Friday, December 12, 2014

I Walked Past the Salvation Army Bell Ringer

I admit it.  I walked right past.  I didn't toss in any change.  I didn't slip a dollar in the kettle.  I walked right on into the mall. 

But I had a reason. 

Actually, several reasons.  I never carry cash...I didn't have any change...and it was cold.  I walked right past because the young man ringing the bell was between me and Starbucks.  We nodded at each other, offered each other a quick Merry Christmas, and I made my way through the crowd to Starbucks.  This time, the hot beverage in the recycled cardboard cup wasn't for me, though.  I got in line, ordered a hot chocolate, and headed back toward the front doors of the mall...back to the red kettle...back to the young man ringing the bell and wishing strangers a Merry Christmas. 

The look on his face as I handed him the cup of hot chocolate said exactly what I had hoped it wouldn't. 

"Nah, I'm good."
"It's for you.  For real.  It's cold out here."

I haven't mentioned yet that our skin colors were not the same, but they weren't.  I saw a young man donating his time for one of the biggest charities in the nation, but I'm not sure what he saw.  Uncertainty.  Distrust.  Honestly, I don't blame him.  I don't know how I'd react, either, if a stranger handed me a cup of hot chocolate...especially today...especially given the differences between he and I...especially after all of the mess that's been the news lately.  

I grew up after the Civil Rights movement of the 60's, so I missed the tensions and wars of that time.  I'm a child of the 70's and early 80's.  My kids are growing up now, in the 21st century.  Things are different, but at the same time, not really.  I wasn't taught hate as a kid, but some were...some still are.  Instead, I was taught the cheesy little song, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world..." and I believed it...still do...and it's led me to make decisions that I might not have made otherwise.

I've walked away from an organization that I loved because I couldn't bring an African American friend with me.  After years of struggling with the dichotomy of being a pastor on Sunday morning, and a member of this organization on Thursday night, my conscience finally won out and I stopped paying my dues.  I knew I would be suspended but I just couldn't do it anymore.  My parents did not teach me to hate, or to sit around telling off color jokes, or that I was better than because I'm white.  They just didn't, and I thank God for that.   

Sure, he and I were different, but in so many ways, the same.  I'm a guy.  He was a guy.  I'm raising my family.  He's raising his.  I donate time to charities.  He was donating time to a charity.  I cuss when I stub my toe.  He probably does, too.  I'm sure he gets impatient sitting in traffic just like I do.  But...I know that I'll never be able to fully understand what thoughts run through his mind because we do have different life experiences.

Hate?  I can't do it. 

As I got in my truck and drove away, I looked back at the front doors of the mall and saw the cup of hot chocolate sitting on the sidewalk at his feet.  It wasn't going to help warm him up that way, but it said to me that there is still so much work to be done. 

What's the answer?  Honestly, I don't know.  It's going to take a hell of a lot more than a cup of hot chocolate to fix what's wrong.  It's going to take some honest conversations, and a lot of changed hearts.  It's going to take realizing that, by dang, the cheesy little song is right.  Jesus does love the little children...all of them...  It's going to take repentance and forgiveness.  It's going to take more time. 

But in the meanwhile...there are small things we can do to show that not everyone hates any who may not look exactly like we do.  We can pray "Thy kingdom come," and actually mean it.  We can extend a hand and offer peace.  We can listen more and scream less.  We can stop focusing on the differences and celebrate all that we share in common: 

Children of the Living God.
Sons and daughters of Abraham.
Co-heirs with Christ.
The beloved of the Almighty. 

My prayer this season is that a gesture as simple as offering a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day be the beginning of the end of hate. 


Monday, December 1, 2014

The Visitor Book...Why every long time member of a local church needs to be a visitor somewhere else.

In the last 15 years I can count on both hands the number of times I've not been in my pulpit on Sunday morning.  Sometimes it was for retreat, once because I was sick, and three for vacation.  This past Sunday was one of those.  The first lady and I needed some time away.  It had been over 3 years since the two of us had been able to get away as a couple (and to my clergy colleagues...DO NOT underestimate how important this is for your marriage.)

We planned our trip, made the reservations, and I made preparations to be gone on a Sunday.  The weekend was great, with the exception of a little vehicle trouble, but even that worked out.  Sunday morning rolled around, our last day on the trip, and I said to my first lady; "I think we need to check out the little UMC in town this morning."  I knew that it would be nothing like we were used to but I felt the need to worship, especially after the events of the day before. 

Neither of us packed "church clothes," so there was no small amount of trepidation as to how we'd be welcomed in jeans and sweatshirts.  In fact, there was no small amount of trepidation about the whole experience, and here's why.  We've had our fair share of church changes, but the difference for me is that when I walk into a new church, I don't walk in as a visitor.  I walk in as the one in charge, the resident elder.  This time was different.  I wasn't going to tell anyone I was a pastor in a different Conference of the same denomination.  I just wanted to be, and see how we would be welcomed.  Part of that, I admit, was critique.  I wanted to see how this particular congregation practiced radical hospitality. 

As we approached the front steps, they were beautifully decorated for Christmas.  It was a quaint little building with that small town charm that so many fall in love with.  There was a smiling face at the door to greet us and hand us a bulletin.  (Score)  The sanctuary was starting to fill up so we chose a spot that could have been someone else's seat and I wanted to see how they'd react.  Within a few minutes the pastor came over and welcomed us (Score again) and asked if we were local or visiting (It is kind of a seasonal town).  Within a few minutes we were welcomed again by the obvious matriarch of the church and evidently got her approval.  There was a lady sitting behind us who had been ringing the Salvation Army bell at one of the local businesses the day before and she remembered us and spoke (Score again).    A couple other people spoke, but for the most part folks left us alone.  Since my anxiety level was already elevated, that was actually fine with me.  They were welcoming but not suffocating.  Then it happened...

...One of the sweet little ladies of the church walked over to us with this God awful huge folder in her hand and said..."We kind of dropped the ball since we have been decorating for Christmas but usually our visitor folder is on the table by the door.  Would you sign in please?  We don't want phone numbers or addresses, and we won't come to your house, we just want to know where you're from." 

As a pastor, I totally get that.  I want to know our guests at Grace Church as well, but between that huge folder and the pastor calling us out from the pulpit to welcome us, I was beginning to break out in a cold sweat.  I just wanted to be.  I just needed to worship.  Thank God he didn't ask us to stand so folks could welcome us.  This was enough.  Turns out we were the first visitors in that little chapel in over 6 weeks and I expect that they were genuinely tickled that we were there.

As the service progressed, it was time for the Hanging of the Greens and the pastor told everyone to stand up, come down front, take a Chrismon ornament, and hang it on the tree.  OH, HELL NO!  Folks started getting up and making their way down front and we just stood there...until folks started noticing that we were standing there.  Then one sweet little lady behind us broke me down..."It's ok.  Come on.  You're part of us today." 

Now, here's why I'm writing today.  In my pulpit this would be the "big so what."

If you are still reading this, and if you are a long time member of your particular body of believers, it will be a great help for the Kingdom, your congregation, and your pastor if once a year you visit a church where you know no one.  Don't go to your friends' church, or your sister's church.  Go to a different town, and find a congregation where the only people you know are the ones who rode with you.  Why?  Because it's easy for us in the Church to become "visitor blind."  We forget what it's like to walk through our doors for the first time.  We underestimate the anxiety people feel when they finally make the decision to visit us on a Sunday morning.  We don't recognize the things we do, or don't do, to our guests and/or how those things make them feel. 

It takes a huge amount of guts to walk into a church for the first time.  I'm a 43 year veteran of the church and an elder in full connection, and it still made me almost physically ill to climb those steps yesterday.  Imagine how it must feel for someone who doesn't have that kind of experience in the church and is just looking for that peace, hope, and healing we're always talking about. 

So, from our experience this weekend, and from observations I've made over the years, here's a short list of things we can do to make our guests feel more welcome.  Some of these we are already doing at Grace Church.  Some of them we need to work on.

* DO have someone with a smiling face at the door to greet them.
* DO have that person introduce themselves and ask if they can help your guest find a seat. 
   Perhaps they know someone and would like to sit by them.
* DO have signs directing your guests through the building...restrooms...nursery...etc.
* DO ask them if there is anything you can do for them while they're there.
* DO have EVERYONE wear name tags if you ask your guests to
* DO have EVERYONE sign in if you ask your guests to. 
* DO welcome them often but DO NOT call them out from the pulpit.
* DO let them have your seat.  Let me repeat that one.  DO let them have your seat.  If they sit down
   where you've sat for 30 years, deal with it and find another spot.
* DO NOT use language they don't understand (Grace Church we need to work on this one)  Instead
   of saying UMW for example, say our "United Methodist Women."
* DO embrace the fact that they may just want to worship and aren't ready to interact much.
* DO NOT force them to do anything.. 
* DO welcome them back, but DO NOT be pushy. 
* DO offer them the opportunity to encounter the Divine at their own pace and in their own way. 

Now, if you're a long time member, and haven't visited a church where you know no one in the last few years, give it a try.  Print this little list out, see how the congregation does, and how the things they do or don't do make you feel, then take that experience back to your own congregation. 

There's much truth in the fact that no matter how well we do things, there is always room to do them better.