Lessons Learned

My flowerpots do not usually look like this. As you can see, there is a little bench in the pot, part of a former “fairy garden” that I still use in various flowerpots. There used to be a little fairy sitting on the bench. She has disappeared in the last few weeks. I am not exactly sure where she is, but if history repeats herself, I will probably find her in the spring. I will most likely find her buried in a pot—maybe this one, maybe another one. She does not do this herself, of course. Instead, the squirrels in my backyard round up the fairies from time to time and bury them in pots along with the acorns that they are saving for the winter.

That is why there is a deep hole, and the roots of the plant are exposed. Squirrels have been digging in all my flowerpots, planning for the winter. But here’s the thing. Those pots will not be on my back deck much longer. As soon as I have a few hours when I don’t have to be on zoom and it is not raining, they are going in my potting shed until the spring. The squirrels will not have access to their carefully buried acorns (and the collaterally included fairies.) All this work, all this planning—all for naught.

Now, you would think that they would learn from year to year that this is not a good plan. (I just googled the lifespan of a squirrel—usually a couple of years, maybe a little longer.) So at least some of the current squirrels should remember from last year that the pots are going away. This is not a good plan. It will not work. They are spending all this energy to no avail.

Why do they do it? Here is my assumption. It is easy. The soil in the pots is much looser than the soil in the lawn. They have found an easy target for the work that they have been taught and that is part of their genetic urging. They take the path of least resistance, even though it will not have the desired outcome. In the spring, I will find either rotted acorns or little, tiny sprouts to be removed from the pots. But those acorns will not provide food for the cold months ahead.

How often do we take the easy way out in our work in our congregations? I served a congregation once that ran like a machine—there were certain programs that were done on the same Sundays every year since they had always done them that way. It was easy. They knew the schedule. They knew what cookies to serve and what banners to hang. The problem was that the programs had existed for 30 years. They were designed for a church that no longer existed. Once they brought people into the church; once they brought joy; once they shared the gospel in a way that changed peoples’ lives. No more. But the congregation just kept doing what it had always done.

When it comes to the big issues that we have been addressing about race, we also often take the easy path. Pretend you did not hear the offensive comment; look away from the way someone is shunned; tell the joke just to your friends where it cannot do any harm. Just keep burying those acorns in a place where they will never feed you when you need it.

Our call is not to follow old patterns because they are easy or once made sense. Our call is to share the gospel in a way that it changes peoples’ lives in 2021 so that they might also know hope in Jesus Christ.
Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter

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Presbyterians in Illinois

I have served two presbyteries in the state of Illinois as Executive Presbyter. Illinois is my home state; I grew up in the 1960s in the city of Peoria in which redlining had created a culture in which I knew very few African American people. I did not attend the same schools or the same church as African American Peorians did. I watched my parents interact with people of color as they interacted with anyone else in their lives, but we did not share a table or a schoolroom or a pew in the way our lives were lived.

I also did not know the history of the intersection of races even within the two presbyteries I served. I was in a neighborhood just east of downtown Springfield at a very small church of European Americans that was about to close. I learned that it was in this neighborhood that the events that led to the founding of the NAACP occurred.

As it says on the website of the NAACP: “In 1908, a deadly race riot rocked the city of Springfield, eruptions of anti-black violence—particularly lynching—were horrifically commonplace, but the Springfield riot was the final tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP.” You read that correctly: Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Springfield, Illinois, a city that was never below the Mason-Dixon line, whose children went off to war to fight for the North in the 1860s; a city in which slavery was never legal. But is it also a city in which the Presbyterians formed two churches located close by each other? In one the worshipers were sympathetic to the planters’ “need” for slaves in the south. In the other, abolitionists held sway on session and in every other position of power. I knew none of that before I heard a few conversations and began to ask questions. And then there is Chicago.

I did not know about the race riot of July 27, 1919 and following days. From the book “1919: Poems” by Chicago poet Eve L. Ewing: On July 27, 1919, a race riot erupted in Chicago. (This followed the drowning of a young Black man on a beach and its aftermath.) “Twenty-three Black people were killed, fifteen White people were killed, 537 people were injured, 1,000 were made homeless by attacks and arson, and between 5,000 and 6,000 members of the Illinois National Guard were deployed. . .Much of the violence was blamed on “athletic clubs,” organized street gangs of White youth that had powerful political sponsors.” One of those youth would grow up to be the first Mayor Daley.

Did you know that history? Perhaps, like me, you are also a native Illinoisan and did not know either of these stories, having never heard them mentioned in your study of the history of Illinois.

When we study the New Testament, we can take a passage of scripture and study it on its plain meaning. But think how much deeper our understanding is when we set it in the context not only of the setting into which the writers of the gospel or letter have set it but also as we know its context in relationship to the Old Testament. Then we begin to see how it is connected to the history of our ancestors in the faith and understand its richer and fuller meaning.

Just so, it is important to look at the way we interact across the created lines of race in the current day in the light of our shared history.

The history of Chicago Presbytery can be told in buildings and pastors and ecumenical statements and trials and tribulations. It needs to be set in the wider history of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois as well as the history of the United States itself regarding the issues of race. Until we acknowledge the past and strive to repent of the way the trauma that still cries out from the ground, we walk on influences the decisions of today, we can never fully carry out our call to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Rev. Sue Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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The Privilege of Being a Pastor

I shared a few wedding stories in a previous reflection. Now, (lucky you who get to be with me in the weeks before my retirement!) here are a few funeral stories.

My husband and I started as co-pastors of two very rural churches, as you know if you have been reading these reflections. At the Little York church, we had a funeral on a very hot day. We had just gotten back to our house when the funeral director called us. The sister-in-law of the deceased had been carrying a big platter of meat into the dining room at home with the family gathered after the funeral. She succumbed to a heart attack. It made for very interesting and confusing conversations on the landline prayer chain (this was in the early 1980s) as the news was shared with the community.

A few years later, I was serving as supply pastor at a church in a town of 300. I did funerals for members and nonmembers alike. Several of my most vivid memories of funerals happened there. The funeral home was eight miles away in the county seat town of Montezuma. I had driven there and was riding out to Deep River with the funeral director on a windy day. He asked if I had noticed a big mess in the ditch along the highway on my way into town. He told me that the vault was being towed out to the cemetery, was caught by a gust of wind and blown into the ditch. It was cracked and unusable. So, we were going to have the pallbearers carry the casket to the gravesite, conduct the graveside service, then wait for the family to leave and put the casket back into the hearse to be driven back to town until they could get another vault.

I had another funeral in January of one of those very cold years at the end of the 1980s. It was so cold that the funeral director and I decided we would do the graveside service in the sanctuary and not have anyone go to the cemetery except his crew and me. We got out of the hearse at the cemetery, I walked in the minus 30 wind chill with him to the grave, said a prayer, and turned to get back in the car. As we did that, the family very slowly got out of their cars (they were supposed to just watch from there) and walked to the grave. Of course, we waited for them. I distinctly remember thinking “Why did I wear these gold earrings? I think my ear lobes are freezing from the inside out.”

At that same church, on a very hot day, I accompanied the American Legion members to several rural cemeteries for services on Memorial Day. The elderly gentlemen were all dressed in their uniforms, many of which looked like wool. At the last cemetery, I was pronouncing the benediction that includes “Support the faint-hearted” when a gentleman beside me fainted and slowly sank to the ground. I had to stop myself from saying, “Like him!” My husband was in a different ceremony in another rural cemetery on a windy day. The American Legion members were there with big flags. A very tiny elderly man was standing near my husband when a gust of wind caught the flag. As it carried the gentleman over the top of a gravestone, my husband heard him say, “Help me, pastor!”

When we were co-pastors of a 450 member church we had three funerals during Holy Week. We also had two very busy teenagers at home. It is all a blur, but I think I remember that church members started bringing food to our house to help us out! Then there is the time when I was called to the hospital from another church where someone had passed away after having a heart attack while mall walking with his wife. She was waiting for me to arrive to go to see his body. On the way to the room, the nurse said to us, “He looks a little different.” I have since learned that medical people call this condition a “blueberry.” People at the mall and in the ambulance had performed CPR and the man was already dead. So, they had pumped unoxygenated blood upward into his head. I wanted to take the nurse aside and say, “A little different? He looks like a Macy’s parade balloon!”

But my favorite funeral story is this one. In the town of 300 I mentioned earlier, I was asked to do a funeral for someone I had never met. He was old and sick and had committed suicide by shooting himself in the face with a shotgun. His daughter had found him. When I met them at the funeral home, it was about 36 hours later and she looked like she had not slept. We worked out the details of the service and then I said, “I never had the privilege of meeting your father. Can you tell me a little bit about him?” She and her brothers and others in the room looked at each other, took a long pause, and finally one of the men said, “He never killed a horse.” My first thought was “Me, neither.” Then I realized that what they meant was that he never worked a horse to death. He had used horses on his farm and put them out to pasture when they were old. After his funeral, one of the men in the church I served came up to me and said, “I am glad you did not pretty him up in the funeral.”

It is a privilege for pastors to be with families at the most important times of their lives. It is also a privilege for pastors to gather with their colleagues and share stories like this to let off some steam. I wish you the kindness and care that you need for carrying out this part of your ministry—and I wish you good friends with whom you can let your hair down.
The Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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Consider the Lilies

Being a leader in any setting in these days is harder than any of us might have imagined. I thought about this while I was in a car listening to the news and some commentary about the president. Every presidency is probably harder than the person serving in that office might have expected. But the last few weeks have certainly brought the kind of challenges for all of the political leaders in our country that, if taken by themselves, would have been enough to keep the leader and their staff busy around the clock. That is one of the reasons we are encouraged to pray for our leaders—whether we voted for them or not—since their decisions affect all of us.

Of course, leaders of congregations have also been facing challenges that we could not have imagined. Like the Facebook meme that I saw said, “I did not know that I was going to be the chaplain for the apocalypse.” When we picked up our purses and briefcases and computers and fled our offices and church buildings in March of 2020, did we think that we would be where we are today?

Now some of you are having to engage in a heated debate about the wearing of masks again. Some of you are readying yourselves and your congregations for the beginning of the “program year” but what will that be like this year? Some of you are using your best pastoral skills with people who are as divided as we can remember in our lifetimes over the direction our country should take.

I was on the faculty of Transitional Ministry Education last week. We did a word cloud at the end and asked these pastors to say how they are feeling. The most-used word was “tired” with “sad” not far behind. How can we as leaders possibly find the wherewithal to keep going, especially if we are expected to be cheerful and upbeat and optimistic? For surely it sometimes feels like the weight of the world is on our shoulders.

But perhaps you will remember these words: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to their span of life? . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these . . . Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

I invite you to just sit quietly for a few seconds and watch the video that accompanies this note (click here or on the image to go to the video), taken in my garden in May. Remember these words from the Sermon on the Mount. And remember this: those daisies finished blooming soon after this video was taken and then were not visible for all of these months. But the plants that produced this beauty in the spring are blooming again—not in the same way they did, but blooming nonetheless. And, they have scattered so many seeds in my garden that I have to remove some of the seedlings lest I have a garden that is only daisies next year. They will be back, just like this in the spring. They are surely a sign of hope, the same kind of hope that we are called to bring into the world in Jesus’ name.
The Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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Encouraging Regular Spiritual Practices

I took my three youngest grandchildren to the zoo in Peoria, a zoo that I have literally visited my whole life since it was opened the year I was born. Zoos are not the same as they were in the 1950’s, thankfully. Sometimes I show the grandchildren the very small interior enclosure where there is now a fox or sometimes a porcupine and tell them that this is where the lion stalked back and forth when I was a child. As I remember it, the poor cat could only take about four steps in one direction and then paced back the other way. It did not seem odd then—that is the way zoos operated. About a dozen years the zoo in Peoria underwent a huge expansion and added an Africa section. Now the rhinos and zebras and giraffes and lions are in large open air areas and we are confined behind protective barriers. ( I always wonder what the squirrels in Glen Oak Park thought when their home also became the home of African lions. . . )

As these three girls born in 2011 walked around with me, they would from time to time say “I remember that statue” or “ Isn’t this where the giraffes are?” They had not been to the zoo in two years. Two years is a long time when it is 20% of your life. Everything seemed smaller to them and not nearly as fascinating as it did when they were younger. I paid the money to renew my grandparents’ pass, but I am not sure that I will need it very often. They have  moved on from just walking around the zoo. They might want to go to special events or zoo camp, but the regular kind of visit may be done.

On our circuit around the zoo, we ran into the Director of Children’s Ministry from the church where my husband served for 14 years. I asked her how things were going. She said a little slow and that attendance on Sunday mornings is still small. But, she said, when there are special events, people show up. So, for instance, a junior high event to which one of grandsons is going, has 20 people signed up to attend. I said to her, offhandedly, maybe that is what churches will need to start planning. Maybe weekly or habitual attendance will become even more a thing of the past than it was before the pandemic. We already knew that planning a sermon series or worship elements that built on each other from week to week did not really make sense. “Regular” church attendees before the pandemic were those who came about once a month. What will it be now?

Do you think that weekend attendance will remain low, at least for some time? If so, how will we encourage regular spiritual practices if they do not include weekly attendance (online or in person) in worship? What special gatherings might fill the spiritual longing that we all have? If we have found other ways to fill our weekends that do not include “going to church” how will we continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus?

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