Monday, April 14, 2014

Time with a Friend

It's Monday of the busiest week of the year. There are many books I planned to have read by now and others I downloaded just last night. I intended to have at least one of the three sermons to be preached this week written by now but still have blank screens staring me in the eye. And I cannot get any further - at least not at the moment. I have been stopped in my tracks by the morning devotional and invitation to spend time with my friend, Jesus.

My friend, Jesus.

"What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is the only hymn I can play on the piano without music. The words of the song are ingrained in my head as my grandmother and mother used to regularly sing the familiar tune. But if the truth were told, it's not often that I think of Jesus as my friend.

Today's devotional reading took me to the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus is the one who was in the tomb for four days until Jesus came and called him out. Imagine being at that dinner party, sitting across the table and breaking bread with this man who has come back to life. One would think that his sisters, Mary and Martha, would be reluctant to leave his side. I can imagine them to be tempted to write down every word so they could make a million telling the story about how heaven is for real. But their attention is on someone else tonight - it's on their friend, Jesus. John tells us that Martha serves Jesus while Mary gets down and anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair.

My devotional guide has invited me to imagine the smell of the perfume filling the house. I then read the words, "It was an extravagant, wasteful, and indulgent thing to do, but it spoke of a human reality: some opportunities need to be grasped as they arise, some moments need to be honored, friendship cannot always be calculating." The writer then adds, "Holy Week invites me to spend time with Jesus, not for any logical reason, but simply to accompany a lovely friend."

I'm pondering what it means to spend time with Jesus. Even more so, I'm pondering how often I put friends on the back burner. I used to talk to one of my closest friends every Sunday night. We caught up this past week after nearly two months of communicating only through Facebook updates. I have other friends going through changes and transitions that I don't reach out to nearly enough. I have four Godchildren and have not seen a couple of them in years - and one even lives in the same city. The busyness of life too often gets in the way, and I too often allow it to creep in on time with friends.

But I do the same thing when it comes to time with my friend, Jesus. I wanted to dig right into reading this morning, reading that would have started with the prayer, "Help me, Jesus. We've got sermons to write." But instead I'm here pondering what it means for me to spend time with my friend, Jesus. I tell my friends everything that's happening in my life - the good, the bad and the ugly. I laugh with my friends. I sometimes play with my friends. I eat with my friends. I reach out to my friends. I have to put everything aside in order to be with friends - something I always love even though I don't do it often enough.

I wonder how many times I've missed spending time with my friend, Jesus, because I've had too much to do. I wonder how many invitations Jesus has offered to just let go for a bit, step away from it all, and take wonder and delight in being in his presence instead of staying at the church another hour or doing more ministry. I wonder if the most faithful start of Holy Week is to clear the agenda for today and simply sit for a while - with my friend Jesus.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lessons from Mary

Sunday night took us to third row, center seats for the Oak Ridge Boys. I grew up singing the music of the Oak Ridge Boys. I can remember two-stepping at a place called Good Time Country to some of their music. Who doesn't remember singing Elvira? I love the Oak Ridge Boys, and seeing them in concert was a treat.

Midway through the concert, I noticed the lead singer making regular connection through eyes and smiles with someone in the audience. I did not turn around to see who it was, however, until the singer started to talk to her from the stage during a break in the music.

Mary was introduced to the crowd as one of their most loyal fans. We then learned that Mary is 88-years-old, and that her mother was also a devoted fan of the Oak Ridge Boys until she died at the age of 105. Mary had just returned from being on a cruise with the Oak Ridge Boys. She continued the conversation with the band, while the audience looked on in delight. She filled us with laughter as she sat in her chair with her cane tucked between her knees.

The band started to play again, and several more number one hits were belted out from the stage before another familiar tune started to be played.

Can't you feel it in your bones?
Oh, a change is comin' on
From every walk of life
People are seeing the light
A new thing is taking shape



Reach out, touch a hand
Lord, make a friend if you can
Anytime you come on in
Live the united way
Why don't you join us today?
Make a friend if you can

Reach out, touch a hand
Make a friend if you can
Of others just like you
Reach out, touch a hand
Yo, make a friend if you can


Many people in the crowd started to sing along. I also started to sing words to a song I had not heard in what must be 20 years. But Mary did something different. She actually started to reach out to everyone around her. She made every effort to touch the hand of anyone sitting within five feet of her chair. Again, we took delight in Mary. But none of us followed her example, and some of us got a little uncomfortable at the thought of having to touch the hand of everyone around us. 

We're not used to holding hands with strangers. 

Mary has not left my mind since Sunday night. I keep picturing her reaching out to everyone with a huge smile on her face. And I'm convinced the world needs more Mary's. I am even more convinced that the church needs more people like Mary.

There are more churches today that are in decline than there are churches that are growing. The average age of a church goer goes up each year. Many millennials are giving up on the church all together. 

At the same time, there is a movement within the church that believes the only way to reach those on the outside - the best way to get young people in our pews - is to start something new. We are regularly tempted to believe that the church has to present an entirely new face - new music, new technology, new attire, new space, new people - in order to reach new people. I'll admit there is a huge amount of power in new church starts. It's a rather wonderful thing to have the capacity to reach new people without the resistance of older people criticizing every change you make. But I've learned a thing or two about the power of having people like Mary in the congregation.

Mary is six years older than the average age of the congregant in the pews when I first came to Mount Vernon Place in 2005. Our leadership team consisted of a 97-year-old chair of Staff Parish, a 93-year-old Finance Committee Chair, and a 90-year-old Lay Leader. These individuals had fallen in love with our church when it had over 4000 members and had stuck with it as the membership rolls plummeted to less than 300. They had been part of a vital church that made a profound difference in the city and were struggling to believe that God still had a plan for their church. While most were resistant to change at first, there were a few people who got excited when young adults started to come to worship. One person invited a young couple into her home where the three lived together in community for over four months. One took notice of a young teacher and her passion for children, seeking to do all she could to get her connected to the Methodist Children's Home. Another man started to count how many young adults would come forward for communion on the first Sunday of the month, announcing with a great sense of excitement how his church was growing again. Still another continues to go out of her way to welcome people this day - extending her hand to touch the hand of whatever new person is sitting near her. And another prayed fervently for her pastor and each new member as more people started to come into the doors. When Mount Vernon Place started to grow again, I regularly told people that one of the gifts that set us apart from other places in the city is that our church was one of the few places where a twenty or thirty-something could develop a meaningful relationship with a ninety or one-hundred-year-old. And it was true. The longtime members of our church showed us the gift of reaching out, extending a hand, going out of their way to welcome new people into our midst.

I'd love to see Mary walk down K Street during lunch hour. I imagine her saying "hello" to everyone in her midst. I get a kick out of imagining her reaching out and shaking the hand of everyone she passed. Her presence would bring quite the contrast to a busy city filled with people consumed by their smart phones or hesitant to say "hello" to whoever they pass on the street. Washington is a place where saying "Good morning" to a stranger can be as startling as a horn being honked from a car nearby.

Most of us have a Mary or two in our churches. We need to seize them for the gift they are and unleash them into the movement of the sweet Spirit that longs to breathe new life into dry bones. Mary and her friends may be the most valuable asset within many of our congregations.

Thank you, God, for Ruth, Howard, Annie Lou, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Lou, Sally, Michael and so many others that reached out and touched the hand of new people in our midst. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Words of Grace from a Hermit

I've read about hermits. It was sometime in seminary, probably in Early and Medieval Christianity when we were learning about the Early Church Fathers and mystic saints who fled to the desert to be with God. I must have read enough to pass the academic exams and move onto the next course. But I don't remember anything specific about a hermit other than they pray a lot in tiny, cell-like dwellings.

It was not until last December that I learned more about hermits. This time not from a textbook or classroom lecture but from a handshake and conversation in a monastery bookstore.

Timing is everything, and our timing to pay the bill at Christ in the Desert and purchase final monastery products led us to the store at the same time Father John, the local hermit, was inside. I'm not sure how the conversation started but I'll never forget the lessons learned.

"Tell me, Father John," how is one called to be a hermit?

Father John, a man close to my age wearing regular jeans and a black smock started to respond, sharing how he is a Franciscan monk who was living in an urban center where he regularly fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and ate with prostitutes. He was being the hands and feet of Jesus, an integral part of the body that reaches out and loves like Christ, when Jesus came with a different message.

"Father John, I want you to go to this place, and if you stay connected to me then I promise you that you can serve these people just the same." Father John then continued to share how Jesus led him to the desert of New Mexico and showed him how he could still be with the prostitute who needed a different life and the homeless man who needed clothes. It's just that instead of being in the person's midst, Father John would be connected - deeply connected - through prayer.

"I pray six hours a day and then do physical work around the monastery in the afternoon," Father John said when I asked him what a hermit does.

Father John serves those most in need through prayer - through interceding on their behalf - through bringing the needs of the world to God in prayer.

Father John prays.

He prays six hours every day. Six. Hours.

Whoa.

As a pastor, I'm regularly overcome with feelings of guilt. These feelings often come when I realize how long it's been since I have visited all of our STARS (Seniors with Transportation and Accessibility Restrictions). The feelings come when I have a note on my calendar reminding me to call someone and failing to do so. I feel guilty regularly for not showing up as often as I could - or should - or as often as some people think I should.

But what if I prayed every time I started to feel guilty? What if I sought to daily bring before God each person on my pastoral care list or all of our unhoused neighbors who I see for a few minutes on Sunday morning while others open the doors at 5:30 am twice a week to welcome them inside for a shower? What would it look like for me to lay aside a fraction of Father John's time, trusting that God can keep me just as connected to those who need to experience food, healing, transformation, housing, community - through prayer - through my interceding on their behalf?

Paul invites the Thessalonians to rejoice always and pray without ceasing. I've got the rejoicing down. I'm a rather happy, grateful person who is regularly filled with joy. But praying....well....

God, thank you for the words of grace from Father John. Quiet my spirit. Clear my calendar. Help me to be more deeply connected to the people you have called me to serve by staying more deeply connected to you. Amen.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Could the Cold be Your Call to Action?

Yes! It's cold outside. I know this fact to be true after hearing my car sputter a little when I turned it on this morning. I could tell you it was cold outside from a one block walk to Starbucks this morning. But I would not have had to venture anywhere in order to know the temperature outside. Plenty of Facebook friends have snapped photos of the temperature gage in their car and posted the photos for the world to see. We are almost bragging about who has the lowest number posted in their Facebook feed. We clearly do not like it when the temperature falls into the single digits.

But I've noticed something else on Facebook. In addition to all the photos of temperatures near zero, I've read plenty of concern about individuals who are homeless. Several moms have mentioned how they put their children to bed last night after praying with them for anyone outside. Lots of friends shared the hypothermia hotline number. There was a concern expressed last night about those who are homeless that I have not witnessed before.

And I wonder.

I wonder what it would look like if we had this concern every day of the year.

Even more, I wonder what would happen if we allowed this cold to not only be a call to prayer - but a call to action. Could we allow the arctic blast to blast us into actually doing something in addition to praying? You see, I regularly tell people I'm praying for them. And often I actually am. But I also know that saying the words, "I'm praying for you," can get me off the hook. I can say these words and then cover up my fingers and toes, turn on the national championship football game, and enjoy hot tea before turning into a warm bed.


I stopped by our church's shower ministry this morning before walking to my coffee appointment. I was hoping and praying that no one would be there - that everyone would be in a warm shelter or hotel instead of coming in from off the streets. But I found a crowded room instead as people were coming in to get coffee and wait for a hot shower. In the midst of my greeting folks, I met someone new to me.

James was all dressed up with a tie. He asked me first about double x underwear before asking if he could visit with me for a few minutes. I walked with him near the door where there was more space to talk, and he reached into his pocked and pulled out a stack of bills. I said, "James, that's not real money." But he kept unrolling the money until he had a crisp bill to give to me. It's a million dollar bill - a bill unlike anything I've ever seen before. James gave it to me with clear instructions. "Don't forget about the homeless. Take this money and buy us food to eat."

Don't forget about the homeless.

Many of us thought a lot about those who are homeless when we went to bed last night. But we will be tempted to soon forget about them when the temperatures climb into the 50s later this week. Many of us taught our children lessons about those who are on the streets last night. But we'll revert back to taking care of our own kids and getting them whatever they need and often want but don't really need later today.

What are we doing for those who are homeless?

I'm grateful to be the pastor of a church that opens our doors to provide showers for our unhoused neighbors three days a week. I've been touched in profound ways by time with people who come inside and receive our hospitality with smiles on their faces and positive outlooks on life that cause me to quickly repent of whatever it is I've been complaining about. What we do is important and life-giving for those who give and those who receive. It's an incredible ministry. But I still ponder regularly about what more we can be doing.

Our church is located in a community where there is a church on every other block. There are 1261 houses of worship in the online Yellow Pages for the District of Columbia. Imagine what these 1261 houses of worship could do if each one of us made a commitment to care completely for one person who is currently unhoused until that person is back on their feet. What if each one of us saw the redistribution of wealth as part of our call and made a commitment to ask our parishioners to not only pray for those who are homeless or show up to serve those who are homeless, but to commit to give generously of their financial resources so that one person's rent, utilities, food, insurance, clothing, and additional expenses could be cared for? The statistics on homelessness in Washington are staggering. But the number of houses of worship in Washington is equally staggering, especially compared to the number of people who want nothing to do with the church.

You see, we regularly judge those who are homeless. We wonder how a person who is working a job full time does not yet have enough money for an apartment. But we often forget what's required for an apartment: a credit check, a deposit equal to one month's rent and then the first month's rent not to mention utilities. We question why those who are homeless splurge on movies in the theatre instead of saving their money while forgetting that the people who have much always have more options when it comes to entertainment - not to mention choices about what we will watch. We call some people lazy bums and are convinced that their laziness is why they are homeless without realizing that some people are applying for a dozen jobs each day praying that one person will let go of the fact that they committed a felony seven years ago with nothing on their record since. We regularly convince ourselves that we know what we would do if we were walking in their shoes while failing to admit that we have no idea what it's like to be without keys to a place of our own.

We know from scripture that all of God's teaching boils down to two commandments. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Praying for our neighbors is one part of loving our neighbors. Making sure our neighbors have something to eat and a place to sleep is an entirely different story.

Church World Service shared this photo on their Facebook feed earlier this week. It got my attention in a way the photos of temperature gages have not. The words are rather haunting. They are my call to prayer - but also my call to action.

I'm willing to redistribute part of my wealth to care for a neighbor. In addition to tithing 10% of my income to the ministries of our church, I'll put in $100 a month to adopt one of our neighbors.

Anyone willing to join me?

Perhaps the million dollar bill is not too good to be true.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - A Year in Review

It's been a rather remarkable year.

I've learned the power of prayer as my father was quickly scheduled for open heart surgery, and I became the one begging for prayer instead of showing up to pray as a pastor often does.

I've been on the receiving end of extraordinary generosity through the Lilly Endowment's National Clergy Renewal program. The grant enabled me to have an extended time away from the church in which I traveled to the tiny island of Iona in Scotland, revisited the city of London where I had not been since college, and smooched my husband in a park in Paris. I had time to go to the gym regularly and work out with my trainer. I took a bus to New York City by myself and saw three Broadway shows in three days. I went to Missouri to be with Dad following his surgery. I took my niece to South Africa where we encountered people who opened our hearts in powerful ways before beholding the beauty of the land at a game reserve. I've learned the importance of time away and am profoundly grateful to have had a summer with funding to do what makes my heart sing. The summer changed my life in real and tangible ways.

I walked on to the floor of the United States House of Representatives, journeying into space where I had not been since I left the Hill to go to seminary in 1997. This time, rather than giving a tour to constituents, I stood behind the same podium where the President gives the State of the Union in order to open the House in prayer. The prayer was composed of the most carefully crafted 150 words ever, and while there were hardly any people there with Congress away, it was a great gift to have my former Washington life collide with my current Washington life. I loved it!

I've watched Emmanuel, God with us, show up time and again in the church where I have been privileged to serve for the last 8.5 years. When our congregation made the decision to become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network four years ago, we knew it was important to do everything possible to welcome people who are often turned away from the church and specifically LGBT people. What we did not know then is the fuller picture of the difference a wider welcome would have on our church. This wide welcome has created a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God as we grow more diverse in every possible way - housed and unhoused, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, white and black, US born and immigrant. God has done and is doing a mighty thing in this place. I would not trade it for anything and am humbled and thankful to be the pastor at this place where people are regularly struggling with what it means to be faithful in downtown Washington.

I've fallen in love with Craig all over again. My father regularly says he could not live with either one of us but he's glad we've found each other. In Craig, I see what God meant when God first called us to live in community in the book of Genesis. Craig is my biggest source of support, my loudest cheerleader, and my partner in life who brings pure joy through sharing the ordinary tasks of life. Our family is not as big as we imagined it would be when preparing for marriage, but we are so grateful to have each other.

There is a bit of sadness as this year comes to a close as so many hopes and dreams have come to fruition in the last twelve months. And yet, I also eagerly anticipate 2014 because I know God is with us and working powerfully in my life. There is a clear sense of being on a journey, and I cannot wait to see where the journey leads.

It's a rather wonderful life, I do believe.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What If....

What if we woke up every morning and said "thank you?"

What if we regularly expressed gratitude to friends and family for the gifts of their love, generosity, acceptance, or for simply showing up when we need them?

What if we thanked God for warm beds, ample food, hands, feet, minds, health insurance or any of the things we so often take for granted?

What if we wrote at least one thank you note a week?

What if we started each meal with a blessing, never taking a bite without saying "thanks?"

What if we looked every employee of the coffee shop, dry cleaner, grocery store or gas station in the eye and offered heart-felt gratitude for their labor?

What if we climbed in bed each night and sought to recall all the blessings of the day?

What if we thanked God each day for passionately pursuing us, loving us and forgiving us?

What if we treated every single day as though it were Thanksgiving?

Psalm 100 
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth. Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before God with joyful singing. Know that the LORD is God; It is God who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are God's people and the sheep of God's pasture. Enter God's gates with thanksgiving, And God's courts with praise. Give thanks to God; bless God's name. For the LORD is good; God's lovingkindness is everlasting, And His faithfulness to all generations.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

What Did Not Change This Week

Dear Beloved Mount Vernon Place Congregation:

The United Methodist Church has been making the news a lot this week. Our beloved church has garnered space just inside the front page of the Washington Post and countless other newspapers. We have been mentioned on the television news far and wide. We've made quite the splash, garnering attention that we have not received for a while. But the attention is not because of the good we are doing. None of the stories mention how much we donated for relief efforts in the Philippines last week. I've not seen anything on what we are doing to end hunger or homelessness. Rather, I, along with many of you, have read stories and accounts of a trial in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, my colleague, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, pastor of the Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was found guilty of performing a same sex wedding and not upholding the discipline of the United Methodist Church. The trial was the result of complaints that were filed several years after Rev. Schaefer presided at the marriage of his son in Massachusetts (by the son of a former disgruntled employee of the church). On Wednesday, a thirteen person jury punished Rev. Schaefer with a 30-day suspension during which he must decide if he can fully embrace the entire Book of Discipline or surrender his credentials - giving up his ordination. I don't know of any parent of three gay children who could possibly say "yes" to what the church is asking of Rev. Schaefer. When many of us will be welcoming guests and members to our Christmas Eve services, there is a chance that Rev. Frank Schaefer will be Frank with no "Reverend" in front of his name.

There is nothing good coming out of this trial. I'm not sure there is ever anything good that comes from a church trial. When the church is so broken that we "try" ministry in the same format that criminals are tried in our communities, there is no chance of anyone winning. While the Good News movement may claim victory in this trial, everyone lost. Our denomination is losing - losing faithful pastors, deeply committed members, and the chance of being in ministry with and to hundreds of thousands of people around us who cannot fathom being part of such a judgmental, broken body.

Some of you have spoken out on Facebook, questioning your involvement in the United Methodist Church. Others of you have sent me emails making sure that I am okay in the midst of all that is happening in our church. I want to assure you that I am okay. I also want to assure you that we are okay. Mount Vernon Place has not changed.

If I have one message to proclaim - one sermon to preach - it is the sermon that we are all deeply beloved by God. The God I know and seek to follow is one who is foolishly in love with all of God's creation - one who goes to great lengths to capture our attention and woo us until we finally give in to God's relentless desire to be in relationship with us. This God longs for us to live lives that are different as a result of God's presence in our lives - lives of generosity, service and sacrifice - lives in which we seek to fully love God and neighbor. The trial in Pennsylvania did not change this message.

A specific prayer led me out of my role as Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School and back to the local church: "God, take me out of my place of comfort and success. Give me a heart for hurting and broken people. Make me more prophetic." In my 13 years of professional ministry, I've had more conversations with gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have been hurt by the church than any other group. I've never seen the church work so hard to keep a person or people away as we do individuals who are gay or lesbian. My heart hurts for the message conveyed to my LGBT brothers and sisters and now re-conveyed by our Council of Bishops and the jury in Pennsylvania. The trial in Pennsylvania did not change my heart for hurting and broken people.

We are part of a church with a wedding policy that states that any active member can be married in our church by our pastor. We wrestled as a congregation over how unfair it was for a couple with no connection to our church to be able to pay to get married in our sanctuary while saying "no" to same sex couples who faithfully live out their discipleship through the ministries of our church. I have wrestled with how many couples I have married who had no business getting married while being told by my denomination that I cannot marry couples with relationships that have stood the test of time - couples who adore each other and have Christ at the center. The trial in Pennsylvania has not changed our policy as a congregation or my call to be a pastor who offers the same blessing and pastoral care to all of our members.

We begin every Sunday morning with the words, "No matter where you have been or where you have failed to be, what you have said or what you have failed to say, what you have done or what you have failed to do, or who you love or who you have failed to love, you are welcome here." The trial in Pennsylvania has not changed this welcome. In fact, it's made me want to fling open our doors even wider. All are welcome at Mount Vernon Place. Nothing about this welcome has changed.

We have an important role to play as a Reconciling Congregation. We are called to actively seek change in our denomination. We are also called to be the most faithful expression of Christ's body in downtown Washington that we can be. There is much hurt and pain around us. God can use us to heal this pain. I believe with my whole heart that we can play a role in ending child hunger, homelessness and sex-trafficking in our city. I believe with my whole heart that we can be a real, authentic community for people who have 1000 friends of Facebook but no one to call on Friday night. I believe we can make a difference. May we be this church - as faithfully and as fully as we can - with as many beloved children of God in our midst.

See you tonight for Charge Conference and on Sunday for worship.

Thank you for the precious privilege of being your pastor,
Donna

P.S. If you're reading this blog and not part of a church, you're abundantly welcome to #MeetMeAtMVP on Sunday @ 11. I love our church - a lot.