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

Pandemic Intersection

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


I recently reached out to an old friend who I haven’t contacted in a while. I simply asked, “How are you doing?” He emailed, “I am doing about as well as can be expected in the midst of a global pandemic, an escalating national crisis demanding racial justice, and the most divisive political campaign in my lifetime. Other than that, I’m doing fine!”

I’m afraid to ask people, “How are you?” It is not that I don’t really want to know. I do. I care very much where folks are during this difficult time. But in hearing their answer, I find myself nodding my head in agreement because I’m feeling the same way too.

The congregations in the presbytery were going through challenges before the pandemic hit. We were struggling with the challenge brought on by declining membership and resources. We were trying to figure out why our children don’t return after confirmation, and why our older adults leave or sit idly on the sidelines. The presbytery was struggling with the reduction in volunteers. Are people just busy? Are people disinterested? Are people just apathetic? Then wham! The pandemic hit.

Keep in mind that the social unrest we are experiencing isn’t because of the pandemic. The viciousness and below the belt politics would have happened anyway as well. The pandemic has caused us to observe these events and take them into our living rooms and dens. The pandemic is the stop sign on the corner of the intersection. It is an intersection we should have been stopping at anyway. But were too busy, too involved, and not paying attention. We just blew past the corner. Now we have no choice. We must stop. We have to look at our society, our congregations, and ourselves and ask, “How are you doing? What is going on?”

The anti-racism work that so many of us are doing is necessary to help us become the church on the other side of the pandemic. The self-reflection and grappling with our political convictions can help us expand our sense of community beyond party lines, or we’ll narrow our gaze as we live into tribalism. The constant barrage of Black lives being lost on camera should open the wells of empathy in our hearts and help us become a welcoming community: a community of justice, a community of inclusion.

There will be another side to the pandemic. It may take one year, or it may take five years, but we will come out of this period of limitations. The type of people we become and the type of church that is resurrected will depend upon how we use this time; what we learn, who we talk to, what we value, and where we find God.

Rev. Craig Howard

Taking the Pandemic Seriously

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

I took a two-day trip to Chicago this week to celebrate my oldest daughter’s birthday. It was the first time I’ve traveled since March, and I hadn’t seen my daughters since February. My time with my girls was outstanding and worth the travel and challenges. However, entering into the Chicago metro area was entering into a COVID-19 defense bubble, and it began with the hotel I stayed in.

Upon arrival I was given a letter and verbal instructions on the new rules. There would be no housekeeping service, no daily room cleaning, changing and making of beds, changing of towels and linen, etc. I must phone the front desk if I need any of these items. Furthermore, housekeeping is not allowed in a guest room unless the guest vacates the room for 3 hours. If I need a change of towels, linen, etc. or desire my room to be cleaned, I must arrange it one day in advance. There is no access to public areas. No daily free breakfast. No hanging out in the lounge watching TV. Mask must be worn when outside of my room along with social distancing.

And this was the beginning of my trip. The next morning, I went to a 4-mile walking trail for exercise. I used to run this trail in my younger days, so I am very familiar with it. My first surprise was the number of cars in the lot. There were so many people walking, running, and biking on the trail. I encountered more people while walking 4 miles than I have encountered while walking 150 miles in my village of Ellisville. Even though we were outside in a park, about 90% wore masks, and we all practiced social distancing.

I would learn later that restaurants had signs, “No Mask, No Service.” The city had also established the occupancy capacity for each eating facility. As I drove through Chicago to arrive at my daughter’s high-rise apartment, I was amazed that people walked the sidewalks wearing masks. Masks and social distancing were being observed outside as well as inside of facilities.

At one point I felt like I was in a different world than St. Louis. It was as though the community of Chicago is suffering a great loss, and everyone is pitching in to make sure the intruder who committed the crime would be evicted and not permitted to return. Perhaps this also explains the warmth and friendliness I experienced. Amidst the pandemic, protests, and riots, the residents of the city showed a heart of hospitality and kindness to one another.

As I return home to Ellisville, I am clear where I stand on masks, hand washing, social distancing, and public health. Missouri’s COVID-19 rate is higher than Cook County, where Chicago is located. I pray all within the presbytery will take this pandemic seriously as well. Let’s be well and be safe.

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

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

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