Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Place at the Table

I got my hair cut by a new person yesterday afternoon. I arrived at the appointed time, settled into the chair, and listened to a glimpse of his story. He’s a new dad of a child born with a surrogate mom, a child who has two dads. 

I shared how I’m the pastor of a couple whose deepest prayer was answered through surrogacy. 

His mouth dropped. 

He literally stopped. 

I wasn’t sure he would continue. 

I finally said, “You, your partner and your child would be abundantly welcome at my church. I’m a pastor - but of a fully inclusive church.” 

We then had a conversation on hypocrisy and judgement as he asked why people hate his family. I’m still not sure he believed me when I said they would be welcome at MVP.

I then met my dear friend, Alisa, for coffee at Barnes and Noble. Anyone who knows Alisa knows she is a person of prayer - a woman who I have seen get down on her knees and pray on a rooftop of a restaurant. It came time for our conversation to end - but not without praying together for each other and the responsibilities we have this week and on Easter. Alisa took my hands and held them across the table. I said, “Everyone will think we are a cute, lesbian couple.” Alisa repeated my words, and a man looked upon us with horrid disdain and fierce judgement in his eyes. 


It was another wake up moment for me about how many deeply committed couples are unable to share expressions of love in public without facing hatred or judgement.
Last night, I vowed to again do all I can to build a community where all are welcome, where love is celebrated, where the church is known for what it is for instead of who it is against, where “all” truly means “all.”

Will you build this community with me?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday Reflection - A Glimpse of My Heart, My Regret, and My Desire to March with Jesus



It is the festival of Passover, one of the most important holidays celebrated by the Jewish people who gather to remember how God passed over their houses instead of killing their firstborn children during their captivity in Egypt.
Jerusalem is overflowing with people as Jews gather for Seder meals and celebrations.
As the Roman governor of Samaria and Judea, Pontius Pilate would leave his seaside estate and travel to Jerusalem for the festival. He does not come because he is particularly religious. Rather, comes to display Rome’s imperial rule and power in the occupied city.
Pontius Pilate rides into the city on top of a horse as high as a Clydesdale featured in a Budweiser commercial.
He is surrounded by shiny swords and other signs of military might.
And the “who’s who” of Jerusalem surround him, including individuals who are ready to put coins in his campaign coffer in exchange for a promise to continue to support whatever resources or rights they want to protect.
Meanwhile, on the other end of Jerusalem, Jesus rides not on top of a war horse but on top of a borrowed borough.
He is riding on a colt.
I imagine his feet are dragging on the ground.
And, he too, has a large crowd following him.
The poor and the powerless are lining the streets shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” “Hosanna” – a word that means “Save us.”
Save us, King Jesus.
It is political theatre at its best – power and humility, rich and poor, warhorses and young donkeys.
Two parades.
Two crowds.
Two purposes.
Jesus is coming face to face with the rulers of the temple and the state – rulers who will crucify him on Friday because nothing is more threatening to an institution than new life.
Nothing is more threatening to power than those considered powerless showing up and demanding change.
While Pilate’s arrival is expected, Jesus’ arrival sends the city into turmoil.
Who is this humble man whose actions proclaim he is the long-awaited messiah?
Who is this individual who is willing to come face to face with the powers and principalities?
Who is this one who can literally shake the way things are into the way things should be?
Who is this?
We know who Pilate is.
Pilate is the one with worldly power and wealth, the one who will do anything to maintain his illusion of control.
But who is Jesus?
He is a king, but not the kind of king to which the world gravitates.
He is a lord, but his lordship is not defined by wielding power over others but by serving them.
He is a leader, but his strongest assets are not his charisma or charm but rather his self-giving acts of compassion and generosity.
Who is this?
How we respond to the question has serious implications for not only our lives but countless other lives in this city and around the world.
Our response to the question dictates which parade we would have joined on this day 2000 years ago and which parade we are likely to join today –  the parade of the powerful who we believe can get us somewhere or at least protect what we have – what we believe we have earned – or the parade of the one who came to save all people with a preferential option for the poor and powerless.
Which parade would you have joined?
Where would you have found yourself that day?
Many of you marched yesterday.
You joined some 800,000 people from across the nation in support of young people who are demanding change.
I watched the rally.
I wept with an 11-year-old prophet from Alexandria and a high school student who used the power of silence better than it’s ever been used before.
But I didn’t march.
My life is often a tightrope as I balance making sure my husband knows I love him as much I love the church. But too often Craig gets the shorter end of the stick. Having been away at a monastery on silent retreat all week, I knew I needed to give Saturday to Craig, and while Craig is the better Christian in our family, he is not a marcher.
I sought to faithfully tend to the covenant of marriage yesterday, one of my calls – and still, I feel deep, deep sadness for not being there.
            Jesus says “Let the children come to me.” Keeping children safe isn’t just right. It’s a matter of faith.
            In the passion narrative, we just heard Jesus ask for swords to be put away – even as others are putting him to death. Working for an end to senseless gun violence isn’t just right. It’s what Jesus, the prince of peace, would demand.
            Seeking a transfer of power from the powerful to the powerless isn’t just the right thing to do at times. It’s why Jesus was crucified.
            There is no doubt in my mind that if Jesus were physically present in Washington this weekend, that he would have felt more at home marching yesterday than he would in many of our sanctuaries today.
            I never again want to miss a march.
            And I never again want to miss an opportunity for us to be united as a congregation while we march.
We all know how seductive Pilate’s power can be.
We regularly put our faith, hope and trust in arrogant, angry leaders who promise a better tomorrow at the expense of those at the bottom.
We vote for who will protect our ideals even if those ideals are not the ones taught and embodied by Jesus.
We can get behind someone who promises to solve today’s problems, especially if their solution benefits us.
On the other hand, putting our faith, hope and trust in one who was crucified for what he stood for can have serious consequences.
It might cost us our pride as we embrace a humility that empties itself.
It might cost us our swords and semi-automatic weapons as we embrace his way of peace.
It might cost us some of our anger as we seek to embody his love.
It might cost us bent up resentment as we seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the movie The Shack, Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?” Jesus responds, “No, not at all – most roads don’t lead anywhere.”[1]
But when people march with Jesus, when they follow this crucified and risen savior, then the road might just lead to mercy and justice for all.



[1] http://jameshowellsweeklypreachingnotions.blogspot.com/2017/11/preaching-palm-sunday-march-25.html

Friday, March 23, 2018

In the Presence of Saints



Truth be told, I've never pondered the power of being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I know many people who pray for the saints, including my Catholic husband. I have participated in liturgies where we name how the communion of saints intercede on our behalf. But I often struggle with what this intercession looks like as I wrestle with the Hallmark images of heaven versus a seminary professor who called it heresy to sing "I'll Fly Away." 

My prayer life is grounded in traditional practices - a bit of scripture, an app to guide my way, countless books on my shelf from which to choose, and solid time in my comfy chair first thing in the morning. I also pray in my car or while walking down the street. And, Craig never lets me take a bite to eat without him giving thanks for our food. 

I've never considered myself anything close to a mystic. But something mystical happened to me yesterday while on retreat at a nearby monastery. 

When packing 26 books on Sunday afternoon, I added a study Bible I have not used in a while. It's one I used to turn to often before gravitating to a different one for use at home and another one at the office. I'm not sure why I selected this one. But, in some mystical way, it now makes sense.

When I opened it yesterday, I found a prayer tucked inside. Its words have been typed and copied often. There are a few typos. "Amen" is spelled "A-Men." It's a prayer that was placed before me not long after I arrived in 2005, when I used to gather with a group of longtime members of our church and a few others for Bible study each week. I don't know who first suggested we pray the prayer. But we never started our reading without it. The words mean more to me today than they did at the time. As I read them again yesterday, I realize how I was, indeed, praying with the saints - people who longed to become the people God called and created them to be - even in their 80s, 90s or 100. Nearly all of them are gone. But yesterday I paused and gave thanks for Jean, Lois, Gilbert, Howard, and Ruth who are all with the saints of light - and Mary Elizabeth and Annie Lou who are still on their journey of discipleship. I recall how much time we spent together - praying these words, studying scripture, and then praying for each other. We were shaped and formed together every single week.


After pondering the prayer and each one of them, I returned to my work. I always come to the abbey with a clear set of expectations for my week: to read as much as I can, to have a sense of where I'm headed in my preaching on Easter morning, to pray, and to plan sermon series - sometimes for the whole year and other times for a season.

With a half a dozen books already read, I turned to the work of finishing a short reflection for Palm Sunday and then study for Easter. And it is then when I experienced a profound sense of being surrounded by the saints. Words from John 20 nearly leapt off the page of my Bible, words I've not noticed before found in an explanation in this particular study Bible. It was clear that these words were to form the foundation of my Easter sermon. My reflections for Palm Sunday then came through in a matter of minutes. It rarely happens this way. So often sermon writing can entail sitting in a chair for hours as I wait for something to surface. But yesterday, I was given clear direction. It was almost as if the Wednesday Bible study was reading scripture with me, saying out loud, "But isn't this interesting? What do you think of this?"

Perhaps the saints are all around us - praying for us, seeking God's very best for our lives, interceding on our behalf. Lois, Howard, and Ruth I miss you terribly. I often wish you could see all God is doing in your church today. But perhaps you can. It seems clear that you want to be part of Easter.

Perhaps you've made me a mystic after all.


For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who Thee by faith before the world confessed;
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Step Right Up

The temperatures were in their 60s when I arrived at the abbey on Monday afternoon. I pondered whether to leave my coat in the car or carry it inside, choosing the latter. I knew there was a possibility of snow when I left the house, but I still chose to pack tennis shoes and dress boots, nothing with traction. The view from my room was perfect with the cattle grazing on a springlike day.

Things started to change yesterday afternoon as the snow started to fall. "This might not be the retreat you had in mind," one of the monks shared at dinner. "But perhaps it is the retreat God wants you to have." He then continued to share how he would likely be serving the meals again the next day since the woman who is hired to plan and prepare them would not be able to make it in the snow. "I'm not sure what we will have, but it will work out."

The snow has continued to fall, and the view from my room has drastically changed. Meanwhile, the monk who served us last night has continued to show up for us - not in a robe or cassock, but in faded Levi's and a white t-shirt. This member of the community is the one with the beautiful voice that leads the chanting during worship. He's also the one who often hears the confession of guests and provides spiritual direction. He's a spiritual leader. But this week he is the one offering hospitality, the chef who is making sure guests are fed. It's not the week he had in mind, but he's aware that God is always wanting to use his gifts.

And while I wasn't signed up to receive spiritual direction from him in the morning, his witness has already touched my heart and directed my prayer life. His making meatloaf instead of offering absolutions has served as a powerful reminder of what it means to always be ready to serve, ready to adapt, ready to step outside our zones of comfort or standard role, in order to meet a need in front of us. I'm pondering again how God might do some of God's best work when we are embodying Brian Andreas StoryPeople artwork called "Step Right Up" which reads, "One day, I decided to help wherever I could & it was almost like magic, because I was exactly what the world needed everywhere I went."

One of my colleagues reminds our team often that we are called to be church workers first and then whatever role we have been hired to fill. She wants us to constantly be aware that there are times when we need to drop everything to answer the door, or help with a flooding basement, or take out the trash.

In "A New Day in the City," I write about an owner of a steakhouse who puts a can on the front steps of the restaurant when she's interviewing a prospective employee. If the person coming for her interview notices the can and stops to pick it up, then Van knows the person will pay attention to the detail patrons at the restaurant are accustomed to receiving. We all know what it's like to be in a restaurant with an empty glass and see three servers pass us with a full pitcher of water while failing to fill our glass because we are not in their assigned section. There are times when teamwork means everything.

But what if we always walked through life not with earbuds playing our selected songs but with ears tuned to listen to the needs around us?

What if we sought to never walk into our office buildings without thinking about what might need to be done to contribute to the success of the entire team versus minding our own business?

And what might happen if we never walked into a church building without being ready to serve - as an extra greeter, the one who makes the coffee or cleans up following the act of hospitality designed to provide real community to all who come, the person who empties the overflowing trash bin in the women's bathroom instead of assuming it can wait until Monday or that someone else will do it, or the one who checks in and asks, "Do you need anything today? Is there any way I can be of service to all God will do today?"

The busiest week of the church year is upon us. I have a list of things to do, sermons to write, details to manage. But I also pray that I'll be attune to what is needed, where God wants me to step right up.

What about you?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Preparing to Preach...


Last month, I had the privilege of serving as one of the keynote speakers for the Holston Conference Minister's Convocation.  It was an extraordinary gift that could still inspire dozens of blog posts about all I learned from speaking alongside Matt Miofsky and Andy Crouch. But as Easter approaches, there is one conversation shared over coffee with Andy that continues to inspire me.

Andy didn't learn the lesson in seminary. Rather, it was offered to him by a business leader, one who accepted the role of CEO of a then-failing company. As such, the lesson could be used for any speaker about to address an audience.

1) Do your homework.
2) Love your audience/people/congregation.
3) Be yourself.

Andy offered the three steps before describing how much relief they offer when he travels to speak to audiences across the nation. He named how much he pours into his preparation, making sure he has done the homework needed to offer his very best. He next shared how he had been awake in the middle of many nights praying for the pastors who would gather for our event in Tennessee, as well as praying for Matt and me. He sought to gain a sense of how much God loves these pastors and convey a sense of that love through his words. He then named the third step of effective preaching - be your fullest, most authentic self.

I've shared this wisdom with several people who are preparing for their first appointment. I've described the steps to other people who are intimidated by speaking in public. The words are a means of grace, and I'm seeking to fully embody the teaching.

It's my tenth year spending the days leading up to Holy Week at Holy Cross Abbey. I arrive at this place with more books than articles of clothing - an array of fiction, non-fiction, theology, church leadership, and memoir. I also have materials for exegeting John's account of the resurrection. I'm reading as much as I can for two days before sitting down to formulate words on Thursday that I'll continue to return to over the next ten days. But I'm also praying for each person who will come to our church on Easter morning as I long for them to experience the deep, wondrous, grace-filled, never-ending, never gives up on anyone, love of God that is revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I'm seeking to imagine their faces as they enter the sanctuary.  I am praying for our members to arrive early and be filled with warmth, hospitality and an eagerness that understands the precious gift we are offered to welcome dozens of first-time guests on Easter. I am longing for God to show me how to love all who come - whether it's their first time in church or people who are with us every Sunday - throughout my preparations. And, I'm promising to be my full, authentic self - the one called to offer the unique set of gifts God has given to me.

Thank you, Andy, for the lesson and the many ways you are a means of grace.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Intangible Religious Benefits


I signed dozens of letters last week to accompany financial statements that reflect how much a person gave to our church in 2017. Once the letters were in the mail, I started to focus on my own statement, and especially the words printed at the bottom. They are a disclaimer that is likely required by law, "Unless otherwise noted, the only goods or services provided are intangible religious benefits." It sounds simple enough. And yet, these words have been provoking countless questions within me.

What are the intangible religious benefits our church provided last year?

In what did people invest their resources?

How did people benefit from the ministries of MVP?

New York Times bestselling author Brene Brown preached at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday. Her remarks resonate deeply with me. I see organized religion (the negative word for "church") providing people with numerous reasons to give up on it all together. But I also deeply need the gifts she speaks of. I desperately need the church - and especially the church at its best.

Each week I gather with people I might not choose to spend time with if given the choice. There are people who see things very differently than me, and some of them are not afraid to tell me about it. But I have yet to grow, let alone be transformed, if I am only spending time with people who think like me. Like Brene, I want to pass the peace with people who disagree with me, to receive their deepest desire for peace in my life while I wish the same for them. I believe this happens every Sunday at MVP.

Our church last year embarked upon a powerful journey of learning about racial justice. Throughout the year I gathered with people to read books I likely would have never read on my own, and many of these books transformed me. But the conversation about them transformed me even more. Paul wrote to the Romans, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect." It is in reading, discussing and praying with others that my mind as been transformed, and also that I have been able to more faithfully discern what is the will of God, particularly when it comes to racial justice in our nation. I would never take this journey on my own, but I am more committed than ever to be an agent of change when it comes to racial justice because of the people who journey with me.

If I have just one sermon to preach, it is "you are beloved." I seek to speak these words as often as I can - not only because I believe others need to hear them, but also because I need to hear them. We are battered and bruised throughout the week, constantly given invitations to question our worth and sometimes our humanity. I need to gather with people who remind me that I am beloved. And I long to be part of raising children who know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are deeply beloved by me, by our church, and especially by God. I hear this message at church more than anywhere else.

I also need a visual aid of what it looks like for all to be welcome and no one turned away. Our American culture preaches the myth of scarcity - that there will never be enough - tempting people to cling tightly to what they have, to build walls, to protect the resources of the rich at the expense of the poor. But the table of our Lord is one place where all are given the exact same amount of bread and all are satisfied. I need to come to this table and see how there is always more than enough. I long to see replicas of the eucharistic feast throughout our city, and I pray our church encourages such places and patterns of behavior through how we serve and care for others.

Like Brene, I also need to sing with others. I don't sing much throughout the week, let alone with dozens of other people. Last night, a very small group of individuals gathered for a Monday worship experience. There were five of us standing around the piano as worship began, belting our words of praise through song. In many eyes, the gathered crowd might be perceived as a failure because they were so easy to count. But in singing together, we learned that wherever two or more are gathered, God is with us. I need to be reminded I am not alone - never alone. The church has a powerful way of walking with people - through casseroles delivered in sickness, through emails or notes that simply say "I'm praying for you," and through voices lifted in harmony and song. Where else do you sing together in a way that lifts your spirits and reminds you that you're not alone?

But I most need the church because I've learned it's impossible to follow Jesus on my own. From the beginning, Jesus has surrounded himself with ordinary people who he has given authority to do extraordinary things. We cannot become the fullness of who we are called to be on our own. We need people who show us how to selflessly serve others, how to increase our faith, how to keep on showing up even when we are struggling, and countless other things.

What are the intangible religious benefits you receive from church? I pray a few are able to roll immediately from your tongue. And if not, will you come sing with me on Sunday?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Will You Choose Thanksgiving?


A lively, gifted woman, someone who is in Washington with her family for just this year, sat down on the floor and gathered the children around her on Sunday. She lost her mother just two weeks ago and is grieving. She had a valid reason to cancel or postpone her time with the children. But instead she fully showed up and offered a children's sermon that is still speaking to me. 

She recalled with the children the Thanksgiving after the Colorado Rockies lost the World Series. Her family was not only disappointed, her uncle was angry. Instead of going around the table to share what they were most thankful for prior to carving the turkey, this angry uncle invited everyone to articular their anger. "What are you angry about this year?"

The family all took turns, and anger soon consumed the room, enough anger that someone suggested a do-over. "Let's now share what we're thankful for this year." Each person again took their turn, and the mood of the room brightened as the anger dissipated. 

I suspect that if we were offered an opportunity to respond to the question, "What are you angry about?" tomorrow, we might have plenty to say. I can offer my list of top ten reasons to be angry in a matter of minutes. But I'm not sure such an exercise leads me to a place of life, let alone joy.

I was reminded last week with the children that thanksgiving is a choice. Every single day we can choose to dwell on all that is wrong, on all we do not have, on all that is not living up to our expectations. We can choose to allow anger and disappointment to be our most powerful emotions.

Or we can choose to be thankful - to see how in the midst of our disappointment or sadness or anger, there are countless reasons to be thankful.

I choose thanksgiving - not just the feast and the excuse to indulge - but the spirit of saying "thank you" and embodying gratitude.

What about you?