Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Demons of the City

We are in the midst of what has been a powerful sermon series for me at Mount Vernon Place, one that has spoken deeply to my soul, on "What's My Purpose." We turn this week to how the pain of the world, what captures our attention and causes our hearts to break, can be used by God to help us discover some of our purpose. Our text this week is Mark 2:1-12, one of my favorites as I think about who God calls us to carry on top of the roof so we can dig through that roof and literally lower what needs to be healed before Jesus. I'm now sitting with these words by Ched Myers that were inspired by this text.

Jesus relentlessly critiqued the purity and debt systems of his day because they tended to segregate and exclude rather than to integrate and restore. The symbol of his confrontation of these systems was public exorcism.

In the public discourse of the modern world, demon possession is rarely acknowledged and evil is rarely evaluated with appropriate seriousness. Yet we live in a world in which a dramatic confrontation between good and evil continues daily on a grand scale. It is more visible in some circumstances than in others; some demons can be named quite readily, while others cannot. Demons are players in our own stories, too. They have shaped our attitudes toward others, our capacities for moral and ethical discernment, our 'habits of the heart.'

Let us consider racism and its partner, poverty, as examples. The scene these days in almost any inner-city neighborhood in the United States could invite exorcism: the National Guard in camouflage, shining spotlights from hum-fees, trying to push back the violence, drug dealing and violence around the edges of and crisscrossing through neighborhoods that are trying in heroic ways to survive; gangs attempting to fill the void by absent family and community, kids, overgrown into men, with nowhere to go, hanging out all night and all day...

These are the impoverished places where dramatically disproportionate numbers of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities live - not by choice, but by the normal functioning of a system that perpetually excludes them. They are gathered into ghettoes by a form of cultural evil in which the skin color of a person determines his or her access to opportunity...

Demons, we see, threaten our personal and family lives; but they operate adeptly in social structures and systems as well. 
- Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark's Story of Discipleship, Orbis, 1996, 18-19.

The protests that erupted in my home state of Missouri not long ago are now just 30 miles away in the city of Baltimore. Another black man has died too soon. Another life has been taken instead of having the opportunity to reach its full potential.

But can we name the demons?

Do we know the demons within each one of us that have shaped our own personal habits of the heart?

Can the church still invoke Jesus' power to cast out the demons?

What will it take for the church to lead such an effort?

How can we not only name racism as a sin but lead the way in healing the brokenness caused by centuries of systemic racism?

O God, this time seems ripe for the Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words. And yet, I'm longing for a word - a powerful word, a healing word, a penetrating word. I'm longing for prophets to stand up and ignite a movement that does not simply bring about peace in the midst of a city in flames but continues until the broken systems that abound across this nation are healed. Come, Lord Jesus. Come and help us be disciples who speak like prophets, and people who have the courage to step across boundaries, and congregations that will do anything to tear through evil systems until what is in need of healing is lowered before Jesus. Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Leadership on the Court

If a picture paints a thousand words, then this photo paints my description of leadership. It is a portrait of a coach, one of his assistants and three of his players. But Coach K's action of reaching over a coach and another player to hold the hand of Jahlil Okafor speaks powerfully to me. This action conveys a clear message, "We are in this together. I've got your back. Whether we win this game or lose this game, we do it together. But I need you, and I believe in you."

Who has been this kind of leader or mentor to you?

I think of a senior pastor who did everything he could to enable me to flourish as his associate in my first year after seminary, pushing me into places where my gifts could be fully utilized.

I think of a seminary dean who listened to my vision for a new recruitment strategy, heard my heart, and doubled my budget, enabling me to put together pieces the school had never used before.

I think of a district superintendent who stood by my side and built me up when the most vocal people in the congregation were tearing me down.

I think of a bishop who stopped by the church one day to see the new construction, but then heard my heart, prayed for me and presented an offering with the words, "I just want to encourage you."

I think of a 97-year-old church member whose church was in serious decline, closer to closure than new life, who looked me in the eye and said, "We need you. You can do this. You have the best job in Washington."

I realize I would not be half the person I am today without leaders and mentors who have invested in me - individuals who have not only said "I support you" but who have genuinely walked alongside me in real and tangible ways.

What would it mean for us to be this kind of leader for others? What would we have to stop doing so we could invest more time in the people we are privileged to supervise, mentor and manage? What if the future of the church depended on this kind of leadership? And perhaps not only the church but every organization that is needed by society today?

God, help me be this kind of leader, this kind of mentor. Amen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Power of our Promises

Easter Sunday is a pastor's dream. Extra people fill the pews as guests come for the first time and others return after a long time. People come with anticipation and excitement. The smell of fried chicken makes its way over from the fellowship hall. Children laugh and bring you delight as they look for their eggs on the church lawn. And we get to preach the most amazing good news of all time. Add a baptism of twins into this life-giving mix, and my heart is already beating a different sound. 

I cannot wait for Easter Sunday.

I'll have the privilege of baptizing twins on Sunday morning. It's my first time baptizing twins, and I paid careful attention to the liturgy when preparing it yesterday afternoon, making sure all the singular pronouns were turned to plural. I then typed these words about the kind of community we promise to be every time a person is baptized:

"We will surround Emily and Olivia with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life." 

We promise to be a community of love and forgiveness, a community of prayer, and a community that accompanies a person on the path that leads to life. How many such communities do you have in your life right now? How many organizations, circles, committees, or clubs to which you belong are places of love and forgiveness? How many groups are you a part of where the people are praying for you in your journey through life? Who is accompanying you on the path that leads to life?

Perhaps these words describe church at its very best - that place where people are not holding grudges but seeking to live in peace and reconciliation with one another. Church at its best is a community where the people are known for their love and inclusion, not their judgment and exclusion. Church is a place where we learn to love, using Jesus' all-encompassing love as our example. Church at its best is a community of people who constantly remind you that you are not alone. Church at its best is a group of people in which you have holy friends - people who are not afraid to name the sins you've grown to love while pointing out the gifts you've been afraid to claim.

We will make these promises to Emily and Olivia on Sunday morning. But I pray that we are always seeking to be this community to all people in our midst. I cannot recall another group of people who have ever made these promises to me. It's another reason I need the church - perhaps, even, the most important reason for why I need the church.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More Than A Meal

"I placed a bag of food by your chair. It's chicken and dumplings. I made them this morning to take to a family who just had a baby but made a double portion. Please take the rest to someone who needs a meal." These words ushered me towards a small brown bag while igniting a bit of panic following worship on Sunday. The hours of the day were scheduled along with most of Monday. "Do you think the food will still be good on Tuesday?" I inquired, after expressing my gratitude for the gift.

I grabbed the bag while exiting the sanctuary, sat it down on my desk and glanced at my phone where a message was waiting. The recorded words were drenched in tears, a woman's voice asking me to please come as she did not think her cousin, a beloved older member of our church, would make it through the day.

Plans were set aside as I again picked up the bag and headed to my car in order to drive to the retirement community where our beloved member resides. I walked into her home and was immediately greeted by the cousin who had called, informing me that the woman had finally gotten out of bed and was coming to the chair. 

"I have food for you, homemade chicken and dumplings prepared by a church member this morning," I called out, not sure if my offer would be accepted since I had been told she was not eating much. "That sounds wonderful," she responded as I started to fix a plate.

With my heals slipped off, I lowered myself in front of her and started to feed her, placing one bite into her mouth and then another. Each bite was received in gratitude and something began to happen. Ordinary food became an extraordinary offering. The church was made visible as it came to one who has not been in our building for years but reads our bulletins and sermons each week. The new life I often describe to this lifelong member entered the apartment in the form of a brown paper bag still warm to the touch. The church showed up in real and powerful ways.

And I cannot stop thinking about it.

We live in a city where we can order anything for delivery. Dominos can arrive in 30 minutes and pretty much everything else can come within an hour or two including office supplies from Amazon. But sometimes what we really need is an assurance that we're not alone - that we're not fending for ourselves - that someone is willing to show up. When we're hurting or filled with anxiety, we want more than a meal. When we're depressed and ready to give up, we want more than a meal. When we're overwhelmed with a new baby or discerning a new schedule after a hospitalization, we want more than a meal.

I'm regularly reminded of how Jesus shows up in ordinary things: a sunset, a little bread, a sip of wine, a child's laugh, an unexpected phone call. I experience God coming to us through simple gifts every communion Sunday. But I was reminded again on Sunday afternoon about how Jesus can show up any time bread is brought, blessed and broken. What you might think is an ordinary crockpot recipe can become an offering that touches one in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

I called the older member's home this afternoon to ask how she's doing. Her cousin answered the phone. "It's Pastor Donna," I said. "Oh Pastor Donna, you really lifted my cousin on Sunday. I really thought she was dying," she said while I heard my church member say, "Please tell her I just finished the chicken and dumplings."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Friend, Elizabeth

My friend, Elizabeth, died this morning.

Elizabeth taught me to love sliced avocados on my salad but would not allow me to eat too many slices because she worried about my weight.

She stopped me several times to make sure I noticed something - a flower growing, a person hurting, or beauty I was about to miss.

She would often say "Oh Donna!" in a way that reminded me that she was delighted with me at times and aggravated with me at other times.

She showed me what it's like to be in your 70s and have a childlike crush on Neil Diamond as I watched her swoon in delight at a concert on the Capitol lawn two years ago.

She taught me about Jesus and how he comes to us through ordinary things like bread and wine - but especially how Jesus comes to us through those who are poor, on the margins, or struggling in some way.

Elizabeth taught me what it means to stand by your partner in ministry. While most of us think itineracy is difficult on our spouses, Elizabeth knew firsthand how God's call may take you and your family to places that feel more like the desert than still waters. Elizabeth stood by her partner's side as he worked tirelessly in the struggle to end apartheid. She would not allow anyone to put him on a pedestal but would rather point to Jesus at work in him and in the world around him. She was always by his side whether he was ready for another day at sea or longing to come back to the States for a few more semesters of teaching. She seemed to know how much his ministry cost, and she longed to see him filled with joy when the struggle was over - to somehow get back a sense of what he gave.

But Elizabeth taught me the most about ordination.

While most of us focus on trying to remember birthdays, Elizabeth always reminded me that it was the anniversary of my ordination. She rarely let a June 7 pass without sending an email in which she sought to give thanks for God's call on my life. 

Elizabeth seemed to know that my fullest possible life started on the day the bishop laid hands on me, asking God to pour forth God's Spirit upon me. She knew that moment would bring with it some of the greatest blessings but also the heaviest burdens of my life. She knew that ordination was a gift that came with a tremendous amount of responsibility. While we often remember our baptism in order to remember that we are loved, incorporated and forgiven, Elizabeth helped me remember my ordination in a way that came with words like, "It's not always easy to follow Jesus. Jesus takes us to places we don't expect to go. You might get hurt. You might lose something. But being with those who are hurting and in need of Jesus, those who are facing oppression and in need of being set free, those who Jesus regularly befriends - yes, that's the meaning of your ordination." 

I have regularly said that Peter is known as the prophet but you should listen for Elizabeth's voice because when she speaks, she always has something to say. You did not get to share your voice as widely as many in your family, but your voice reached me often, Elizabeth. Your words sunk into the depth of my being often. You shaped and formed me in ways I wish I would have taken time to tell you about.

Thank you for putting me in my place at times - especially in the place of what it means to be set apart to follow Jesus, serve like Jesus, live like Jesus and love like Jesus. I'd give anything to hear you tell another story over a maple donut and cup of instant coffee. For now, I'll promise to remember my ordination in the way you wanted me to remember it - as a costly, sacred gift that should always take us to places we never imagined we would go but places we have to go because Jesus is there. 

Well done, thy good and faithful servant. You are loved, and you will be deeply missed.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Re-Examining Hospitality

The building committee that designed the grand structure to hold the congregation known as Mount Vernon Place Methodist Episcopal Church South spared no expense in constructing a monumental building in downtown Washington. They wanted thousands of church members to ascend the grand steps, walk between the commanding columns, enter an impressive narthex made of marble, and then have their breath taken away upon entering the sanctuary (if it wasn't already removed from climbing the steps). They must have felt immensely proud of their efforts when they stood on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts on the day the building was dedicated in 1919.

The building has housed the largest Methodist Congregation in the Northeastern Jurisdiction when the membership grew to over 4,000 people in 1960. It has housed dozens of Sunday school classes with rosters holding more than 100 names. It has provided space for a church theatre group and choirs that recorded their own albums, all with the name "Mount Vernon Place" associated with it. It's provided an impressive list of services to people with real needs to be met through its social work department in the 1960s and 70s. And its porches have housed dozens of people through the years.

The space that was designed for people to gather while they waited for one worship service to end and another one to begin has for decades been a place for people to put down their belongings and rest for a night. So many people started to gather that the church once believed the only proper solution to the dilemma was to place ugly gates across the entrance. These gates were still attached to the stone when I arrived nearly ten years ago. I knew the moment I saw them how much I wanted them to come down. They came down as part of our building restoration and redevelopment, and it did not take long for people to return to the perceived safety of the porches.

Two summers ago, a task force from the church met and created policies to accompany the porches. Guests were invited to stay from 10:00pm to 7:00am. There was to be no drugs, nudity, urinating or violence. No belongings were to be left on the porch. But I'm not sure there has been a single night in which all guests have obeyed every single rule. Where does one go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when there is no open bathroom nearby? But, what we were doing seemed like hospitality.

Is it not better to welcome people to stay - even though it's outside - than to turn people away?

Are we not offering hospitality and being like Jesus?

It seemed more faithful to respond "yes" to these questions than to turn people away. 

But the weather turned bitter cold two weeks ago. The doors to hypothermia shelters were flung open across the city, and the vans started to creep across streets, looking for people who were ordered to come in for the night. It did not warm up much the next day. The temperatures were cold enough that my colleague and I went outside to make sure no one was sleeping through the bitter cold. There were no people on the porch when we went out. But what we found was enough to take my breath away even more than the first time I saw the sanctuary as I saw a carefully constructed shelter that conveyed a strong sense of desperation to stay warm. I was left with heartache, sadness and dozens of questions. How could we allow people to sleep there at night - with temperatures in the 20s and frozen urine just a few feet away? Would Jesus ever allow anyone to remain there? What are we called to do as people who seek to follow him?

We wrestle with the concept of hospitality all the time. The church has a tendency to open the door to everyone and then say, "Oh wait. You're not straight enough, clothed appropriately enough, sinless enough, or like us enough to come in." My denomination can convey a message along the lines of, "Sure, you're welcome to be a member here even though you're gay. But don't ask me to offer you the same blessing I can afford my straight brothers and sisters when it comes to marriage or ordination." Sometimes we open our doors for people to come in while allowing some people to leave without ever being noticed, welcomed or embraced. We say we want new people but sometimes have no idea how to fully welcome new people if it means letting go of some of our preferences or priorities. 

I've been struggling for years to discern what faithfulness looks like when it comes to people sleeping on our porches. It's only in the last two weeks that the image I snapped that day has forced me to fully wrestle with hospitality - hospitality with our unhoused neighbors, hospitality with people who are not always like "us," and hospitality in general.

When I googled the word hospitality this morning, this definition filled my screen, "the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers." Hospitality is not simply receiving guests. In order for it to be hospitality, it has to be friendly and generous - not in the lines of Martha Stewart, perhaps, but in the lines of Jesus whose arms were always extended wide open and whose voice regularly offered an invitation to "follow me" into a changed life.

Our Stewardship of Resources Committee gathered the week after the coldest temperatures of the year to once again discern a faithful response to keeping people safe, caring for our vulnerable members, and providing hospitable and clean space to all who come to the church no matter why they come. The group listened faithfully to one of our building partners who has more experience and expertise in housing people and working with those who are currently unhoused than any of us. We listened to her words about what it means to truly offer hospitality and her warnings about the harm we could be doing by continuously allowing people to sleep on our porches vs. limiting that space and turning our efforts into walking alongside of people to a different life. At the end of the meeting, these faithful leaders voted unanimously to prohibit sleeping on church property starting March 1. But the efforts don't end there, we're also seeking to walk aside our "residents," to do everything we can to get them to a place where they have a key that can unlock and lock the door to the place they call home. We're stepping out in faith and asking God to help us be part of new miracles in our midst. 

In the meantime, we'll keep focussing our efforts on things we do well when it comes to providing a friendly and generous reception - receiving people fully into our space. The doors to the shower ministry will remain open three mornings a week. People will be welcomed inside for a meal once or twice a month. Prayerfully, we can even grow these ministries as our congregation continues to grow. And all people - ALL PEOPLE - who walk inside our doors will be prayerfully given the same welcome, the same sense of community, the same blessing that we as a church can provide. 

I find myself praying the words of Thomas Merton often these days, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end...and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always... Amen."

Our first meeting with the community on our porches is scheduled for this Tuesday morning. Will you pray for us? Will you pray for the people who currently sleep outside? Will you pray for the day when all of God's children will have a proper place to call home? And if you feel the heavy burden of responsibility and live nearby, then come join us.

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.