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

Hope in Reconciliation

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


I have a great-nephew named Gabriel Montgomery Howard. Five-year-old Gabe has my middle name, bright round eyes, and infectious laugh. When I imagine a future for Gabe, I try not to see him being pulled over without a cause and forced out of a car. I do not want to imagine a future for Gabe where he cannot live or work where he wants because of the color of his skin. I don’t want Gabe to have to repeat the racist incidents that have plagued many members of my family, from my grandmother to my nephews and daughters. I want it to stop now.

The past several days since the murder of George Floyd have been a rolling nightmare. The death of Floyd on national T.V. has deepened the wound of racism and white privilege in our nation. As an African American male, I along with other people of color took a collective gasp as we felt the weight of historic wrongs, and ancestral pain caused by a system designed to keep us on the ground and beneath the knee of society. COVID-19 brought to bear societal underlying conditions of poverty, food deserts, inferior medical access, and physical ailments that created a higher death rate in communities of color than in white communities. African Americans and people of color are pressed by the pandemic and crushed by society. And even as we cry out, “I can’t breathe,” the only relief is hope is heaven, since death is the place of liberty and justice.

Earlier this year our presbytery did tremendous work with the document “An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for The Sin of Slavery and Its Legacy.” This document which the presbytery voted into policy, outlines the history of white privilege and how it has directly affected the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy. The following quote seems prophetic regarding George Floyd.

“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.”

Perhaps repentance can lead to reconciliation. Reconciliation happens when the pedestal of white privilege is dismantled and becomes debris, As Presbyterians we are a white church with wealth, privilege, and power. Let us use these tools and the access we have to prominent positions in our society to dismantle racism and destroy white privilege and its benefits.

Reconciliation happens when white people can see African Americans and people of color as equals. Reconciliation can only happen when people see one another eye to eye. Only then can we expect justice and equal treatment under the law and in the church for all people. Only then can we expect our 95 – 100% white congregations to treat people of color who are outside of their doors with mutual respect. Only then will these white congregations choose a pastor of color as their leader, without hesitation or regard to race, gender, or sexuality. As a presbytery we should expect or demand nothing less than this.

Meetings and policy are helpful but may not be enough. To become a presbytery of reconciliation, we will need a transformation in our souls. Transformation and conversion may happen instantaneously, but often it occurs over time. It happens through focus and commitment, reading and learning, interacting and participation in the actions of our communities. It happens through prayer, lots of prayer!

My hope is that the Christ within us is greater than the color of our skin. As Christians, let us stand up for justice for all of God’s people. As Christians we can stop this historic damage now and give our children and the following generations a chance at peace and reconciliation.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Online Presbytery Gathering

Craig in Alaska

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


Participating in worship during COVID-19 has been a different experience than most of us are used to. Many congregations are doing online worship either live with Zoom or Facebook live, or recording worship and presenting it on various online platforms. When our shelter in place began in early March, we also postponed the May 9th presbytery gathering. In March, we did not know what the future would bring. But we were confident that business as usual was not going to be possible. We knew that the ability to assemble over 100 people, bring in outside speakers, obtain reports from various committees, and pull together a cohesive and worthwhile meeting could not happen.

Just as many churches have found a way forward, so has the presbytery. Our next two presbytery gatherings will be online. The first will be on Saturday June 13 and the second will be August 27. We are excited about providing an opportunity for everyone to participate, learn, and fellowship during these events. We will use the Zoom platform. This will enable both video and audio participation. For those who have the technology and bandwidth for video, you will be able to see one another as well as listen to the business and learning. For those with only telephone capabilities, you will still be able to listen, vote, and voice your opinion. Click here to see a humorous take on doing online presbytery gathering from my colleague Stewart Smith in Arkansas.

The staff has participated on other online presbytery meetings so that we could bring what we learned back to Giddings-Lovejoy. We will have several opportunities for those who need training on how to participate remotely. We have learned to have layers of help with technology and using Zoom with a large audience. The June 13th meeting is scheduled from 2 – 4 p.m. in the afternoon. This should provide those with children a best time to participate.

We will prepare, train, and practice. And it will not be perfect! But whatever happens, we will all be in it together to make the best of our situation during this pandemic. We will experiment and learn as a community. This too is what it means to be presbytery and to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Taking a Productive Break

Craig in Alaska

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


In a meeting with rural pastors yesterday, I learned something new. It’s called floating. Apparently, this is when a person gets in a canoe, raft, or other floatable device and floats down a river. Being raised near lake Michigan, I have a difficult time imagining groups of people just floating down a river! My first question was, “How do you get back up the river?” I could tell from the silent giggles that I was out of my element! Steven Matthews, who is the pastor at Ste. Genevieve, then sent me photos. I still have many questions, but this summer I’m ready to head to Steelville and give it a try!

The conversation of floating came about as I challenged the pastors to take a break. The time spent on Zoom meetings, writing liturgies for virtual worship, making conference pastoral care calls, and delivering front door care packages is taking a toll on the pastors. Chaplains have been working double time to be the family for patients who cannot have visitors, as well as care for overworked medical colleagues and caregivers. Many are feeling exhausted, yet taking time off doesn’t feel right when we are already working from home.

For some, being at home is part of the problem. In the article, “To Avoid Burnout, Work Less and Ignore ‘Productivity Propaganda’”, Lindsey Tramuta writes, “There’s burnout, and then there’s pandemic-induced burnout. . . Juggling full-time responsibilities, family life, and the stress of confinement makes the risk of burnout greater than ever.”

Tramuta then raises the issue of productivity and distraction and how our ability to be productive on devices that are designed to distract us is problematic: “When you combine our culture of chronic overwork with the distraction inherent to the technology and social media, at a time when people are forced to stay at home, you have a recipe for amplified anxiety and shame.”

Tramuta then interviews Rahaf Harfoush, the author of Hustle and Float. Harfoush believes we need to incorporate recovery time in our work process. In her book, she shares the idea that “it’s crucial to recover hard when you play hard.”

As we approach Memorial Day, perhaps it is time we plan for a break. Plan a time to turn off the electronics, take our eyes off of the screens, just unplug and take some “self” time. Call in the stated supply, bring in the guest liturgist, and get away. As things are opening up, perhaps a nature walk, museum exploration, or just sitting in a canoe and floating down the river is in order. Take a break. You deserve it.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

COVID19 and Black Bodies

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


Racism does not shelter in place. It does not work from home, but continues to dissect and disintegrate values and life in America. COVID-19 has revealed the contours of America’s structural racism. Like a pencil rubbing a nickel under a sheet of paper, this pandemic is bringing out details of structural racism that exist in healthcare, the labor force, and in the minds and hearts of African Americans.

The news about black people contracting and dying from COVID-19 in higher numbers than whites has been statistically proven. Numbers from New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and other major cities clearly show a large discrepancy between the number of blacks in the general population and the number who are dying from the virus.

Why is this so? An immediate conclusion is that there is a difference between black bodies and other bodies. Some believe black people are somehow different flesh and bone than whites. In the article, How Racism is Shaping the Corona Virus Pandemic, Isaac Chotiner writes how the yellow fever in 1793 wiped out 10% of the population in Philadelphia. But experts believed blacks were immune. For this reason, they assigned blacks to care for the whites who were ill. Many blacks died because of this action. The belief that blacks have different bodies goes back to the false science of eugenics and the determined effort to prove blacks are physically and mentally inferior.

The truth has more to do with socialization than biology and more about where black people work and live than how they think. These elements of structural racism were present and active before COVID-19 appeared in this country. Working African Americans hold more blue-collar and service jobs. They are the janitors, grocery clerks, bus drivers, and nursery home aids. They can’t work from home. Black and brown people are the ones ordered back into the meat processing factories where hundreds have been infected and many have died. They are the ones exposed to the unprotected coughs and sneezes of the public.

While black bodies are not different bodies, healthcare for black bodies is often inferior. The history of misuse, abuse, and non-treatment of black bodies has created an internalized reticence toward doctors among African Americans. Some of this is connected to areas of poverty where many blacks live. It creates an atmosphere where people are less likely to trust doctors or the medicine they provide. Limited nutrition leads to obesity. When added to untreated hypertension and diabetes, the combination becomes deadly. COVID-19 is the final weight on the scale that leads to serious illness and death.

These areas of structural racism- employment, healthcare, and poverty–are lifted up in the Apology document DRAP created. We are reminded that just as racism doesn’t sleep nor shelter in place, neither should our vigilance to bring observable change to our communities and society.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Gods Beautiful People

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


Each week several of you join me and the staff at noon for a Zoom lunch meeting. We meet with different groups of people in our presbytery: rural pastors, new pastors, youth and Christian educators, transitional pastors, and clerks of session. Sometimes, we have lunch with all pastors! These pastors and leaders are located throughout the presbytery. From Cuba to Steelville, from Brighton to Ballwin. In our meeting, we take the time to share how we’re feeling, what types of things pastors and leaders are doing, and policies and recommendations from the presbytery. We laugh with each other, tell stories and even jokes! We pray for each other. Most of all, we enjoy the fellowship and support from one another.

When I arrived three years ago, the presbytery was marked by fragmentation and division. We struggled to feel a sense of unity and cohesiveness. The events of Big Tent and GA went a long way to helping us work together and become one presbytery. But this pandemic has been the heavy wind that has loosened long-held and deep-seated resistance. Our waters of stagnation are now a flowing stream. We have found commonality, creativity, and realized we are stronger, smarter, and more tech savvy than we were aware of!

Many books have been written about change theory. My presbytery executive colleagues across the country are in shock and awe at the speed of change in our churches, ministries, and denomination. The change has been more dramatic than what we’ve found in our readings. The reason for this change is because we, as Presbyterians, had to change. We didn’t have the option of remaining in our buildings and doing business as usual. The pandemic has caused us to draw upon resources we have known and studied but never applied. It has caused members to open up to new ideas like online worship–ideas that have been presented and rejected before but are now welcome.

I see God moving in this moment. My God is not the God of plagues, disease, illness, and death. But even through these horrible things, we find ways to bring God glory and worship. In this pandemic, we have found faith over fear, and we have found each other. We can agree with the psalmist who writes,

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Psalm 52:7 NRSV

Thank you for being God’s beautiful people and for bringing the message each week of peace, good news, and salvation. We are all in this together. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard