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.

Mad at God? God Can Take It

When I was in seminary, I especially loved Hebrew class and all of the other classes associated with it. Maybe it was because I took Hebrew before I took Greek. Maybe it was because I especially liked the professor, Johanna Bos, who had just come to Louisville Seminary at the time. In any case, I enjoyed my time working with Hebrew. A few years ago I was in a book club in Peoria that was mostly women from the Jewish temple. When I walked into one of their homes and read the little wall hanging that she had embroidered in Hebrew right inside the door, she was very impressed. Of course, it was the Shema, probably the only thing I could still read in Hebrew. 🙂 

When I did my Hebrew exegesis class, the assignment was the book of Ruth. I got very interested in the book and its structure. In fact, I wrote a paper with the theory that it had originally been performed by a younger woman and an older woman as a four-part short comedy. There are three main characters, but only two of them appear in any scene. One woman could have portrayed both Naomi and Boaz since they do not appear together. Now, you might wonder about it being called a comedy. I learned as I was researching my theory that the classical definition is something like this: “… amusing and satirical in tone, mostly having a cheerful ending. The motif of this dramatic work is triumph over unpleasant circumstances by creating comic effects, resulting in a happy or successful conclusion.” That is exactly what the book of Ruth is.

Here is the story: Naomi and Elimelech, her husband, are having a perfectly nice life in Bethlehem until there is a famine. This drives them and their two sons to immigrate as refugees to Moab where they establish themselves. The two sons marry Moabite women. But then tragedy strikes again. All of the men die, leaving three widows in one household. Naomi decides to go home to a house she owns in Bethlehem. She wants her daughters-in-law to go home to their own mother’s homes so that she will not have to take care of them. Orpah complies. Ruth does not. Instead, she tells Naomi that she is going with her. This is the famous “whither thou goest” speech. Naomi reacts to this profession of devotion by shrugging her shoulders and turning her face toward Bethlehem.

As they draw near to Bethlehem, some of the women there see Naomi and a stranger approaching and debate whether this could be their friend who has been gone for so long. As she hears them, Naomi says “Don’t call me Naomi (which means sweetie) but call me Mara (which means bitter.) She then rants about how God has left her totally empty. “I went away full and have come back completely empty.” (Of course, Ruth is standing right next to her while she says this. Talk about being patient!)

The two women eventually pull themselves together and realize that there is a law requiring a male relative to marry Ruth that will save them. Naomi and Ruth maneuver in such a way that this takes place and a baby is born to the union. Naomi ends up praising Ruth saying that she has turned out to be better than seven sons would have been. And, of course, Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, which makes her the great-great-great. . . .-grandmother of Jesus. Talk about a happy ending!

Here is why I have been thinking about this story now. Naomi is about as mad as one can get at God when she gets back to Bethlehem. And God can take it. She is not punished for her anger; she is not excluded from the plans God has for this family; she is not banished. She is allowed to rant and rave about her anger at how her life has turned out, even blaming God for it and she is still part of God’s good intention for the world.

Do not be afraid to be mad at God about all that you have lost in the last few weeks, about all that has changed so dramatically, about all of the pain and suffering in the world. God can take your anger. It will not exclude you from the family of God. And all of the loss and grief and dread do not mean that God’s good intention for the world cannot be realized. In the midst of this we are still the beloved children of God who can be angry at God or praise God—perhaps both in the same breath—and be able to hang on to the hope we know through Ruth’s boy, Jesus.

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Does this Easter Still Count?

My husband and I are spending time each afternoon in visual contact with our grandchildren—we started on Facetime and have migrated, like the rest of the world, to Zoom. So far we have played Uno, Crazy Eights, War (card game), Charades, Family Feud, and Madlibs (I found an App.) Just a little warning about playing Madlibs with Middle School boys: You may hear about bodily functions we do not usually mention in church.

On one of our calls the week before Palm Sunday, my oldest granddaughter suddenly realized we are not going to be together for Easter. We usually find a time to do an Easter Egg hunt on some day near Easter if not Easter itself. Many pastor’s kids and grandkids are familiar with the phenomenon of “The Easter bunny had to come this evening because he is too busy tomorrow when it is really the preacher parents or grandparents who cannot quite fit in the frivolity.” For some of the last few years, our agnostic next-door neighbor has hidden the treasures in our backyard while we are at church. For the last two years, the kids have worked in teams and hidden things for each other. No hunting this year, no shared ham, no cheesy potatoes for twelve, no cake with green coconut and jelly beans on the top decorated by little hands. My youngest granddaughter reiterated the realization: “This will be the first time we have not been together for Easter.” Way to rub it in, Alice!

So much of what we associate with Easter will not happen this year. No long line of people you have not seen for a year waiting to get into the sanctuary. No Easter lilies filling the sanctuary and then delivered to shut-ins (or maybe you have figured out a way to do that.) No fancy dresses with new white patent leather shoes. No reminder by the preacher of the good news of the resurrection and the women who were the first preachers.

The question, then, is this. “If a savior is resurrected and we don’t get to celebrate it the way we usually do, does it still count?” If we do not employ all of the tricks and traditions we have used in worship for five or eighteen or forty years to make Easter more real, and to lure those strangers back for another week, will Easter still happen? If we cannot count the people in the sanctuary and imagine that they all feel connected to this congregation in a new way after our beautiful service, did the resurrection really happen?

The truth of the matter is that the good news demonstrated in a once and for all time way on Easter morning has never depended on us making it happen. The resurrection is proof that God is in charge. In fact, the proof of God’s amazing love is this: that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, rose for us, reigns in power, prays for us. Because we have faith in him we can approach God with confidence. The resurrection and all it promises do not require our participation to make them happen.

Instead, this is what the Lord requires of us: To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. What we are required to do to make the resurrection real does not involve bunnies or eggs or lilies or sanctuaries full of people. What it requires of us to make it real is to live as freed and forgiven people sharing the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Navigating a Pandemic

None of us have ever been through something like this before. There is no road map to follow. My grandparents lived through the Spanish flu 100 years ago, the last time there was a pandemic like this. But they are not around to consult. Churches had to close; thousands of people were sick and many succumbed to the illness, and the world was still counting its severe losses from a long World War that also took many lives. But then the 1920s roared in and life was lived in a new way.

This will come to an end in a few weeks or a few months. How will we know it is over? I have no idea. It is not like a tornado where the weather service can sound the “all clear.” There will be some sign, though, that we can gather together again, perhaps in new ways, and once again celebrate our faith in ways that are familiar and comforting.

Until then, how are you making the gospel known? Do school children need food? How are you helping? Do hourly workers and their employers need support? Is there something your church can do? Are your church members becoming more afraid or isolated or lonely? How are you reaching out? What is most important to your community of faith? Is there a way to communicate that (the music, the prayers, the sermon, the community feeling) in a way that does not endanger anyone’s health?

We believe that all who are called to understand their place in the world as a forgiven and beloved child of God are also given the gifts that are needed to live out that new life. How will you use your gifts in new ways so that, even when you are afraid or nervous or feeling defeated, you can still be a part of bringing hope in the name of Jesus?
Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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Historical Events and Present Realities

I have fallen down the rabbit hole of genealogical research. I have always liked doing research and I am interested in my own family’s history. Some of it is very easy to find. My parents are buried in the same cemetery as my grandparents and both sets of great-grandparents on my dad’s side of the family. My grandma and I used to go to the cemetery to take flowers on “Decoration Day” aka Memorial Day. My husband and I keep up the tradition. That now means for us either a very full morning or two separate trips to the cemetery where his parents are buried; the large very old cemetery in Peoria where much of his family and some of mine is buried; the rural cemetery where my family mentioned above is buried; and the old cemetery where one of his great-grandfathers is buried. This gentleman died in a mine accident when he was going into the mine after an explosion to try to save those who were trapped. The United Mine Workers paid for his burial and gravestone and built a house for his widow and her five children.

So, what have I discovered in the quick race to a ship that constitutes finding my family and when “we” first arrived? One or two trails end before that ship, but it is kind of astonishing. One of my female ancestors was born in England and moved to Jamestown early enough to give birth there in 1631. One of the men was a baronet in England and arrived in Maryland in mid-1600s. One family line ends in Virginia in the mid-1600s; I don’t know when they arrived on this continent. The fourth one arrived here from the Netherlands in 1661 and had a grandson who was a Captain in the Revolutionary War.

I have just started looking at all of the information one can find. I can already tell that we have been Presbyterians or Reformed Christians on both sides of my family almost forever. I always knew that we were Scotch-Irish, but this just confirms it. It is also weird that both sides of my family lived in similar areas in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Ohio. I guess the Scotch-Irish people tended to congregate.

A part of what I have found falls into the category, for me, of “Be careful what you wish for.” I had always been pretty confident that no one in my family ever owned another human being since I knew that we came to Illinois from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Well, I have seen one will so far where one of my female relatives in Maryland was leaving a specific enslaved person to one child and another enslaved person to another child. Ugh. I so wanted to think that my family had never been a part of the whole history of profiting from the labor of people who were not compensated for that labor, and who had no choice about their labor, and who were subjected to conditions and treatment we do not want to imagine.

Of course, the fiction that I wanted to maintain that no one in my family participated in the evil of slavery is just that—a fiction. Enslaving people from Africa is part of the sin that continues to create the world in which we live, along with the idea that it was the right of Europeans to take over a land that had a rich culture already in place in North America. Even if my people had come to the Midwest from Europe after slavery was abolished, we still would have had the advantage of being white. We could buy land wherever we wanted to do so, work in jobs we chose, go into stores without being suspected of bad intent, and on and on and on. We could also choose to continue to be Christians; it was not forced upon us by our conquerors or enslavers.

As we think about our families and about those who have gone before us, we can truly be thankful for the blessings we enjoy. We also need to remember that some of those blessings came at a cost to other people that might be hidden from us or from which we might want to turn away. How do we repair the breach created by slavery and by “manifest destiny”?

In the midst of continuing to struggle with those questions, we still have a call to share the gospel. Let us be aware as we do so of the history that goes with such sharing, and be gentle as we continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago


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Worship and Adaptive Change

I spent a couple of weeks last summer with my grandchildren as they were attending various camps. We had lots of fun (with no parents around!) They are 7, 8, 8, 10, 11, and 13. So much easier than the days that were filled with bottles and diapers and nap schedules. Now it is my husband and me who need to take naps while they are with us!

I noticed phenomena while we were in the car and while we were watching screens that are light years away from the experience that I had as a young person at their ages. As we walk toward the car, not only do they call “shotgun” since some of them can legally and safely sit in the front seat now, but they also call “DJ.” I, of course, know what a disc jockey is—although people who play songs on most radio stations now surely do not have any kind of disc in front of them. But I did not know that my grandchildren would take turns using my phone to choose the next song that we would listen to in the car. Their experience listening to music is that they control it and are in charge of it. They do not just have to be held captive by whatever the professional “DJ” plays on the radio station.

Of course, watching screens is completely different from my day. I don’t think they believe me when I say we had three stations on TV and that if you wanted to change the channel you got up from your chair to do so. They cannot fathom that. At my house, we talk to the remote control and it takes us to what we want. We record things so we can skip the commercials. We have YouTube and Netflix and Amazon Prime. But even with all of that choice, we are generally not all watching the same thing. Because, of course, each person (including the adults) also has a smaller screen in their hands. Consuming media is no longer a shared experience.

I wonder about how we can bring this kind of sensibility into worship and other aspects of our congregations’ lives. Simply putting up a screen in the sanctuary really has nothing to do with this revolution. That is what most people would call a “technical” change. It is just another way to share the content that has been created by the pastor and other worship leaders. It does not make the worshiping congregation a part of choosing the content of worship nor does it afford individuals ways to choose their own content.

An “adaptive” change would be something completely different. How can we give people agency to create part of the content of worship? How can we create spaces in which people worship alongside each other but in different ways? That is surely a challenge for the years ahead, especially as we are forced to decide what elements are essential to a Reformed way of worshiping and what elements are merely habits as we bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago

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Cultural Signs

My husband and I started ministry in two very small churches. One was in a town of 300 people. The other was an open country church. Even though we both grew up in Peoria, which may seem rural to people who live in Chicago, it is not. Neither of us had ever lived on a farm. We were not used to having to burn our garbage in a big barrel in the backyard. We had not used well water in our homes (wow, is that cold when it comes out of the faucet!) We were in a culture that was alien to us.

So, for instance, one day after worship, someone invited us to have dinner at their house the next Sunday. I asked them what time we should be there. They just looked at me like I was crazy, and then said, “Right after church.” I was still learning that dinner happens in the middle of the day, supper is the meal you eat in the evening, usually after dark; and lunch is a light snack meal whenever it is consumed. For instance, we were in a card club and about nine o’clock at night someone would say, “Well, I’ll get the lunch out on the table now.” We adjusted.

When I was a Presbytery Executive a few years later in that same presbytery, I had to help pastors new to the area learn their culture as well. If they had come from a coast, I had to tell them that they now lived in a place where a sweet, jiggly dessert is called a salad and sometimes has grated carrots and green olives in it. I had to remind them that if they were not five minutes early they were late, and if they ran 10 minutes late people would think they had been in an accident. And for rural pastors, I had to teach them about the one finger wave when you are driving your car.

Now, you may be familiar with a one finger wave as you drive around Chicago. This is not the same kind of one finger wave that you find in a rural area. Instead, the rural wave goes like this. You drive with one hand on the top part of your steering wheel to be ready to wave every few miles when another vehicle approaches you. From some distance you will be aware if you know the driver coming toward you because you know what everyone in that township drives. If they are unknown to you, as you get close to them you raise one index finger in a silent salute and nod your head slightly. You only make eye contact with the person if you actually know them. And, if you have something you need to share with them verbally, you might even pause there in the middle of the road next to their vehicle and have the conversation. I had a pastor whose call was ended partly because he refused to acknowledge other drivers. It was considered to be the height of arrogance and a sign that he could not adjust to the culture in which he now found himself.

Are you a pastor or chaplain or professor or counselor who is serving in a context that is somehow different from your culture? To what have you had to adjust? Are you a leader in a congregation that finds itself in a neighborhood that now has people who are not of the same culture as your church members? How have you adjusted your signage or your worship times or the language in which you conduct worship or any other of the dozens of ways you might make people feel welcome?

Small cultural signs can make us seem a part of the communities to which we are called or so alien that people will imagine that we cannot possibly have anything to share with them. We are not called to share the gospel only according to the way it was shared with us. We are called to look around as Paul did, notice something in the culture around us which we can use to begin the story of the gospel, and to build on it in order to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Chicago Presbytery

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How Public is Your Life of Faith?

There is a new movie called “The Two Popes.” Several weeks ago, I saw an interview with the two stars of the movie. One of them looks so much like the current pope that, apparently, his own son kidded him about being the pope. Because it is a movie about religious people, the interviewer asked each of the stars about their religious backgrounds. One was a Roman Catholic as a child. The other came to faith when he became associated with a 12-Step Program. Kind of interesting information to know about these two people portraying religious leaders.

I was disturbed, though, by the way the interviewer asked them about their faith/religious lives. She asked, “Did you go to church as a child?” The assumption was, I think, that no self-respecting, intelligent adult would still go to church. Some might have it as a childhood practice along with jumping rope or playing with dolls or believing in Santa Claus. The implication was that adults leave all of those things behind.

This is not only an assumption by this particular interviewer. Many people in the 21st Century in the United States view faith as a quaint, old-fashioned and childish attribute at best and as something sinister at worst.

When I meet with sessions about the future of their congregations, I sometimes ask them what they brag about with regard to their churches when they are talking to their friends. Or, I ask them how they answer the question “What did you do this weekend?” When a co-worker or acquaintance asks that innocuous question, do they only say, “I saw a movie, I went to the grocery store, I watched the football game on TV”? Or do they also say, “I went to church.” And, are they prepared to respond if their inquisitor says, “Why?”

Even those of us who are very active in congregations have adopted the attitude that it might be embarrassing to admit that we are part of a faith community and that it is an important part of our lives. People might think we are unsophisticated, or naïve or stupid. Maybe we should just keep it to ourselves.

Scripture, of course, does not treat faith as something we grow out of as we grow up. Instead, we are encouraged to mature into our faith as we grow older. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways.”

How has your faith matured as you have grown into it? What is different now about your understanding of God’s grace in your life than when you first came to awareness of it? How do you act on your faith in a more mature way than you once did? How does your faith inform our call to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ wherever we may be?

The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Preventing Close-Out Sales

Have you ever gone to a local store that is closing because they are having a close-out sale? You know, they have hired a company to come out and hang up big signs and mark down their merchandise in order to liquidate it, and (at least it seems like this to me) sometimes bring in merchandise that did not sell someplace else?

If you were a loyal customer of that store, the owner and staff probably welcome you to that sale. You can commiserate with them about how the times are changing and that people just don’t shop locally anymore. But if you rarely or never patronized that store, don’t you feel just a little bit guilty or vulture-like if you swoop in only when the prices have been slashed? It reminds me of the scene in A Christmas Carol where people come in to steal the bed curtains from around the dead body of Ebenezer Scrooge. They did not visit him when he was alive, but now that he’s dead, there is a reason to go there.

Unfortunately, the reason this image has come to mind for me lately is that I have spent a fair number of Sundays in the last two years at the closing worship services for some of our Presbytery of Chicago congregations. In every case, the leaders of these congregations did what they knew how to do in order to keep their churches afloat. But changes in the way people interact with the world outside of their homes and their phones, aging buildings, aging congregations, and sheer exhaustion have just gotten the better of them.

A few Sundays before that closing service, there may have been as few as five people in those sanctuaries. But in every case that I have seen, the sanctuary is full on that last Sunday; and nobody traveled on an airplane to get there. They are all people who live locally and have a warm spot in their heart for that church. They want to be sure to be there on what may be their last occasion to be in the building. They want to remember their wedding or their Sunday School class or to see one last time the window dedicated to their grandparent. They thought the church would always be there and it made them feel better about the community to know that it was.

But that warm feeling and that sense of the church being an asset to the community did not influence their behavior in the last decades. They did not go to worship there. They did not contribute financially. They did not make suggestions about how the church might become more relevant in its community. Instead, they just gather at the deathbed and take away the valuable memories.

What to do, what to do? How can we help to prevent more of our congregations from becoming a stale symbol of what used to be valued? Gil Rendle, a well-known and respected church consultant, suggests asking three basic questions.

1) Who are we? That is, analyze your assets as a congregation.

Perhaps it is the location or the space that can be provided for community groups or the huge music library. Perhaps it is the cadre of retired teachers who still know how to encourage young people to learn, or the huge church kitchen and a patient person who could help provide food for hungry neighbors, or the insightful pastor who knows how to make the gospel come alive. Perhaps it is simply the deep faith of members that cannot be contained.

2) Who are our neighbors? And no one is allowed to start their answer with “I remember when…”

Do a demographic study, or hang out at the grocery store, or talk to the local elementary school principal. Who lives in your neighborhood? What do they need? What prevents them from living as freed and forgiven children of God?

3) What is God calling us to do? How do our assets match up with the needs of our neighbors?

In other words, why has God placed us where we are and helped us to survive? How will we share the gospel with our neighbors in a way that will change their lives?

The trend among all churches in North America is decline. When we meet for worship on a Sunday morning, we are doing a counter-cultural thing. So why not be even more counter-cultural? That is, counter to the culture of your church? What needs to be done that would make your grandma roll over in her grave? How can you share the gospel in a way that will have impact but makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Who can you invite into the life of your church that will make the curmudgeon on your session threaten to quit? Is it worth the risk? Can you save me from attending more closing worship services? Can you continue to find a way to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ?
The Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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