From Sue is a bi-weekly blog thought written by our Executive Presbyter, Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue), and published in our e-newsletter, Presbytery Connect.

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

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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

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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

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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

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Storing Up for the Long Haul

When I started in ministry, my husband and I were pastors of two small rural churches in West Central Illinois. We are both natives of Central Illinois, but neither of us grew up on farms. We knew a little about farming, though, because you cannot drive out of a city without passing through corn and soybean fields. Our fathers both had huge gardens and his mom and my grandma did all kinds of canning and preserving. We were kind of “farm adjacent.”
But we had to learn a new language and learn the kinds of folk wisdom that arises in any culture when we worked with farmers as their pastors. Learning that folk wisdom is very important in any culture since people will think that you don’t know anything if you don’t know the very basics. For instance, during the first few months we were there, someone invited us to dinner on Sunday. I asked what time. The person just stared at me for a minute and then said, “Right after church.” I was still learning that dinner is a midday meal; lunch is a snack any time of the day; and supper happens in the evening when the chores are done.
We were also reminded of an expression that lots of our new friends used. While we were being driven around to see the territory (on a hot August day) the smell of a feedlot drifted into the car. The woman sitting in the back seat with me said to me, “You know what that smell is?” I told her I was pretty sure. She said. “That’s the smell of money.”
Another piece of folk wisdom that I learned there seems relevant in the circumstance in which we find ourselves right now with regard to the pandemic. Apparently, this is a fact that every farmer knows. One must have at least half of the hay or fodder that you have stored up for the winter still available in February to make it through until the spring. When the days get a little longer and the sun is a little warmer in February, we are mistaken if we think we are near the end of the hard days of winter. A farmer cannot replace the hay and fodder until well into the spring months when the alfalfa or grass has grown long enough to mow and bale. February may make it seem like the worst is almost over but there is a long road ahead.
We may feel like the end is so near that we can feel it approaching when we think about the pandemic. But we need to have at least half of our stores of resilience and patience and creativity left in the barn for the months that lie ahead. There will be starts and stops to returning. There will be people who never come back to church. There will be funerals and weddings that have been put on hold that may or may not satisfy the spiritual needs of those involved. Every congregation needs to be rethinking its call to ministry and finding what is essential and what can be set aside.
Do you have enough left in your barn for the months that lie ahead? How will you replenish your physical stamina, your spiritual well, your resilient abilities? Support one another in the times that lie ahead as we continue to find ways to bring hope in the name of Jesus—even to ourselves.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Preparing for Change

By the end of March this year, my grandchildren will be 9, 10, 10 (there is a set of twins in there), 12, 13, and 14. These are the ages where children grow and change quickly. What a year to be away from them so much!
For instance, the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds both have birthdays later in the year. They live in Iowa where the age for a learner’s permit for a driver’s license is 14. That means that both of them will be eligible to drive with an adult sitting beside them in the front seat during 2021. Of course, their parents will have to identify an adult who is brave enough to sit beside them. . . . When our daughters were that age, we lived in Iowa. Our older daughter was hesitant about taking up this privilege and waited. Our younger daughter got her permit on her fourteenth birthday and from that day until she left for college, I rarely drove if she was in the car. 
Like all of the developmental leaps that the children in your life make, the one to sitting behind the steering wheel is kind of a shock. You look over there (sometimes from behind the hands with which you are covering your eyes or while you are pressing your foot against the non-existent brake on your side of the car) and think, “Isn’t this the person who just a moment ago was trying to learn to walk or was putting the classic sign “I hat mom” (she couldn’t spell “hate” yet) on the outside of her bedroom door? And now I am entrusting my life and my car to her! 
We have mostly been apart from each other in our congregations for almost a year. For some of the members of our congregations, it has been even longer because they were at their “Snowbird” escapes when the pandemic hit and had already been there for a few months. It has been a momentous year for all of us with so many changes. What will be the biggest changes that you will notice when we finally come back together in large numbers of people? 
Let’s imagine that by Reformation Sunday of 2021 (the last Sunday of October) that we are back to something that approximates worship on that Sunday in 2019. What will be different where you worship? 
  • Some people who were there two years earlier will not be there. The median age of members of the PCUSA is around 65. That means there are as many people older than 65 as there are younger than 65. Your church might have an even higher median age. Just looking at actuarial tables will tell you that some people will have died or “aged out” of being in person for worship, even without considering the devastation of COVID. Some people will have found other things to do on Sundays or will have realized that church was not really a priority for them. For whatever reason, there may be fewer people when we come back. (Some experts are predicting our numbers will have shrunk by 30%.) 
  • Your building may seem different to you. You may have created an idealized view of your church building because you remember it in its glory days and have not noticed that it is looking a little worn or that it is not really accessible. Or, perhaps, the Building and Grounds committee has used this time to make some repairs or to update some things since it was easier to do them without people in the building regularly. You may walk in and find something that is not familiar to you in one way or another. 
  • The program of your church may change. The session may have taken this time to really examine all of the activities of the congregation to try to decide what is essential and what has outlived its effectiveness. Almost every church continues to sponsor an activity or a group that is only reaching a handful of people or that has lost its original purpose but is lingering because of the fond memories a few people have of it. Maybe the session has taken the time to make some hard decisions to end some programs so that the essential work of the congregation can flourish and room is provided for new things to grow.

Before the pandemic, they were all still children with no one having gone through a dramatic growth spurt. By the time we gather, I may not be taller than all of them; two of them may be able to drive; other dramatic changes will have happened in some of their lives. We will need to find a new way of relating to each other. That new way will still be based on our love for one another nurtured over all of these years. 

When we re-gather in large numbers for worship we will also have to prepare ourselves for changes. We will need to find ways to re-invent our congregations after all of the changes we have been through. Those ways will be new but they will also be based in our call to respond to the good news. In whatever form it takes, we will still be bringing hope in the name of Jesus through all we do.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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What, Then, Can We Do?

Members of the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the Vice President of the United States, all of their staff members, those who work in the U.S. Capitol building – all of them could easily have lost their lives on January 6 while doing the work before them. One police officer and several others died. Their lives were threatened, not by a plane flown by a foreigner who hates the United States, not by a spy who had infiltrated the government to such an extent that they could make such a credible threat. No, their lives were threatened by a mob of insurrectionists led astray and enraged by those who have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, which is the founding and enduring document that created and sustains our fragile union as a country. 
Pastors and other leaders in congregations are often admonished to avoid reference to politics so as not to disturb those with whom they might personally disagree. This is not a time to be silent about those who threatened the lives of these public servants nor to be silent about the rage and the lies that fueled their actions. It is especially not a time for church leaders to be silent because of the way the seditionists have conflated their desire to overthrow democracy with the Christian faith. Carrying a cross or a sign about Jesus while calling for the Vice President to be hanged cannot be ignored. 
Addressing the events of January 6 and all that preceded it, and will continue for the months and years to come, is also a delicate path for religious leaders.
  • We cannot present ourselves as wise and others as gullible.
  • We cannot claim that these actions do not represent the American people when there are those among us who have felt this anger and level of violence directed at them for generations because they have been seen as different or un-American.
  • We cannot call people back to the “Christian principles on which this nation was founded” when that founding meant the slaughter and removal of the people who first lived here and the enslavement and degradation of the people whose toil created wealth we enjoy.
  • We cannot imagine that we are all treated according to the equality with which we were created when we have seen with our own eyes that this is not the case.

What, then, can we do?

  • Psalm 146:3. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” Remind people that no politician is a savior. There is only one Savior who called us to love one another with servant love.
  • James 3:5a “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by hell.” Guard your own speech. Be sure that what you say is true. Call out falsehood when you hear it.
  • I Corinthians 13:4-7 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Practice this love to which we are called. Expect this love from those with whom you serve.
  • Philippians 4:8-9a “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard.” The problem with being a Christian is not that it is confusing or opaque. The problem is that it is so hard to do.
This will be another momentous week-and-a-half in the life of the United States of America. There will surely be at least the attempt of more violence and the propagation of more lies and hatred and venom. Guard your own energy and soul so that you can continue to lead. Call out hypocrisy and evil when you see it. Our call always has been and remains this: to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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