Monday, November 02, 2015

A Simple Invitation

I reached my tipping point.

It happens every year about this time as the fall craziness ushers in forms to be completed for Charge Conference, thoughtful letters to be written to each member as we invite them to ponder how to embody generosity in the next year, new classes to lead, leadership to select and equip, and general planning.

Last week was extraordinary on so many levels. There were meals with members, meals with new students, and a meal that brought together people from three institutions who are trying hard to work together. There were thoughtful conversations and helpful training sessions and exciting planning. So much happened, and I kept on going. Like an Energizer bunny, I filled myself with coffee each morning while allowing the devotional book and Bible to remain closed. I did whatever it took to make it through my to-do list and scheduled appointments, came home, crashed, and got up to do it all over again.

I then arrived at the church yesterday morning in what I perceived to be plenty of time only to learn how much time it takes when a room isn't quite ready for a meeting and when the plan for the All Saint's candles doesn't really work. I rushed through my preparations for a small group and prayed my sermon would flow.

I then showed up to facilitate a class where someone came who I knew didn't really want to be there because a session centered on the Holy Spirit can be both confusing and intimidating. But she came, arriving with her baby as she has each week.

The baby smiled for the first 30 minutes, and then he made a fuss, struggling to find comfort until she placed him in the Bjorn up against her chest. And it was this image that arrested me - this image that came as an invitation to me - this image in the midst of so many other powerful images from yesterday - that reminds me what God most longs for me to receive - to share with us.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30).

Why do we have such a hard time accepting this invitation?

What would we need to do to stop for a moment - stop whining, stop working, stop planning, stop doing, stop being restless - and simply crawl into the arms of God and allow ourselves to be held for a while?

Friday, September 25, 2015

God is Still Speaking - Even to the Speaker of the House

Washington has been rocked this week.

Traffic patterns were redefined. Barriers were constructed. So many people teleworked that Metro's ridership was down by 18% on Wednesday. Tourists have arrived by bus, plane and rail. And joy has come in ways I've not experienced before. Police officers were going out of their way to say "Good morning," yesterday. Many people seemed to be smiling even as they had to wait an extra 20 minutes to cross the street.

Some people say our city put on quite a show. Indeed, it seems that everything about the Pope's visit went smoothly, just as planned. But it's now clear we were not really ready for the Pope. We were not ready for him to actually change us.

Our city is used to labels. Progressive people sit on the left while conservatives sit on the right. Some people wear blue and others prefer red. Some of us have elephants in our offices and others have donkeys in our front yards. Each thought, stance and person is to be labeled either "Democrat" or "Republican." Even the Washington Post could not stop from including the word "politics" when describing the Pope's first full day in our city. 

The problem is, the Pope doesn't fit neatly inside either box. And his words yesterday cannot be labeled "progressive" or "conservative" no matter how many newscasters sought to say something like, "And just as the Republican lawmakers were settling into their seats, the Pope gave them something to stand up for when he talked about the family." 

The Pope did not come here to win people to one side or the other. He did not come espousing conservative values or progressive ideals. He came preaching the Gospel. He came to talk about God who created the world, called it "good," and wants us to treat it with the same reverence and respect. He came and reminded people that God weeps whenever life ends - whether it's in the womb in a clinic or on a table in a penitentiary. He came to talk about the gift of wealth used rightly and the need to care for the vulnerable in our midst including children and the elderly. He came to talk about weapons and peace. And he then showed us how true riches can be found not in breaking bread with the "powerful" on Capitol Hill but with those who have an even more powerful way of showing us the face of Jesus in a nearby church's lunch ministry. 

We were prepared to move the Pope through our city. But we were not prepared for him to move past our labels. We were prepared to sacrifice hours in hopes of getting even a quick glimpse of this gentle man. But we were not prepared for his words to move us, and certainly not the powerful amongst us.

Countless people have mocked the image of Speaker John Boehner's crying in the Pope's presence yesterday. We saw them sitting together, joking about a green tie, sipping cold water. But we were not prepared for the decision made today.

The Speaker who cried yesterday announced his resignation today. People are quick to point to the politics, sharing how he won the seat by a narrow margin. But I think otherwise. You see, I've heard God speaking. I know the voice of one who says, "Will you come and follow me?" I know the joy that comes when one seeks to relinquish the treasures of this world in exchange for something far more powerful: treasures of the kingdom.

What if John Boehner not only met the Pope yesterday, but heard Jesus in a new way? What if he experienced a call to be reconciled, to live as one? What if he received a message to care for the poor and vulnerable around us? What if this humble, loving man renamed Francis showed him the way to peace, and how we might be more faithful instruments of his peace in other places? What if Jesus' friend name John experienced Jesus leading him to places where his gifts can be used in ways that will reap far more benefits than even being number three in line for the presidency?

My favorite definition of politics is "the ability to produce intended and foreseen effects upon others." If these words are true, then I bring politics into the pulpit every time I open my mouth because I long for lives to be changed through what I say. Ask any preacher if the same is true for her, and you're likely to hear a resounding "yes."

I cannot imagine the Pope coming to our country without praying that God would use him in a powerful way. I cannot imagine him coming to our country without praying the words Speaker Boehner reportedly prayed last night,

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. 

It seems that prayers are being answered in powerful ways.

Imagine what might happen if every person with power sought to pray this prayer and then become the answer to it?

God is still speaking. Praise be to God! God is still speaking!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Waiting for a Pope

Our city is filled with a sense of expectation and excitement that I have not experienced in a long time. Some of us are glued to our televisions, and others have been standing outside since 4:00am, eager to get a glimpse of the Pope. Many of us have adapted our work schedules, heeding the advice of television newscasters offering insights on proposed traffic nightmares. And while I'm sure people are complaining at the disruptions, I've not heard the grumbling. Rather, I've heard an extraordinary sense of gratitude.

And I cannot help but to wonder how long we've been waiting for a Pope like Francis.

Gone are the Prada shoes and the palatial palace. But that was just the beginning. We have since watched the Pope cross one barrier after another. We have seen him prefer to touch the common person over spending time with the powerful. We have observed him being like Jesus. He's regularly stopped to notice those whom others cannot see. He has touched those once deemed untouchable. He's brought healing to his church - and to my church.

He's said things we need to hear about mercy, justice, humility, compassion and equality.

But he's not simply preached. He's done what St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

And while we have learned much from Pope Francis, we've also learned that our world is desperate for the people who say they follow Jesus to act like Jesus. People want to see others befriending the poor, touching the untouchable, healing the brokenness, and making the world one.

My prayers are with Pope Francis as he prepares to offer his first words to our nation this morning. May this prophet speak prophetically, and may the eyes and ears of all who see him be opened in such a way that we long to follow Jesus with what we do and how we spend the enormous resources God has given us. We are a nation in great need of healing.

Speak Francis. Speak loudly. Speak clearly. And then please keep loving extravagantly in such a way that the church and our nation cannot help but do the same. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lessons in Hospitality

"Tell me, what do you like about your new church?" I asked him. "Everyone is excited to see you when you walk in. They all go out of their way to welcome you. It makes me look forward to going each week."

I had a similar experience of being welcomed and received recently. But it was not in a church. Rather, it was in a restaurant.

Craig and I arrived ten minutes before our reservation, but the restaurant staff was still waiting for us, ready to receive us and show us to our table. When we sat down, we were quickly greeted by each staff member passing by. Our server then came to the table to introduce herself and describe the evening specials in a way that assured us she would be caring for us. But everyone - the entire staff - kept serving us. No one was assigned to a specific area in the restaurant. Rather, our water glasses stayed full the entire time as every staff person was looking out for the entire restaurant instead of keeping to his or her assignment or assigned area. When a large table behind us was ready to be served, ten staff members surrounded the table so each guest could receive their sizzling steaks at the same time. When it came time to leave, each person we passed said "Thank you for coming." The restaurant owner then saw us and immediately remembered that Craig had checked a jacket. He brought the coat to us and said, "Can I treat you to one more thing. How about a shot?" And three days later, when we returned home from our vacation, the photographed note was waiting for us in our mailbox - a thank you - from our server!

I've long been convinced that the hospitality industry has much to teach the church. I once questioned what might happen if our churches were reviewed on TripAdvisor. But now I'm wondering what we can learn from this specific restaurant. I'd recommend any business working on building a team go at least once. But even more, what are the lessons for the church?

What if every member of the congregation saw that part of their responsibility was to greet each person they see inside the church building and express hospitality in a way that makes every person know they are cherished? What if we did not rely upon the greeters to say "Hello, I'm so glad you're here" but all saw ourselves as greeters?

What if every member of the congregation went out of their way at the end of worship to look for someone new and say, "Thank you so much for coming today. Want to join me for coffee hour?" instead of concluding that the new people don't really want to go or can find their way on their own?

What if every member of the congregation stopped to pick up the piece of trash just outside the door or tell someone that we're running low on paper towels in the men's room instead of assuming someone else will take care of it?

And what if we all sought to make a meaningful connection each week that led to our getting the email address of someone so we could follow-up with a message, "It was so good to meet you on Sunday. I'm involved in a small group that gathers on Wednesdays. I'd love to have you come."

It is the little things that make the largest difference when it comes to building the church or getting a person to return to a restaurant. My friend who told me about his new church shared how the pastor didn't really preach that day. The elements we pour so much time into are not always enough to hook someone or lead them back into your doors. But the people in the pews are. We are all craving meaningful relationships. We all long for proof that places still exist where everyone knows our name.

I'll go back to Hall's if I'm ever in Charleston again - not because it was the best steak I've ever had. I'd go back because I've never been so welcomed in a restaurant before.

Friday, August 07, 2015

What's Your Legacy?

I've been thinking a lot about my legacy in recent months. The conversation was ignited last year through an Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising course I took through the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving which inspired me to start imagining how my life will keep living and giving long after my death.

How do you want to be remembered?

Have you made any plans that will ensure a legacy that continues to make a vital difference in the lives of others even after you've died?

And how is your life making a difference now in such a way that others can see your imprint in both the world and in the lives of others?

It is this final question that gained new inspiration last night when I watched my teacher, mentor and friend, Peter Storey, preach at the Reconciling Ministries Network conference in San Antonio. Listen to his words that begin at 1:32.

As I listened to his sermon last night, I thought about the ways in which his faith, courage and conviction made a vital difference in the apartheid years in South Africa. I thought about how he put his life on the line time and again in response to his baptism vows to resist whatever forms of evil and oppression present themselves in the world. I thought about the witness of his dear wife who was remembered by saying, "I never asked God to keep him safe. I always asked God to keep him faithful." But then I kept on thinking about how many people his life has inspired to live in a similar way.

How many people are willing to bravely resist oppression in the church and the world because of him - his life and his witness?

And then I decided that I'd love to be remembered for being courageous, faithful and brave...all because of Jesus.

What about you? How do you want to be remembered? What will your legacy be?

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Monastic Life

I spent the last five days in silence with seven other people at Holy Cross Abbey. I make the journey to Berryville once a year, craving a break from the city, from a home in which the television is on way too often, from the demands of life, and from a life that is patterned after these demands.

And I've fallen in love again.

I've fallen in love with mountains that call me to prayer as I lift my eyes to the hills, lush greenery on which the cattle graze, sunflowers that have grown taller than me, an image of a tree planted near water that makes me long to be where it is, and God - the One behind every good and perfect gift, the One who causes the sun to rise at day and illuminates the darkness at night.

I've also fallen in love with the vision of community that the monks make real. Their life together is beautiful, sacred and compelling. They make me imagine growing old in community. I can taste and see the goodness that comes when you are living with people who share food and resources, who take you to the doctor and get your medicine, who labor together with the one goal of providing enough for the community, and who pray together six times throughout the day starting at 3:00 in the morning and ending at 7:30 at night. 

While many of us are filled with fear about what ISIS could do in our country today, the monks have been praying, naming the reality of evil and a God who can overcome evil. While I tossed and turned in my bed last night, dreaming about not having enough food at Vacation Bible School this week, I realize that I slept peacefully each of the four nights I was at the monastery, tucked in with prayers of the Abbot who asks God to bring a peaceful night's rest and a peaceful death upon all his brothers before sprinkling each monk and guest with holy water whose drops soak me with remembrances of my baptism, my belovedness. While I purchased way too much food at the new Wegman's yesterday, I realize I had more than enough while at the monastery when three dishes were served at lunch and another three at supper. 

I've drenched myself in the rich gifts Paul describes in Ephesians in a way I've never allowed myself to be before. I've sought to fully receive the spiritual blessings Christ offers each day, to ponder anew what it means to be holy and blameless before Christ in love, to think deeply about words and phrases like "good pleasure," "freely bestowed," "riches of his grace," and "lavished on us." I've never understood Christ's "good pleasure" so powerfully before. 

And I've fallen in love with good books. I read "My First White Friend," a book I picked up after being so touched by Patricia Raybon's workshop I attended at Princeton in early June. I continued with "The Book of Forgiving" and am convinced that every person needs to read this book - especially if you're struggling to let go of the pain caused by another. I consumed "Being Church" and can hardly wait to share insights during our September sermon series. I skimmed "Simplify" and started David Brooks' new book as well as the novel, "All the Light We Cannot See." My mind has been renewed and transformed.

Are these gifts - these good and perfect gifts - only available within the monastic life? Must I flee from the world's demands to soak up Christ's good pleasure? Do I need to make a quarterly reservation at the abbey?

I pray not.

What I pray instead is that the community formed on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts will continue to share life together in a way that promises no one is living alone (whether we have roommates or not). I pray each person in our community has someone who can drive them to the hospital when they're having a test, who can bring a meal when they're in pain, who can visit when they're feeling alone, who can hold their hand when they're breathing their lasts breaths, who can pray in a way that reminds us who we are and whose we are. I pray we can hear and study the gift of scripture in a way that makes us crave the capacity to know Jesus even more, to be holy and blameless before Christ. I pray that our minds can constantly be renewed and transformed as we desire to be in small groups that study God's word together, allowing it to shape and form our lives. I pray that we will see what enough is for us and generously share with others. I pray that we will show up throughout the week, not coming to church on Sunday but being church all the time.

And I pray that I'll pattern my days after first seeking God's will while continuously seeking God's direction throughout the day. I pray I can remember to ask God to tuck me in at night, to not forget my belovedness no matter how much pain or comparison or incompleteness a day might hold. 

Plant me by streams of grace, mercy and love, dear God. Help me drink from your rich gifts on all my days. And thank you for an amazing week away. Amen. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Unusual Company

When Mount Vernon Place was given the opportunity to redevelop our property several years ago, a vision emerged for a facility that would be used by a wide variety of organizations throughout the week. On any given day, there might be a theatre group performing in the Undercroft Auditorium, a community meeting in a classroom, a jazz group rehearsing in the Community Room, and a training in the Fellowship Hall. It's a beautiful example of what can happen when space is always seen as mixed-use verses having a huge building that is used twice a week.

We have a full-time Director of Operations who oversees the facility, and he's been fully entrusted to make decisions and work with different users. As a result, I don't always know who is here on any given day. It was other people who emailed me last fall to let me know that the Institute for Religion and Democracy was using our space. Two of my colleagues were utterly offended. I, however, had not given it a second thought. It wasn't the first time they had used our building.

We've taken the same approach with our facility as we have with our congregation - all are welcome here. We have always sought to be the kind of place where hospitality is extravagant and the doors are open as wide as we imagine Christ's arms to be. The signs in our bathrooms seek to convey our welcome to those who are in the building for purposes other than worship or church small groups.

But the most recent IRD lecture, held in our sanctuary because our auditorium was previously booked, sparked a new conversation. Were we doing harm or doing good to host such a lecture? Our Council came together and faithfully discussed the matter for more than an hour. I shared the thoughts of a mentor who invited me to imagine someone coming to our church in need of a sanctuary one evening. "Is the lecture one hears that night in lines with what one might hear on a Sunday?" my professor asked. Are there times when hospitality might cause more harm than good? What does it mean to offer space to a group that regularly criticizes churches like ours and pastors like me? In the end, our Council concluded that our church would no longer allow the IRD to use our facility. I'm still not sure it's the right answer - but I pray it's faithful.

I was praying the conversation would end there - that the IRD would not contact us again. However, a similar space request came a few weeks ago. My colleague responded, letting them know the church would no longer be able to host them. And I got an email from their President, inviting me to lunch.

I accepted the invitation immediately and then almost cancelled today. I'm a person of strong convictions. I almost stopped giving money to my seminary when I saw several faculty members photographed on the cover of a magazine associated with the Good News Movement. When my mentor, one of the more progressive voices at the seminary, went back to South Africa, I wondered aloud who was teaching students about Christ's wide welcome. I cannot stand what the "other" says when it comes to homosexuality and the church. I get furious, in fact. And Mark has written a few articles that have made my blood pressure rise.

How could I share lunch with him?

He was five minutes late, I almost walked away. But I didn't. I waited. I shook his hand. I sat down with him. I asked God to bless our meal and our conversation. I learned he first worked for the CIA - (no wonder he's so good at spying on other churches!). I heard how he first got involved in the United Methodist Church and how he's struggled to find a church for him. I know he's single and that he's married to his work. I know about his family, how he gets to share a meal with his parents almost every Sunday. I know how he feels about scripture and how his work is a calling. I know some of his heart. And I also know our differences - I'm more focused on embodying Christ's kingdom here and now than getting people to heaven. I don't believe scripture is infallible (even though he's sure Wesley did). I view marriage in a different light than him. I read scripture differently - and don't fully understand his lens. And still, we share a huge desire for the United Methodist Church to be faithful in its capacity to reach people, to have our sanctuaries overflowing with young people who need to experience the love and grace of Christ, to see churches play a significant role in the lives of individuals who are desperate for community, to proclaim our beliefs in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

I don't agree with Mark's position on many things. But I cannot look at Mark as the enemy - because I begged him not to see me and the kind of church we're seeking to embody at MVP as his enemy. I cannot put him aside because I know he's a child of God, too, and I believe, perhaps, that the United Methodist Church is big enough for both of us. And I know that if our church is to stay together, then it's going to take a lot more lunches like the one I shared today to make it happen.

I invited Mark to worship someday. I'm not sure he'll come. But he'll be welcome here. And in the meantime, I'll keep praying for him and his organization - and hoping that they'll figure out how to do their work in a way that enables them to lift their beliefs without having to constantly criticize and put down others who disagree with them. And I hope he'll pray for me and the ways in which Christ is at work at MVP, too.

I'll also keep thinking about who I need to invite to lunch. What about you?