Friday, July 01, 2016

The First Day



Eleven years ago today I pulled my Jeep into a small parking lot off K Street, rang a doorbell, and was greeted by a chain locked door that would not open. The building engineer soon came down, helped me unload some boxes of books, and showed me to the church office. I opened the door to the sound of window air conditioning units blowing and the smell of Wendy's french fries. Two women sat at the two desks eating their lunches. They kindly looked up and said "hello" while the engineer led me into a large office. These memories of my arrival are etched in my mind. A first impression quickly enabled me to see what was waiting for me.

It was in the middle of my first week when I gathered with our Staff Parish Relations Committee. The chair was a 97-year-old, incredibly classy and kind, nearly lifelong Washingtonian named Mabel. She led the meeting with a table of older adults who seemed to be filled with suspicion around who I was, what led me to their church, and how I was going to change them. But at the end of the meeting, Mabel looked me in the eye and said, "Donna, Mount Vernon Place is in the center of the city. Washington needs Mount Vernon Place, and Mount Vernon Place needs you. Don't you ever forget that you have the best job in Washington." 

I listened to her words that night and quickly concluded that I had just left the best job available when I emptied my office at Duke where I had served as Director of Admissions for the Divinity School for four years. Did Mabel have any idea how I felt after only five days as her pastor? Did she understand how big the task was before us?

It's been 11 years, and I can now easily say I have the best job in Washington. There was little about the first two years that was easy, however. We sometimes went six weeks without a single first time guest in worship. It took more than a year to attract a new member. There were no baptisms in the first couple of years but many, many funerals. It was tempting to quit at times. There were several weeks when I could not wait for the Christian Century to arrive so I could read the job postings, praying there would be something there for me. But God's grace and faithfulness prevailed, and the Spirit showed me how she was at work often. 

In the last couple of weeks, several people have reached out for advice for what to do first in their new church as the appointment year begins in the United Methodist Church. There are a million things I could say and a few things I would have done differently. But the most important thing is to follow the example of Jesus.

Luke tells us that twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while his parents returned home. They assumed he was with them only to later find that he was in the temple where he sat among the teachers, listened to them, and asked questions (Luke 2:46). Our learning is never over. When I first arrived at MVP, two Baptist pastors generously invited me to join their weekly conversation at Starbucks. They had both led change in their downtown congregations and were willing to instill wisdom within me while also offering constant encouragement. Please try to find teachers who you can sit with and ask questions. Imagine yourself a constant student who has learned much with even more left to learn. 

Jesus then begins his ministry. He is baptized and hears the words, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). Try to never forget either part of this statement. You are God's child, God's beloved. God adores you. God is also well pleased with you. Your congregation will not always be pleased with you. Not everyone will like you. In the times when you are told who is against you, seek to remember the one who is for you...no matter what.

Jesus is then tempted in the wilderness but is able to escape without giving into the devil's desires. There will be numerous temptations on your way - to sin boldly, to make more money, to have more success or power, to believe it's about you. Spend time in prayer every day. Seek to be filled with the knowledge of scripture that keeps your feet on a steady path.

We then find Jesus returning to Nazareth where he enters the synagogue and stands up to read. He proclaims a word from the prophet Isaiah about how the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus then announces that the scripture is fulfilled in their hearing on that day. Jesus quickly makes it clear what he is there to do. He has an agenda, a calling to fulfill, work to be done. 

On the first day of an introduction to political science class while in college, I learned that politics is "the ability to produce intended or foreseen effects upon others." Preaching should have the same goal. Every time we proclaim God's word, we want people to be changed - to be filled with hope, to know they are beloved, to know who Jesus is and was, to understand God's call on their life, to be moved into action, to be given the courage to work to set the oppressed free, to understand how they have a light to shine, to be called to embody generosity, to practice and receive forgiveness, to love God and neighbor, and so much more. Please never forget how God uses your words to shape and form people. Take time to create a plan for your preaching. Go away for a week each year to sketch out where you seek to lead your people in the coming year. God is ready to speak through you.

Jesus then quickly surrounds himself with a group of disciples who will share in his ministry. He calls ordinary people to join him on the journey. You, too, need to call out the gifts of others in your midst. You need to invite people into ministry with you and allow people to see how they can make a difference in serving others both inside and outside the walls of the church building. But you also need to surround yourself with a group of people who can fully understand what you're going through.

Nearly five years ago, six clergywomen were granted money from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Seminary to learn how to love God and neighbor together. The funds lasted two years but five of us are still gathering. We seek to meet monthly, and the space is always made safe to share whatever is bringing us down, causing us joy, or challenging the depth of our being. We seek to help each other become more faithful disciples, better pastors, better wives, and better mothers (for three in the group). These women provide accountability, encouragement and bread for my journey. Please do not look to your church members to be your support or your friends. Find people outside your church to journey with you and to know you fully. 

Finally, learn how to shake the dust of your feet and move on. People will leave your church, and their leaving can cause significant pain no matter who they are or why they leave. But remember that it's not all about you. Your role is to help people grow in their faith and experience God. People may realize that your congregation is not the best community in which this growth can happen. They may get frustrated with you and see your shortcomings more than your gifts. Listen to their concerns and do everything you can to find common ground. Apologize often if you have made a mistake. Make room for conversations in which you seek to learn as much about your shortcomings as possible. But do not believe you are there to please everyone, and do not hold the criticism for long. When the criticism comes, pull out your email folder and the folder in the filing cabinet that is labeled "HAPPY" - the files you have filled with notes of gratitude affirming your gifts. Remember who you are. Beloved. Precious. Child of God.

Oh, and one more thing - perhaps the most important thing. Love your people - the ones who love you and the ones who don't yet like you. Show up in their lives when they are hurting and when they are rejoicing. Write notes to them filled with gratitude for who they are and how they are offering their gifts or allowing God to shine through them. Pray for them often. Tell them regularly how much you love being their pastor. Don't let them forget that you believe you have the best job in Washington - or wherever you might be.

I'm praying for you and with you as your time begins. Being a pastor is a joy for which none of us is worthy. Don't take it for granted.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I Want to Live Like This


It's my birthday! Today I celebrate 44 years of life. And since the entire weekend has been a celebration as Craig and I spent time with his family in New Jersey, today has been a day to rest, reflect and do a few things I love. I've gone to the gym and allowed my body to be pushed by my personal trainer. I've journeyed to the grocery store to select several of our favorite foods including ones for a special meal tonight since it's also our 8th wedding anniversary. And, I've watched my Facebook Timeline be filled with greetings from individuals representing every chapter of my life. 

Facebook is an extraordinary means of grace on one's birthday as people take time to share birthday wishes. While many posts include the traditional words, "Happy Birthday," there are a few posts that have named my gifts or shared a particular memory. There is another post that suggests I party like a rock star - something I've certainly done before or perhaps even this weekend when I tasted Hendrick's Gin for the first time and decided one time was not enough. And there are other posts that invite me to enjoy the "best year ever." 

It's quite an invitation to ponder what the "best year ever" would entail. What would I do if I was to live the best year ever? How would I pattern my days? Would my budget or schedule change? Who would I seek to spend time with or call out of the blue? What would I stop doing because it no longer mattered? I've been pondering these questions all day as if it's New Year's Eve, and I'm ready to make some changes.

I want to take better care of myself. While I treat my two weekly sessions with a personal trainer as though they are bread from heaven, something I would not dare miss, I've yet to master the art of getting to the gym five days a week or even eating five fruits and vegetables for seven days a week. I want to grow old with knees that can hold my weight and legs that want to wander all over the place. I want to be able to feel good in whatever I select that's hanging in my closet.

I want to be a better friend. There are so many individuals who I say mean the world to me but who I rarely call. I have a box of birthday cards that don't get mailed on a regular basis. There are several people who see me and say, "I know you're really busy, but...." But I don't want to be too busy for friends. I want to spend more time cultivating longtime friendships and making new ones.

I want to be the most faithful pastor I can be. I want to be filled with gratitude and thanksgiving. I want to make a difference in the lives of whoever God puts in my path. I want to know that what we are doing in downtown DC matters to people inside and outside our doors. I want to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

And I want to seize opportunities to experience new things that lead to wonder, surprise, joy and delight. We spent yesterday at the Jersey shore. We delighted in Manco & Manco's pizza, stopped for a custard from Kohr's, went in and out of different shops, allowed the sea breeze to kiss our skin, and listened to the sound of the ocean roaring. We took delight in watching our cousins, niece and nephew ride different rides at a small amusement park at the end of the boardwalk. And an hour later, with ride tickets remaining, I accepted an opportunity to enjoy a ride with my husband, brother-in-law and cousin. I hiked up my dress, climbed inside a log, and waited for the Canyon Falls Log Flume to take off. I knew we would get wet. I even hesitated to sit down on the wet bench. But I did it, and I cannot begin to tell you how much joy I get when I see the photos of the experience!

I want to live like that!

I don't want the potential of getting wet or hurt or bruised or exhausted to stop me. I don't want to worry what other people are thinking. I want to seize the moment and take advantage of whatever new experience awaits me. I want to relish in the adventure instead of clinging to the routine. I want to take faithful risks. I want to try new things. I want to experience pure joy every single day.

A friend who lives in Germany shared with me today that I have "a wonderful Herrenhut Watchword" for my birthday. It is Isaiah 55:12 which reads, "For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace." It then continues to describe mountains and hills bursting into song while trees clap their hands. The tradition in Germany is for families to read the watchword every morning and then reflect on how it has come to fruition throughout the day when evening comes.

I'm more than okay with a year of going out in joy before being led forth in peace. I find it rather delightful to imagine how I might beckon the trees to clap their hands before joining in.

So who wants to go on a ride with me next?  Disney, anyone? I cannot promise that we will stay dry, but I can promise you loads of laughter and joy.

To life! For life is extraordinary and such an incredible gift. 


Saturday, June 18, 2016

I'm Going to Church Tomorrow



It's Saturday night, just before 9:00pm. I suppose many of you are sliding into a cute pair of heels and applying a bit of lip gloss, ready to see what might be waiting for you at a bar downtown. Others of you may be halfway through a Redbox movie, still waiting to see if you're going to be glad you spent $1.50 to rent the film. Or maybe you've just poured yourself a glass of wine because the kids are finally all in bed. It's now time to start thinking about what tomorrow will hold. Will you set the alarm or sleep in? Will you go to brunch or the farmer's market? Will you brew coffee at home or take the Washington Post to the nearest Starbuck's?

These decisions are not ones we have to make in our house. In fact, I've had my pajamas on for over an hour. Saturday night is an early night at our house because we always go to church. It's the highlight of my week professionally, and my husband is a devout Catholic who never misses mass. And yet, on this night, my heart can hardly wait to to go to church tomorrow. My spirit longs to be in a sanctuary filled with a community of people whose stories I know, whose lives intersect with mine. But I also desperately need to be reminded that there is something more to this life, that God is with us in the pain, that the light shines in the darkness.

I've cried twice today while reading the words of two friends, two mothers whose hearts are hurting. One is the mother of an 11-year-old daughter who was believed to have beat leukemia. Their lives were returning to normal when strange symptoms appeared early this week. Tests revealed the worst possible news. The leukemia is back. Rather than starting summer at the pool with friends, this child will spend 28 days in the hospital with needles pouring chemo into her body. Another friend is facing Father's Day for the first time without her husband who died five months ago. She and her three young children have made plans to skip church, eat donuts and watch television because there are no Hallmark cards with instructions for what to do on the first Father's Day since Daddy died.

And then there is Orlando, and all these incredibly sad stories about lives being celebrated much too soon. It was this time last week when outfits would have been selected, plans would have been made, drinks would have been poured. "Let's go dancing." "I want to go to Pulse." "Our community will be there." But lives - so many lives have been shattered.

I need to go to church tomorrow. I need to go because I'll be reminded of a light that shines in the darkness. I need to go because there are times when just sitting in the sanctuary and looking at stained glass windows is enough. I need to go because there will be people there who know my name and glimpses of my story. I need to go because the sermon is one I need to hear even as it will flow through my lips - the importance of cultivating self-compassion and letting go of perfectionism since perfectionism is almost always tied to impressing others, bringing about a sense that you're better than you really are. I need to go to church tomorrow because I believe God is still speaking and there will be a word for me. It might come from a child who embraces me or brings me a note. It might come from a first-time guest who tells me how welcome they felt. It might come from the scripture being read even though I've read it dozens of times this week. Or it might come when I bow my head and intercede on behalf of so many people who are hurting - those I know and those I don't know - people who know how complicated Father's Day can be, people who have lost a loved one and know the sting of grief, people who are experiencing an overwhelming medical diagnosis, people who are wondering what the future will hold, people who are longing to not feel so alone. It's only an hour or so, but it's an hour filled with moments, words, stories, songs, rituals and people I need.

Plus, the Washington Post will be waiting for me when I get home.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Yes....But Will We Be Safe There?


I was running on the treadmill this morning when my gym friend, John, starting using the machine next to mine. "I have not seen you in a while," I said, while asking him about his summer plans. "There are a few trips here and there, including one to North Carolina which I'm dreading," John responded. "Oh, where are you going in North Carolina?" I asked, before hearing, "My niece is getting married in Highlands."

My face immediately lit up, "I love Highlands!" I then described my first summer field education placement while in seminary. "It has the highest elevation in the state. The population swells in the summer as wealthy people from Atlanta and Florida come up to escape the summer heat. There are beautiful hiking trails. There is an incredible candy store on the main street." I kept talking while John looked at me with a blank stare before responding. "I have looked it up. We are going for three nights. It looks beautiful. But will we be safe there?"

I honestly cannot remember if the cottage where I stayed that summer had a lock on the door. While a sense of fear has crept in often since moving back to Washington, I cannot recall a single time when I felt afraid or unsafe in Highlands. I don't even recall seeing a police car on the streets of Highlands. "Of course, it's safe!" I could have easily responded.

And yet, I'm not a gay man traveling with my husband.

John's question made my heart sink.

But will we be safe there?

How often have you stopped to think about how hard it would be to not be able to hold the hand of your spouse wherever you are? Have you ever wondered whether it would be safe to check into a hotel in a small resort town in North Carolina? Have you ever looked at the map to see if you'd be able to make it from one place to the next without stopping for gas because you're not sure how much hatred might fill the communities in between? Have you told your spouse not to call you "honey" out loud while attending your niece's wedding?

I am willing to bet the answer is "yes" if you're gay. And I suppose that if you're straight, you may have never stopped to think about how a night club in Orlando could have ever been a sanctuary for countless individuals - until this week.

How is it that a bar has become a safer place for LGBT people to gather than countless other places? How could a dance club be a sanctuary - a place of refuge or safety - more than a church building?

One doesn't need to ponder long before answering the questions, and I'm tired of it. I'm so incredibly sad that the church of Jesus Christ too often fails to embody the love, mercy and grace of Jesus. I'm so incredibly sad that my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has a Book of Discipline that states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. I'm angry that my church's official teaching will allow me to marry any couple who comes in off the street - even if they have only known each other for a couple of days - while having the power to take away my ordination for marrying a faithful, devoted couple of the same gender. I'm furious that clergy in my own annual conference voted against one of our candidates for ministry in which Christ is so alive for no reason other than the fact that she is married to a woman. And I grieve that not every LGBT person will feel safe in many of our churches. In fact, the church may be the place where my LGBT brothers and sisters feel the most unsafe.

The last few weeks have been overflowing with pain and disappointment. While our General Conference did not vote on several pieces of legislation that could have done even more harm to LGBT people and pastors who are seeking to embody the fullness of love, blessing and hospitality, I don't have a lot of hope for significant change to come as long as the same Book of Discipline is being used for every congregation in our global church. Two weeks ago, after we came up 19 votes shy of the number needed to approve T.C. Morrow for commissioning, I wondered if I would even come back the next day. My eyes were swollen, my mascara was smudged, and my heart hurt.

But I came back. I came back and found manna not from my straight colleagues but from T.C. herself. I watched as she simply changed her name tag from one that could have said "clergy" to one that said, "lay delegate." I listened as she stood and spoke at a dinner of reconciling clergy and laity, sharing how when people kept asking her why she didn't just leave, she responded by saying, "This church is my family, and you don't just leave family even when it's dysfunctional." I marveled when T.C. went around a large circle of people who showed up to witness on her behalf and hugged and thanked each person. While I didn't see it myself, I'm told she stood up in support of every single person in her commissioning class - a class she should have been able to join. I have then been so incredibly struck by many of the comments she has shared about why she stays in our denomination. Just today she wrote these words in an op-ed, "I remain because I am always thinking about some young 14-year-old in a rural community who could use a role model - something very similar to the young person I once was, I think about what they are hearing, from our churches and indeed from our society more broadly. I think about the need to echo voices of hope and community in diversity, not fear and bigotry."

If anything has come from the heartache and pain of walking with T.C. and then reading stories from people who were at Pulse last Saturday night, it is a commitment to not just stay in my church but to become even more passionate about working to change the religious institution. I want people to know that my church is a sanctuary for all people - that all are abundantly welcome at Mount Vernon Place, that all people can receive the same blessings at our church, that I will do everything I can to support people who are experiencing a call to ministry whether they are gay or straight, that all people can call each other "honey" and hold hands in our building, that we are seeking to simply live and love like Jesus - recognizing that such love can have consequences.

I don't believe everything happens for a reason, and I beg you to stop saying these words if they are prone to come from your lips. We are not puppets on a string. The greatest gift God gave us is the gift of free will which means we have the power to do good and the ability to do harm. God is not behind anyone who takes a gun into their hands and kills 49 innocent people. God is, however, present. God is with us always. And I vow to do all I can to make sure that some goodness comes from this senseless tragedy. The vow starts with me and my willingness to love, bless and pastor as fully and faithfully as I can. I want my church to be a sanctuary for all people - a place where the fullness of whoever walks in our doors is welcome.

What about you? What will you do with your pain, your disappointment, your anger?

And if you're looking for a community of faith that is truly seeking to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, then please come #MeetMeAtMVP on Sunday at 11am. We don't always get it right, but we are trying hard to live and love like Jesus.


Monday, May 30, 2016

To Be Remembered


Growing up, my sister and I loathed Memorial Day weekend more than any of the remaining 51 weekends of the year. It almost always occurred on the tail of the last day of school. While other kids were getting together for celebratory parties, we were piling into the brown station wagon to make the three-hour schlep to my grandparents' farm in northern Missouri. 

The routine was almost always the same. Our aunt, uncle and several cousins would join us around the large table for a farmer's feast of at least two meats and twelve vegetables. These selections would be followed by a half a dozen desserts with plenty of iced tea or coffee to wash it all down. And then we would pile back into the car and head to what felt like every cemetery in a twenty mile radius of the farm. 

A careful routine would continue when we got to the family burial plot in each place. Grandma Great would take a bucket of fern and carefully lay sprays across the ground covering the buried body of a beloved family member. Then Grandma and Grandpa would lay carnations, roses and other flowers on top of the fern. When the burial site was sufficiently decorated, we would make our way to the next relative's gravesite. 

These actions are how we remembered the dead. There were more traditions accompanying Memorial Day than there were Christmas. While we rarely appreciated what was taught to us while standing in the hot summer sun, we could not escape learning a bit more about our relatives and their lives each May. 

I now rarely make it to the family farm on Memorial Day weekend. While I respect these traditions, I've come to imagine different ways of remembering the dead. Or, more importantly, I've sought to imagine more fully how I want to be remembered. 

Just yesterday I saw a picture of three young children whose father died earlier this year. I've never met these children, but I saw their father's face so clearly in each child. Many people continue to live through their children, leaving their mark through facial features, large bone structures or even stubborn habits. But we have chosen not to have children of our own, making me want to plan even more passionately about what legacy I'll leave. And in the last decade of serving Mount Vernon Place, I've seen lives making a difference long after they took their last breath.

At the turn of this century, our congregation was dwindling to a few dozen incredibly faithful senior citizens who had first come to the church as government workers in the 40s, watched it grow to more than 4000 members in the 60s, and then take a nose dive into decline. But a couple of members loved their church enough to want it to continue to make a difference long after their death. They established a $1 million endowment, and without this money on which to draw during very lean times, the church would have likely closed many years ago.

Another church member worked with his three sons to establish a scholarship at a nearby seminary. He gave a large enough gift to permanently endow an internship at our church. Every three years, the seminary gets to use the scholarship as a recruitment tool, the church gets to select an extraordinary incoming student, and the student and congregation get to learn together for three years. I love telling people about Howard's gift and seeing how Howard continues to live through the impact these students make on our community. He would be so incredibly delighted!

According to LexisNexis research, approximately 55 percent of all adults in our nation do not have a will or any plans for their estate. Less than half of us have made intentional plans for how our lives can continue to live after our death. And yet, none of us get to live forever. 

I learned early that one of the greatest gifts older adults can give their children is to make plans for their long term care. I now know that one of the greatest gifts we can give to institutions we love is to make plans for our generosity to be embodied long after we live.

What are the organizations or institutions that have made a difference in your life?

Where do you regularly give money each year because you believe in what they do and want to support it? 

What if one person could have their dream realized every year because of your intentional planning and generosity? 

What if lives could be touched and transformed through you on a regular basis, even after your death? 

It's all possible with careful, thoughtful and generous estate planning.

I'm more than okay if no one ever visits my grave. But I want my light to continue to shine in powerful and profound ways. I want to be as generous in my death as I have sought to be in my life. I want to be remembered by making a difference. 

What about you?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Another Gospel



I'm spending the week at a worship retreat on the edge of Lake Tahoe. It's an extraordinary place where you can find your breath being taken away at every twist and turn - in part because of the thinness of the air in the higher elevation - but mainly because the scenery is so incredibly beautiful. God's handiwork is on full display in this extraordinary place. I've found myself called to prayer often.

This morning's walk led me to an amphitheater near the side of the Lake where the names of the four Gospel writers are powerfully on display: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But there's another pillar there. There is no name attached to it. The bench at the base of it is a little broken while still offering an invitation to come and rest for a while. And yet, the invitation for me was far greater than a place to sit and rest. What I experienced was a call to imagine again how my life is proclaiming the good news. What are the stories my life is telling, the fruit of the Spirit I'm embodying, the images of Jesus I'm reflecting? If God is still speaking, which I believe God is, then how is God speaking through me and my life?



And what about you? How is God speaking through you? If you were to write the stories of Jesus at work in your life, what stories would you record?

It's that question that has challenged me a bit as I realize how closed I've been to some of the movement of the Spirit around me. It's been an incredible start to the year in terms of growth and "success." I'm about to finish my 11th year at Mount Vernon Place where we have seen total transformation of our neighborhood, building and congregation in addition to dozens of lives. I would not trade this time for anything. I regularly say I have the "best job in Washington."

But my prayer for this season is not more people in the pews or anything that can be captured on a statistical report. Rather, my prayer is to see Jesus - to not just open my ears to hear him or my eyes to see him - but to unlock my full life to follow him, to let go of whatever might be holding me back, and to partner with him in such a way that there are more beautiful stories worth telling.

What about you? What stories would you want to include in your account of the good news?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Twenty Years!


I started mapping my life at the age of 11. Surrounded by a community of people who regularly took time to name my gifts, I knew I had strong leadership abilities at an early age. Raised by a mother who took me to hear Zig Ziglar as a teenager, regularly told me I could do whatever my heart set out to do, and never let me forget I was beautiful, I was gifted early with a healthy self-esteem and the desire to keep a list of goals on my bulletin board at all times. Educated at an all-women's college, I learned the power of feminism at its best and met Hillary Clinton on the Saturday before the general election day in 1992.

I knew I wanted to run for office. I would finish college, move to Washington for a few years - first to intern at the White House and then to work on Capitol Hill. I would then return home to Missouri, enroll in law school, and eventually run for office. The original plan would have me in the United States Senate at this age of life.

The first parts of the plan came to fruition. I spent my last semester of college in the White House Office of Scheduling and Advance. I was quickly hired as the scheduler for a Congressman from Ohio who lost his election later that year. After a few months of unemployment, I was given an opportunity to write letters for a Senator from Iowa. And I loved it. I loved the work, my coworkers, cocktails at Congressional receptions, and the exposure to Washington's political power and process.


But there was another side of my life that was equally fulfilling - a place that utilized my gifts more abundantly than my role on Capitol Hill. It was a place that called forth the best from me, giving me more opportunities to flourish than I had experienced since college. The place was the church, a United Methodist Church I could walk to from my apartment on Capitol Hill.

I'm still not sure what the pastor saw in me, but he gave me every possible opportunity to serve. He allowed me to preach without first hearing me speak in front of a wider audience. He suggested I be chair of the Church Council at the ripe age of 24. And he invited me to chaperone a youth trip to New York City in April of 1996.

I'd never been to New York City. I said "yes" in large part because it was an opportunity to go for free. I had no idea that the journey would completely change my life, and I sometimes wonder if I would have gone if I knew at the time that transformation was part of the package.

The young people on the trip captivated me with their honesty, their vulnerability, their willingness to share whatever was on their hearts. The energy of the city seduced me into believing I might be called to move to Manhattan or go to business school instead of law school. By Saturday evening, I was using a Wal-Mart calling card to phone my mother from a pay phone at the Staten Island Ferry departure gate. With no one answering, I left a voice mail. "Mom. It's me. Everything is great. We're having a wonderful time. I just want to let you know I'm not going to law school next year. I'm not sure what I'm doing. But I'll call you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow" held the opportunity to worship at Riverside Church where Dr. James Forbes was the preacher. I had never heard such an extraordinary preacher whose voice seemed to penetrate every inch of that magnificent structure.

We then boarded a bus, and my pastor took the microphone normally used by a tour guide to offer a closing prayer. "Thank you, God, for this journey. Thank you for the safety you have provided. Thank you for what we have learned. Thank you, too, for the ways in which you can use experiences like this weekend to call people. Please be with all whom you have called during this time together as they discern how you are working in their lives."

I had not articulated any of my changing thoughts to my pastor. The Spirit, however, was interceding - not with sighs too deep for words - but with words that named why I wouldn't be going to law school the next year.


That was twenty years ago yesterday. It was Sunday, April 14, 1996 when I first heard that voice, when I first started to learn as much as I could about seminary and the process that leads to ordination. It was twenty years ago when I was placed on a different path and given one joy after another for which no one is truly worthy.

How might God be calling you? What are the places that most name and claim your gifts? Who are the voices that speak most powerfully to you?

Thank you, God, for this odd and wondrous calling. Thank you for the precious gift of serving you through this messy, beautiful, life-giving thing called the church. Thank you for a pastor who saw you at work in me and cultivated your call on my life. Please help me to never take your call for granted but to instead seek to continue to serve you as faithfully as I possibly can. Amen.