Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Sounds of Joy

He looks like a normal dog who has just been to the groomer where he received a new bandanna for his neck. He's gentle in nature and goes by the name Jack. But we learned something about Jack on Sunday afternoon during our first Blessing of the Animals at Mount Vernon Place.

We only sang one song with a guitarist who was sitting on the steps with everyone else. She started to sing, and others joined along in the second or third verse. Additional people singing prompted Jack to start howling. It was not the kind of howl that a stranger at the door provokes. It was a howl of delight and pleasure. Jack was singing along. It was a genuine sound of joy that brought laughter to all who gathered. I loved it!

The Sunday afternoon atmosphere was quite different from the one created on Sunday morning. It was the first Sunday of the month, a Sunday on which we seek to save time by not having a children's sermon. Rather than having the children come to the sanctuary at the start of the service, the children went straight to their classroom or nursery. We were not five minutes into the service of worship when I leaned over to our worship leader and said, "I really miss the children. There is a huge void in our space when the children are not here."

We have not always had a lot of children at MVP. There were a handful of youth when I first arrived and one baby born into the life of the congregation the next year. Things started to change as our congregation started to grow and attract many young adults. We now have lots of children in our midst, the majority of whom came while they were still in their mother's womb. And I love it.

Some of my favorite moments are when I'm offering the opening welcome and I hear a child who is not yet two-years-old yell, "DONNA!!!!!!." While I often wonder if my robe is going straight to the dry cleaner later that day, I love it when a three-year-old runs and embraces me around my knees, burying his face in the cloth of my robe. One of my favorite moments on communion Sundays used to be when a young girl would regularly come to me and ask me to bless her. We have prayed that bullies would stop bullying her and always asked God to help her never forget how special she is. I love offering a lesson in Godly Play and inviting our children to turn to wonder about who God is and how God is at work in their life. There is a first or second grader who regularly brings me a note on his completed connect card about what's happening in his life. We often believe it is our peers, mentors or people older than us who make more of us. But our children regularly make more of me - as a childless woman, as a pastor, and as a disciple of Jesus. The closest thing I have to a child is the joy that comes from being the pastor of so many children who I get to see and embrace on Sundays.

A colleague of mine recently posted a picture on Facebook that broke my heart. It is a sign that appeared outside the doors of a church she recently visited in her neighborhood. I'm not sure what provoked the creation of the sign, but I know I never want to be part of leading a church that believes young children should not be in worship.

Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, for theirs is the kingdom." It's true that Jesus was always reaching out to and befriending the most vulnerable in our midst. But I also believe Jesus knew something about kids and adults. He must have known how often we need a child to point us to wonder, to draw our attention to what is most important, to interrupt solemn space with joy, laughter and delight, to show us what God is doing in the world around us. He must have known how we need a child who will hug us for no reason or take our hand or ask us to play in the same way I imagine God does the same.

I am convinced that we cannot fully know and experience Jesus without continuing to make space for and embrace the gifts of everyone in our midst - starting with the one who comes covered in a seat carried by a parent and leading all the way up to the one who comes pushed in a chair by the daughter who he used to carry into the church many decades ago.

Beloved parents in our midst, when your child is crying, please don't run out of the sanctuary. Please don't feel awkward or that you're disrupting a sacred moment, but know that we sometimes catch a glimpse of God holding us when we are sad, hurting or agitated by the way you gently lift your child and put her on your shoulder. When your child loves to color, please let us know that it would be helpful to have large coloring books available in the children's space but also in the pews and then bring back his or her masterpieces so we can show everyone your child's creative side. When your child wants to happily greet people, know that their greeting may be the biggest source of joy a person will receive that day. When your child wants to collect the offering with you, know that we are all deeply touched by the way he gently carries the plate and moves around the sanctuary. When your child wants to wear something you would never pick out, let him wear it to church because we want to embrace him just as he is. When someone looks at you strangely or cannot imagine how there could ever be coloring marks on a piece of furniture, step back and remember that many of us have no idea what it's like to bring a little person with us to church. We don't know what it's like to walk in your shoes. We need you to remind us of how hard parenting can be - and invite us to regularly help you in the journey. And we need your children in our midst to regularly help us experience God.

Jack's howling on Sunday brought laughter and delight. But Jack's howling did something much more powerful in the process. It reminded me of how St. Francis was on to something when he paid so much attention to animals in our midst, birds in the air, and every living plant around him. Francis knew God was to be found there. Francis experienced God's presence in those gifts in a way I never have until Sunday - through Jack's singing.

One of the greatest gifts of MVP is that we really are trying to live in community with each other - as difficult as it might be. We need everyone to be the fullest possible expression of him or herself that they can be in order for the fullness of God's reign to be seen and experienced.

What if a crayon mark, laughter, crying or a skip around the sanctuary are vehicles through which we might come to know God or see God at work in a whole new way?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tell Your Story

I shared lunch last week with a classmate from Duke Divinity School and his wife. Josh and I started seminary at the same time and were in a small-group like class from day one. We both love Duke, the church, and the way Duke prepared us to serve the church. Naturally, our conversation turned to what's happening at Duke now.

"Do you know about the controversy that surfaced during orientation week?" Josh asked.

I have read articles about what happened as well as a few blogs on the subject. I'm aware that students questioned where the school stands on LGBT equality, that the dean reportedly responded by quoting the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, and that students, faculty and staff staged a protest of support as Fall Convocation was beginning.

I've thought about writing this blog entry several times in the weeks since as I have one central piece of advice to LGBT students at Duke Divinity School.

Please tell your story.

When I saw the pictures accompanying the article in the local newspaper, I sought to examine who showed up that day. Who are the faculty who donned a rainbow stole and stood in solidarity with LGBT students?

I then wondered if I would have been amongst them. Would I have stood with gay and lesbian students who feel deeply called by God and led to study at Duke Divinity School?

I'm not entirely comfortable with my answer as I realize I would not have been amongst those faculty and staff when I first started to serve as Director of Admissions at the Divinity School. I may not have stood there in my first, second or third years on staff, in fact. But I know I would have been there in my fourth year as we welcomed a new group of students because I would have heard your story by that time.

It was while serving on the staff at Duke that I first heard the fullness of one's story who was seeking to reconcile his identity as a gay man who was deeply called to ordination in the United Methodist Church. I'll never forget the first time I met this person. He was a junior at a well-respected United Methodist college in the South. He had been to General Conference a time or two, was well-known and beloved by faculty and peers. Everyone knew he would be a pastor, if not a bishop some day. He had gifts with the capacity to bear fruit and make a big difference. He came to the table for lunch not as one who was discerning whether to go to seminary but rather discerning which seminary to attend. I was grateful and proud when he sent his deposit, securing his place in our incoming class.

He arrived on campus and started to naturally use his gifts of leadership. He got involved in student government. He excelled in the classroom. He won the hearts of pastors and congregations with whom he served in summer field education placements. And then he came to see me one afternoon.

While I cannot recall how the conversation started, I can still picture the snot and tears running down both of our faces at the end, tangible signs that result from hearts that are broken.

He was accepting the fullness of his identity as a gay man.

I was accepting the fullness of our church's inability to continue to embrace his gifts, his passion, and his call to be a pastor in our denomination. It was heartbreaking in every possible way. And it's no wonder that this person not only stepped away from the ordination process but has stepped fully away from our church today.

I can't blame him.

It's a decision I'm tempted with on a regular basis as I seek to reconcile what it means to be a vocal advocate of our church's need to change until we fully ordain LGBT people without asking them to stay in the closet of their congregation. It's a decision I am tempted with on a regular basis as I support marriage equality - not only in the District of Columbia but also inside the walls of our United Methodist Church.

But I would never be at this place without his story. I would not be an outspoken advocate for change and equality had it not been for a student who told me the fullness of his story.

There are many things I love about the theology of the United Methodist Church. Prevenient grace stands at the forefront of my gratitude list. I'm equally grateful for the way we do theology when we say that our faith was revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified through personal experience and confirmed by reason. My personal experience with gay students at Duke who told me their faithful stories of God's call on their life and their deep desire to respond is the lens through which I read scripture. It was students who told their story, and not an exegetical course, that taught me how to read six or eight passages of scripture that deal with homosexuality. It was students who told their story that enabled me to see most clearly God at work - shaping my theology and my sense of call in powerful ways.

I used to say the same thing every time I hosted a group of prospective students for a full-day visit at the Divinity School, "Just as God has called you to ministry, God will also call you to the seminary that is right for you." I would then ask students to pay attention to how they felt throughout the day. "If you leave with more anxiety than peace, then please pay attention to that and visit additional seminaries. If you leave with a sense of excitement and peace, then please pay attention to that and complete your application to Duke."

I continue to believe these words are true. LGBT students and advocates at Duke Divinity School - please don't question your decision to come to Duke. I would not trade my seminary education for anything and would choose Duke again in a heartbeat. I firmly believe it provided the most faithful foundation to lead a congregation today. But please also don't refrain from telling your story - the fullness of your story. Your story is part of my transformation. Your story is the reason I seek to faithfully advocate for and embody change today.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Give Me an Understanding Heart


I was not thinking of the significance of July 31 until I started to see different posts in my Facebook feed yesterday afternoon. Several people were posting to a group created in the days following the untimely and tragic death of a gifted, creative, passionate woman who was both a friend and someone who worshipped in our church. It was seven years ago yesterday when she died. Her death continues to be one of the most painful I have ever experienced as a pastor.

I read many of the posts yesterday about friends who remember exactly where they were when they heard the news or even what they were wearing that day. I remember getting the call and going to the Irish Times to gather with several of her friends. But the experiences in the days following are what stand out the most to me.

I remember going to the airport, standing on the sidewalk waiting for a black SUV, seeing the vehicle pull up, approaching it, and showing the driver my license before he turned over a box to me. I remember putting that box in a shopping bag I had brought along and seeing the lid tip off while I put it in the bag. It was my first time seeing a person's remains - ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

I remember going inside the airport and repeatedly checking the monitors indicating when the flight carrying the woman's father would arrive. I remember pacing and praying and then seeing my friends who came to be present when we greeted him and sent his daughter's remains with him. I remember sitting down at a seafood restaurant inside the airport with the shopping bag that deserved a real chair sitting at my feet.

I also remember sitting in my friend's apartment with her mother while different people knocked on the door. They had come to purchase a piece of furniture that was advertised on Craigslist or in the building's online forum. Several people asked why the items were for sale. I shuddered each time I heard a question but the mother calmly responded with the same words each time, pointing to an accident.

To this day, these experiences cause me to pray for an understanding heart. An understanding heart can be hard to find, and even harder to train and keep. I want a heart that remembers how we never know what a person is going through - how the woman serving us coffee at Starbucks may be facing eviction, or how the person in the office next to ours may have just learned about a lump in her breast, or how the person sitting at the table next to us may have just lost his daughter. I want a heart that seeks to see what it cannot possibly know - that the person I am wanting to barter with in order to buy a great lingerie chest may be simply trying to get through one of the most painful experiences of her life.

My father used to tell a story of going in and out of the church each Sunday in the days following my parents' separation and eventual divorce. He shares how he was in pain but no one reached out to him - no one sought to sit with him, let alone acknowledge what he might be going through or inquire about what brought him to church.

As I remember Tracy, I stand in awe of the strength of her mom. I have never before seen that much strength in a person as I did sitting with her that day. But I also pray for an understanding heart, and I pray that I am a pastor who leads our congregation into reaching out and acknowledging whoever is sitting around us on Sunday mornings or any other time we gather. I pray we are people who regularly seek to reach out to and befriend the people in our buildings, offices and other places that are seemingly all alone - because, you never know what a person might be going through. The older I grow, the more I see that pain is something we all experience. We all know the emotion of pain. What if we sought to assume that pain may be present and respond in such a way?

"Give your servant therefore an understanding heart to lead your people, able to discern between good and evil, because no one is able to govern these people without your help." 1 Kings 3:9

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Power of a Blessing


The wedding on Saturday evening included every possible element in the liturgy - a processional with a cross and Bible, three scripture readings, long and incredibly beautiful vows, and the sacrament of communion during which guests had a choice of grape juice or wine. I led the congregation through the Great Thanksgiving, broke the bread, lifted the cup, and asked for God's Spirit to be poured upon the bread and wine. I then offered the invitation I offer every communion Sunday:

This table does not belong to me. It does not belong to Mount Vernon Place. It is the table of our Lord and Savior. On the night he first sat at this table, he invited his disciples to join him. He knew one would deny him and most would disappoint him. Still, he chose to eat with them, and I believe he continues to choose to eat with us. The table is open to all people. All of you - everyone here - is welcome to come. You are invited to come with your hands extended as you remind yourself that grace is something that is never taken but always freely given to us. One of the servers will put the bread in your hand. Please then dip it in the cup, and return to your seat. Again, all are welcome. However, if you do not feel comfortable receiving the sacrament, please come forward anyway. I'll be on the side of the sanctuary, and it is a deep privilege to place my hands on your shoulders and ask God to bless you and fill you with God's presence.

When the servers were in their place on Saturday night, I stepped to the side, expecting something similar to a Sunday morning in our church. Several people come for prayer, but few people come forward to receive a blessing. I noticed one person coming towards me. I asked for his name and placed my hands on his shoulders before saying, "Thank you God for Mark. Thank you for who you have called and created him to be. May you reveal yourself to him in a powerful way, enabling him to see how much you love him, cherish him and adore him." I then said "Amen" and lifted my eyes to find a dozen more people waiting for a blessing. I repeated the prayer for men and women in different life stages, getting the words to form exactly as I wanted for some people and stumbling through others. Each person was different, but the smile was inescapable as each one lifted their head and started to walk away.

The simplest definition of blessing is "God's favor and protection." There's something incredibly powerful about someone asking for God's favor and protection - for God's presence to be made real to us - about someone reminding us that God is with us and not only loves us but adores us. We all need to be reminded that God is not only with us but cheering us on.

The church has blessed me at numerous pivotal points throughout my life. My grandfather held me in his arms as a child and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, sprinkling my tiny head with water and reminding me of my belovedness, God's forgiveness, and my place in the community of faith. I was confirmed as a teenager by a pastor who reminded me of God's love when friends at school named my flaws instead of my gifts. I was blessed by a pastor as a twenty-something in Washington who needed to hear God's voice leading me in new ways. I was blessed at my ordination when a bishop asked the Holy Spirit to be poured upon me as a servant set apart for God. Craig and I were blessed by three clergy persons who represented the Catholic and United Methodist Church and a host of friends and family at our wedding. And, there have been countless church members who have offered prayers spoken and written in cards and emails that have been just as significant as these pivotal moments in life. It's an extraordinary thing for God to allow us to be the vehicles through which others experience a word of assurance that God is with them, loves them, and wants what is best for them.

When a couple chooses to be married in a church or by a pastor, they are asking for both the blessing of God and the community gathered to witness the establishment of their covenant. They want not only a reminder that God is with them but prayers that God will continue to be with them along with the people who are gathered for their wedding. We show up at weddings to offer our blessing.

I'm so incredibly grateful that I've never been denied a blessing. As I reflect upon what happened Saturday night, the image of people lined up to receive a blessing, I pray I continue to open myself to all the ways God wants to use me to both be a blessing and offer a blessing - that I never deny God's love and grace to anyone who is lined up ready to hear that God is with them, that God loves them, and that God wants to journey with them, offering favor and protection along the way.

One of the greatest gifts I've been given as a pastor is the privilege of blessing people. It's extraordinary!

Why does the church so often deny this gift instead of offering it freely and abundantly?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Are You a United Methodist? - Guest Post by Rachel Keller

 
 
While countless individuals talk about leaving the United Methodist Church or splitting it in two, seminary students at Wesley Theological Seminary are being invited to (re)examine the greatest gifts of our denomination. In the following essay, Rachel Keller, our MVP ministry intern, shares why she's committed to continuing to find her place in the United Methodist Church.
 



8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me 

I dont remember a time when I wasnt a part of the United Methodist Church.  At two months old, my father, a United Methodist pastor, baptized me in my familys first parish. At age 14 I was confirmed and havent changed my denomination since.  I was raised in a home where Sunday mornings were only for church, no exceptions. I never questioned why my parents chose to raise my sister and I in the United Methodist church. I knew who John Wesley was, but I had no idea what he believed or why I was following his beliefs. Then I dated a guy in college who was a fellow United Methodist pastors kid.  He loved the concept of prevenient grace and would be shocked and disappointed if a Charles Wesley hymn wasnt played on a Sunday morning.  I was surprised that we had similar upbringings, yet he knew so much more than I did about our church. But Ive never left, because its home to me.  Over time (and with the help of theological education), I learned why I had chosen to remain in the United Methodist Church and why I am still there today.

8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me (With the help of John and Charles Wesley):
 
 
1.    We believe the Bible shows us how we can be in right relationship with God

How do we know if something is the truth or not? Who or what holds the ultimate authority in the truth? How much truth does the Bible hold? Christians stand on many different sides of this issue.  In his sermon on The Means of Grace, John Wesley talks about the importance of the scriptures in helping us find the truth:

And, in fact, (God) hath not left us undetermined; he hath shown us the way wherein we should go. We have only to consult the oracles of God; to inquire what is written there; and, if we simply abide by their decision, there can no possible doubt remain.(109)[i]

Wesley believed the most important truth is how to be in right relationship with God, and that the Bible holds this truth.  Today, I appreciate how the church also carefully uses Christian tradition and our own human experiences to find truth, but the Bible is our ultimate authority.[ii]
 
 
2.    We love free will

Does God choose specific people to love, only predestining certain people to salvation?  United Methodists would undoubtedly answer this question with a resounding NO!  God desires relationship with every single person in this entire world.  However, God also created every human with free will.  God never forces us to love God back.  We have every right to reject Gods love toward us.  If we accept Gods love, then we continue on in becoming closer to God. If we reject Gods love, we will feel distant from God.  But, God never stops loving us.[iii] 

When we have those days when we feel like were not good enough - God is next to us, accepting us where we are, ready to forgive and keep loving us even when we feel unloveable.
 
 
3.    Grace

This free will fits in well with our view of salvation as it relates to Gods grace. We may know Amazing Grace so well we could sing it in our sleep, but what does grace really mean?

As I said before, God longs to be in relationship with us. Grace is Gods favor on our lives that draws us closer into that relationship. While there are not different types of grace, John Wesley found different ways to describe grace and different names for grace. So heres a run down of four different ways that we describe grace:

Prevenient grace: Gods love that comes to us before we know or understand God.  Therefore, prevenient grace is bestowed on everyone, believing or unbelieving.  It shows us the love that God has for each one of us and the desire that God has to be in relationship with Gods creation. This grace leads us to the knowledge of our sinful hearts and our need for Gods love and forgiveness. It pushes us to repent so that we can be in right relationship with God.

Justifying grace: grace that puts us in right relationship with God when we acknowledge our need for Gods love and forgiveness

Sanctifying grace: grace that enables us to grow in our relationship with God as we strive to continue on in right relationship with God[iv]

Grace doesnt always work in everyones life in an orderly fashion like it is listed above. We may feel prevenient grace pushing us to repent after weve already been justified.  All of these types of grace work together and even simultaneously for our ongoing salvation.
 
 
4.    Our salvation isnt just about what happens when we die

 One of the reasons I love Wesleys view of salvation is because its not just about what happens when we die, its about restoring us back to who we were created to be in this life, right now. As one of my past professors, Scott Kisker, once said, God is extending Gods love to us, not so that the Trinity will have more company in heaven. God extends Gods love to us so that we might grow into the mature character of the free love that has embraced us.[v]

Salvation is not a one time thing, or a once saved always saved type of deal.  Salvation is a lifelong process and part of our relationship with God enabled by grace through faith.  We never outgrow our repentance, but as we repent, we come to depend more and more on God, and we desire to live in communion with God and in service to others. This gives us a great assurance of peace.[vi]  Charles Wesley describes the change that happens in our heart when we receive salvation in his hymn, How Can We Sinners Know:

We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died, we all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied. Our natures turned, our mind transformed in all its powers, and both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.[vii]
 
 
5.    We love community

Methodism started as a very social movement. Before there was a traditional denomination, the people called Methodists were organized into small groups called societies, which helped them to grow in love. In 1743 John Wesley wrote about the first society formed in London:

Such a society is no other than a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.’”[viii]

The societies kept general rules that are still used in the UMC today. The three basic rules are: do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God. Attending to the ordinances of God means keeping key practices and Christian disciplines that help us grow in our life of faith. United Methodists still strive today to hold one another accountable to these general rules through community and small groups. I love being part of a church that recognizes the need for each other as we strive to grow in our faith.

Charles Wesley describes church community in the hymn, Jesus United by Thy Grace:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each others cross to bear; let all their friendly aid afford, and feel each others care.[ix]
 
 
6.    We have 2 sacraments that bring us closer to God and closer to each other

Methodists celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.  We believe that baptism is an outward sign of Gods grace that claims us before we are even able to comprehend Gods love. Baptism is an initiation into the body of Christ, the church. Because of this initiation and grace that claims us before our knowledge or understanding, the Methodist church traditionally practices infant baptism.  The congregation makes a beautiful promise to love and support the infant and to do all in their power to help raise the child in a life of faith. When the child is older and mature, they can make the choice to respond to their baptismal covenant through a life of Christian discipleship.[x]

The sacrament of communion is also an outward sign of Gods invisible grace. Wesley saw communion as a means of grace, and as such should be taken as often as possible. To refuse communion is to reject Jesus Christ and the grace that is available through communion.  In his sermon, The Duty of Constant Communion, John Wesley wrote:

If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lords Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.[xi]

Methodists also practice an open table; we believe that God can work through communion to change the lives of those who partake, so it should not just be for those who have been baptized or those who believe. As a means of grace, communion is all about what God does for us, not what we do.
 
 
7.    We all are called to serve

Our Book of Discipline states,

Ministry in the Christian church is derived from the ministry of Christ, who calls all persons to receive Gods gift of salvation and follow in the way of love and service. The whole church receives and accepts this call, and all Christians participate in this continuing ministry.[xii]

We believe that clergy and laity are of equal importance in the church. I love being part of a church where everyone plays a part and everyone is called to serve! The church is the people, not the pastor.
 
 
8.    We have hope in the future that makes us want to work now

We place a large emphasis on living in hope for the new creation. Our central affirmation is that God offers full redemption to all of Gods creation. But we dont have to wait until the Second Coming to receive that redemption. We are called to live in the Resurrection now and work for the Kingdom of God on earth. Through the Holy Spirit we can begin to embody the redeeming work of Christ now, and the Holy Spirit can work through us to bring about change in the world.[xiii] Our hope is here now and in the future.

Charles Wesleys hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Singdescribes this hope in the last verse:

In Christ, your head, you then shall know, shall feel your sins forgiven; anticipate your heaven below, and own that love is heaven.[xiv]


[i] Campbell, Ted, ed. A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas: Tuckapaw Media, 2008. p.109
[ii] Campbell, Ted. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abington Press, 2011. p.36-37
[iii] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 4, Scott Kisker
[iv] Campbell, Ted. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abington Press, 2011. p. 60-65
[v] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 4, Scott Kisker
[vi] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 7, Sondra Wheeler
[vii] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.372
[viii] Campbell, Ted, ed. A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas: Tuckapaw Media, 2008. p. 96
[ix] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.561
[x] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 9, Henry Knight
[xi] Coyle, Jason, ed. Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion. The Wesley Center Online. Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 1999. http://www.wesley.nnu.edu
[xii] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012. Paragraph 301.1, p. 217
[xiii] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 12: Randy Maddox
[xiv] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.57

 

Monday, July 07, 2014

Remembering Lois - Give 'em Hell in Heaven

I realize that one of the cardinal rules of pastoral ministry is to never have favorites. But in full disclosure, I lost one of my favorites today. 

It was not always the case. She could not stand me when I was first appointed as her pastor, and she was not quiet about her dislike. I'll never forget the day she arrived late for a meeting and made an announcement before sitting down, "You'll have to excuse me for being late. The nurse wouldn't let me leave the home. My blood pressure was too high since I was about to see my pastor." Or there was the time when she was presenting the budget and said something along the lines of, "If we run out of money this year, it's not my fault. It's because we're giving the pastor a raise." 

Lois was the the 92-year-old chair of the Finance Committee as well as the coordinator of Christian Social Concerns when I arrived. She did not trust me or the District Superintendent who brought me to Mount Vernon Place. "You and your friend, Argo," she would say repeatedly while shaking her finger at me.

I loved Lois, though. I could not stop loving Lois. And Lois finally decided I was not going anywhere so she might as well learn to like me, too. She eventually learned to love me. She made her way into a huge crevice of my heart - a heart that is broken today as Lois entered the church triumphant a little after 7:00 this morning.


Lois was part of a group of saints at MVP who taught me a million lessons about the church, ministry and life. She never missed worship until just a few months ago. She was always at weekly Bible study - when it was at the church and later when I traveled to her place of residence in Northern Virginia. She embodied generosity when it came to giving of her time and resources. And she had an uncanny ability to make you laugh.

She and Howard were the best of friends - longtime church members at MVP who also resided in the same place. Both of them lived more than a century. I'll never forget going to visit Howard when he was sick, and walking into his apartment with Lois. There was a near empty box of Cheez Its next to his chair. Lois picked up the box, gave it a shake and said, "No wonder your stomach hurts, Howard." 

I loved hearing Lois tell the story of the night Howard's dog came back to life. Rebel was Howard's constant companion in life - more fur than body and a very loud bark. Howard was very sad one day when he arrived at Bible study, "I'm not sure what's wrong with my little dog but he has not been himself all day." We went down to Howard's apartment and walked in the door. Rebel would have normally been barking like crazy and nipping at our ankles. Not this time. Rebel was still as could be, flat on his back. I suggested we pray for Rebel. I got down on my knees, put my hands on his little body and prayed. Soon Rebel was up, running around. "You brought that damn dog back to life," Lois would say. 

There was also the time when I was visiting Lois and she took me to the library to see their new computer lab. A woman was there setting up the computers. Lois introduced me as her pastor, pointed to one of the screens and said, "Do you know my pastor got a man from one of those?!" She could not quite figure out how I met such an amazing person through the computer, but she adored my husband and loved to flirt with him.

Lois never turned down an opportunity for a martini with her lunch. I remember the first time I decided to have a martini with her. I ordered mine dirty. "How did you get to be so sophisticated?" she asked.

But Lois' impact is so much greater than memories that make me laugh. She had the ability to be prophetic with her words and her actions.

I'll never forget the day she shared during joys and concerns about Metropolitan UMC becoming a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. "I was reading my paper yesterday," she shared. "And I noticed that Metropolitan, our National Church, became a Reconciling Congregation." "Our National Church!!! They are welcoming everyone. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" she asked. "Shouldn't everyone be welcome in God's church?" She would later be present the day our congregation voted to become a reconciling congregation. She even went to Mr. Henry's with us following the meeting to celebrate.

When our church was vacating its property in preparation for a property redevelopment, we had a beautiful chapel filled with everything needed for a small church. It was not long after Hurricane Katrina, and we located a church in Mississippi that was being rebuilt after losing everything. Lois paid to ship all of the contents of our chapel to Mississippi - several pews, a baptismal font, Bibles, hymnals - everything needed to set up church. We later received a photograph, and everything fit perfectly in the church. Lois was so proud of her contribution. I am, too.


But the biggest impact Lois made is that she let go, and she encouraged others in our church to do the same. She was first adamant that her church was going to close. "Pastor, we voted to spend the endowment. It's our money. We are going to spend it and just turn the keys over to the Annual Conference," she said over and over again. But she learned to trust God who is always capable of doing a new thing. She also learned to trust her young pastor. 

So many things about her church have changed. There have been significant staff changes. Our congregation has become more diverse in every way imaginable. While the congregation used to be mainly peers of Lois, the congregation today is predominantly young adults. Lois took delight in what God was doing in her church. She loved telling others about how our church was growing again. 

Lois, I hope you know how much you're responsible for the growth. I pray you know that it would have never happened without you - without your commitment to providing leadership in our church for decades, without your willingness to constantly show up and give even when you were not happy with the changes, without your ability to let go and see what God could do, without your talking back often during church and making laughter a normal part of Sunday worship, without your standing up for justice and equality, without your taking delight in the new people. Thank you for making me a better pastor and a better person. I'd give anything to share another martini with you today. Instead, I'll raise a glass later and close with the words of a church member, "Farewell spitfire. Give 'em hell up in heaven. I'm deeply saddened, but all our lives are fuller because of you."

Indeed.

You'll always be one of my favorites. Please be nice to Jesus.

Until we meet again...

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Facebook Kind of Birthday

I'm convinced that everyone needs to be on Facebook. While it's robbed hours of my time and taken the attention off my husband more than he would like, Facebook has reconnected me with people from every chapter of my life, enabled me to share how God is at work in my life and the life of our congregation, and assisted our church in telling its story to a wider audience. I love Facebook. And I especially like Facebook on my birthday.

In no other year of life have I heard from over 250 people on my birthday. Countless individuals posted on my wall. Others sent a message through Facebook. I found myself captivated throughout the day on Saturday, rejoicing in each greeting I received. While most messages were a simple, "Happy Birthday," some posts conveyed something more specific. I took special delight when friends took time to add something to the words, "Happy Birthday," - a reminder of why I'm appreciated, the naming of my gifts, a word about how I've made a difference, or a specific blessing for the new year. I pondered these sentiments throughout the day, savoring each one as a gift from God.

I've made a promise to myself since Saturday to be better at saying "happy birthday" to others who are on Facebook - to write a similar word of gratitude or blessing to them. I've also wondered if I made a huge mistake when I stopped writing birthday cards to church members. I used to send a stack of cards each week, taking time to share why I appreciated each person and affirm their gifts. I stopped last summer when I went on sabbatical, and a group of laypeople have continued the practice on behalf of the church. But I have been reminded of a powerful gift I can offer to people - letting people know exactly why they are appreciated, the difference they have made in my life and the life of our church, and why I celebrate their life.

Why don't we do this more often?

Why is it that we don't seize every opportunity to tell someone that they make a difference - that their life matters and the reasons for why they matter?

What might happen if we made a point to write someone a note every single day - or regularly sought meaningful opportunities to remind people of their gifts?

Greg Jones, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, says that we all needs holy friends. He describes holy friends as people who are not afraid to name the sins we have grown to love and the gifts we have been afraid to claim. My holy friends are largely responsible for who I am today - it is through their voices that I have regularly heard the voice of God.

Earlier this summer, a colleague serving a United Methodist Church in Idaho took a picture of a report at his annual conference that showed how they had no candidates for ministry being commissioned or ordained. His picture told a thousand words. It broke my heart. I have since learned that his annual conference is incredibly small with only 150 churches that average 67 people in worship. And yet, I cannot help but wonder what could be done differently - not only in his annual conference - but in all of our churches.

What might happen if we regularly took time to affirm the gifts of others? What might happen if we intentionally looked someone in the eye and told them the difference they make in our lives and/or in the lives of our churches? What might happen if we provided our church members with every opportunity to use their gifts and explore their passions, affirming them each time? What might happen if we intentionally talked about God's call more often - and how God is still calling people? What might happen if we went out of our way to make sure everyone experiences a Facebook kind of birthday?

Thank you, precious people, for affirming my gifts - the ones I was willing to claim on my own and the ones I could have never claimed without your naming them for me first. Thank you for making me feel like one of the most special individuals in the whole wide world. I cannot be fully alive without your being fully alive - and you show me what fully alive looks like all the time.