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.

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? 

Seriously. 

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