While We Wait

I use a book for morning devotions that I  have used for some time. It is one in a series of books that were put together by Norman Shawchuck, Reuben Job, and John Mogabgab. The particular one I am using now was put together after Norm Shawchuck passed away. I was first drawn to these books by him when he taught a DMin class from McCormick of which I was a part in the 1990’s. At the same time, Reuben Job was the United Methodist bishop of the state of Iowa. It happened that I was serving a small church in the very small town of Deep River, Iowa, that was a united PCUSA and UMC congregation. I knew Rev. Job’s name as well.

The books are set up by the week. For every day of the week, the first reading is an Affirmation, then there is a Psalm reading followed by a Psalm prayer. These three sections are the same for every day of the week. There is then a scripture reading for each day, followed by a series of short reflections written by Shawchuck or Job, or excerpts from other works. The user can follow them in order or choose a reading. The devotion ends with time for prayer as well as an Offering of Self to God and a Blessing that are the same for the whole week.

One day recently I was kind of speeding through the readings and prayers. We had a granddaughter visiting and she had already gone downstairs to look around for breakfast. I came to an excerpt that I had chosen for that day. It is from a work called “While We Wait” by Mary Lou Redding. In my hurry, I read the first line of the excerpt as saying, “When we anchor our hope in God’s ‘already’ love and good plans for us, hope becomes a permanent part of us.” Just as I was thinking that this was kind of an odd way to phrase this truth, I realized that the reading actually says, “When we anchor our hope in God’s ‘steady’ love. . .” That sounds more like a normal way to put these words together. The way I had first read it, though,  resonates with the way I understand a Reformed approach to the Christian faith. It puts the emphasis on God’s prior act. We love because God first loved us. We are always and only saved because of who God is, not because of who we are.  

All of us have been tested in the last few months by learning about who our fellow citizens are and who we are in the face of continuing racism; continuing challenges to the democracy on which we depend for our relationships in this country; and in the face of a disease that has taken so many lives and about which we cannot seem to agree on the simplest facts. As we continue to learn about who we are in the face of all of these challenges, let us not forget the truth of my misreading of this quote. It is the “already” love of God, the love that comes before and in spite of anything we do or say or become, that is the ground on which we stand. It is from that love alone that we have hope. By it we can continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.


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Going Back

There is a house in my hometown that has always had an owner named Davis. My grandparents were the first occupants of the house. They moved into it as newlyweds in the mid-1920’s. It was then at the edge of town. They both lived there for the rest of their lives. During that time they made very few changes to the house. When my grandmother died in 1985, my brother bought the house from my dad. My brother has lived there ever since. Because of this long association with this one house, I have very vivid memories of all of its nooks and crannies.

Inside the back door of the house (one of those back doors where your choice is to go up about eight steps to the kitchen or down eight steps to the basement) there was built into the wall something like looked very much like the accompanying picture. (The original no longer exists since my brother removed it soon after he moved in.) Do you know what it is? It is an icebox. Now, you may have grown up calling your refrigerator the “icebox” but these doors and the insulted compartments behind them are not connected to electricity. They are literally “ice boxes.” When my grandparents bought their brand new house, this was quite an innovation. On a regular schedule, ice would be delivered to their house and placed in this convenience to keep food cold. By the time I first remember this house, there was no longer a use for these compartments except for storage. There was a humming refrigerator in the kitchen and a huge deep freeze in the basement, both powered by electricity.

There were companies that delivered ice to homes in every town and city in the first decades of the 20th century. At first there were horse drawn wagons and then trucks that would make deliveries. When refrigeration became widespread, many of these companies went out of business. They believed that their mission was to deliver ice. When huge blocks of ice were no longer needed, the companies lost their mission and closed down. But, a few ice delivery companies realized that their mission was not to deliver ice. It was to keep food cold. Their wise managers moved them into the refrigeration business. This is the essence of resilience, to know your core mission and to adjust to changing times in order to meet it.

Churches often confuse their core mission. They think their purpose is to have worship in the sanctuary at 10 a.m.; or to host a huge Vacation Bible School every summer; or to continue a mission to people who are different from most of the members of the congregation in a way that may now seem more toxic than it once did. But none of those are the purpose of the church. We are not in the worship at a certain time in a certain way or VBS the second week of June or give them mittens whether they need them or not business. We are in the gospel delivery business.
You will hear lots of talk in your congregation in the weeks ahead about going “back.” If we think only of going back to what we were, we will have wasted all of the suffering of the last few months and ignored the revelations about the way inequity around race is not only the original sin of this country, but its continuing besetting sin. We are not going back. We are going forward. Forward into a world where those with whom we share the gospel may never enter our buildings. Forward to a time when sharing the gospel with children will be accomplished in myriad ways. Forward to a time when we look for partnerships with people who need material assistance so that we listen to them before we decide what we should do. Our business is not to be the church as we have known it. It is to share the gospel so that we are bringing hope in the name of Jesus.
 
Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago
skrummel@chicagopresbytery.org
312.488.3015

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Middle School Track Meets

Middle School track meets–just the phrase strikes fear into all those who have ever attended in the Upper Midwest as a spectator. Somehow they rarely occur on a lovely spring afternoon. You either need to wear every heavy piece of clothing you have and take a sleeping bag for your competitor to use between races. Or you get your first real sunburn while trying to find one piece of shade.
 
Then there is the competition itself. Coaches are often volunteers or the math teacher who is earning a little extra cash by working with nascent runners and participants in field events. They have had to leave their job a little early or race from school to the track to be ready to coach their team. There is often no one particularly in charge of the meet until one of the coaches decides they have a bull horn with them and can help organize the competitors while another pulls spectators out of the stands to be timers and the like. Rarely does the event start at the advertised start time.
 
 
Then there are the competitors themselves. They often try one event at one meet and another at the next, looking for an event in which they can excel. Many middle schools have a “no cut” policy so everyone who wants to compete can do so. This leads to some pretty short “long jumps”; some shots that are “put” in the wrong direction; and some distance races that become, from time to time, distance walks.

My best advice: take a meal for yourself and your competitor; be sure you hydrate early in the day because you never know if there will be a porta-potty or not; do not plan anything for later that evening because they will keep going until they are done or it is too dark, whichever comes first.

But, here is the glimpse of grace about which I had forgotten until I was at a meet this spring. The crowd cheers until the last competitor crosses the line. Whether it is the hurdler who has knocked over every hurdle or the sprinter who is more of a plodder or the distance runner who is a little dot on the far side of the track when their nearest competitor crosses the finish line–no matter how long it takes, the crowd of parents and grandparents and siblings and friends cheers until everyone is done. No competitor is treated like a failure. We clap and cheer for you no matter when and how you finish the race.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We are cheered on by the cloud of witnesses and by God not because we are the best at showing forth our faith, but because we are in the race. We are to run with perseverance, even when we are the little dot on the far side of the track.

If anything characterizes the last year of doing ministry in a way none of us could have imagined, perhaps it is perseverance. Can’t meet in person for worship? Let’s see what the internet might provide. Can’t conduct pastoral care at the bedside? Let’s see if a nurse might hold up an iPad for us. Can’t hold an in-person ordination service with a full sanctuary? Let’s have a zoom meeting/worship service and create a red stole that is 12 feet long for the laying on of hands by only two socially distanced people. Can’t have a presbytery meeting in a crowded sanctuary? Let’s see if we can achieve at least a semblance of a meeting on our screens.

The crowd at a middle school track meet is a symbol of grace. It does not matter when you finish or whether you have the right technique. We will cheer for you because we love the idea of you; you each represent the child we have come here to support. Just so, the cloud of witnesses who have experienced God’s grace before us is cheering us on, not because we have been perfect in the last year. They cheer for us because we have persevered, because we have sought ways to share God’s love in spite of the obstacles, because they love us as God’s own children. Who knows what the next weeks and months will hold! The content of our race does not change. We are to continue to share hope in the name of Jesus on the race course that lies ahead of us, no matter how rocky or smooth.
 
Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago
skrummel@chicagopresbytery.org
312.488.3015

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“Bob Ross” Preachers

Do you know who Bob Ross was? Does it help if I say “Happy little trees”?  He had a painting show on PBS for many years until his untimely death at the age of 52. I saw a news report about a place where you can go to have a “Bob Ross Experience” and it made me think about our approaches to preaching.
 
I have been making public speeches since I was in elementary school — I have the “Declamation” winning pins to prove it! It must be genetic. When I spoke as a young pastor at the 150th anniversary of my home church in 1985, I sat down afterward next to a retired judge who had taught an adult Sunday School class in this big church for decades. He leaned over and said, “You remind me of your grandfather when you speak.”
 
I never heard my grandpa make a speech; he died when I was a freshman in high school. I took that as a high compliment. My undergraduate degree is in Speech Communications. I competed in speech events in high school. I have thought a lot about public speaking and about the difference between a speech and a sermon.
 
Perhaps like me, you have heard numerous people preach on your computer screen or phone over the last year. It has reminded me that I think there are three ways to approach scripture in a sermon, all of which have their place. One is as if it is a specimen that has to be examined only by experts who will then tell those who are not experts about this. If a preacher says a word in Hebrew or Greek or tells you what the Hebrew or Greek means, they are doing this. A second is to use the research that has been done in the pastor’s study to tell the story in a compelling way. “And then Paul wrote to Corinth where he knew the church was in disarray. . .” A third way is to preach the life-saving, life-changing, convicting truth of the passage in a way that changes the listener’s hearts. Sometimes we do this by simply reminding them that they are beloved children of God. Most preachers get to this third level only occasionally.
 
Now here is where Bob Ross comes in. The person reporting the story went through the “Bob Ross Experience” where people watch a show and, with the help of artists in the room, complete a painting in the 30 minutes of the show. One of those who run the experience said that it is not so much about helping you to see that you can be a painter. It is to help you see that you can do anything. It makes painting accessible in a way that they hope — as did Mr. Ross — will change people’s lives even if only in a very small way.
 
If we make this analogy with preaching from the world of art, perhaps it would be like this. Some preachers are like a professor teaching a graduate class in art history. They make scripture seem lofty and set apart, only to be understood by trained professionals. That is certainly a part of the truth about scripture. They let us in on a secret or two each time they preach. Others are like docents in a museum, pointing to the beauty or challenge of a work of art and inviting us to see those qualities as well. Then there are those preachers — or maybe all preachers on occasion — who, like Bob Ross, help us to experience the awe or the humor or the flash of insight that the artist has conveyed in such a way that our lives are changed, if only a little bit.
 

Perhaps you preach or sing or teach a Bible study or encourage others to join you in tending directly to the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. I hope that every once in a while we can all be like Bob Ross, helping our friends to see the simple truth that the good news in our lives calls us to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago
skrummel@chicagopresbytery.org
312.488.3015

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Rethinking Stewardship Approaches

I am not usually a fan of a pastor or someone in my position using themselves as a good example. If pastors tell a story from their lives in a sermon, I think it should be a story about how they learned something about their faith because of a failing or a shortcoming, or a story about something funny that happened to them. I also think pastors should never use their children as examples, especially if the child is in worship. The last thing preacher’s kids need is to have more attention drawn to them. 
 
I realize that my approach to pastors not using themselves as an example may come from my baby boomer sensibilities formed long before our current culture in which people share far more of their personal lives. You can “Okay, Boomer” me about this. Just saying that what I am about to write is outside of my comfort zone, but I thought it might be instructive. 
 
One of the areas of a congregation’s life about which pastors and other leaders are worrying right now is stewardship. The way we encourage people to give to congregations has been the norm for about 120 years. Before our current system of pledging and giving, members of congregations paid pew tax for the right to sit in a particular pew. In some European countries, churches are funded through taxes. All of this is to say that there are lots of ways to fund churches.
 
We can learn much from other not-for-profits when it comes to stewardship. For instance, I have been to workshops where people remind us that when the zoo asks us for money, they send us a picture of a baby giraffe. When the church asks us for money, they send us a line-item budget.
 
Churches are also notoriously bad at saying “thank you.” There is a mistaken idea that no one should know what a member gives to the church. Directors of other not-for-profits know exactly who their donors are and what they give. I had a member of a church where I was pastor tell me that she was not really comfortable having me know what she gave. I told her that if she was uncomfortable, she could give more.
 
So, here is the story about my family. We received our stimulus check in the last few weeks. We do not need it since we are doing fine meeting our needs. We were watching the nightly news with a story about how many people are hungry. The Midwest Food Bank in Peoria is an organization that we know very well and we know that they do good work. We sent them a check for the whole amount of our stimulus check and my husband wrote a note to the director, whom he knows. We got back a handwritten note thanking us for our $1200 check and telling us that this amount provides $36,000 worth of food through the food bank. Very specific; very impactful; very helpful as we consider further gifts.
 
As you work at making sure your stewardship program at church is robust and that it is truly encouraging members to be generous, what might you do to be specific, impactful, and helpful? Can you tell people exactly what their $1000 or $10,000 contribution accomplishes? Can you tell them a story about how worship and companionship in the lives of your members helps to mold them into Christians who change untold numbers of lives as they go about their work and leisure? What have you thought about that might change the way you encourage stewardship?
 
It takes dedication and faith and the love of God to do our work. It also takes money to continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
 
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago
312.488.3015
skrummel@chicagopresbytery.org

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