Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Power of our Promises

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

I cannot wait for Easter Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More Than A Meal

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

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

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

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

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

And I cannot stop thinking about it.

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Friend, Elizabeth

My friend, Elizabeth, died this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Elizabeth taught me the most about ordination.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 23, 2015

Re-Examining Hospitality

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

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

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

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

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

Are we not offering hospitality and being like Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Different View

Someone once told me about a practice Bill Hybels had when he was first starting Willow Creek Community Church. He would prepare his sermon manuscript throughout the week, working faithfully on each detail. The sermon would not be finished, however, until the manuscript had been taken into a bar not far from the church where Hybels would sit and observe on every Saturday night. He would watch a happy couple come inside only to leave arguing. He'd study the group of men doing everything possible to attract the women in the bar. He'd see people leave together knowing they did not come together. And, he'd watch people who are too often tempted to believe that we can drown our sorrow away, forgetting that tomorrow comes with a raging headache. With the manuscript in front of him, he'd ask, "Is there anything in here that will speak to that person tomorrow morning?" "Is there anything here that will help that person find hope, or enable that person to see she is beloved, or play a role in bringing together what has been separated in that couple's relationship?"

It's a powerful image for me to ponder. And I realized its importance again today as I took a seat in the pews instead of up front since I was not originally scheduled to be in worship today.

I sat amongst the tears of the woman facing her first Christmas without her beloved son who died tragically in August.

I sat a few feet away from a father and his two children who gathered at the Thanksgiving table without their mom for the first time.

I sat close enough to a man to hear him say "amen" when someone mentioned how hard it is to find a job right now.

I saw someone respond to the invitation to give by putting several coins in the plate, well aware of how little money he has.

I watched one of the ushers not only pass the plate but share a hug with someone she knew needed it and then resume her responsibilities.

I saw someone who is still suffering with melanoma walk differently today only to later learn his melanoma is now in his leg.

I sat with my people - some of whom I know their pain and others I do not.

I learned the importance of having tissues in the sanctuary.

I realized again how I long to see every issue we mention through a myriad of different experiences - that how I see Ferguson, for example, may not be the way my African American sister sees Ferguson.

And I'm praying that when next Sunday comes that I'll have a word - a word that will meet people right where they are, touching them in a way they need to be touched, comforting where they need to be comforted, inspiring them where they need to be inspired. I long for a word that speaks powerfully to my people.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Please send me a word.

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.