Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Different View

Someone once told me about a practice Bill Hybels had when he was first starting Willow Creek Community Church. He would prepare his sermon manuscript throughout the week, working faithfully on each detail. The sermon would not be finished, however, until the manuscript had been taken into a bar not far from the church where Hybels would sit and observe on every Saturday night. He would watch a happy couple come inside only to leave arguing. He'd study the group of men doing everything possible to attract the women in the bar. He'd see people leave together knowing they did not come together. And, he'd watch people who are too often tempted to believe that we can drown our sorrow away, forgetting that tomorrow comes with a raging headache. With the manuscript in front of him, he'd ask, "Is there anything in here that will speak to that person tomorrow morning?" "Is there anything here that will help that person find hope, or enable that person to see she is beloved, or play a role in bringing together what has been separated in that couple's relationship?"

It's a powerful image for me to ponder. And I realized its importance again today as I took a seat in the pews instead of up front since I was not originally scheduled to be in worship today.

I sat amongst the tears of the woman facing her first Christmas without her beloved son who died tragically in August.

I sat a few feet away from a father and his two children who gathered at the Thanksgiving table without their mom for the first time.

I sat close enough to a man to hear him say "amen" when someone mentioned how hard it is to find a job right now.

I saw someone respond to the invitation to give by putting several coins in the plate, well aware of how little money he has.

I watched one of the ushers not only pass the plate but share a hug with someone she knew needed it and then resume her responsibilities.

I saw someone who is still suffering with melanoma walk differently today only to later learn his melanoma is now in his leg.

I sat with my people - some of whom I know their pain and others I do not.

I learned the importance of having tissues in the sanctuary.

I realized again how I long to see every issue we mention through a myriad of different experiences - that how I see Ferguson, for example, may not be the way my African American sister sees Ferguson.

And I'm praying that when next Sunday comes that I'll have a word - a word that will meet people right where they are, touching them in a way they need to be touched, comforting where they need to be comforted, inspiring them where they need to be inspired. I long for a word that speaks powerfully to my people.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Please send me a word.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Time to Heal

While I cannot remember all of his instructions, I recall the exact words of the surgeon when he was explaining the timing of my recovery. "You should be prepared to be completely off your feet for at least two weeks."

I thought he was joking. My eyebrows raised in an instant. The surgeon must have noticed because his next question was, "Can you get someone to cover for you for two weeks?" With those words, I started to make plans for what I could do with two weeks in a chair with limited to no mobility.

I stuffed my bag with every commentary on Mark that I own, convinced that I could get all of my Advent sermons outlined, if not written. I brought home reporting paperwork for a grant we received last summer. I made sure I had all the emails and notes made in reference to a book to be written with a colleague. I had my coworker print labels for the congregation's Christmas cards while I purchased all the stamps needed. My to-do list was long, impressive and ambitious.

My recovery time was shaved in half when a skin graft was not needed in the operating room. I've only been home for nine days, and I plan to return to the church tomorrow. While I have kept up on thank you notes for meals and tangible expressions of concern that have been delivered to our home, I have nothing else to show for what's been accomplished during this extended stay at home. I've had little to no energy to do anything. My body and mind have seemingly stopped for a while.

I found myself completely frustrated at the lack of evidence for my productive self midweek. How could I be here with all this time and do nothing?

But I then realized I have done something. I've done some of the hardest and most important work for this season of my life. I've taken time to heal. I've heard my body say "please stop," and I've allowed myself to faithfully respond. I've listened to the pain and made space to identify it, sit with it, and not allow it to take over. And I've been reminded in powerful ways of how poor of a job we do when it comes to taking time for anything, much less our deepest needs - especially the need to heal.

We expect to pass through the waters as if riding in a speed boat instead of waiting for the tide to be at its lowest point.

We get sick, and we seek to immediately return to work, stuffing our purse with every cure for a common cold on some days - while other days mustering every ounce of energy within us to step inside the office despite something much more serious going on inside our bodies.

We lose a loved one and wonder why we are crying six months later. Worse yet, a colleague loses a loved one and we cannot fathom why she's still not herself after a month of being back on a job.

We make it through a separation or a divorce and believe the holiday season will not impact us much even though it's our first holiday season being alone - divorced, separated, widowed.

We experience a miscarriage and expect things to be okay by our next cycle, unable to even talk about it much because no one knew we were pregnant, let alone enduring the pain of unexpected loss.

We are told we have an invasive form of melanoma, one of the deadliest types of skin cancer. We get through the surgery. We emerge a week later as a survivor. And we are tempted to return to normal as if nothing really happened.

But what if everything happens in these moments of change, loss, pain, and transition? What if the best gift we can give ourselves in these moments, as well as the people who are experiencing similar situations around us, is time - steady, not rushed, sacred, life-giving, abundant time to heal?

It's the eve of Advent, a season of waiting and watching for God to come again and make all things new. The signs around us will all point to more - more spending, more doing, more eating, more drinking, more buying, more baking, more wrapping, more writing, more, more, more. It's tempting to miss Advent all together each year and skip right to Christmas. But what would it take for us to make space during this season - to push aside all the other competing priorities and simply be? To take time to examine each part of our body, mind and spirit in an effort to discern what's in need of healing? What if the gift we should most ask for and then seek during this season is time - time to sit, to wait, to reflect, to watch, to be still? What would it take for us to take all the time we need to heal?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving in the Dark

"On the night in which Jesus gave himself up for us....he gave thanks." 

My colleague, James Howell, reminded me of these powerful words in an email reflection earlier this week. The most meaningful thanksgiving, one some of us celebrate weekly, others monthly and still others daily, happened on the night before Jesus was rejected by his closest confidants, despised by the entire community, and crucified on a hill.

The early thanksgiving took place in the dark. 

I find this reminder light and life-giving because I know what people around the world have done as a result of that night. I know how light has taken over the darkness of that night, and how that light is still the hope of the world.

There has been much darkness in need of light this week. I have struggled with how best to write about the grand jury's decision in Ferguson. I learned quickly how differently I view the cause of Michael Brown's death and the decision of Officer Wilson to kill Brown with multiple gun shots than members of my own family. The conversations have brought up many lessons I learned as a child growing up in Missouri about what neighborhoods to avoid and what happened when the first person to seem interested in my chubby, acne-skined self was one of the two African American boys in my elementary school class - lessons I have sought to unlearn as an adult. As I reflect upon what happened in Ferguson in August and again this week, I realize how much privilege I have as a white woman. No officer drew a gun at me when I was arrested as a teenager for a foolish mistake. No one looks at me with suspicion for no other reason than the color of my skin. No sales associate examines my hair, accessories and attire when I walk into a store in an effort to determine if I'm really going to buy something.

One response to my place of privilege would be to turn my head to the rest of the world around me and say, "Thank God it's not me or my family. That would never happen to us." But that's not what it means to experience thanksgiving in the dark - at least not the way thanksgiving was celebrated at the table with Jesus and his disciples.

The church I serve is one with a statement of welcome that is not only written on each Sunday bulletin but embodied. We are a multicultural community of people who celebrate each expression of diversity as a rich gift from God. There are mothers and fathers in my church family who cannot turn their backs on what happened this week. Rather, they must carefully discern what additional lessons must be taught to their children about the pain and reality of racism and discrimination. There are individuals in our church family who could be looked upon with suspicion if they sought to sit at a table at many restaurants in our neighborhood because these individuals often travel with most of their possessions on their back or in a baby stroller with wheels. There are dozens of men and women who would not be granted the capacity of allowing their light to shine as leaders making a difference in countless churches around our country because of their sexual orientation. And there are many people who one could assume have it all when it comes to appearance, possibilities and possessions. These people are all part of my community - individuals I am called to serve when a phone call, invitation or need is received or arises. But my community is much larger than those whose names appear on a list or whose faces I see on a Sunday. Mr. Wesley said, "The world is my parish." Certainly my parish includes a large part of our nation's capital and its surrounding neighborhoods.

The early thanksgiving led to a sacrifice - the greatest sacrifice of all - so that all might have life abundant and life everlasting. The first thanksgiving changed and continues to change everything. I cannot help but to begin this Thanksgiving day pondering my role as a citizen of this nation and a disciple of Christ.

Paul wrote to the people of Corinth, "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26). What would it look like for us to fully embody these words?

My darkest times in life have led to profound efforts to discover more light. When the door is locked and hope is in short supply, I know how to do everything I can to locate a crack where light and hope can start to seep in. But what would it mean for me to make sure the door never closes for so many people in the first place?

I don't fully know the answers to these questions. But I know part of my call is to keep asking them. I know I want to keep wrestling and then be part of God's efforts to heal our broken world. I want to remember how many people are sitting down at a table today where the words, "Happy Thanksgiving" don't really fit - at least not now, not this year.

Dear God, may my words of thankful praise be transformed into a life that seeks to ensure others have everything I regularly say "thank you" for or too often take for granted. Help me to be one who consistently seeks to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you. Show me what sacrifice looks like if others are to truly live. Grant me the courage to keep wrestling. And keep present in my heart those who struggle this day and will continue to struggle when our words soon switch to "Merry Christmas." I long to see more light, God - in all places and around all people. Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Held by God

A dear friend sent this photo to me a week before I was scheduled for surgery to remove an invasive melanoma on my ankle. The photo was attached to an email with the words, "The pic shows you being held in a big, caring hand - let's call it God's." My friend then added, "ps: does God really have silver fingernails? Fingers? Hand? Incredible! pps: why not? God can have hands any color God wants."

I've spent a lot of time thinking about God and God's hands in recent weeks. Knowing that you have a form of deadly cancer attached to your body does all kinds of things to your mind and spirit. I've pondered who I want to be at my bedside caring for me. I've planned parts of my funeral and know who I want to preach the good news that day. I've imagined the legacy I want to leave behind.

It's a compelling quest to live as though you are dying. I'm convinced it's how we should all live all the time because it forces us to focus on what really matters - to seize life by the horns as if we have no tomorrow in the most faithful way possible.

But it's an even more powerful thing to ponder God. Who exactly is God? I grew up singing a song called "He" - a song I have not been able to sing since seminary when I first learned that God transcends gender. The song includes lyrics about how God can do anything including calming the stormy sea. I believe God is all powerful and all knowing - one who knows us so well that God is acquainted with every thought and emotion we experience, knowing what's on our tongues before we even say a word. I also believe God is with us - that God is Emmanuel. 

But I struggle with what it means to be held by God. 

I've never touched God's fingers. I don't know if they are silver, black or gold. I don't know how big God's hands are even though I grew up singing another song about how God has the whole world in God's hands. There are parts of me that can identify with the poet Rainer Maria Rikle who said:

You, God, who live next door - 
If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking - 
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.

Have you ever heard God breathe? 


Have you ever been close enough to God to feel God's lungs filling with air? 

I have not. 

But I know God is at work. I know God lives. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is with me. I've seen God at work in real and powerful ways. I don't believe God has silver hands - but I have seen the hands of God show up in profound ways. The events of the last few weeks have convinced me that it's impossible to know and experience God outside of community. Miracles do not happen because of God alone. Miracles happen when people unite with God, offering their time, talent and resources to be part of God's efforts to heal and restore the sick and brokenness of the world.

What does it look like to be held by God?

It looks like a group of four clergywomen preparing a healing service on a screened-in porch where an ordinary table becomes a sacred altar, where bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and where baby oil is transformed into healing ointment that reminds you of four women who would do anything to journey with you no matter where that journey might go.

It looks like a church family allowing you to anoint them with healing oil, offering prayers for healing and wholeness before the entire community turns towards you four days before your surgery and places dozens of hands on each inch of your body as one person offers a prayer of healing on behalf of the body.

It looks like a prayer request being posted on Facebook - a request that goes viral until over 9000 people have seen it with dozens of people offering thoughts of gratitude and promises to pray.

It looks like people coming into your home, showing up with hearty meals made with love and gift bags overflowing with magazines, chocolate, candy, notes, Gatorade, fresh fruit and countless other items.

It looks like a delivery person ringing your doorbell and handing over balloons and fresh flowers with notes that inform you of how you're being held in the thoughts and prayers of many.

It looks like people covering for you - doing everything they can to make sure people are blessed and hear the word of God when they come for worship and you're not there.

It looks like colleagues looking you in the eye and saying, "Seriously, you have a lot of people who love you and would do anything they can to help you during this time.

It looks like cards coming in the mailbox from people who actually took time to write.

It looks like phone calls and texts that come before surgery, during surgery and after surgery.

I am more whole than I have been in a long time because God has showed up on my computer screen, in my office, and in our home - not in the form of a giant silver hand but in the hearts, hands, voices and feet of countless individuals who are showing up as part of the body of Christ. 

Thank you for holding me in such powerful ways.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Change Ahead

It's election day in an election year that is forecasted to bring major change in our country. While the results will not be known for a while, there is a strong chance that countless people will awaken to news tomorrow that their jobs are ending as a result of the Republican Party taking control of the Senate. No doubt, many Hill staffers are filled with anxiety today as they wonder what the future holds.

I was one of those staffers two decades ago. Twenty years ago, I was in Cleveland campaigning for a Congressman in whose office I had been working since April. Eric had won my respect and given me the opportunity of a lifetime when he hired me to organize his Washington schedule. I loved my work on his staff, and I'll share dinner tonight with two of my coworkers in that office who are some of my dearest friends to this day. It was an incredible experience for which I'll always be thankful. I'll never forget it - and I'll also never forget the impact a lost election had on my life.

I can still visualize Newt unveiling the Contract for America on the Capitol lawn (though today I only see him in the shampoo room since we have our hair cut at the same place).

I can still hear the sound of silence that rang through the hallways when I arrived in the office on the Wednesday after election day after I took an early morning flight back to Washington.

I can still see the lines of people in a Congressional hearing room waiting to sign up for unemployment benefits.

And I can still taste the beer and smell the bar where I spent countless nights during a season of unemployment that lasted nearly four months.

It was a life-altering season. There were countless mistakes made during those four months of soul-searching. But there were also new paths found as I navigated my way back to church and found that my identity had little to do with the fancy gold Congressional seal on my business card and everything to do with my being a beloved child of God.

Sometimes the most difficult seasons of life lead to the most fruitful futures.

"For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." Jeremiah 29:11

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.