Tears for Kamala

Craig in Alaska

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


My father is a veteran of the Korean war. My grandfather is a veteran of WWI. My grandfather was only 16 when he served. He lied about his age because he wanted to be in the armed forces. Like other little boys, I often asked my father what he did during the war. He would never tell me. I only knew he had nightmares about being chased by the enemy. My dad would also have his army buddies over to the house. Once he asked me to come in and tell them the story of what I would have done had I been in the war. My 5-year-old self demonstrated how I would have shot the enemy down and been a hero. They all laughed, and my story became part of their fun evening. I was unaware that my natural desire to be a hero was not even a possibility for the black men in my father’s kitchen.

Years later I learned that when Blacks were allowed to serve in the military, they were often humiliated and given subservient tasks. My grandfather probably shoveled the manure left by the horses as the soldiers went off to battle. My father finally opened up to me in his 70s and shared that he was a dental assistant in a MASH tent that was overrun by the enemy. He never saw the front. He never fired his weapon. He did the cleaning up of the mess the white dentist left behind, then ran for his life when the enemy advanced.

After enduring the racial hatred and hassles of serving our country in the armed forces, most African American men were not even allowed an opportunity for glory or heroic activities that shape the myth of war. Instead most were humiliated. There were exceptions of course. Buffalo soldiers of the Indian wars and the Tuskegee airmen of WWII come to mind. But to lead, command, and achieve honored status with medals and the conferred dignity that follows were often denied the black soldier.

I have lived during the time of military change. Although it was the first government agency to racially integrate (at the direction of President Harry Truman in 1946), true equality for soldiers of color was evasive until recently.

And this is why I cried when I saw Kamala Harris on the stage as the first woman of color vice president of the United States. In that moment doors were opened that have been closed to women since the founding of this nation. After three attempts by previous women, she is the first woman vice president. And she’s a black woman. And she’s an Indian woman. Speechless.

Now little girls can dream and become a fuller part of what this great nation is. Now little girls can imagine being in the most powerful positions in the land because a path has been opened. Some young girl will be able to ask her mother, auntie, or grandmother about what she did while she was in the White House. And she will share stories of pride, honor, and grandeur. These stories, like the heroic tales of soldiers, were formally held tightly by white men only. Now these stories are being opened to all populations of the United States.

I am aware that war is anathema to many Christians. I too am a peacemaker. I know that being in the White House doesn’t carry the meaning it had before 1968. However, having full access to the archetypes that define a nation (fearless warrior, courageous hero, decisive leader, etc.)  is part of what it means to be people of that country. All Americans should have access to the many dimensions of work, education, geographic and social location. This is part of God’s freedom for us and part of what it means to be a just and righteous society.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Reformed and Always Being Reformed

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


If you want to know what wakes me up at 3:00 am, it is a congregation that is trying to do something (call a pastor, sell land, build an addition, etc.) and they can’t because they are waiting for the presbytery to take action; they are waiting on the presbytery to do its work. When the presbytery becomes a bottle neck or a hinderance, we have lost our way.

A new structure will be introduced on Saturday that will help streamline decisions and actions of the presbytery. It will allow the Vision Team to set the direction and yearly mission while other teams execute the mission with freedom and decisive action. It will make sure commissions and constitutional committees report to the presbytery gathering as required by the Book of Order so that the body is informed and can respond. The new structure flattens the hierarchy so ideas can flow up and down, as well as across teams and the presbytery. In this way we continue to learn from one another as we do mission and ministry together.

As Barbara Willock and Diane McCullough wrote in response to my blog last week, learning and communicating is the core of what it means to be a presbytery.

One of the new features of the structure is this statement, “All Teams are reassessed every two years to determine progress and their need for enhancement, reduction or redesign in the third year.” This statement of automatic assessment and even change if necessary is a reflection of the reformed motto, “Reformed and always being reformed, according to the Word of God.” The new structure of the presbytery will be a constantly changing structure as we determine what is working, what is not, and what needs to be done about it. This simple phrase provides flexibility to respond to current needs, instead of being stuck with a design for needs which may no longer exist.

Will it work? I don’t know. We will see together. I often emphasize to the current team moderators that there is no such thing as failure; only opportunities we can learn from. Walk with me as we learn and grow and take this spirit of change and challenge into the future of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

What is a Presbytery

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


I was on the freshman high school wrestling team. I wanted to wrestle because my oldest brother was district champion in his weight class. While on the team I learned wrestling techniques: takedowns, escapes, reversals, and more. But in the back of my mind was a question that the coaches didn’t refer to or answer. What is the goal of wrestling? Why am I on the mat? In my first match my competitor was strong and fast. I went to execute a takedown, and the next thing I knew I was on my back! He pinned me in under 2 minutes! I can still see the ceiling lights of the gym as I remember the struggle and embarrassment. I learned the hard way that the goal of wrestling is to pin your opponent before they pin you!

I have been wrestling with reorganizing and restructuring the presbytery for months. I have spoken to committees, teams, ministers and members about possible reconfigurations that would make the work of the presbytery more effective and meaningful. But a question keeps rising from these groups, “What is the purpose of a presbytery?”

Simply put, a presbytery is a group of congregations in a particular geographic area that are in covenant relationship with one another to do mission and ministry in the world. Think of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy as the point in which our 75 congregations and many specialized ministries connect. Through this connection, we encourage and support one another, commit to certain standards of leadership and worship, and do mission in the world.

All of this connecting, ministry focus, resource connecting, and leadership development is done through the presbytery structure and presbytery office.

Ordinarily a church experiences the presbytery during a leadership change or congregational crises. The pastor who is serving your congregation is the bodily presence of the presbytery in your congregation. The pastor is trained, prepared, and approved by a presbytery (this one or another). Another way in which the presbytery is present is in the sacraments. The presbytery verifies the details of the communion (who, what, when) as well as baptism. In these ways the presbytery is present in every congregation every week.

I sometimes ask the session of a congregation, “What would this community be like if this church were not here?” This question helps a congregation understand its relevance to the community in which they are located. I have the same question for the presbytery. What if the presbytery were not here? What difference would it make to the congregations? To the community? I would add another question: “Where do you see the presbytery in your congregation or ministry setting?”

What if the presbytery didn’t exist? What difference would it make? I will tackle that question next week! Stay tuned!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

My Octopus Teacher

Craig in Alaska

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


Every now and then I see a film and just say, “Wow!” Last week I watched the documentary, My Octopus Teacher. It is a film about a relationship that develops between the film director and an octopus! The film shows how this alien water creature, whose brain is 200 million years less advanced than the human brain, still possesses curiosity, learning, and a sense of playfulness. The ways in which the octopus protects itself from other predators is most amazing. For example, it pulls other clam shells and rocks around itself and becomes a ball of disguise. It grabs hold of kale and wraps itself to disguise its appearance and smell. It can make horns grow on its head to look fiercer or shoot black ink while swimming to disguise its direction. Finally, the octopus changes colors to match its surroundings and blend in seamlessly to shells, sand, and rock.

One of the most powerful scenes is when a pajama shark attacks the octopus. There’s a dramatic chase scene with the octopus deploying tactics and strategies (including coming out of the water and walking across sand before diving back in!). Nothing works. The octopus hides deep under a rock and the shark still finds it. Everything inside of me is begging the director who is filming this adventure to help. Chase off the shark! Pick up the octopus and take it to safety! But he doesn’t. The shark grabs the octopus and rips one of its limbs off. The octopus nearly dies.

On a podcast about the film, the director is asked why he didn’t help the octopus. He explains that he’d been observing the entire underground forest and saw how the pajama shark lives too. He saw how when the baby pajama sharks are just about to break out of their eggs, a predator comes and eats it. The director talked about how he studied all life in the underground forest, including the pajama shark, the primary predator of the octopus. This gave him respect for the cycle of life and the ecology of the underground forest as a whole. His respect and understanding of the pajama shark prevented him from injuring the shark to save the octopus.

As I watched the film, one of the many things I thought about was the upcoming election. We have taken sides. Those on the left think the right is backward. Those on the right think the left are naive. It is as though we have forgotten that we share the same country, the same ecosystem. Our system is bigger than one election. In spite of the advertisement, fear- mongering, and threats, we have seen it and overcome it before in our societal ecosystem.

Perhaps by observing the whole system, we can turn down the hateful rhetoric and tune out the pundits that spout venom. Jesus taught love and forgiveness in the context of a hateful and unforgiving empire. This country is nowhere near as barbaric as Rome, even on its worse day.

Let me be clear, I’m not the best at this. I definitely would have saved the octopus and injured the shark if I had to. But I did have a vision of hope while watching the film. For a moment I saw the collective society more important than a historical moment.

As we finish off the last couple of weeks of commercials, yard signs, and crazy news, let’s keep our focus on grace, love, peace, and justice for all, especially for the other side of the aisle.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Visible and the Hidden

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


We all contain invisible parts of ourselves, parts that are not apparent, or displayed. This doesn’t mean we should fear what we cannot see. Our hidden self may need to be coaxed to the surface, or persuaded that it is safe to show itself, and come out to play.

I have been working diligently these past several months on recalibrating the structure of the presbytery. I accept there is no perfect way to do this work and ministry. However, we can learn from our experience. As a presbytery we seek to have principles such as transparency, encourage participation, and work efficiently while building relationships. As Junie Ewing works with me and others in the presbytery on the structure, we can visualize and draw position descriptions, who reports to whom, and even workflow process.

However, just like there are invisible parts to ourselves, there is a hidden part we cannot see in our organization. These include the way individuals connect or disconnect from one another. They also include histories of painful memories from previous presbytery gatherings, serving on a committee that went bad, or even having a negative experience at a particular congregation because of a real or perceived slight by the presbytery. The visible we can map, create, and control. The invisible and hidden appears unexpectedly with unpredictable results. The challenge of reorienting work and structures is walking in a mine field and accepting the reality that people will be disturbed, and mines will be triggered.

Could the presbytery, congregation, hospital, school, or nursing home be similar to our human selves? Can institutions really be a “body” with soul, energy, and shadow? When what is hidden inside of us is revealed, we find the true essence of who we are. We find the core of our being and embrace what we have been running from. Could the same be possible in organizations?

What are the fears in our presbytery or in your congregation? What issues are we avoiding and preventing from surfacing? This is one of the reasons why we design and redesign the presbytery. By loosening the structure, the hidden and fearful comes to light and then we are able to accept it and move on. What are you willing to do to help your organization to make the hidden visible and have a healthier sense of wholeness and togetherness?

Rev. Craig M. Howard

A Note to All Pastors: Come Away and Rest

Craig in AlaskaRev. Dr. Craig M Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Moses told this (message of God’s deliverance) to the Israelites. But they didn’t listen to Moses, because of their complete exhaustion and their hard labor. Exodus 6:9 CEB

It happened again. I’m somewhere in hour number 4 of Zoom meetings. My eyes are aching. A slight headache is forming. I have three screens in front of me. On one are the faces of the people on the Zoom call. On the other I’m searching the internet regarding a question in the meeting. On the third I’m writing an email to request an action from the meeting. It feels like I’m working a triple shift simultaneously. I stop multitasking and only focus on the meeting and its conversation. I feel my thoughts become thick as molasses. I’m listening but I’m not hearing. Now I’m taking notes feverishly because something is being said that I must remember later, but my brain is a sieve leaking thoughts like water. At the end of the day, I drive home and find myself closing my eyes at red traffic lights. I arrive home, sit on the sofa, and within minutes I’m asleep.

I’ve described a day in my work life during COVID. Many are having the same experience, but they are working from home with children demanding attention and other constant interruptions. It seems like meetings are more contentious because there is always someone in the meeting who is uptight and on edge. Oh, and Sunday is coming with all of the needed liturgies and sermon. Everyone has anxiety and frustration. We’re all in the pandemic together.

Pastors and leaders come away and rest. Shut it down. Turn it off. Get away. The pastors retreat on October 23 and 24th provides a space for you to step back and catch your breath. We all need it. You can do it at home or away. You will have the opportunity to participate in activities, spiritual direction, and prayer. You don’t have to do anything but rest. We will cover the cost of lodging and provide funds to go toward meals and travel cost. All you have to do is show up and step away from your work. All you have to do is stop.

To register please click this link. The registration deadline is the end of the day Monday, October 12. The entire event is online. I look forward to sharing time with you during the upcoming pastors retreat.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Soul Work

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


Last night I participated in a webinar with the poet David Whyte. I was introduced to Whyte’s poetry through my spiritual director. In anticipation of the event I purchased two of his books and listened to some of his poetry online. It is always a wonderful experience to hear a poet read their work, listening to what is emphasized with their voice and the cadence of their speech. The poems I’d read before the event were amazing! The event had over 350 people online, and for one hour, my soul was fed.

I believe that some things feed our souls, while others may drain it of life. As we endure the political wrangling, racial and social strife, the atmosphere of fear and economic toll from the pandemic, and as we live with the kids at home and home becoming where we work, the life of our souls is being squeezed out.

What are you doing to nurture your soul? I met with several of our pastors today and asked the same question. Some talked about walking or taking a trip to a beautiful place. One pastor is taking music lessons to learn a new musical instrument. Many relish the idea of turning off the electronics and finding peace away from email and Zoom.

As a reminder, if you take advantage of counseling during this time, the Board of Pensions is waiving the co-payment fee. In the midst of all that is swerving around us, it is important that we care for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. It is critical that congregations allow pastors the space to step away from all of the pressures and decisions of ministry. Schools, hospitals, and senior care facilities should make sure that the chaplains who care for others are being cared for too.

Finally, let’s look out for one another. Make that call to your ministry colleague whom you haven’t seen in a meeting or haven’t heard from in a while. Small touches go a long way. We will get out of 2020 and walk into 2021 together. Our connectional unity is our strength as we walk with our God.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Dream Catcher

Craig in Alaska

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


I have been doing dream work with my new spiritual director. This means cataloging my dreams by recordings or writing them down in the night or first thing in the morning. Dreams can be elusive. It is difficult to remember them clearly. Some believe this is because the conscious or waking mind doesn’t want to hear or accept what the subconscious is trying to say. Even when a dream can be remembered, it is often difficult to understand. Dreams are layered with meaning. In the book Dream Work, Jeremy Taylor writes, “Why then are dreams generally so obscure and opaque to waking consciousness? It is because every dream has multiple meanings, and multiple levels of meaning woven into a single metaphor of personal experience.”

I imagine there are many people who have dreams of ministry in our presbytery. These dreams are often the result of questions we ask in our waking church life. If you could change one thing about your church, what would it be? If you could help your community in one critical way, what would you do? As you see the needs of people in your world, how can you meet them? These dreams of ministry and service are flashing thoughts that may not fit your current waking world of the church. Yet these are ministries that are answering a real need, and they desire to go from opaque to luminous, from obscure to visible.

You don’t have to be a teaching elder to have a dream. You don’t have to be a leader in the church to imagine a different way of doing ministry, sharing the gospel, or bringing good news to the poor. Your dream could be like Hagar’s Community Church, which was planted inside of a women’s prison in Washington State. Another example is a group that fellowships with students, neighbors, and homeless men and women in Pittsburgh. Still another is a digital ministry in New York State that reaches those who feel outcast or outside of the church. Each of these new worshiping communities began as a dream that didn’t exist in the waking world of ministry. Each now is serving God’s people in the communities where they live.

What is your dream? Why not talk with me or Steven Mathews, chair of New Worshiping Communities Commission? Why not participate in the next Dreaming and Discerning event on October 20? Steve can be reached at Steven Matthews pastorsteve2015@gmail.com. Take the next step to make the dream God has given you into a reality.

Craig M. Howard

 

Know Justice Know Peace

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


I often say that Jesus was the worst evangelist! Instead of trying to attract followers with sugary words or a gentle tone, we hear Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” What! Where is the promise of heaven and the dream of a gravy train on biscuit wheels? Where is the promise of being blessed and prosperous? Using Jesus’ method of evangelism would reduce our membership even more, and in some cases, we may not have a church at all.

If we are not the church of Jesus’ evangelism, then who are we? If we have somehow been allowed to participate in the body of Christ without paying the price for discipleship, what type of community are we? What type of Christian are we?

I am taking a course at Eden seminary on the book of Psalms entitled, Psalms for Justice Seekers and Peace Makers. The course is taught by Dr. Clint McCann, an ordained Presbyterian minister and member of our presbytery. When I signed up for the course, I thought it would be about a select number of Psalms that speak of justice. Instead, I am learning that justice is at the heart and nature of God’s identity. Justice is not one thing about God; it is THE thing about God. This is why the Old Testament kings and society are called upon to provide justice for the poor and orphaned; widow and destitute. This explains why Jesus went to the outcast and did his ministry with those on the margins of society. Seeing God as justice is challenging my assumptions about what it means to be church, what it means to be presbytery, and how we should treat our pastors and members.

This course is causing me to ask different questions about my work and ministry. Are the policies we have in our presbytery fair and just? How do we practice justice when it comes to compensation of our pastors, associates, women, and commissioned pastors? How do we determine what is fair when the needs of one church is very different than another?

Justice is the cross to bear. It is the cross we would like to leave behind, but Jesus requires that we pick it up and bring it to church. To be a Christian means being uncomfortable and off balance. It is then we learn that God is our support, strength, and song. We learn that walking with Jesus may look out of step with our society. Being with Jesus may even feel awkward and different than the way we’ve known and understood our presbyterian heritage. But to follow Jesus is to know justice and find life and peace.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Better

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


Last week we had our second Zoom presbytery gathering. It was an improvement in many ways over our first attempt in August. Worship with Daniel Ervin and Katheen Henrion was energic, creative, and spiritually enriching. Junie Ewing’s sermon was appropriate and edifying. The time with Ben Sanders created an energy in the chat box that fed the conversation between Ben and David Burgess. The back and forth with the presenter, moderator, and chat was an unexpected delight. When it came time to vote, things went smoothly, allowing full participation with those on Zoom video and those with only audio. The content of business flowed, questions were asked and answered. We ended with fellowship, saying hello and goodbye to so many friendly faces.

The presbytery gathering teaches us that during this time of COVID, things are not the way we want them to be, but we can learn to connect and be in touch with one another. We can improve on what we know and on what we are doing. We can do even better. The presbytery office attempts to model ways in which our congregations, non-profits, and worshiping communities should function. Hopefully through the presbytery gathering, we showed that improvement is possible.

How can you improve the way you are doing your worship, meetings, time with youth, and check-ins? How can we make our time together more meaningful, fulfilling, and enjoyable? I pray that during this season when we are not able to be with one another face to face, that we will continue to improve on our technology, content, and form of our time together. I pray that when we are able to meet face to face, this same zeal to do a better job permeates through our congregations and other ministry environments. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard