Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nancy

I don't have a single picture of her, but I'm not sure I'll ever forget her.

She grew up in our church, her parents having met in the choir in the late 1800s. She lived just off Connecticut Avenue for her entire life, first in the family home she sold some ten years ago and then in a retirement community. She's the only older member I've ever brought a can of Heineken to, sneaking it into the home like a high school student with a fake ID. More often than not, I would find her with the Wall Street Journal and a stack of lottery tickets she had recently scratched. She loved taking a cab over to a nearby hospital where she would listen to music playing in the lobby. She was proud of the outdoor furniture she had bought for the home and furious when all the chairs were taken, leaving her with the option of finding a place to sit inside. She loved her church, though she hadn't been there in more than ten years.

And, I loved her. I always knew she would make me laugh. I always knew I'd be greeted with a generous smile. I always knew she would encourage me by letting me know how she was aware of everything happening at the church since she read the bulletin each week. And, I always knew she would ask me to pray for a sound mind. She was so afraid of losing her mind before her body failed.

Two weeks ago, Nancy's health started to change in different ways. Part of her dignity was removed when her body no longer allowed her to do everything she needed to do. She was so frustrated, but still making her aide and I laugh through it all. It was nearly two weeks ago when she told me she wanted to just go to sleep. "I'm ready to go," she repeated often on each of my last three visits.

She said it again yesterday, waking up for just a minute or two at a time. And even though she didn't speak much yesterday, her sense of humor came shining through once more in her facial expressions.

At the end of my visit, we took hands, her aide holding one hand and me holding the other. We asked God to linger close, to remind Nancy that it was okay to let go and that she was not and would not be alone. When the prayer was over, Nancy said, "Amen." She was with us the entire time.

She took her last breath this morning. Her prayer was answered. My heart both aches and gives thanks at the same time.

And now we plan her celebration of life. There will be party favors - a scratch ticket will be given to each person who attends, with a quarter to make the scratching easy. Perhaps someone will win. But I feel like I already won so much through my relationship with this precious child of God.

Thank you, Nancy, for the privilege of being your pastor. You were truly one of a kind. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

I Now Know



"180 over 120," she said, before asking if my blood pressure normally runs high.

"I've never seen it that high," I responded. And I wasn't that concerned. After all, the nurse had just weighed me in a very public area, and I knew what came next. I was about to be asked to undress for a full body exam, something I endure every 90 days with the doctor looking carefully at every inch of my skin while an assistant blows up images of my bare body on a screen. The process has worked. Their discoveries have led to my hearing the words, "It's melanoma," four different times.

With all these things in mind, I sought to put her mind at ease, "My blood pressure always rises in this office." The words worked. She showed me to my exam room and didn't ask to take it again.

But I now know that my blood pressure was high enough for me to experience dangerous consequences. I now know she should have sent me straight to the emergency room or at least mentioned her finding to the doctor about to examine me. He's not trained in matters of the heart, as he specializes in skin, but he would have likely experienced a sense of her alarm. Nevertheless, they went on with their routine.

An hour later, I left the office with a sense of relief that no biopsies were ordered. My concern had been transferred to the status of my heart, motivating me to order a blood pressure monitor that night. While the numbers have decreased substantially, they are still more elevated than they have ever been. And just as I can sometimes name each knot the massage therapist finds in my shoulders, I can also name each additional millimeter of mercury.

I'm religious about meeting my personal trainer for strength training twice a week. But, my time for aerobic exercise has been swallowed too often by work. My diet has been enlivened by Girl Scout Cookies and extra treats (have you tried Aldi's version of Girl Scout cookies!!?). We've been hiring a new staff member, and I long to get it right. I'm the medical power of attorney for one of our oldest members who is facing significant health challenges that lead to numerous calls and difficult decisions. Most workweeks have been six days with the seventh claimed by errands and endless to-do lists before seeking to be fully present to my husband since I haven't been all week. And, while I adore nearly every ounce of my work, believing that I really do have the best job in Washington, there is a lot on my plate right now.

I can more than relate to Shauna Niequist's words, "But it's like I was pulling a little red wagon, and as I pulled it along, I filled it so full that I could hardly keep pulling" (Present Over Perfect). You should see my wagon! Do you have any idea how much I'm getting done? I kept convincing myself it was okay because I love what I do so much.

But I now know how heavy the wagon has become. I know now I not only can but must empty the wagon a bit. I now know I need to monitor what's going into my body and stop sacrificing my health for seeking to be the most faithful pastor I can be. I now know I'm on the edge of needing medication for this body that used to have low blood pressure.

I've spent the last four days at a monastery, a place I journey to every Lent in order to read, plan sermons, and pray. I've never regretted coming to the abbey. I love this place. But I almost cancelled last week. How could I go away with one member in the hospital and another member entering Hospice care? Was it really faithful to leave my husband with a snow storm on the horizon? God didn't let me second guess myself for long. And I'm now praying God doesn't allow me to second guess my renewed commitment to taking better care of myself upon my return.

And while this post feels so incredibly vulnerable, I know I'm not alone. I live and serve in a city where we often speak of how busy we are as if our busyness is a badge of honor. I am part of one of the least healthy professions. We clergy love to tell other people how to care for themselves while doing a miserable job of taking care of our own selves. And I suspect I'm in good company when it comes to seducing myself to believe that extra hours in the office or meeting the needs of others are more important than just one hour at the gym.

I don't want the sun to set prematurely on me. I now know I was in serious danger, and I do not want to allow myself to go there again.

I love my red wagon. I adore nearly every single thing that I've placed inside it. But, it's time to take a few things out of my wagon.

What about you?


Monday, January 30, 2017

Pray for a Pastor

It was a day or two before Thanksgiving in my second year of seminary. My father had picked me up at the St. Louis airport, and we were midway into our drive to his home in mid-Missouri. The conversation had turned to what I was learning in seminary, and I started to share a host of new insights gained from my professor of Christian ethics, Stanley Hauerwas. If you know anything about Hauerwas who was named "America's Best Theologian" by Time, then you know he has the capacity to turn your head inside out and upside down as he presents new ways of thinking about what it means to be a Christian. I was five minutes into sharing my new knowledge with Dad, explaining what I had learned about capitalism, when Dad nearly drove off the road as he asked, "What in the hell are they teaching you?"

I can almost picture everything about that conversation. I might not ever forget it as it's the first time I realized how controversial following Jesus can be. Most of us prefer a watered-down version of the Gospel when we realize how hard it is to fully take on the name of Christ in all we say, all we do, and all we are. There is a reason Jesus was a threat to both the religious and political establishment of his day. We often forget some of why he was crucified.

And, while I'm not a betting woman, I'm willing to bet your pastor has heard a thing or two in recent weeks that echo the sentiment of, "What in the hell are you thinking? Or teaching us? Or preaching to us?" There is a good chance your pastor has heard a word or two about what she is to say and not say, what she is to do or not do, how she is to offer a more limited view of who Jesus really was and is, at such a time as this.

No matter what your pastor proclaimed or prayed yesterday, someone in the congregation was likely disappointed. Some people stepped inside sanctuaries yesterday longing to hear a word about how to think theologically about immigration and refugees. Their hearts were breaking, and they prayed their pastor would have something to say about how our nation is called to be more compassionate, to follow the instructions to welcome the stranger found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Countless other parishioners hesitated as to whether to actually come to worship. They held their breath during the pastoral prayer and the sermon, praying the pastor would not say anything "political" before rolling their eyes the moment the word "immigration" was mentioned. Your pastor was damned before she ever said a word yesterday.

Meanwhile, your pastor may be second-guessing everything today because she has never before pastored a congregation in a time when the nation feels as deeply divided as it does now. She's longing to please everyone, a trait at the core of her personality, while knowing that this goal is not achievable right now. She is carefully receiving every word and waiting for additional criticisms to come. But more than anything, she is longing to be as faithful as she can to Jesus, the one who called her and claimed her, the one who gave her a vision of what God's kingdom can look like on earth, a vision so compelling that she was willing to let go of other dreams and go to seminary.

If you're not currently praying for your pastor, I invite you to start doing so today and allow these prayers to continue to rise up like incense filling a room. If you're not sure what to pray, it can go something like this:

Gracious God, thank you for the ways in which you call and equip people to serve as priests, pastors, shepherds, and teachers. I thank you, especially, for my pastor - for his willingness to drop everything in order to go to the hospital when a person is sick or extend the workday an extra hour when one is in a challenging situation and needs to talk. Thank you for how he seems to love my children, getting down on his knees to share another story about Jesus. Thank you for his spouse and children, people who know plans cannot be made on Saturday night and that weekends together are one day maximum. Thank you for his love of scripture and the ways he seeks to bring it to life. Thank you for all he does to help me be a more faithful disciple of your Son, Jesus.

Will you hold my pastor tightly during this time? It must be impossible for everyone to hear and appreciate his preaching on a subject like immigration when your scripture has so much to say but opinions and convictions are tightly held. It must be impossible to say the words "justice" or "mercy" without being told you're being too political. It must be impossible to please everyone, especially when a congregation is diverse in every possible way. Will you please help him to be faithful? Will you give him the capacity to glean the words he needs to say from you and you alone? When criticism comes, will you grant him a wise spirit that can discern what he needs to hear and explore further and what he needs to let go of? And will you show me how I can support him, even if I might not always agree with him? I want our church to be a faithful representation of your light, your love, your mercy, your grace and your justice. And while I might disagree with him on certain things, I believe my pastor wants this, too. So please strengthen him once more. Watch over him. Bless his family, and bless him - especially at such a time as this.

Thank you, God, for our pastor.

Amen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Prayer for the President


There is one message I love to proclaim more than any other message. It's a message that can be boiled down into a handful of words. It's a simple truth that we have a hard time accepting, let alone acting upon. But receiving the truth can set us free.

You are beloved.

You are beloved. God has shaped and formed you. God has given you a distinct set of gifts that make you unique, remarkable, and wonderful. You are the reason God's heart beats and sometimes skips a beat. There is nothing you can do to prevent God from loving you and longing to be in relationship with you.

This message is proclaimed each time we baptize someone at our church. We sprinkle water on top of a child's head, reminding the child and the congregation how we are incorporated into God's mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. We call upon the grace of Jesus that was infused within us at birth. We invite the Holy Spirit to work within the child. And then we light a candle. Holding the candle in front of the child's face, I remind the child how she has a powerful light within her, a light composed of her unique gifts and talents, and how she is called to shine this light to the world around her. I then remind her how the light of Christ is always with her and pray she will never ever forget that she is beloved - deeply loved by her parents, her church family and God. We then extinguish the flame and sometimes watch the smoke fill the air as another reminder of how our light can also fill a room.

I love reminding people of God's love. I love telling our congregation that they are more than what their business card says about them. I long for people to know and live as though we are beloved.

I now find myself longing for our new President to claim this truth about himself more than any other truth.

Open the pages of today's Washington Post, and you'll find several stories about the President. One article is titled "They gave me a standing ovation" and reports how President Trump appeared obsessed with his popularity in a recent television interview. Another article reports how President Trump called the acting director of the National Park Service on the day after the inauguration, demanding photos be removed because they showed a crowd much smaller than the one President Trump imagined or hoped for. We now know how the President's disappointment over last Friday's crowd has led to "alternative facts" being offered in the first press conference from the White House briefing room. The actions of this week point to a President who does not appear to understand the truth that sits at the core of his identity. And his actions matter. They are impacting millions of people.

Eugene Robinson hits the nail on the head when he writes, "It matters that the most powerful man in the world insists on 'facts' that are nothing but self-aggrandizing fantasy. It matters that the president of the United States seems incapable of publicly admitting any error. It matters that Trump's need for adulation appears to be insatiable" ("The Peril of Ignoring the Rants," The Washington Post, January 27, 2017, A17).

Very few people can effectively lead without knowing the truth about themselves. Faithful leadership stems from people who know who they are at the core of their being. Individuals who know they are beloved, already more than enough, are able to lead in a way that promotes the greater good of everyone instead of their own individual success.

Imagine how differently President Trump could be leading today if he realized his worth has nothing to do with whether a group of government workers give him a standing ovation or remain seated after his remarks. Imagine the dialogue that could have occurred in Saturday's press conference if Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, had not been asked to defend a lie or propagate an alternative fact. Imagine the compassion that could flow from President Trump if he understood how he is who he is only by the grace of God. Imagine who he might be able to see if he first saw himself as a beloved child of God - more than a successful businessman who doubled the initiation fee on his Florida resort after being elected, more than a billionaire who refuses to release his tax returns, more than a celebrity who believes he can get away with anything, more than the President of a country that is called to be a light to the nations.

On Sunday morning, our ministry intern at Mount Vernon Place, prayed words that are sticking with me some five days later. "God may you help our President see his own sacred worth so he can see this sacred worth in others." I've been praying a version of this prayer each day since Sunday, and I invite you to do the same.

Almighty God, can you please help Donald J. Trump hear the words you spoke to Jesus at his baptism. "This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased." May this belovedness be at his center. May you help him see his own sacred worth so he might be able to see the sacred worth in others and then know the sacred responsibility that has been placed upon his shoulders to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you. God, please help him to see that you already love him, and how this love is more than enough. Amen.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Provoked by a Simple Question


It was a one sentence Facebook status update - a question with no following explanation. But the question has been haunting me since I saw it last night.

"Would you want yourself as a best friend?" my colleague Kevin inquired.

I breezed through it last night only to find myself still thinking about the question when my eyes opened this morning.

"Would you want yourself as a best friend?"

Umm. I'm not sure.

While I often have the best intentions, I regularly forget to call someone on their birthday let alone purchase a package or plan to spend time together. While a day never goes by without me spending time on Facebook, I don't often take two or three minutes to wish all my "friends" a happy birthday. I have friends who I adore, people with whom I have shared significant life journeys, who live in the same city but who I only see a couple of times a year. I know how to show up for parishioners who are in crisis at my church. I strive to never disappoint them even though I sometimes do. I give my heart and soul to being a pastor, but I cannot say the same about being a friend.

Perhaps I'm being hard on myself.

Or maybe I'm telling the truth.

Today is a new day. I'm going to call a friend to wish her "Happy Birthday." I'm going to get the 2017 calendar organized, noting special events in the lives of friends. I'm going to email another friend to make time to get together. I'm going to seek to approach friendship with the way I approach being a pastor.

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13).

This verse is an equally challenging invitation and one I'm going to accept. It's time to lay down a bit of my own life, a bit of my own priorities or desires, a bit of my busyness, and instead pay attention to my friends.

What about you? How would you respond to the question?

"Would you want yourself as a best friend?"

Monday, November 07, 2016

What Makes You Fully Alive?


I've reached my mid-life.

This knowledge didn't come progressively. Rather, it seems to have taken hold of me in the night.

A peaceful night's rest became consumed with one line of thinking, "Holy cow! I'm 44. How did this happen?"

I realize some people mark this milestone with a new sports car. I'm still content with my Honda.

Others might tip-toe into other forms of temptation. I've thankfully kept my feet planted.

But I am asking a lot of questions these days.

How do I want to spend this one, perfect life?

What mark do I most want to leave on this world?

How are my 24 or so remaining professional years to be most faithfully shared with the world around me?

I have come to realize that the more time I ask myself these questions, the more alive I become. There's something extraordinary about inviting your heart to ponder what makes it beat and sometimes skip a beat while asking your mind how much it's currently being stretched and how far you want to stretch it.

In the midst of my questions, I have also been reminded how many people around me are asking similar questions.

One of the early questions we ask children is, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We find delight in their responses that seem to include every possibility under the sun.

When we are in high school, we talk with high school guidance counselors and complete different surveys designed to help us find the right place or forum in which to continue our education.

Some of us then go to college where we enroll in a few courses in hopes of being exposed to conversations that will help us select our major. We meet with an advisor, some of whom are more gifted than others, who helps us chart our class course.

But many of us found our first jobs by luck or circumstance and not any of the above.

For me, it was meeting Mrs. Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992, an interaction that led me to Washington as a White House intern in 1994 and then as a Congressional staffer. Few courses, if any, prepared me for this journey.

But life and its interactions did.

I love leadership. I love making a difference in the lives of others. I love politics - probably more than policy. I love being in the city. I love diversity. I love people. And, I love helping people become more fully alive.

These loves led me to accept my next invitations - personally and professionally - as I got more involved in my local church on Capitol Hill and then continued to apply for different jobs in Washington only to find myself later enrolling in seminary. A love of my seminary led to my returning to become its Director of Admissions. And then a conversation with a mentor opened the space for me to return to Washington to become the pastor of Mount Vernon Place.

It doesn't matter how old we are. Life continues to happen - in strange and hard, obvious and glorifying, routinized and transformational ways. Why, then, do we stop talking about vocation as we grow older? Why do we too often assume that people who are in one vocation at age 30 should remain in that same field at age 50? While some stories of God's call that are recorded in scripture happen when a person is a child, many of them take place when a person is at work, doing their thing, only to find God leading them in a new way.

Abraham Heschel wrote that we should "Live your life like a work of art."

Iranaeus of Lyon said, "The glory of God is manifest in a person fully alive."

Fredrick Beuchner suggested, "The place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." (All of these quotes are taken from Mark Yaconelli's book, Wonder, Fear, and Longing.)

How is your life a work of art? How is it bringing beauty to the community?

What makes you fully alive? How much time are you spending doing what makes you feel this way?

What is your deep gladness? What deep hungers do you see in the world around you? How can you combine the two?

As a pastor, I'm recommitting myself to providing space for such conversations in our congregation. I know this intentional journeying with others is a part of my call that I have been neglecting and also something we need. I'm also committing to letting go of some things so I can invest more fully in what makes my heart sing and has the biggest impact on our community.

What would you do if you could do anything with your one, precious life?

What would make you more fully alive?

What's stopping you?

Monday, October 31, 2016

I'm With Him

"What does it mean to be a disciple?" I first asked to a group of new people at our church. People waited about 15 seconds before several responses were vocalized: faith in Jesus, love of neighbor, wanting to make a difference.

"Who do you look up to when it comes to being a model disciple of Jesus?" I later asked, expecting to hear beautiful responses about lives well lived. But the room became silent. People looked straight ahead or down at their workbooks, but no one spoke. 

After a few moments of silence that felt more like an eternity, one woman spoke up. "I've seen too much dichotomy between the pulpit and a person." Another person chimed in, sharing a few of the ways she was hurt by the church, feeling excluded instead of included. Others nodded their heads before someone asked me who I look up to as a model disciple of Jesus.

It didn't take long for me to start naming certain aspects of one's life. I described my Grandma Ivy as a person of prayer. Grandma was a regular viewer of shows like the 700 Club or the PTL Club. The television was set up in the kitchen, and if Grandma was not cooking, she was sitting in front of it praying. If someone prayed on television, she insisted that the room be silent and people pray along. There is something about her prayer life that moves me today as I realize how often I heard the language of prayer flow from her lips but cannot remember a time when slander or abusive language came from the same lips.

I then shared a glimpse of a dear clergy sister's prayer life. While other people regularly say, "I'm praying for you." My friend, A, will ask me a week later about the particular person or situation that was weighing heavy on my heart in a way that reminds me she was praying all week long, lifting my burden before the Lord.

And then I talked about a few people in our congregation who see serving others not as a practice but as a way of life. I offered a brief description of how our ministry with our unhoused neighbors has been strengthened by those who constantly show up for others, or give generously while naming that their family is larger than the people who live in the same house or have the same name. 

The more I reflected, the more it became clear that a model disciple isn't born that way and isn't perfect. Rather, they have taken on a series of characteristics or practices they seek to embody on a regular basis. They are people who understand how God has given them a powerful light that is not to be hidden under a bushel but rather shared with the community around them. 

We are in a season when many people have purchased t-shirts or bumper stickers with the simple words, "I'm with Her." They are words that proclaim who a person is voting for without even naming the candidate. When one wears such a shirt, one could conclude that the person is many things: a feminist, a Democrat, a supporter of Hillary, a liberal and so much more.

But what does it look like for us to live lives that point to our being with him - to our following Jesus in such a way that others can see who we are with by the lives we live? How is it that others can see who we follow not by what we wear, or the cross we place on our bumpers, but by what we say, what we do and how we love? 

Paul writes to the Colossians, "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts..." (Col. 3:12-15). 

Few people in my life have all of these characteristics. But countless individuals in my community have a combination of them. Perhaps striving to exhibit one or two of them is a good starting place to show others that, "I'm really with him."

Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Amen.