like so many of them, I didn’t either.  I’ve never been terribly bad about taking my days off, but the seminary lunchroom was an all you can eat buffet.  Exercise requires self-discipline.  Spiritual directors might be easy to find in Washington DC, but not so much in Foley, Alabama.  And therapy?  I’d take care of that someday.  I graduated in May of 2007.  In May of 2020, I finally got a counselor thanks to the pandemic and the rise in telehealth.

It has been a little more than a year since I signed up with Betterhelp.com to deal with anxiety, stress, and grief, and these days, I find myself sounding a lot like those faculty members from so long ago, telling everyone who will listen that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of the strength you need to take control of your life and further your walk with God.  As COVID restrictions loosen and life begins to return to “normal,” I am keenly aware of the need we all have to find healthy ways to deal with the grief we’ve all experienced over the last 15 months.  Most obviously, we have to grieve the friends and family who have died during the pandemic, whose loss we have not been able to mourn in the usual ways.  Our list for this evening contains more than 30 names, but there are countless others whose funerals we’ve been unable to attend, whose families we’ve been unable to hug, whose stories we’ve been unable to share.  For many of us, the process of grieving the loss of loved ones has become backlogged in this long COVIDtide, as grief has stacked upon grief stacked upon grief.  Rather crudely put, we’re all a bit grief constipated at this point.

Less obvious is the grief associated with the loss of other patterns in our lives.  Two Easters were spent online and physically distanced.  Christmas Eve was a snowy night on State Street and quick walk-through nave to receive communion.  Graduations, proms, birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, dance recitals, concerts, sporting events, even Memorial Day picnics – you name it, the pandemic took it away or drastically changed it.  It might feel strange to mourn the loss of a watermelon seed spitting contest on the 4th of July, but it is real, and it is normal.

We gather this evening to do the important and necessary work of lamentation, grief, and remembrance.  According to the folks over at the Oxford English Dictionary, lament is a word that has gone out of fashion over the last 200 years.  Maybe it is because the industrial revolution’s goal is to make life easier and more comfortable, there’s been less reason to lament, but the act of expressing grief, in forms both ecstatic and humble, is part of what it means to be fully human.  Lamentation is a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  There are 58 Psalms of Lament, both personal and corporate, making up 39% of the book of Psalms total number.  There is an entire book of the Bible called, Lamentations, in which the Prophet Jeremiah is thought to have penned five poems of lament after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.  In the lesson we’ve heard read here this evening, Jesus, Mary, Martha, and a whole crowd of others gather in lamentation and mourning at the death of Lazarus.  Even our Book of Common Prayer acknowledges the holiness of lamentation, when, at the end of the Burial Office, it teaches that while we find our hope and joy in the resurrection of the dead, grief is not unchristian.  “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deeps sorrow when we are parted by death.  Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend.  So, while we rejoice that [those] we love [have] entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”

This service of lament and remembrance isn’t the end of the grief process.  More likely, it will mark only the beginning of a long road toward acceptance and hope, the final stage of grief as first posited by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969.  Looking at the world around us, it seems that corporately, we’re all stuck in the anger phase, which is often marked by lashing out at others for no apparent reason.  No matter where you are, or how many times you’ve walked through the stages of grief, the work is hard, but important.  As my counselor has told me on several occasions over the last year, “feel your feelings.”  Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Fighting them, won’t make the grief process any easier or help it go by any faster.  Instead, as individuals and as a community, the lament, grief, and remembrance work that we do tonight will be part of what God uses to carry us through the days, weeks, and months to come, so that, on the other side, we might be able to accept all that we have lost and look forward with hope to a brighter future.  If you don’t have a counselor, I can now, with confidence, invite you to find one.  If you don’t have habits of discipleship like prayer and Bible reading, I invite you to start one.  If you don’t know the stages of grief, I’d be happy to tell you more.  Tonight, we turn our focus on the beginning of a long, hard road.  The end of which, is nothing less than the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday is Good, all on its own

For many years, I’ve loved a story told by theologian Tony Campolo.  It takes place in his church, during a revival where preachers from several local congregations were invited to speak.  While the goal was always to bring people closer to Jesus, secondarily, each preacher hoped to out preach the rest.  Tony remembers that he was on his game that particular morning, and when he sat down, he looked over at the preacher sitting next to him and whispered, “good luck.”  His counterpart simply responded, “Son, sit back.  The old man is going to do you in.”  For the next half hour, that preacher did him in with basically one line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

       For many years, I’ve loved this idea of “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” but after thirteen months of Lent, I’m beginning to understand that what makes this Friday Good really has nothing to do with what will happen on Sunday morning.  Instead, Good Friday, I believe, is good all on its own.  It would be good even if Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead on Easter morning.  Holy Saturday and Easter Day are good on their own merit as well, but this Friday is Good because of what Jesus Christ did on that Friday two thousand some-odd years ago.  This Friday is Good because of the prophetic words Jesus spoke from the cross as he gave up his spirit.

       In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are, “It is finished.”  What Jesus came to earth to do wasn’t almost done through his death on the cross, but it was finished, accomplished, complete.  Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation was made complete through his entering fully into the suffering of humankind.  As we’ve heard several times during this Lenten Season, Christ was lifted up to glory, not upon a throne, but upon the Cross.  Through what theologians call Christus Victor, Jesus’ death is the moment of God’s victory over sin and death.  By way of an act of divine love, God entered fully into the bondage of death and turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, liberating all of humanity from the fear of death in order to live lives marked by the Way of Love.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that Christ took away the sting of death forever.

Alternatively, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 for his last words.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  These seem like words that are as far from good as one can imagine.  Jesus, whom we believe to be God, feeling forsaken by God is very, very, not good.  Yet, even these pain-wracked words of Jesus can be seen as good if we understand that part of what God came to do in the Incarnation was to fully enter into and redeem the human experience.  All of us, at some time in our lives, will feel separated from God.  Whether it is bound in grief, fear, or doubt, at some point, each of us knows the deep feeling of lostness when God feels far away.  In Jesus’ final act in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity temporarily relinquished godship in the ultimate act of solidarity with humanity.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that God experienced and redeemed godforsakenness.

It is Friday, and Sunday is coming.  It’s Friday after thirteen months of deprivation, anxiety, and separation, and Sunday is coming.  Sunday will be Good, but this Friday doesn’t need Sunday in order to be Good all on its own.  Jesus Christ died that we might have life, that the sting of death might not have victory over us, that we might know that even God experienced what it means to feel separated from God’s unending love.  It is Friday, and it is Good.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

       Over the past year, I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls, text messages, and emails asking, wondering, and sometimes even pleading for in-person church to restart.  I’ve felt each one of those encounters.  I’ve carried them with me every day since this pandemic began because I know these requests weren’t being made out of selfishness or the thought that this virus isn’t a real threat.  To a person, each one who reached out, and I’m sure all of you who didn’t, wanted to be back in church because, like the Greeks in our Gospel lesson this morning, you want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus in the face of our friends.  We want to see Jesus in the beauty of our sacred space.  We want to see Jesus in the Eucharist.  Part of what has made this year so difficult for all of us has been how disconnected we’ve felt, not just from one another, but at times, even from Christ Jesus.

       Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus’ last public teaching before his death.  It is the Passover Feast, and pilgrims from all over have come to Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews from across the Diaspora came to offer sacrifices, say prayers, and give thanks for God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish converts came as well, eager to say their prayers and to engage in the rituals of their newfound faith.  Of course, there were tourists in town too; interested onlookers who wondered what it was all about.  We don’t know if these Greeks were converts or tourists, but nevertheless, they wanted to see Jesus.  They’d no doubt heard about him.  Whether it was because he had raised Lazarus from the dead a week earlier or some other miracle, it seems news of the faith-healing Rabbi had spread far and wide.

       As Jesus is wont to do, he doesn’t seem to directly give anybody what they want.  Instead of heading over to take a selfie with the Greeks who came to see him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples, the Greeks, and anyone who would listen that his death was imminent and that his death would be the first seed of many that would produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus took the chance to remind those who would seek to follow him that discipleship means a life of sacrificial love.  As Deacon Kellie told us last week, in John’s Gospel, Jesus being lifted up wasn’t high on a throne of glory, but upon a cross, where his death would be the beginning of eternal life for the whole world.  If we are to follow Jesus, we must learn to see him in his fullness – in his ministry of teaching and healing, in his being lifted up on the cross, in his rising again at the Resurrection, and in his ascending into heaven.  In this final public discourse and in the private farewell discourse that was just for his disciples; Jesus sought to prepare all who would follow him for what life would look like when he was gone; when, one day, it would be impossible to see Jesus, face to face.

Not being able to come to church has us all longing to see Jesus, but on the other side of that coin, I think, are the many ways we’ve seen the face of Christ in the world around us.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, over the last year, we’ve seen Jesus in the many sacrifices we’ve made to keep our neighbors safe.  I see Christ in every pair of smiling eyes peeking over a mask covered face at the grocery store.  I see Jesus in the phone calls, text messages, and emails of encouragement and support.  I’ve seen Jesus in teachers caring for their students, students navigating NTI snow days, and on every one of the hundreds of Zoom meetings I’ve attended this year.

In teaching those Greeks that discipleship means sacrifice, Jesus affirms for all of us that what we’ve done over the last year is important.  In every sacrifice we’ve made in the name of the greater good, we’ve placed another piece of beautifully dyed thread into the gorgeous tapestry God is weaving into the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  As we think about how we will begin to return to some of the familiar practices of past, we would do well to remember that call to sacrificial love.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t going to be anywhere near normal.  Even as we come back into the Nave for Sunday worship, you might not be able to sit in “your pew.”  The space will look, feel, and sound different.  The season of sacrifice isn’t over just because we’ve announced a return to Church in the Pews beginning on April 11.  Instead, as I think we’re all experiencing, each time I do something I used to do pre-pandemic, I’m keenly aware of how different it is.  Going to a restaurant, waiting in my car for a table, seeing half the place empty, and my server wearing a mask is different.  Getting my temperature taken at the door of my doctor’s office and trying to fill out paperwork through fogged up glasses is different.  Helping Lainey find her mask before we head out to school each morning is different.  For me, the starkness of our year-long sacrifice is more apparent in the way things are different now than in the things that still aren’t happening.  As excited as I am to see folks back in these pews, I know that it’ll hurt to not give hugs and handshakes, to see you behind masks, and to not share a blueberry donut after the 10 o’clock service.  Those things will come, in time, I’m sure, but it’ll be helpful to remember that Jesus is present in every physically distanced wave, every masked smile, and, yes, even in every donut not eaten.

We want to see Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, even in our disconnection, Jesus has still been present among us.  The key is to look.  With God’s help, we can have our eyes opened to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  With God’s help, we can fix our hearts on true joy in a world of swift and varied changes.  With God’s help, the sacrifices we have made and will continue to make over the coming months will be the opportunity to shine the light of Christ into the world so that others might come to see Jesus for themselves.  To see Christ, we must follow Christ in a life of sacrificial love.  To see Christ, we must serve Christ in everyone we meet.  To see Christ, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  We wish to see Jesus, O God, open our eyes that we might see.  Amen.

One Year

Most people remember Wednesday, March 11, 2020 because it was the day that Rudy Gobert, star center of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. I remember it as the day, one year ago this morning, that Andy Beshear, the Governor of Kentucky, recommended that churches consider not holding services the following Sunday. At 11am, I met with our Christian Education Director to talk about whether or not we should hold our Wednesday Lenten program that evening. At 1pm, our Director of Music and I decided to suspend choir rehearsals. At 2pm, our audio/visual volunteer was in my office with a plan to live stream Sunday services.

March 11, 2020 was probably the most stressful day I’ve had at work. It was a day of hastily scheduled meetings, uncertainty, and difficult decisions, but it was also a day of great clarity. In the email I wrote to the congregation that day, time stamped at 3:07pm, I concluded with these words, “This will give us the time and space we need to make wise decisions for the health of our most vulnerable members while balancing our Christian call to be beacons of hope in our community.” The dual petitions for wise decisions and beacons of hope, has been my prayer, in one form or another, for a year now.

Of course, March 11, 2020 Steve had no idea what was coming. On March 16, we held our last in-person staff meeting. On the white board in the Conference Room, we drew up a calendar so that we could all visualize what was coming. I took a picture of it and posted it to Instagram with this caption.

“Maybe the 90 day window was overkill…” We were so naive. That calendar is still there, untouched now for almost 365 days. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that on March 11, 2021, I’d spend five minutes frantically looking for SBC’s mask, trying to make sure she was on time to the eighth day of full capacity in-person school since March 16, 2020. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that we would still holding online only services and planning for a second pandemic Holy Week. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility of 520,000 dead Americans, an estimated 100,000,000 infected, and yet, 25% of adults in Kentucky, including myself, at least half vaccinated.

It has been a long year. There has been so much to mourn, so much to worry about, and so many plans altered and scrapped. As one priest I know said recently, “we’ve all gotten PhDs in leadership this year.” And while it is still far from over, as I look back on the year that has past, I can’t help but find things to be thankful for. I’m thankful that, by and large, my family, friends, and flock have remained healthy. I’m thankful for partners in ministry who have prayed with and for me as we’ve made unpopular decisions and who have pivoted, sometimes as a moment’s notice. I’m thankful for Governor Beshear, Bishop White, and Superintendent Fields as they’ve modeled leadership that has balanced wise decision making and hope for a better tomorrow. Most of all, I’m thankful for a trampoline in our backyard.

It has been a long year. Give yourself space to grieve, space for gratitude, and space for rest. As I said on Sunday, normal can’t be our goal for post-pandemic life, but if we keep our prayers focused on wisdom and hope, what comes next can be a world that is more just, more loving, and more peaceful than the one we left behind.

Beware of false gods

       I am certain that somewhere this morning, some preacher will stand up before their congregation and say, “I must confess to you that I have failed to keep one of the Commandments.”  After a dramatic pause, long enough for members to mutter to themselves with shock and surprise, the preacher will continue, “I do not keep the Sabbath day,” and everyone will get a good chuckle.  In post-Industrial, 21st century America, it is easy to look at the Ten Commandments, see the admonition to keep the Sabbath, and roll our eyes.  Forgetting, for a moment, the reality that being able to order take-out, buy a widget, produce a car, and be in touch 24 hours a day, seven days a week is literally killing people by way of heart disease, cancer, and even COVID, it seems to me that the real sin of failing to honor the Sabbath day isn’t that it violates the fourth Commandment, but that it actually violates the number one, top of the line Commandment that God gave to Moses after rescuing the Hebrew People from Egypt, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

       We live in a world that is full of false gods constantly vying for our attention.  When we are young, it is the god of cool who tries to convince us to talk the right way, hang out with the right people, and wear the right clothes so that we will fit in.  The god of advertising would have us find happiness in the right car, shoes, or cell phone plan.  The god of 24-hour news brainwashes us to think only a certain way.  The god of right would have us break off all relationships with those with whom we disagree.  There are hundreds of gods in this world that would have us turn away from the One, True, God.

Perhaps the most insidious god of them all is the god of success.  If we can only get the right grades, go the right school, and focus on the right career, all our hopes will be fulfilled.  Of course, in order to succeed, we have to work, hard, constantly.  We work, and we work, and we work, until one day, we realize that Sabbath no longer exists, and that we have not only put our lives at risk by not taking the kind of rest that even the Lord God Almighty took at the Creation of all that is, but that we have replaced God entirely.

Of course, the devious nature of the gods of this world is nothing new.  There is a reason that the first Commandment that God gave to Moses some thirty-five hundred years ago was to have no other gods.  Human beings have been susceptible to the temptation to replace God since the very beginning.  It is why Adam and Eve ate that piece of forbidden fruit.  It is why Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish.  And it is why Jesus went bonkers in the Temple one Sunday afternoon.  It was the days leading up to the Passover Feast.  Pilgrims from all over were making their way to Jerusalem in order to remember God rescuing their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and to make their various offerings at the Temple.  Jesus and his disciples, being faithful Jews, went as well.  What they saw upon their arrival in the Temple Court was the gods of this world running rampant in the house of the Lord God Almighty.

The sacrificial system had been established to give people a hands-on way to get right with God, but in time, many middlemen had entered the equation.  There were the cattle sellers, who, for a nice profit, would sell you the unblemished lamb you needed for your Passover sacrifice.  Of course, they had doves by the dozens should you need to be purified after childbirth, cleansed of a skin condition, or simply wanted to present a burnt offering to God.  Jesus, no doubt, saw the need for such businesses, as many pilgrims would have been unable to travel with their animal offerings in tow, but he also saw the god of the almighty shekel at work.  He saw the god of ritualistic religion taking the true intentions of the people and turning them into profit.  So, he tied up a whip of cords and began to chase the vendors, and the gods they represented, out of his Father’s Temple.

As they fled, Jesus turned his attention to the money changers, who were even worse.  The Temple Tax, which had to be paid by every Jewish person for the upkeep of the Temple, was paid in a very specific way.  In Jesus’ day, the currency of Rome broke the Second Commandment.  In violation of the Commandment against idols was the graven image of the Emperor with an inscription that declared Caesar as divine and a high priest in the state religion.  This would obviously not do as payment for the Temple tax, and so the money changer took on an important role.  For a decent profit, they would take your Roman coins and give you the proper half shekel needed to pay the Temple Tax.  Here again, the god of the almighty shekel had teamed up with the false gods of ritual and government to bring distance between the People and the One, True, God.  In response, Jesus flipped their tables, sent change skittering all over, and ran them out.  Jesus has little patience for false gods in his Father’s house.

Today marks our fifty-second Sunday of Church at Home.  It has been a long, difficult year.  I miss seeing each of you so very much, and I look forward to preaching to more than a camera and Linda Mitchell someday soon.  But I also worry that this past year has introduced a new god seeking our attention – the god of normal.  I fear that we are all so desperate for normalcy, that we could lose sight of all that Almighty God has sought to teach us over these last 12 months.  Normal feels easy.  We can simply slide back into the old routines that we knew so well.  We’ll fall right back into the habits of the past, and this year long Sabbath that has been forced upon us will have been for naught.  On April 2nd, 2020, only about three weeks into the first pandemic shut-down, poet and social justice advocate Sonya Renee Taylor reflected on what was, even then, the already alluring siren song of the god of normal.  She wrote, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”[1]

The First Commandment might be the hardest one to keep.  The gods of this world are myriad.  Specifically, right now, the god of normal is seductive, but we must resist its temptation and instead listen for the will of the God of All Creation, the God of Love, as we discern what life looks like in months and years to come.  Lest Jesus enter into our lives and tie up a whip of cords, perhaps, in what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic, we should take time to root out the false gods who would vie for our attention and turn our focus toward the One, True God.  Thankfully, it is the Season of Lent, a time of preparation for new beginnings.  The tools we need are already at our disposal: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.   My friends, with so many false gods running around, I am certain we have all occasionally violated at least one of the Commandments, but with the help of Almighty God, we can find forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/B-fc3ejAlvd/?hl=en