Three Dimensional Worship

Craig in AlaskaOn Sunday I had the opportunity to preach via Zoom at Glendale Presbyterian Church. This is only the third time I’ve preached since the pandemic. Each church has been very different in its technology, liturgy, and location. Twice I’ve preached from home, and once inside of a church. Twice has been by Zoom and once by Facebook live. On Sunday I tried something I’ve never done before. It’s an idea I stole from Liz Kanerva. About two-thirds into my sermon, I had the congregation break into small groups. I had several pre-planned questions for them to discuss. I allowed 10 minutes for the discussions. Afterward, they all returned to hear the conclusion of the sermon.

As a teacher at heart, this style of preaching made me feel like a teaching elder! The time for small group discussions was a moment I could stop, enter a small group, and listen to what is on the minds of the parishioners. I could hear them process the sermon and discover their thoughts and ideas. It was a moment of true liturgy–the work of the people–as they engaged one another and led each other in conversation.

COVID time has not been pleasant, but it has offered us an opportunity for creativity. It is a chance to make our two-dimensional worship into a three-dimensional experience. I’ve seen churches use the Call to Worship as a time for people to greet one another with a wave. I’ve seen people sharing their heartfelt prayers and praying for one another in the chat forum during the time for Prayers of the People. Children’s sermons can be videos, images, and recorded nature walks with conversations. At Glendale we ended worship by turning off the recording of the worship service and sitting and sharing informally our joys and concerns.

What are some creative things your church is doing during this time? What are some ways you have turned this time of cloister into a time of creative growth? Please share your ideas in the response section of the blog, so we can all learn together through the cross-pollination of ideas.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Shuffling Through History

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Be it further RESOLVED, That we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); . . .

Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention, 1995

We repent of shutting our hearts to the experiences of fellow humans whose stories of pain, suffering, hardship, struggle, love and joy mirror our own life journeys, yet are deprived of privilege and marred by racism.  We have turned our backs and walked away pretending not to see, yet we saw, pretending not to know, yet we knew, and convincing ourselves that we were not complicit, yet we are.

We now know that we as white Christians have benefitted directly and indirectly from these injustices. We name ourselves as complicit and repent.

An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for The Sin Of Slavery And Its Legacy, Presbytery of Giddings Lovejoy, 2020

In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) wrote a stinging apology and rebuke for their history of slavery and white supremacy. Over 15,000 people were present in the Georgia Dome 25 years ago when the document was read and approved. The Resolution was then used as an olive branch to the black community. The L.A. Times wrote, “The Rev. Gary Frost of Youngstown, Ohio, the denomination’s second vice president and the first African American to reach that post, accepted the apology on behalf ‘of my black brothers and sisters.”‘

Earlier this year the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy passed their Apology document. The Apology, created by the Dismantling Racism and Privilege team, is a strong statement that fills in the missing, overlooked, and denied pieces of social history in the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy. It is exciting to see that congregations are examining the Apology and are using it as a platform to discuss current racial issues in their particular context.

As I read the history of the SBC in Robert P. Jones’ book, White Too Long, I see obvious comparisons between the SBC Resolution and the presbytery’s Apology. Since the SBC has a 25-year head start, what can we learned from how the SBC has incorporated its Resolution on Racial Reconciliation and what may happen with the Apology document?

Jones provides a cautionary tale as he looks at the past 25 years in the SBC. Although the Reconciliation document is filled with repentance, regret, and promises, the church has struggled to move past these emotional sentiments into real racial progress. Jones describes what he calls the White Christian shuffle. This entails “a subtle two steps forward and one step backward pattern of lamenting past sins in great detail, even admitting that they have had pernicious effects but then ultimately denying that their legacy requires reparative or costly actions in the present. It’s a strategy that emphasizes lament and apology, expects absolution and reconciliation, but gives scant attention to questions of justice, repair, or accountability.”

The warning from Jones is clear. If the church is going to move forward on issues of race, it must move from lament to accountability; from repentance to justice; from reconciliation to repair. Moving forward means costing the church something today. I do not know what that means for our presbytery. I know there is a conversation in our denomination with the Presbyterian Loan and Investment Program to access their funding (and debt) of African American congregations. I am aware of presbyteries that create incentives for congregations to interview and hire pastors of color. These examples hint at the type of effort it will take to bring racial change in our presbytery.

I believe that if we are going to make any progress against racism, it will take a sustained determined effort. I pray we keep focused, keep at it, and keep the faith believing that a change is going to come. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Sylvia Franklin

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Everything I need to know I learned in Sunday school. Not so much as a child but as an adult. My love for Sunday school is rooted in my adult conversion and baptism, which happened during Sunday school at a Pentecostal church in Ann Arbor Michigan. I was deeply planted in the work, ministry, and teaching of Sunday school by Sylvia Franklin. Sylvia was the Sunday School Superintendent at my Pentecostal church in Chicago. She was a tough woman who stood six feet tall and did not tolerate fools or foolishness. Sylvia was a disciplinarian whose rough exterior melted away in her love for children, education, and the Bible. She championed education and learning in an inner-city African American church that sat across the street from the high school my mother dropped out of as a teen from boredom. Sylvia believed in education and demonstrating education with proper diction and the use of a weighty word every now and then! The Bible drills we did with the children are many of the Biblical text I can quote today (King James Version of course).

Under Sylvia’s leadership, in my 17 years at that Pentecostal church, I taught every level of Sunday school from 4 year olds to adults. When I became the Sunday School Superintendent, Sylvia was my assistant. But she was really my mentor. In just three years, under her model of teaching and leadership, our Sunday school of children and adults grew from 300 to over 800 with 65 teachers and 27 classes. Our Sunday school kept pace with a growing church.

Sylvia pushed for me to go to seminary. I saw it as an opportunity to become a better Sunday school superintendent. God is still laughing!

Sylvia Franklin passed away last week. Her funeral service is being held today. It has been a year of great losses for me–of friends, spiritual and vocational mentors. I wish I could be in Chicago for Sylvia but grieving and mourning must be done differently during a pandemic. I want to give her a tribute because of what she meant to me and because more than any one person, she made me the Christian leader that I am. I end with a quote from Joyce Rupp in her book, My Soul Feels Lean.

The Best of You

I want the best of you,
who you were in your finest clothes,
generous, forgiving, full of purest love.

Every day I ask of you
to grant just this much to me,
the best of you,
a wardrobe of goodness
wrapped in easy laughter,
an adventurous heart,
a searching soul.

How could I not yearn
daily
for what held us close,
the best of you.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Being Neighborly

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Junie Ewing
Bridge Associate Presbytery Leader
jewing@glpby.org


“Acting Neighborly“

In these difficult times, the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” keeps coming to mind.  You remember, the one about the lawyer who asks Jesus to define “neighbor” so he might know who is neighbor and who is not.  As a lawyer, he wants to obey the law to love God, neighbor and self.  Would Jesus please give him a definition so he might apply appropriate limits to caring?

Now Jesus begins to answer the lawyer with a story. The “good-guy” here is a mixed-blood foreigner who worships God in the wrong place and the wrong way – a Samaritan.  Jesus names him “good”. Then Jesus surprises the lawyer by expanding “neighbor” to how we are being with others.  Instead of defining neighbor by neighborhood or zip code, Jesus reveals everyone is our neighbor, so we are to “act neighborly”.  Like the Samaritan who interrupted his trip to help the stranger left for dead on the side of the road, we too are invited to step out of our comfort zone.  We too are invited onto paths that may feel uncomfortable, that some may call risky.  Yet how else but through “acting neighborly” might we address a world filled with hatred, fear, and strife?

Indeed, our world is starving for those who act neighborly.  There are many in our cities, towns and rural areas who thirst for acts of neighborliness.  Yet at the same time, our African American brothers and sisters are clearly named “Not-My-Neighbor” by political structures, laws, speech and acts of hatred and violence.  For the color of one’s skin still opens or closes doors to housing, loans, education and jobs.  In such an un-neighborly environment, how might we be their neighbor?  What might “acting neighborly” toward our African American sisters and brothers look like in your life, in your community, through your leadership positions?

The answer lies within you. You know your context best and so need to discern your own answer.  Even so, here is question that I ask you to consider.  It is:  What might the world look like if we used our leadership positions to open doors to African American brothers and sisters as faithful, tangible, neighborly actions?

In Christ Jesus,

Rev. Dr. Junie Ewing
Bridge Associate Presbytery Leader

New Life from Church Closing

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


On Sunday I attended the final worship service of Calvary Presbyterian Church. This is the first time a congregation closed online through Zoom. Although faced with several technical difficulties, Pastor Emma Holley did an excellent job. She used the children’s sermon, liturgy, and sermon to point toward lament and hope; sorrow and resurrection. The closing of a congregation is a time of nostalgia mixed with grief, sadness, and frustration. The decision to close doesn’t come easily. As Emma said in her sermon, “Our decision to close was not one we came to lightly. We discussed and we discerned, and we prayed; and then we discussed, and we discerned, and we prayed; and then we discussed, and we discerned, and we prayed some more. And somehow, out of all the opportunities and options we explored, we came together in affirmation that God was calling us to a different path.”

The technical term for closing a church is “the dissolution of a congregational ministry”. God’s church doesn’t close. Instead, the local ministry is dissolved into the presbytery and the local community like a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee. The sweetness and flavor of the congregation lives on in the life and mission of other local mission and ministries, congregations, and new worshiping communities.

Ordinarily the presbytery rushes to monetize the building of a dissolved congregation and uses the funds for other congregations and ministries. Calvary’s building will also be sold, but not right away. The presbytery wants to use the space as an incubator or springboard for new ministries and new worshiping communities. For the next three years, the presbytery will look for people who have a vision for the South County area and use the Calvary space to house meetings, gatherings, or other potential expressions of Christ’s presence in the community.

For example, the local high school currently uses the parking lot for cars during the school year. What if we could invite them into the building before or after school to fellowship and study using the WiFi of the facility? What if we could arrange events for them outside in the backyard of the church? What other intersections of the community can we use this space to build a new ministry for the gospel?

This is an experiment. We will continue to lease space to the Affton Presbyterian Church. After three years, we will sell the property, distribute the legacy investment to local missions, and dissolve the rest into the presbytery. Like any experiment, it may work, or it may not. But why not try something new? Why not attempt something bold in the name of Jesus?

As people of the resurrection, we are constantly looking into empty tombs for signs of life. We are only limited by our imagination as we seek to do new things in this community. We are not limited by our title of reverend or elder. God’s storehouse of imagination is open to anyone! On August 18 at 7:00 p.m. our New Worshiping Communities Commission will host a Dreaming and Discerning event for those who have a vision for new mission and ministry. Please contact Rev. Steve Matthews for more information.  I look forward to seeing what God will do in South County, and in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

The Organization Person

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


On this long Fourth of July weekend, I did it! I finally got it done! I finished my book filing project that I’d been putting off completing all year. It all started when I purchased a software program that catalogs books on my iPhone. All I have to do is use my phone to scan the ISBN bar code (or input the number), and the program goes onto the internet to find the book. It then downloads the name, author, category, length, etc. I have been trying for months to download all of my book titles, which I have organized on bookshelves in the family room.

Now that I have all of the books cataloged, I can see some interesting statistics (interesting to a nerd like myself!). I have 836 books spread across 27 shelves on 6 bookcases. This doesn’t include my Bibles, dictionaries, lexicons, and Greek and Hebrew books. They are in a separate bookcase. I also have 135 books on Audible and 53 on Kindle. Do you want to know who my number one author is? I have 7 books by Walter Brueggemann. He is followed by Justo Gonzalez and Margaret Wheatley. I have 6 books by each of them. Howard Thurman comes next with 5.

This orderly, straight lines, organizational part of me is a surprise. I do not see myself this way. I feel more artistic, creative, and risk-taking. I’m not sure I even like people who are too organized! But I am learning that others who work with me (and even live with me!) see me as a much more structured person than I perceive myself to be.

When it comes to ministry, God calls our whole person to do the work. God calls all of who we are and brings our gifts, values, and interest to the table of serving the church. It is tragic when we feel we must hide our true selves, muzzle our ministry, or closet our gifts and talents in order to serve a church or a ministry setting. There is so much richness in each of us–so much potential and unfettered life. Serving in ministry should be a time of growth and development of the gifts God has given us, even as we ripen and flourish into the person God is creating us to become.

Thank you for allowing me to use my gifts of organization, structure, and persistence as I serve as your presbytery leader. I pray that as we walk together on this journey, God will work within us to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Uncomfortable

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


It feels good to worship. If feels comfortable. One of the pleasures of attending worship either in person or online, is hearing a message to reflect on, listening to singing that sooths the heart, and participating in prayers that lift the spirit. Many people see church as a respite: an escape from the daily grind of work, social issues, news media, and the constant bombardment of social media. Church is where people get away from the weekly pressures of life and just be with God and others.

Recently, however, leaders have been bringing social issues into the house of God. Pastors have been preaching a different gospel. Some are talking about white privilege. Others are lifting up black lives and even daring to say they matter. Sermons are forcing attention to protests and issues that may even be political. The feel-good message with three points and a poem (with a joke in-between!) is getting hard to find.

What is going on? Like Mary in the Gospel of John, many are looking into the empty tomb and wondering, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him!” (John 20:13b). Sarah B. Drummond provides some insight in her book, Holy Clarity. In distinguishing the modern church from the postmodern church, she touches on some issues we are experiencing today. She writes:

“The (churches) where the minister’s leadership is rooted often took shape during the modern era and have not experienced meaningful change since then. They are governed by standing committees that move methodically and slowly, even when significant issues (such as rapid membership decline) arise. Their budgets are based on what the church has done in the past, not on what it might do in the future. Their leadership structures are hierarchical, often with the pastor as the head. . . They interpret conflict as a problem to be fixed; they interpret popular culture as an enemy to their cause. Few (pastors) feel prepared to engage in conversation with someone who thinks that the institutional church is simply unnecessary, but such conversations are the wave of the future in a postmodern church world.”

The church of the future, or even the church today, is not the same as it was years ago. The gospel is being interpreted with a sensitivity to voices that in the past have not been heard. The liturgy is reflective of a society that did not exist–or if it did exist, it was ignored–when we led churches years ago. The clash of modernity and postmodernity makes all of us who have a foot in both worlds feel uncomfortable.

Perhaps it is time we let go of the old way of doing church. COVID-19 has provided a chance to shake things up and reshape what church can be. The shaking of the foundations has opened cracks and fissures that allow people to enter who have not felt welcomed, led to a transformation of the heart that has been needed, and given a chance for the church to shift closer to the original Jesus movement rather than the movement of modernity.

I would like for you to walk with me into this new church. I know some will want to walk away. But I believe we can walk together as sisters, brothers, and siblings into a future that keeps the church relevant while delivering the gospel of Jesus Christ to a new age.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Death and Loss During a Pandemic

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


In March my spiritual director fell in his home and suffered a serious head injury. This led to a brain bleed, stroke, and paralysis. After days in a coma, Chuck was revived with serious physical and mental impairments. One week ago today he passed away while in hospice care. Chuck’s death is a loss of over a decade of spiritual direction, friendship, and love. The suddenness of his loss is an unplanned and sharp pain in my heart. I also hurt for his wife Jean, daughter Rebecca, and grandson Gus. Losing someone during a pandemic is extra difficult when physical touch is not possible, and family bedside gathering is not permitted.

Perhaps we underestimate the amount of grief being experienced by our society and our churches during this pandemic. I see the irrational anger of people who feel their rights are being violated because they are asked to wear a mask in public. There is heightened anger in the voices of protesters. I perceive this anger as grief. There has been exponential loss since the first orders of shelter in place back in March. Beyond the social loss of physical connection, people are sick and dying–alone. The deaths of George Floyd and others have left in their wake spouses, children, and communities painfully grieving life that has been suddenly taken. Dr. David Williams, Professor of Public Health at Harvard, has shown how trauma caused from the death of an unarmed black man can affect a community for 3 months. See his article here.

As religious leaders and as the Church of Jesus Christ, we are called to be God’s gentle and caring hands for the world. We, too, are hurting, angry, sad, and lonely. We, too, want to come back together and resume our old rhythms and rituals. But it is important that we respond in ways that will not exacerbate the problem and create further pain and loss. We must fervently pray, and we must diligently practice social distancing. We must reach out to our neighbors and let them know God cares while wearing a mask. We will come together in worship–perhaps outside–but we will refrain from singing or hugging out of care for others.

I miss Chuck greatly. Our conversations were always fruitful and full of life. I miss the fellowship of the saints too. I miss the sounds and actions of worship. Both are longings of loss. In the book, My Soul Feels Lean: Poems of Loss and Restoration, Joyce Rupp writes,

“Now is the time to yield, to enter
the next turning, accept the stark contrast
of barrenness in place of fullness.”

There is another side of grief. A fresh restoration returns when we exit the season of sadness and barrenness left by those we love. As people of the resurrection, we will get to the other side. In the meantime may we be prayerful, compassionate, and gracious to all those we encounter.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Four Models for Understanding the Current Unrest

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


 

After the Civil War, white Americans controlled economic and political systems that resulted in lynching, Jim Crow, Black Codes, white citizens’ councils, poverty, racial profiling, school to prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. Even today we continue to prolong racial inequality through codifying white supremacy. We apologize for being complicit for the last 400 years in perpetuating these injustices.

From “An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for the Sin of Slavery and Its Legacy”

We all come to conversations on race at different levels. Some don’t want to hear about race at all. For them racism is not a subject that belongs in the church. On the other extreme are those who feel we can’t say enough, do enough, or speak out loud enough when it comes to racial injustice. The majority of people in the presbytery are somewhere in between these two extremes.

I recently listened to a podcast in which Paul Butler talks about four models to help understand the current unrest. I confess that I have lived in all four of these models (and probably still do). Like any real issue in life, the conversation about race shifts from complicated to complex.

The first model can be summarized as “black men are the problem!” Black men are angry and have an aggressive form of masculinity. If they would just pull up their pants and stop acting guilty and aggressive, “then they wouldn’t have to worry about being stopped and frisked or being shot by the police.”

The second model says we have an under-enforcement of law. We need more police. We need more laws so that we can have order. We need more freedom to stop and frisk to prevent crime.

The third model is what he calls the “liberal idea.” In this model we need to improve the relationship between African Americans, communities of color, and the police. It is a compassionate model that believes if we could just sit down with one another and hear one another’s side, then we can come to an understanding. He says, “It’s like we’re caught in a bad marriage and we just have to come together.” In this model the solution is more body cameras, changing policing patterns, better training of police officers, and even investigating police department.

The fourth model (and the one the presbytery supports) says the problem is white supremacy and white privilege. The idea of white supremacy and privilege is the engine that drives the car of racism and racist actions. He says, “Mass incarceration, brutal prisons, and violent policing are just symptoms. If we just fix the symptoms, we are not treating the disease. Even if we could make the police do better, it is just going to mutate the way white supremacy devolved from slavery to the old Jim Crow to the new Jim Crow” (Podcast Deep Background with Noah Feldman. Episode 37: “The Barriers to Reform: Pushkin Industries”).

If we see racism as a chronic disease, we may realize the solution is not a single answer but a polyvalent approach: It is about learning and doing.

The work to dismantle racism and white privilege is ongoing and daunting. It is work that often pulls us from our comfort zones as we face new realities of American life, see familiar history in new ways, and make daily decisions that are not guided by our instincts of prejudice and judgement. It is work that makes us pause and see everyone as equal human beings that deserve respect, agency, and a chance at a prosperous life. I pray we have the courage to continue the work.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Next Steps for Change

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


“We repent that we have failed as an institution and as individuals to use our voices to abhor and end lynching, segregation, and racial profiling. We regret our generations of silence on these issues so that we could maintain a comfortable life in our churches, homes, and communities.” An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for The Sin of Slavery and Its Legacy

It has been a little over two weeks since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. As the grim image of his death loses its shock to my system, I am left with the metaphor of society’s knee on the neck of African Americans and people of color. So, what do we do now? How can we use our voices to end racism in our society and world?

Last week I was forwarded an email from Rick Liekweg, the CEO of Barnes Jewish Christian Healthcare (BJC). Please read his entire letter here. The email was sent throughout the BJC healthcare community. In the letter Rick speaks of his past and upbringing as a child in Virginia. He talks about lessons learned from his parents, his advantages as a white male, and privileges of wealth. Rick ends the letter with this commitment:

“I can’t deny my privilege, but I can stand up, step forward, and call out these injustices that people who look like me have perpetuated, supported and promoted far too long. And I will do just that each and every day going forward. I now call on my white friends to do the same. Use the unearned privilege of birth for the benefit of all. If you cannot, then step aside, sit down, and get out of the way. The health and future of all God’s children depend on it.”

I immediately contacted Rick to thank him for the letter and ask permission to reprint it for the presbytery. He agreed. I sit on the board of St. Luke’s hospital, so I then sent the letter to the CEO and to the chairman of the board. I challenged them to look at the internal and external work of St. Luke’s to see where the hospital may be weak or strong when it comes to being a solution to racism in hiring, appointments, and service to the community. Gary Olson, the interim CEO, called to say that he enthusiastically supports the idea. We will work with HR and other senior leadership to do an analysis and determine in what specific ways to implement this idea.

I am using my position and privilege to challenge the hospital system to become a place where racism is eradicated and to become one place in society where the knee of oppression can be removed. This is how it starts as one voice becomes a chorus of change.

Look around your world. What boards do you sit on? What leadership do you have, or can you influence? Where do you volunteer? How many people of color do you see where you shop or eat? What would it mean to approach the leadership in any institution or business (including your church and presbytery!) and ask in your own words, “What are you doing to eradicate the scar of racism from our society?” This is one way we can make a difference. In this way we can be the relevant church in the world.

Rev. Craig M. Howard