Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Giving In on Giving Tuesday

I finally responded to one of countless emails received today. It was an email from Duke Divinity School that got me to finally remove my credit card from my wallet. I made the contribution after talking on the phone with my favorite professor earlier today--the person who has most changed my life as a student, pastor, and disciple. The fact that his call came today is a coincidence. And yet, it still brought about much gratitude.

My wallet has been returned to my purse. The gift receipt has arrived in my email inbox. But my experience of giving isn't over.

I now find myself praying for the student(s) who will be impacted by my gift. Perhaps they will be transformed on that gothic wonderland in the same way I was. Maybe they will discover a deep love of God and Duke basketball before learning how the only group of people it's appropriate to say "go to hell" to is Carolina. They might leave more passionate about the church than when they first entered. And, prayerfully, their debt will be reduced a bit, enabling them to freely serve wherever God is calling them to serve.

It's been a powerful time of prayer.

Why don't I pray every time I write a check that is a gift? We pray a corporate prayer of blessing in worship on Sunday -- but what about me as an individual?

I don't write many checks as I choose to make transformational gifts rather than transactional gifts, giving more money to the places or institutions that mean the most to me, instead of a few dollars here and there without really thinking about it. When I write a monthly tithe check to Mount Vernon Place, I always write, "Thank you, God," on the memo line as a way to remind myself that all I have is a gift from God--I'm simply a steward of it. But I'm now going to pray for the people whose lives might be impacted by my gift.

The prayer might go something like this, depending upon the month or season.

"God, our children will gather again tomorrow. Some of them are teased all week or quick to name the bullies in their classroom. Will you help them hear of and embrace your deep love for them? Will you use this money to help our church buy solid curriculum or music that helps them grow in their faith and knowledge of you?"

"God, there is a large convention in town. I don't know who will show up tomorrow. But I know how guests to our city have been beckoned into our beautiful building before, thinking they are taking advantage of an opportunity to see stunning stained glass, only to find themselves in awe of the Spirit's movement. Please use this money to make sure the heat is on, the coffee is brewed, and the space and people are ready to welcome whoever comes in."

"God, dozens of people will show up to shower at the church this morning. Will you use this money to buy towels that convey how we believe poverty should never rob anyone of their dignity?"

"God, we are in a city where it's easy to be defined by whatever one's business card says about them. Will you use this money to strengthen our small group ministry, providing everyone with a place of belonging while also embracing their truest identity as "child of God," an identity that can never be taken away from them."

What do you pray when you give money away?

How might you ask God to take, bless, and multiply whatever you give?

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Help Us Live as Those Who Are Prepared to Die

A colleague shared her CaringBridge site a week and a half ago, and her photo drew me in. There she was, a woman who appeared to be about ten years younger than me, smiling with her four-year-old twins, another child and an adoring husband. I clicked on the link and learned she was a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota who was recovering from a routine procedure when she fainted on August 26. After being rushed to the hospital, it was discovered she had a major blockage to her heart and then a brain bleed. I've returned to her site many days this week, joining the multitude of parishioners and other people who prayed whenever their breath was no longer being held. There were two posts on Thursday. One celebrated the power of a medical team and success on a heart bypass machine. The other reported she had died at 11pm on Thursday night, a beloved child of God. 

I didn't know her. But I cannot stop thinking about her--this clearly gifted pastor and doting mother of three young children who was carrying on with life as usual only to tragically die before her twins start kindergarten. 

I wonder if she was prepared to die.

More importantly, I wonder if we--you and I--are prepared to die.

Our nation's attention was captured last weekend as two powerful lives were celebrated. Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, one whose music made our hips sway and our souls ignite. Her funeral was over eight hours long. And while some people are still talking about some of the musical performances, most people are talking about their disappointment with the pastor's homily or the placement of another pastor's hand. It's now reported that Franklin died without a will. She made no plans for how her life could continue to live through her $80 million estate, leaving her heirs headaches and possibly heartaches.

On Saturday morning, the television cameras took us to the National Cathedral where we watched the most beautiful display of bipartisanship since Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed unanimously. Senator John McCain left a final letter which was read in advance of his service. He selected the song, "Danny Boy." He named the men who would accompany his casket. And, he called two Presidents--one Democrat and one Republican--long before he took his final breath to ask if they would honor him by speaking at his funeral. I watched the entire thing before asking God for some of Meghan McCain's prophetic courage.

Senator McCain was prepared to die while one is left to wonder if the Queen of Soul imagined she could live forever as she put off incredibly important details.

What about us?

Have you confronted the fact that death is one of the few guarantees in life with the other being taxes?

Do you have a plan for how your life can continue to live beyond your death?

Two former members of our church have powerfully demonstrated how one's life can continue to live through how they planned for their assets to be distributed. I never met one of them as she died several years before I became the pastor at Mount Vernon Place. But every December our church receives a check from her family foundation in the range of $18,000 to $22,000 depending upon the market performance. The check is accompanied by a letter from the chair of their family foundation that informs the church how a similar check will continue to come until all assets are depleted. I don't know how much this woman gave to the church when she was living, but I suspect this allocation has more than continued her tithes and offerings. The check is an extraordinary gift that makes a profound difference in our church's ministries every single year.

A man named Howard taught me the most about how one's generosity enables one to continue to live long after they die. In his last year of life, his sons worked with me to create a paid internship at MVP. Every three years, I have the joy of selecting an incoming student at Wesley Theological Seminary to serve at our church during their time in seminary. We call the student the "Howard Martin Ministry Intern." His name is in our bulletin every single week. He's now played a role in forming and shaping a handful of students who are serving the church in different ways. It was Howard's example that motivated Craig and me to make plans to create a similar scholarship at my seminary upon our deaths. I want my life to keep living--to keep making a difference--to play a role in someone's transformation--even after I die. 

(Howard is second from the left. This pic is the weekly Bible study in 2006. How things have changed!)

What about you? How will your life continue to live?

And what about your funeral? I want my seminary friend Manisha to preside at my service and my dear clergy colleague Alisa to preach. I long for people to sing "Blessed Assurance" and "Great is Thy Faithfulness" with gusto. I would love for people to feast at a table prepared for all. My service can be at whatever church I'm serving or the one where I am connected at the time. And, I'd be more than okay for my body to be interred at the natural burial sites at Holy Cross Abbey where I have retreated annually for more than 15 years. 

I don't know when the time will come. But I long to live as one who is prepared to die--by maximizing every single day, always seeking to faithfully follow God's call on my life, embodying generosity as a spiritual discipline, trying to be more patient, and allowing my light to shine--the light of Christ--wherever I am. 

What about you?

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Rediscovering the Hunger of America

I spent the summer pondering hunger. The Revised Common Lectionary assigned passages from John 6 several weeks in a row. It's a chapter that begins with Jesus transforming a young boy's five barley loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5000 people. The chapter continues with Jesus referring to himself as the "bread of life" before promising that all who come to him will never be hungry. 

I love Jesus. I've sought to give my life to him through faithful service to the church. But I still hunger...a lot. I hunger for things whether it's the new iPad purchased yesterday or the great fall dress hanging in my closet. I hunger for success and for the voice that sometimes says "you're not good enough" to be silenced. I hunger for community and connection.

What about you? 

For what do you hunger? 

It's the very question I have asked many people this summer, both in the congregation I serve as well as one where I had the privilege of guest preaching. But preaching does not afford space for people to respond. While I have a sense of what people hunger for in my congregation, I don't know everyone's answer. And yet, I am convinced that a portion of America's hunger was uncovered this week.

Thousands of people lined up outside the Capitol building yesterday, battling sizzling heat to wait their turn to pay their respects to Senator John McCain. One person was quoted on the radio saying, "I'm an atheist but I found myself praying in the Capitol rotunda." Still others lined up today outside the Vietnam War Memorial while others waited along Wisconsin Avenue for a glimpse of the hearse carrying his flag-covered coffin. Three former Presidents and three former Vice-Presidents attended the funeral along with a few notables from Hollywood. Thousands of people traded the typical Saturday morning routine for time in front of the television, savoring every word spoken by his prophetic, truth-telling daughter, Meghan, Presidents Obama and Bush, and a dear friend from the Senate. News reporters were heard saying they have not seen anything like it since Robert Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. 

What is it about Senator McCain's death that has touched the hearts of ordinary Americans so deeply? Why were people crying as they watched his family enter the National Cathedral or listen to the words spoken or sung?

Senator McCain's death--and more importantly, the way he lived his life--gave me a better answer to the question "What are you hungry for?" than I have had in a long time. I suspect the same might be true for you and thousands of others in our nation.

I'm hungry for people who don't see leadership as a platform that magnifies their needs and desires but rather one that might reveal how there are some things in life that are worth risking everything for.

I'm hungry for a city filled with communities and even congregations that are not separated by aisles but rather united by a deep willingness to see how we are all on the same team.

I'm longing for elected leaders to embody what President Obama described as principles that transcend politics, and values that transcend party. 

I want to live in a nation where people are quick to defend the content of one's character instead of using cheap shots formed through 140 characters on Twitter. 

I'm hungry for children in our nation to grow up with examples of leaders who understand how the power entrusted to them through an election is a sacred trust that demands honesty, humility and sacrifice.

I didn't realize how hungry I was until half past noon today as the casket was loaded into the hearse outside the Cathedral. But now that I've felt this hunger in the pit of my stomach, I'm convinced I cannot ignore it. 

I want to do everything I can to continue to help people hear and respond to a call to public service. I want to do everything I can to ensure people who understand the power of sacrifice, duty and honor run and are elected for office--whatever the office might be. I want to demand something different than the example coming from the most notable person not invited to the funeral today. And, I want to pay attention--close attention--to God's call on my own life. I've long known what an extraordinary privilege it is to serve in Washington. Today that privilege feels even more precious.

Thank you, God, for John McCain. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. And may you use this week to inspire a new generation of public servants to lead in ways that unite all who are divided, silence those who rule by fear, and help us see how we really are all on the same team. Amen. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Changing the Pace

"Are we in a hurry today?"

This very question is often posed by my husband when we are running errands on Saturday afternoon. The point of the question isn't to determine how much we can fit into one day or what the schedule holds. Quite the contrary, the question is an invitation to slow down, to not drive aggressively, to embody patience.

Patience is a virtue that doesn't come naturally to me. Unlike the men who are sauntering in this photo taken in Paris while on sabbatical five years ago, I walk at a pace that often leaves blisters on my feet rather than allowing my soles to feel the cushion beneath them. My DISC personality profile points to a person who can sometimes be experienced as a whirlwind as I seek to accomplish a certain amount of work each day. 

And then Friday comes.

And I'm faced with the choice to choose sabbath, rest and re-creation or keep going, multi-tasking, checking my email, running full speed ahead. 

Which choice do you make most often? 

Do you seek to hear the voice that beckons with an invitation to stop and trust that enough has been done for this week? Or do you feel guilty if you don't keep working, keep responding, keep producing?

Jesus extends the invitation, "Come away with me. Let us go alone to a quiet place and rest for a while." We hear the words and start to remember that keeping the sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments, on par with truth-telling and not murdering. Is reading the words enough to get you to stop? Do you have enough trust that everything will be okay without you--for just a bit?

A sidewalk artist gave a gift to our neighborhood at the start of this week. "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience" are the words that greeted me Monday morning on a foot bridge that leads me to the gym. The invitation was there again on Tuesday and once more today since rain has not fallen this week. 

I wonder how many people have slowed down, greeted their neighbors passing by, even stopped to smell a rose or two, as a result of this artist's offering?

What if this artwork is meant to be a means of grace, a way God comes to us -- entering the ordinariness of life and making it extraordinary?

I wonder what might happen if I adopted nature's pace, sauntered a bit, refused to check my email again until Sunday and trusted that everything will, indeed, be okay?

How might God be trying to get your attention today--whatever road you travel?

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!