Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Are You a United Methodist? - Guest Post by Rachel Keller

While countless individuals talk about leaving the United Methodist Church or splitting it in two, seminary students at Wesley Theological Seminary are being invited to (re)examine the greatest gifts of our denomination. In the following essay, Rachel Keller, our MVP ministry intern, shares why she's committed to continuing to find her place in the United Methodist Church.

8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me 

I dont remember a time when I wasnt a part of the United Methodist Church.  At two months old, my father, a United Methodist pastor, baptized me in my familys first parish. At age 14 I was confirmed and havent changed my denomination since.  I was raised in a home where Sunday mornings were only for church, no exceptions. I never questioned why my parents chose to raise my sister and I in the United Methodist church. I knew who John Wesley was, but I had no idea what he believed or why I was following his beliefs. Then I dated a guy in college who was a fellow United Methodist pastors kid.  He loved the concept of prevenient grace and would be shocked and disappointed if a Charles Wesley hymn wasnt played on a Sunday morning.  I was surprised that we had similar upbringings, yet he knew so much more than I did about our church. But Ive never left, because its home to me.  Over time (and with the help of theological education), I learned why I had chosen to remain in the United Methodist Church and why I am still there today.

8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me (With the help of John and Charles Wesley):
1.    We believe the Bible shows us how we can be in right relationship with God

How do we know if something is the truth or not? Who or what holds the ultimate authority in the truth? How much truth does the Bible hold? Christians stand on many different sides of this issue.  In his sermon on The Means of Grace, John Wesley talks about the importance of the scriptures in helping us find the truth:

And, in fact, (God) hath not left us undetermined; he hath shown us the way wherein we should go. We have only to consult the oracles of God; to inquire what is written there; and, if we simply abide by their decision, there can no possible doubt remain.(109)[i]

Wesley believed the most important truth is how to be in right relationship with God, and that the Bible holds this truth.  Today, I appreciate how the church also carefully uses Christian tradition and our own human experiences to find truth, but the Bible is our ultimate authority.[ii]
2.    We love free will

Does God choose specific people to love, only predestining certain people to salvation?  United Methodists would undoubtedly answer this question with a resounding NO!  God desires relationship with every single person in this entire world.  However, God also created every human with free will.  God never forces us to love God back.  We have every right to reject Gods love toward us.  If we accept Gods love, then we continue on in becoming closer to God. If we reject Gods love, we will feel distant from God.  But, God never stops loving us.[iii] 

When we have those days when we feel like were not good enough - God is next to us, accepting us where we are, ready to forgive and keep loving us even when we feel unloveable.
3.    Grace

This free will fits in well with our view of salvation as it relates to Gods grace. We may know Amazing Grace so well we could sing it in our sleep, but what does grace really mean?

As I said before, God longs to be in relationship with us. Grace is Gods favor on our lives that draws us closer into that relationship. While there are not different types of grace, John Wesley found different ways to describe grace and different names for grace. So heres a run down of four different ways that we describe grace:

Prevenient grace: Gods love that comes to us before we know or understand God.  Therefore, prevenient grace is bestowed on everyone, believing or unbelieving.  It shows us the love that God has for each one of us and the desire that God has to be in relationship with Gods creation. This grace leads us to the knowledge of our sinful hearts and our need for Gods love and forgiveness. It pushes us to repent so that we can be in right relationship with God.

Justifying grace: grace that puts us in right relationship with God when we acknowledge our need for Gods love and forgiveness

Sanctifying grace: grace that enables us to grow in our relationship with God as we strive to continue on in right relationship with God[iv]

Grace doesnt always work in everyones life in an orderly fashion like it is listed above. We may feel prevenient grace pushing us to repent after weve already been justified.  All of these types of grace work together and even simultaneously for our ongoing salvation.
4.    Our salvation isnt just about what happens when we die

 One of the reasons I love Wesleys view of salvation is because its not just about what happens when we die, its about restoring us back to who we were created to be in this life, right now. As one of my past professors, Scott Kisker, once said, God is extending Gods love to us, not so that the Trinity will have more company in heaven. God extends Gods love to us so that we might grow into the mature character of the free love that has embraced us.[v]

Salvation is not a one time thing, or a once saved always saved type of deal.  Salvation is a lifelong process and part of our relationship with God enabled by grace through faith.  We never outgrow our repentance, but as we repent, we come to depend more and more on God, and we desire to live in communion with God and in service to others. This gives us a great assurance of peace.[vi]  Charles Wesley describes the change that happens in our heart when we receive salvation in his hymn, How Can We Sinners Know:

We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died, we all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied. Our natures turned, our mind transformed in all its powers, and both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.[vii]
5.    We love community

Methodism started as a very social movement. Before there was a traditional denomination, the people called Methodists were organized into small groups called societies, which helped them to grow in love. In 1743 John Wesley wrote about the first society formed in London:

Such a society is no other than a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.’”[viii]

The societies kept general rules that are still used in the UMC today. The three basic rules are: do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God. Attending to the ordinances of God means keeping key practices and Christian disciplines that help us grow in our life of faith. United Methodists still strive today to hold one another accountable to these general rules through community and small groups. I love being part of a church that recognizes the need for each other as we strive to grow in our faith.

Charles Wesley describes church community in the hymn, Jesus United by Thy Grace:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each others cross to bear; let all their friendly aid afford, and feel each others care.[ix]
6.    We have 2 sacraments that bring us closer to God and closer to each other

Methodists celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.  We believe that baptism is an outward sign of Gods grace that claims us before we are even able to comprehend Gods love. Baptism is an initiation into the body of Christ, the church. Because of this initiation and grace that claims us before our knowledge or understanding, the Methodist church traditionally practices infant baptism.  The congregation makes a beautiful promise to love and support the infant and to do all in their power to help raise the child in a life of faith. When the child is older and mature, they can make the choice to respond to their baptismal covenant through a life of Christian discipleship.[x]

The sacrament of communion is also an outward sign of Gods invisible grace. Wesley saw communion as a means of grace, and as such should be taken as often as possible. To refuse communion is to reject Jesus Christ and the grace that is available through communion.  In his sermon, The Duty of Constant Communion, John Wesley wrote:

If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lords Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.[xi]

Methodists also practice an open table; we believe that God can work through communion to change the lives of those who partake, so it should not just be for those who have been baptized or those who believe. As a means of grace, communion is all about what God does for us, not what we do.
7.    We all are called to serve

Our Book of Discipline states,

Ministry in the Christian church is derived from the ministry of Christ, who calls all persons to receive Gods gift of salvation and follow in the way of love and service. The whole church receives and accepts this call, and all Christians participate in this continuing ministry.[xii]

We believe that clergy and laity are of equal importance in the church. I love being part of a church where everyone plays a part and everyone is called to serve! The church is the people, not the pastor.
8.    We have hope in the future that makes us want to work now

We place a large emphasis on living in hope for the new creation. Our central affirmation is that God offers full redemption to all of Gods creation. But we dont have to wait until the Second Coming to receive that redemption. We are called to live in the Resurrection now and work for the Kingdom of God on earth. Through the Holy Spirit we can begin to embody the redeeming work of Christ now, and the Holy Spirit can work through us to bring about change in the world.[xiii] Our hope is here now and in the future.

Charles Wesleys hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Singdescribes this hope in the last verse:

In Christ, your head, you then shall know, shall feel your sins forgiven; anticipate your heaven below, and own that love is heaven.[xiv]

[i] Campbell, Ted, ed. A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas: Tuckapaw Media, 2008. p.109
[ii] Campbell, Ted. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abington Press, 2011. p.36-37
[iii] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 4, Scott Kisker
[iv] Campbell, Ted. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abington Press, 2011. p. 60-65
[v] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 4, Scott Kisker
[vi] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 7, Sondra Wheeler
[vii] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.372
[viii] Campbell, Ted, ed. A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas: Tuckapaw Media, 2008. p. 96
[ix] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.561
[x] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 9, Henry Knight
[xi] Coyle, Jason, ed. Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion. The Wesley Center Online. Wesley Center for Applied Theology, 1999.
[xii] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012. Paragraph 301.1, p. 217
[xiii] Campbell, Ted and Craig Hill ed. The Wesleyan Studies Project Series II: Methodist Doctrine. Wesley Ministry Network, 2010. Session 12: Randy Maddox
[xiv] The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. p.57


Monday, July 07, 2014

Remembering Lois - Give 'em Hell in Heaven

I realize that one of the cardinal rules of pastoral ministry is to never have favorites. But in full disclosure, I lost one of my favorites today. 

It was not always the case. She could not stand me when I was first appointed as her pastor, and she was not quiet about her dislike. I'll never forget the day she arrived late for a meeting and made an announcement before sitting down, "You'll have to excuse me for being late. The nurse wouldn't let me leave the home. My blood pressure was too high since I was about to see my pastor." Or there was the time when she was presenting the budget and said something along the lines of, "If we run out of money this year, it's not my fault. It's because we're giving the pastor a raise." 

Lois was the the 92-year-old chair of the Finance Committee as well as the coordinator of Christian Social Concerns when I arrived. She did not trust me or the District Superintendent who brought me to Mount Vernon Place. "You and your friend, Argo," she would say repeatedly while shaking her finger at me.

I loved Lois, though. I could not stop loving Lois. And Lois finally decided I was not going anywhere so she might as well learn to like me, too. She eventually learned to love me. She made her way into a huge crevice of my heart - a heart that is broken today as Lois entered the church triumphant a little after 7:00 this morning.

Lois was part of a group of saints at MVP who taught me a million lessons about the church, ministry and life. She never missed worship until just a few months ago. She was always at weekly Bible study - when it was at the church and later when I traveled to her place of residence in Northern Virginia. She embodied generosity when it came to giving of her time and resources. And she had an uncanny ability to make you laugh.

She and Howard were the best of friends - longtime church members at MVP who also resided in the same place. Both of them lived more than a century. I'll never forget going to visit Howard when he was sick, and walking into his apartment with Lois. There was a near empty box of Cheez Its next to his chair. Lois picked up the box, gave it a shake and said, "No wonder your stomach hurts, Howard." 

I loved hearing Lois tell the story of the night Howard's dog came back to life. Rebel was Howard's constant companion in life - more fur than body and a very loud bark. Howard was very sad one day when he arrived at Bible study, "I'm not sure what's wrong with my little dog but he has not been himself all day." We went down to Howard's apartment and walked in the door. Rebel would have normally been barking like crazy and nipping at our ankles. Not this time. Rebel was still as could be, flat on his back. I suggested we pray for Rebel. I got down on my knees, put my hands on his little body and prayed. Soon Rebel was up, running around. "You brought that damn dog back to life," Lois would say. 

There was also the time when I was visiting Lois and she took me to the library to see their new computer lab. A woman was there setting up the computers. Lois introduced me as her pastor, pointed to one of the screens and said, "Do you know my pastor got a man from one of those?!" She could not quite figure out how I met such an amazing person through the computer, but she adored my husband and loved to flirt with him.

Lois never turned down an opportunity for a martini with her lunch. I remember the first time I decided to have a martini with her. I ordered mine dirty. "How did you get to be so sophisticated?" she asked.

But Lois' impact is so much greater than memories that make me laugh. She had the ability to be prophetic with her words and her actions.

I'll never forget the day she shared during joys and concerns about Metropolitan UMC becoming a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. "I was reading my paper yesterday," she shared. "And I noticed that Metropolitan, our National Church, became a Reconciling Congregation." "Our National Church!!! They are welcoming everyone. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" she asked. "Shouldn't everyone be welcome in God's church?" She would later be present the day our congregation voted to become a reconciling congregation. She even went to Mr. Henry's with us following the meeting to celebrate.

When our church was vacating its property in preparation for a property redevelopment, we had a beautiful chapel filled with everything needed for a small church. It was not long after Hurricane Katrina, and we located a church in Mississippi that was being rebuilt after losing everything. Lois paid to ship all of the contents of our chapel to Mississippi - several pews, a baptismal font, Bibles, hymnals - everything needed to set up church. We later received a photograph, and everything fit perfectly in the church. Lois was so proud of her contribution. I am, too.

But the biggest impact Lois made is that she let go, and she encouraged others in our church to do the same. She was first adamant that her church was going to close. "Pastor, we voted to spend the endowment. It's our money. We are going to spend it and just turn the keys over to the Annual Conference," she said over and over again. But she learned to trust God who is always capable of doing a new thing. She also learned to trust her young pastor. 

So many things about her church have changed. There have been significant staff changes. Our congregation has become more diverse in every way imaginable. While the congregation used to be mainly peers of Lois, the congregation today is predominantly young adults. Lois took delight in what God was doing in her church. She loved telling others about how our church was growing again. 

Lois, I hope you know how much you're responsible for the growth. I pray you know that it would have never happened without you - without your commitment to providing leadership in our church for decades, without your willingness to constantly show up and give even when you were not happy with the changes, without your ability to let go and see what God could do, without your talking back often during church and making laughter a normal part of Sunday worship, without your standing up for justice and equality, without your taking delight in the new people. Thank you for making me a better pastor and a better person. I'd give anything to share another martini with you today. Instead, I'll raise a glass later and close with the words of a church member, "Farewell spitfire. Give 'em hell up in heaven. I'm deeply saddened, but all our lives are fuller because of you."


You'll always be one of my favorites. Please be nice to Jesus.

Until we meet again...

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Facebook Kind of Birthday

I'm convinced that everyone needs to be on Facebook. While it's robbed hours of my time and taken the attention off my husband more than he would like, Facebook has reconnected me with people from every chapter of my life, enabled me to share how God is at work in my life and the life of our congregation, and assisted our church in telling its story to a wider audience. I love Facebook. And I especially like Facebook on my birthday.

In no other year of life have I heard from over 250 people on my birthday. Countless individuals posted on my wall. Others sent a message through Facebook. I found myself captivated throughout the day on Saturday, rejoicing in each greeting I received. While most messages were a simple, "Happy Birthday," some posts conveyed something more specific. I took special delight when friends took time to add something to the words, "Happy Birthday," - a reminder of why I'm appreciated, the naming of my gifts, a word about how I've made a difference, or a specific blessing for the new year. I pondered these sentiments throughout the day, savoring each one as a gift from God.

I've made a promise to myself since Saturday to be better at saying "happy birthday" to others who are on Facebook - to write a similar word of gratitude or blessing to them. I've also wondered if I made a huge mistake when I stopped writing birthday cards to church members. I used to send a stack of cards each week, taking time to share why I appreciated each person and affirm their gifts. I stopped last summer when I went on sabbatical, and a group of laypeople have continued the practice on behalf of the church. But I have been reminded of a powerful gift I can offer to people - letting people know exactly why they are appreciated, the difference they have made in my life and the life of our church, and why I celebrate their life.

Why don't we do this more often?

Why is it that we don't seize every opportunity to tell someone that they make a difference - that their life matters and the reasons for why they matter?

What might happen if we made a point to write someone a note every single day - or regularly sought meaningful opportunities to remind people of their gifts?

Greg Jones, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, says that we all needs holy friends. He describes holy friends as people who are not afraid to name the sins we have grown to love and the gifts we have been afraid to claim. My holy friends are largely responsible for who I am today - it is through their voices that I have regularly heard the voice of God.

Earlier this summer, a colleague serving a United Methodist Church in Idaho took a picture of a report at his annual conference that showed how they had no candidates for ministry being commissioned or ordained. His picture told a thousand words. It broke my heart. I have since learned that his annual conference is incredibly small with only 150 churches that average 67 people in worship. And yet, I cannot help but wonder what could be done differently - not only in his annual conference - but in all of our churches.

What might happen if we regularly took time to affirm the gifts of others? What might happen if we intentionally looked someone in the eye and told them the difference they make in our lives and/or in the lives of our churches? What might happen if we provided our church members with every opportunity to use their gifts and explore their passions, affirming them each time? What might happen if we intentionally talked about God's call more often - and how God is still calling people? What might happen if we went out of our way to make sure everyone experiences a Facebook kind of birthday?

Thank you, precious people, for affirming my gifts - the ones I was willing to claim on my own and the ones I could have never claimed without your naming them for me first. Thank you for making me feel like one of the most special individuals in the whole wide world. I cannot be fully alive without your being fully alive - and you show me what fully alive looks like all the time.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Tell Me, Why Are You Here?

 "I read your blog last night," he said as I stepped onto the front porch with my book. "And I just cannot figure out why a United Methodist pastor like you would want to spend a week at a Trappist Monastery. Don't you have United Methodist retreat facilities?"

I paused for a moment before responding. I could not tell from the tone of his voice if he was offended by something in my blog. Did he think I was too progressive in my thinking to be spending the week at the monastery? Or was he just curious?

"I really appreciated what you wrote," he continued as I breathed a sigh of relief. "And you'll have to forgive me, as I noted your name on the board and looked you up."

I then started to respond to his question.

Something happens to me every time I turn right onto Cool Spring Lane, the monastery's driveway. I started coming to this place several years ago, not long after I had first been appointed to my church. The monks start most of their services in the chapel with the words, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." These words have held many meanings for me.

In the early years of my appointment, I was longing for any kind of help. I was seemingly wandering in the wilderness with a task so great that I was desperate for all the help I could get. I had been appointed to turn around a church that was close to closure and had no idea where to start. I came to Holy Cross to pray, to find a sense of normalcy in the pattern of the days, to hear God's voice.

It then became my practice to travel to Berryville every Lent. I would come the week before Holy Week. The same prayer would be spoken, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." During these times, I was desperate for a rockin' Easter sermon that would mesmerize the Easter crowds. I would devour books by NT Wright and carefully craft sermons for Holy Week and Easter.

There have been other times when I've read six books while here (I read four this week) and then planned an entire year's worth of sermons (I also planned sermons through July 19 of next year!). The prayer is still the same when the object of my time is such a task, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me."

My time at Holy Cross became such an important rhythm of my year that our Staff Parish Relations Committee held me accountable to coming. They even made me come just before marriage - making sure I was led beside still waters as a way of preparing me for such an important covenant.

This week is a little different. I came here this week to actually write a book. I used to describe myself as  "Writer Wanna Be," and I'm ready to write. I'm ready to make the dream a reality. I have stories to tell about the journey I've been on with my congregation during the last nine years. The book will read like fiction - sad, funny, honest and heart-filled - but it will all be true. My prayer is that it can be both a companion and a resource for pastors and congregations who are being led to dream a new dream for God's church. I thought I had a clearly marked path for my time at the monastery this week. I've written three chapters, something I now realize is like birthing a child - it's hard and painful. And yet, God had different plans for my week.

God knew we needed to fall in love with each other all over again.

My heart and soul have been the stage on which an intense battle has been unfolding between my ego and God. My ego has done everything possible to put God in God's place, to lead me off into the sunset where life is more about me than anything else - where my dreams of becoming a respected writer and speaker are fulfilled. I still believe God is going to use me in this capacity. I believe writing is part of my vocation - that it needs to accompany my first vocation of pastor. But what God has showed me this week is how God has been longing to hear the very same cry coming from my lips, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." God has been longing to take over the battle - to show me that it's not one in which I need to be involved but rather one I need to let go of completely. God has been doing everything possible to show me in a million possible ways of how God is at work in my life and in the life of our congregation. And so I'm preparing to leave - but only after rededicating my heart and life to Christ. I'm ready to journey again knowing that my soul desire is to be used - an empty vessel ready to be filled and then poured out for others - that they might know the joy I've found in Christ.

I've never been to the monastery at any time in the year other than Lent. The scenery is fully alive. Every living thing seems to be proclaiming the glory of the Lord - from the sunset to the bunny in the yard to the little white skunk found along the fence last night. It's a rather gorgeous thing to proclaim the glory of the Lord - don't you think?

I'm ready to go and do the same.

One thing I know for sure - God always keeps God's promises. Thank you, God.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Thank You for Feeding People

Last Sunday was an incredible day at Mount Vernon Place as we welcomed a large youth choir from Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta as well as surprise guests from Saint John's United Methodist Church in Albuquerque. It was one of those sweet days when you know the Spirit showed up - not only in worship when the youth choir sang so beautifully - but also at lunch as the congregation did everything they could to feed people. Sunday was the tip of the iceberg in a weekend that involved a lot of bread - manna from heaven.

I sent the following email to several people in our church on Monday morning. I'm still thinking about their ability to feed people several days later. It's an extraordinary gift to feed people. I pray we'll continue to do more of it.

Dear Friends:

In the Gospels, Jesus is made known often through the breaking of the bread. He’s regularly gathering around the table with people. He eats with folks others ignore. God shows up at meal time – in rich and powerful ways.

You fed a lot of people this weekend, and I am beyond grateful.

It started Thursday night with one of the largest groups we’ve had for dinner and a movie night. I counted right at 50 people before I left. There was so much joy in the air, and the Renaissance staff prepared a feast with so many people filling up on burgers, hot dogs and all the fixings. It’s an incredible partnership being built with the hotel, and I am grateful. Thank you for welcoming people with beautiful hospitality and for your extraordinary generosity of food and time.

On Friday, we had the most successful Jazz on the Steps to date. The yard signs helped draw people in as several people told me they passed earlier in the week and made a note of it. Susan then made sure no one walked by without being invited in. Many of our neighbors came – housed and unhoused. You helped feed over 100 people, and it was incredible. There were also glimpses of community, and I believe we are now called to continue to strengthen the communal aspects of an evening like this one so that everyone not only feels welcome but also that they met someone and got a truer taste of MVP.

On Sunday, you were prepared to feed those in our congregation plus 50 youth and their chaperones who came from Atlanta. Another youth group of 40 people from New Mexico then showed up unannounced, and you made sure all were welcome at the feast. And it was a feast!! There was more than enough food and lots of leftovers which were then shared with people on the porch last night through JR. Thank you for your quick thinking after the other group arrived, your ordering pizza, lending your credit card and enlarging the banquet. I cannot imagine many churches being able to do what you did so quickly. The fried chicken and other things from Giant were fantastic, and your staying to clean up is a gift.

You then sent me with dishes for a family that is deeply grieving. My prayer for this family is that they feel the love of God in powerful ways as they mourn the loss of a son they lost five months into the pregnancy. It was a gift to show up with meals for a couple of nights and dessert on top of it all. Thank you. Please continue to pray for them, too.

We were blessed with 213 people in worship yesterday – something that always makes my heart sing. But I think Jesus is taking delight not in the numbers but in the fact that we fed people – hungry people, hurting people, visiting people, gifted people, old people, young people – all kinds of people.

Thank you for the precious privilege of being your pastor.

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Standing at a Crossroads

"Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)

I've been standing at a crossroads since Easter. There are two paths in front of me. One path is marked with the sign, "It is enough." The other path is marked with the sign, "It is never enough." Each morning I set out at the dawn of a new day, and I know which path I should take - which path God longs for me to take. But I've too often settled for the path, "It's never enough."

It started Easter Sunday when we believed we would have the biggest crowd to gather in our sanctuary in the last ten years. We printed enough bulletins and newsletters to make the ink run dry in the copier. We positioned extra greeters at each door. We were ready to welcome the multitudes. Dozens of people came. It was a joyful celebration that included dancing to "Happy." But it was not enough - at least not in my mind because there were less than 300 people in the pews.

I've continued down a path of brutal comparison since Easter afternoon. I've looked at where we are in comparison to other congregations. I've watched dear colleagues advance to large churches where their gifts are breaking glass ceilings. I've received extraordinary notes and emails about how God has used our church to touch and transform people. I've felt the Spirit work in real, tangible ways. I've taken risks in the name of Jesus and heard stories about lives being changed as a result. I've baptized several children and welcomed many new members. A rich complexity of emotions and experiences have filled my head and my heart, making the decision more difficult on some mornings when I'm deciding which route to take. And still, somehow, I keep being led down the path marked, "It's not enough."

I understand how Vital Congregations may be necessary for some pastors and some churches - how a system of accountability that requires churches to enter the number of people who were in worship, the number of people who participated in small groups, and the number of people who served in mission each week can be helpful for some congregations. But Vital Congregations has robbed my joy more often than not. I can set out on the path marked, "It is enough" and sometimes the one marked, "It is more than enough" at the start of a Sunday only to change course after seeing a number recorded in a tiny notebook in the back of the sanctuary that holds the data for each Sunday worship service. Somehow this little number regularly leads me to walk down the path marked, "It's not enough."

I'm tired of the scenery on this path. I don't like the darkness that fills the gaps on this journey. I much prefer the joy and light along the path marked, "It is enough" and "You are enough." And so I'm seeking to learn a few new holy habits. I'm standing at a crossroads this morning and eliminating the sign marker that reads, "It's not enough."

Spiritual direction with Father James this morning gave me new language for my crossroad. Father James reminded me of the choice I have each day to learn new holy habits. On the edge of turning 42-years-old, it's time to uncover new emotions buried within me - emotions that say you are more than enough. You are good. You are bright. You are funny. You are faithfully successful. You should be at peace. And it's time to purge the emotions that lead me to compare myself to others, to believe that success is related to numbers, and to evaluate myself by worldly standards instead of Gospel standards. Father James reminded me of the heart of the Gospel - a story of our savior who had just one of his disciples make it all the way to the cross with him - just one!

Father James listened intently as I described the fruits of the last nine years. He heard me share how I was able to incorporate the fullness of my heart on Sunday when I compared myself to Sarah - one who got everything she asked from God and then bitterly said it was not enough until Ishmael and Hagar were gone. Father James looked me in the eye and said, "It's not a bad price to pay to remain in such a place filled with so many signs of God at work and a congregation that you can be so transparent with." He's so right. What a gift I have! Morning my morning new mercies I see!

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is using me. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is at work in real and powerful ways at a church called Mount Vernon Place. I know what God's call sounds like, and I know what my ego and the world's standards sound like. I've heard both loudly this season. But I'm choosing to listen to God - to one who has said nothing about leaving and countless words about why I'm called to continue to serve this remarkable, diverse, beautiful, risk-taking, healthy congregation. And all of this, my friends, is more than enough.

Dear God, thank you for this complex journey we have taken together. Thank you for the ways you have used a painful season to enable me to learn more about myself and about you. Thank you for reminding me that I am always enough in your eyes. Give me the strength and courage needed to resist comparing myself to others. Help me to smooth the edge of my competitive nature. Show me, God, what a life entails with the Gospel at its heart. I want to be faithful. I want to see that I am enough - and that what we are doing together is more than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Mother's Day Matters

My mother is a remarkable woman who has shaped and formed me into the person I am today. I will never know the extent of the sacrifices she made for my sister and me to have the experiences we have had today - college, sorority dues, a semester abroad, a beautiful wedding, dance lessons, piano lessons and a million other costly things. What I do know is what Mom taught me.

Mom never allowed me to forget four things: I am beautiful, I am loved, I have gifts the world needs, and I can do whatever I set my heart on doing. Mom has spent her life teaching me these four core lessons - even when the community around me may have been saying something different.

While Mom cannot tell you where my baptism certificate is or what day it actually occurred, I realize today that Mom intentionally or unintentionally never allowed me to forget my baptism. She never allowed me to forget what it feels like to be cherished, adored, and called to illuminate the light of Christ within me.

It's been more than 20 years since I've lived in the same house as Mom. Since that time, there have been countless other women who have offered similar gifts to me. Many of them are women who have been part of the two churches I have served - women who reminded me that I am cherished and loved, women who called forth my gifts and continued to give me the courage to claim them. Other women are dear friends, especially clergy sisters who have journeyed this road that is filled with both blessing and challenge, never allowing me to forget God's presence in my life and God's call upon my life. Some of these women are my mother's peers. Others are my peers.

I've never given birth to a child. While Craig and I started talking about "Grace Ivy" and "Joseph Donald," the two children we believed would come into our lives, before we were even married, we have yet to behold Grace or Joseph. They never entered the world - something that causes me to wonder if we have made the right decisions on some days while giving thanks on other days. And still, I've been wished a "Happy Mother's Day" several times already this week - from the woman behind the seafood counter at the grocery store, the woman at the Hallmark store, and the woman at the shoe repair store. Rather than saying, "I'm not a mother," I've learned to say "thank you" with a smile on my face as I continue walking.

As a pastor, I know Mother's Day can be painful for women who are struggling with infertility or waiting for their life partner to come along. I know some women will intentionally choose to stay away from church tomorrow, not ready to face the ache that comes with visions of mothers being recognized or celebrated in worship. I long to be as sensitive as possible to these women. I pray every  single day for women in our church who are longing to be moms. And yet, I'm learning more each day why we are are called to be moms - no matter what our wombs have held or not held. We are all called to help children of all ages to remember their baptisms: to remember that they are beautiful, to remember they are loved, to remember they have gifts the world needs, and to remember they can do whatever they set their heart on doing (okay, maybe not always on that final one).

Our church is located in the middle of pain and possibility. Each night, there are boys and girls right outside our walls who are victims of sex trafficking - individuals who have been lured into this business by people who have often noticed a vulnerability, a lack of self-esteem, a lack of claiming their belovedness. We are seeking to fully discern our role in ending sex trafficking on the streets of our city. A police officer suggested that one of the things our church can do to help the most is to pray. We will pray - and we will keep on praying. But I also cannot help but wonder what would happen if faithful communities everywhere did their very best to show up in the lives of young people - to mentor young people - to stand alongside young people in an effort to remind them that they are beloved, cherished, adored, and instilled with incredible gifts the world needs. What would happen if we all sought to show up and remind children of who they really are - especially if they are hearing something else at home, at school, or on the streets?

I think the church fails when it asks women to stand who are mothers while allowing those who have not given birth to sit silently in the pews. I think the church fails when it promotes fertility as a blessing God has given to some while withholding it from others. I think the church fails when the focus becomes the fruit of our womb instead of giving thanks for all the women who have been like mothers to us. But what if we took it one more step.

What if Mother's Day became a time for us to all hear the call placed upon our lives to show up in the lives of children - especially vulnerable children? What if Mother's Day was the day we invited the congregation to remember the vows we make every time a child is baptized?  What if Mother's Day became the time when opportunities to mentor young people were presented? What if Mother's Day became the day when we all sought to do everything we can to help our children - all of God's children - remember the things my mother taught me:
  • You are beautiful - yes beautiful! no matter what others might be saying.
  • You are loved - and there is nothing you can do to make us love you any more or any less.
  • You have gifts given to you by God - gifts the world needs and gifts you are called to share.
  • You are called to become the fullest expression of Donna that you can be - which will sometimes mean doing whatever you set out to do - and other times mean continuously being true to who you really are.
Thank you, Mom, for all you have done to make me who I am. Thank you, women in the United Methodist Church, who have continued to make more of me than I could ever be on my own. 

God, help me be the most faithful mother I can be to all the children you have placed in my life. And help me seek out opportunities around me to instill within young people the lessons my mother instilled within me. Thank you. Amen.