Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Monastic Life

I spent the last five days in silence with seven other people at Holy Cross Abbey. I make the journey to Berryville once a year, craving a break from the city, from a home in which the television is on way too often, from the demands of life, and from a life that is patterned after these demands.

And I've fallen in love again.

I've fallen in love with mountains that call me to prayer as I lift my eyes to the hills, lush greenery on which the cattle graze, sunflowers that have grown taller than me, an image of a tree planted near water that makes me long to be where it is, and God - the One behind every good and perfect gift, the One who causes the sun to rise at day and illuminates the darkness at night.

I've also fallen in love with the vision of community that the monks make real. Their life together is beautiful, sacred and compelling. They make me imagine growing old in community. I can taste and see the goodness that comes when you are living with people who share food and resources, who take you to the doctor and get your medicine, who labor together with the one goal of providing enough for the community, and who pray together six times throughout the day starting at 3:00 in the morning and ending at 7:30 at night. 

While many of us are filled with fear about what ISIS could do in our country today, the monks have been praying, naming the reality of evil and a God who can overcome evil. While I tossed and turned in my bed last night, dreaming about not having enough food at Vacation Bible School this week, I realize that I slept peacefully each of the four nights I was at the monastery, tucked in with prayers of the Abbot who asks God to bring a peaceful night's rest and a peaceful death upon all his brothers before sprinkling each monk and guest with holy water whose drops soak me with remembrances of my baptism, my belovedness. While I purchased way too much food at the new Wegman's yesterday, I realize I had more than enough while at the monastery when three dishes were served at lunch and another three at supper. 

I've drenched myself in the rich gifts Paul describes in Ephesians in a way I've never allowed myself to be before. I've sought to fully receive the spiritual blessings Christ offers each day, to ponder anew what it means to be holy and blameless before Christ in love, to think deeply about words and phrases like "good pleasure," "freely bestowed," "riches of his grace," and "lavished on us." I've never understood Christ's "good pleasure" so powerfully before. 

And I've fallen in love with good books. I read "My First White Friend," a book I picked up after being so touched by Patricia Raybon's workshop I attended at Princeton in early June. I continued with "The Book of Forgiving" and am convinced that every person needs to read this book - especially if you're struggling to let go of the pain caused by another. I consumed "Being Church" and can hardly wait to share insights during our September sermon series. I skimmed "Simplify" and started David Brooks' new book as well as the novel, "All the Light We Cannot See." My mind has been renewed and transformed.

Are these gifts - these good and perfect gifts - only available within the monastic life? Must I flee from the world's demands to soak up Christ's good pleasure? Do I need to make a quarterly reservation at the abbey?

I pray not.

What I pray instead is that the community formed on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts will continue to share life together in a way that promises no one is living alone (whether we have roommates or not). I pray each person in our community has someone who can drive them to the hospital when they're having a test, who can bring a meal when they're in pain, who can visit when they're feeling alone, who can hold their hand when they're breathing their lasts breaths, who can pray in a way that reminds us who we are and whose we are. I pray we can hear and study the gift of scripture in a way that makes us crave the capacity to know Jesus even more, to be holy and blameless before Christ. I pray that our minds can constantly be renewed and transformed as we desire to be in small groups that study God's word together, allowing it to shape and form our lives. I pray that we will see what enough is for us and generously share with others. I pray that we will show up throughout the week, not coming to church on Sunday but being church all the time.

And I pray that I'll pattern my days after first seeking God's will while continuously seeking God's direction throughout the day. I pray I can remember to ask God to tuck me in at night, to not forget my belovedness no matter how much pain or comparison or incompleteness a day might hold. 

Plant me by streams of grace, mercy and love, dear God. Help me drink from your rich gifts on all my days. And thank you for an amazing week away. Amen. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Unusual Company

When Mount Vernon Place was given the opportunity to redevelop our property several years ago, a vision emerged for a facility that would be used by a wide variety of organizations throughout the week. On any given day, there might be a theatre group performing in the Undercroft Auditorium, a community meeting in a classroom, a jazz group rehearsing in the Community Room, and a training in the Fellowship Hall. It's a beautiful example of what can happen when space is always seen as mixed-use verses having a huge building that is used twice a week.

We have a full-time Director of Operations who oversees the facility, and he's been fully entrusted to make decisions and work with different users. As a result, I don't always know who is here on any given day. It was other people who emailed me last fall to let me know that the Institute for Religion and Democracy was using our space. Two of my colleagues were utterly offended. I, however, had not given it a second thought. It wasn't the first time they had used our building.

We've taken the same approach with our facility as we have with our congregation - all are welcome here. We have always sought to be the kind of place where hospitality is extravagant and the doors are open as wide as we imagine Christ's arms to be. The signs in our bathrooms seek to convey our welcome to those who are in the building for purposes other than worship or church small groups.

But the most recent IRD lecture, held in our sanctuary because our auditorium was previously booked, sparked a new conversation. Were we doing harm or doing good to host such a lecture? Our Council came together and faithfully discussed the matter for more than an hour. I shared the thoughts of a mentor who invited me to imagine someone coming to our church in need of a sanctuary one evening. "Is the lecture one hears that night in lines with what one might hear on a Sunday?" my professor asked. Are there times when hospitality might cause more harm than good? What does it mean to offer space to a group that regularly criticizes churches like ours and pastors like me? In the end, our Council concluded that our church would no longer allow the IRD to use our facility. I'm still not sure it's the right answer - but I pray it's faithful.

I was praying the conversation would end there - that the IRD would not contact us again. However, a similar space request came a few weeks ago. My colleague responded, letting them know the church would no longer be able to host them. And I got an email from their President, inviting me to lunch.

I accepted the invitation immediately and then almost cancelled today. I'm a person of strong convictions. I almost stopped giving money to my seminary when I saw several faculty members photographed on the cover of a magazine associated with the Good News Movement. When my mentor, one of the more progressive voices at the seminary, went back to South Africa, I wondered aloud who was teaching students about Christ's wide welcome. I cannot stand what the "other" says when it comes to homosexuality and the church. I get furious, in fact. And Mark has written a few articles that have made my blood pressure rise.

How could I share lunch with him?

He was five minutes late, I almost walked away. But I didn't. I waited. I shook his hand. I sat down with him. I asked God to bless our meal and our conversation. I learned he first worked for the CIA - (no wonder he's so good at spying on other churches!). I heard how he first got involved in the United Methodist Church and how he's struggled to find a church for him. I know he's single and that he's married to his work. I know about his family, how he gets to share a meal with his parents almost every Sunday. I know how he feels about scripture and how his work is a calling. I know some of his heart. And I also know our differences - I'm more focused on embodying Christ's kingdom here and now than getting people to heaven. I don't believe scripture is infallible (even though he's sure Wesley did). I view marriage in a different light than him. I read scripture differently - and don't fully understand his lens. And still, we share a huge desire for the United Methodist Church to be faithful in its capacity to reach people, to have our sanctuaries overflowing with young people who need to experience the love and grace of Christ, to see churches play a significant role in the lives of individuals who are desperate for community, to proclaim our beliefs in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

I don't agree with Mark's position on many things. But I cannot look at Mark as the enemy - because I begged him not to see me and the kind of church we're seeking to embody at MVP as his enemy. I cannot put him aside because I know he's a child of God, too, and I believe, perhaps, that the United Methodist Church is big enough for both of us. And I know that if our church is to stay together, then it's going to take a lot more lunches like the one I shared today to make it happen.

I invited Mark to worship someday. I'm not sure he'll come. But he'll be welcome here. And in the meantime, I'll keep praying for him and his organization - and hoping that they'll figure out how to do their work in a way that enables them to lift their beliefs without having to constantly criticize and put down others who disagree with them. And I hope he'll pray for me and the ways in which Christ is at work at MVP, too.

I'll also keep thinking about who I need to invite to lunch. What about you?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Let's Cross Over to the Other Side

I did not need an alarm clock to awaken me this morning as my spirit started to stir a few minutes after 5:00. I had finished 75% of my sermon on Tuesday. But my heart had one question as I opened my Bible this morning.

Is there a word from the Lord?

What would God want to say to my congregation this week? How would Jesus respond to the horrific massacre that occurred in one of his churches?

Is there a word from the Lord?

The Gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday is Mark 4:35-41. It's a miracle story about Jesus calming the wind and the sea. My focus was on fear and faith all week....until this morning when I started to see verse 35 in a new light.

"Let's cross over to the other side of the lake," Jesus says. It seems like such a small thing to say and an insignificant part of the story. But Jesus and his disciples have to leave the crowds behind if they cross to the other side. Jesus' popularity has been skyrocketing. People have seen his ability to heal the sick and cast out demons. He has dozens of people willing to follow him. And yet, he's willing to leave them all behind.

"Let's cross over to the other side."

As preachers, we are regularly caught in a desire to please people, grow our churches so we can report impressive numbers to our bishop, and hear words about how great our sermon was. We want people to like us. The more people who come, the larger our egos, our salaries and our next church.

But what if Jesus is instead inviting us to cross to the other side - to leave the crowds behind?

What if Jesus is inviting us to share the fullness of his message, including the words we wish he would have never said because they make us so uncomfortable, painfully stepping on our toes?

Nine people were murdered in a church this week. Nine African-American people were killed by a white racist during the middle of a prayer service in a church this week. People came to church to pray and ended up being killed.

Is there a word from the Lord?

If you want to be popular, then you may not want to say a word this week about racism or gun violence. How many times have I heard my dad tell me he listens to Joel Osteen because Osteen makes him feel good about himself? Don't people come to church because they want to feel better - to see some light in the midst of their dark lives?

But please, preachers, don't be silent this week. Please don't seek to please your congregations. Please don't seek to turn the service of worship on you.

Rather, stand and name the sin of racism. Stand and share words about the Prince of Peace. Stand and talk about our nation's addiction to guns and the false sense of security we keep offering each other. Invite the congregation to ponder what symbols are still dividing us, causing pain in the lives of others. Take a cue from John Stewart and name the truth of where we are as a sin-sick nation that has not come close to healing our racial divide.

Some people - perhaps most people - don't really want to be moved out of their place of comfort. Crowds flock when there is good entertainment and a word that supports our way of life instead of challenging it.

But other people are depending on us to say something - to rise up and call people to action. Let us name the truth. Let us invite people to work for change in this land. Let us be instruments of peace and reconciliation in a deeply divided nation.

Is there a word from the Lord?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Saying Thanks

A seminary friend reached out to me last week with a question. "You seem to have been able to develop many mentors in life. How do you do it?"

It's a question I've never pondered before, and I did not have an immediate answer. While I can name the people who have mentored me in the past, and the individuals who I perceive as mentors today, I'm not sure how they came into my life. As I imagined the individuals from whom I've learned, the people who have journeyed alongside of me in important ways, one thread rose to the top, however. Gratitude - the power of saying thanks. With this awareness, I started to answer her question.

"I'm fully aware of what I don't know. I love being with people who are smarter or more gifted than me. And when they share part of their knowledge with me, I seek to always say thanks."

When I graduated from seminary, I wrote the dean a multi-page letter telling him all the ways Duke Divinity School had shaped and formed me, expressing gratitude for each gift. That letter was mentioned as one of the reasons I was invited to come back and join the staff a year later.

When I've had an influential class, I have sought to write the professor to name the ways her teaching made more of me before asking more questions.

When a bishop took time to get to know my story and why I was excited about being in downtown DC, I was quick to say thanks and ask more questions.

When another professor allowed me to journey to his homeland not once but twice in order to see the pain and hope of his ministry, I did everything I could to say thanks, to affirm his ministry, and to keep asking questions.

And I sometimes wonder if our expressing gratitude in tangible ways is a lost discipline.

We are in the process of filling a position on our staff at the church and have interviewed multiple people over the phone and in person. The professor who taught Business Communications at my college told us the importance of showing up the next day with a letter in which you sought to say thanks, name the ways your gifts are a perfect match for the position, and let people know how much you want the job. We delivered those notes - on fancy paper that required an extra trip to Staples. Yet in this round of filling a position, out of all the people we have spoken with, only one has taken time to express gratitude -- through an email. I've been amazed at how little we do to both express gratitude and sell ourselves - allowing our light to shine once more.

I'm also amazed at the power of a thank you note. I have dozens of them in a file labeled "happy folder" in my office. They are notes that remind me who I am, what roles I've played, and affirm my call to ministry.

Do we not all need these reminders?

Are we not all led to offer more of ourselves to those who have the capacity to remind us who we are and what we do well? Are we not more inclined to invest in their lives in a similar way that makes more of them (and us) in the process?

I'm off to write some thank you notes.

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Demons of the City

We are in the midst of what has been a powerful sermon series for me at Mount Vernon Place, one that has spoken deeply to my soul, on "What's My Purpose." We turn this week to how the pain of the world, what captures our attention and causes our hearts to break, can be used by God to help us discover some of our purpose. Our text this week is Mark 2:1-12, one of my favorites as I think about who God calls us to carry on top of the roof so we can dig through that roof and literally lower what needs to be healed before Jesus. I'm now sitting with these words by Ched Myers that were inspired by this text.

Jesus relentlessly critiqued the purity and debt systems of his day because they tended to segregate and exclude rather than to integrate and restore. The symbol of his confrontation of these systems was public exorcism.

In the public discourse of the modern world, demon possession is rarely acknowledged and evil is rarely evaluated with appropriate seriousness. Yet we live in a world in which a dramatic confrontation between good and evil continues daily on a grand scale. It is more visible in some circumstances than in others; some demons can be named quite readily, while others cannot. Demons are players in our own stories, too. They have shaped our attitudes toward others, our capacities for moral and ethical discernment, our 'habits of the heart.'

Let us consider racism and its partner, poverty, as examples. The scene these days in almost any inner-city neighborhood in the United States could invite exorcism: the National Guard in camouflage, shining spotlights from hum-fees, trying to push back the violence, drug dealing and violence around the edges of and crisscrossing through neighborhoods that are trying in heroic ways to survive; gangs attempting to fill the void by absent family and community, kids, overgrown into men, with nowhere to go, hanging out all night and all day...

These are the impoverished places where dramatically disproportionate numbers of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities live - not by choice, but by the normal functioning of a system that perpetually excludes them. They are gathered into ghettoes by a form of cultural evil in which the skin color of a person determines his or her access to opportunity...

Demons, we see, threaten our personal and family lives; but they operate adeptly in social structures and systems as well. 
- Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark's Story of Discipleship, Orbis, 1996, 18-19.

The protests that erupted in my home state of Missouri not long ago are now just 30 miles away in the city of Baltimore. Another black man has died too soon. Another life has been taken instead of having the opportunity to reach its full potential.

But can we name the demons?

Do we know the demons within each one of us that have shaped our own personal habits of the heart?

Can the church still invoke Jesus' power to cast out the demons?

What will it take for the church to lead such an effort?

How can we not only name racism as a sin but lead the way in healing the brokenness caused by centuries of systemic racism?

O God, this time seems ripe for the Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words. And yet, I'm longing for a word - a powerful word, a healing word, a penetrating word. I'm longing for prophets to stand up and ignite a movement that does not simply bring about peace in the midst of a city in flames but continues until the broken systems that abound across this nation are healed. Come, Lord Jesus. Come and help us be disciples who speak like prophets, and people who have the courage to step across boundaries, and congregations that will do anything to tear through evil systems until what is in need of healing is lowered before Jesus. Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Leadership on the Court

If a picture paints a thousand words, then this photo paints my description of leadership. It is a portrait of a coach, one of his assistants and three of his players. But Coach K's action of reaching over a coach and another player to hold the hand of Jahlil Okafor speaks powerfully to me. This action conveys a clear message, "We are in this together. I've got your back. Whether we win this game or lose this game, we do it together. But I need you, and I believe in you."

Who has been this kind of leader or mentor to you?

I think of a senior pastor who did everything he could to enable me to flourish as his associate in my first year after seminary, pushing me into places where my gifts could be fully utilized.

I think of a seminary dean who listened to my vision for a new recruitment strategy, heard my heart, and doubled my budget, enabling me to put together pieces the school had never used before.

I think of a district superintendent who stood by my side and built me up when the most vocal people in the congregation were tearing me down.

I think of a bishop who stopped by the church one day to see the new construction, but then heard my heart, prayed for me and presented an offering with the words, "I just want to encourage you."

I think of a 97-year-old church member whose church was in serious decline, closer to closure than new life, who looked me in the eye and said, "We need you. You can do this. You have the best job in Washington."

I realize I would not be half the person I am today without leaders and mentors who have invested in me - individuals who have not only said "I support you" but who have genuinely walked alongside me in real and tangible ways.

What would it mean for us to be this kind of leader for others? What would we have to stop doing so we could invest more time in the people we are privileged to supervise, mentor and manage? What if the future of the church depended on this kind of leadership? And perhaps not only the church but every organization that is needed by society today?

God, help me be this kind of leader, this kind of mentor. Amen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Power of our Promises

Easter Sunday is a pastor's dream. Extra people fill the pews as guests come for the first time and others return after a long time. People come with anticipation and excitement. The smell of fried chicken makes its way over from the fellowship hall. Children laugh and bring you delight as they look for their eggs on the church lawn. And we get to preach the most amazing good news of all time. Add a baptism of twins into this life-giving mix, and my heart is already beating a different sound. 

I cannot wait for Easter Sunday.

I'll have the privilege of baptizing twins on Sunday morning. It's my first time baptizing twins, and I paid careful attention to the liturgy when preparing it yesterday afternoon, making sure all the singular pronouns were turned to plural. I then typed these words about the kind of community we promise to be every time a person is baptized:

"We will surround Emily and Olivia with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life." 

We promise to be a community of love and forgiveness, a community of prayer, and a community that accompanies a person on the path that leads to life. How many such communities do you have in your life right now? How many organizations, circles, committees, or clubs to which you belong are places of love and forgiveness? How many groups are you a part of where the people are praying for you in your journey through life? Who is accompanying you on the path that leads to life?

Perhaps these words describe church at its very best - that place where people are not holding grudges but seeking to live in peace and reconciliation with one another. Church at its best is a community where the people are known for their love and inclusion, not their judgment and exclusion. Church is a place where we learn to love, using Jesus' all-encompassing love as our example. Church at its best is a community of people who constantly remind you that you are not alone. Church at its best is a group of people in which you have holy friends - people who are not afraid to name the sins you've grown to love while pointing out the gifts you've been afraid to claim.

We will make these promises to Emily and Olivia on Sunday morning. But I pray that we are always seeking to be this community to all people in our midst. I cannot recall another group of people who have ever made these promises to me. It's another reason I need the church - perhaps, even, the most important reason for why I need the church.