Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Allowing One's Light to Shine



"Wow! Look at my picture," Eddie said with a huge smile on his face. "It's really good!" he continued to exclaim as his feet shifted five steps back in order for his eyes to have a better view.

Eddie, a member of our church, was beholding his own work. He's been given a rather remarkable gift when it comes to drawing and painting, and he has often shared this gift with our community. 

I'll always cherish one Lenten season when our congregation was worshipping in a rented theatre across the street. Void of windows, especially the colorful stained glass kind, I invited Eddie to create a picture to accompany the sermon each week. For each of those six Monday mornings, Eddie would come to my office. I would read him the Gospel lesson to be proclaimed. Eddie would ask a few questions, "What does the devil look like?" or "How do I draw temptation?" He then would go home and return the next day with a colorful creation to be placed on our makeshift altar. He returned during that first week of Lent with a drawing that showed Jesus being tempted in the wilderness with such perfection that my words struggled to match it or elaborate upon it. 

I'm not sure when Eddie created the picture that is now in my office waiting to be hung. It seems to have been a request by one of our members who then took it and had it custom framed. I've held it in my space for a bit because I love looking at it. But I also want to find the perfect place for it in our church building - a place where many people can appreciate it. 

It's Eddie's work. He spent hours creating the scene of the boats, water and fishermen. He knows the piece of art well as he poured life and love into it. But Eddie had not seen someone else pour love into his work or really appreciate it. Eddie saw his own gifts in a whole new way when someone else took the time to recognize his gifts by taking his work to a frame shop. 

I cannot help but to wonder if the task of helping one's gifts shine in new ways is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of the church. One of our roles is to help people of all ages discover their gifts, encourage them to use their gifts in such a way that others are able to see their light, affirm them, and then watch as they discover a fuller sense of who they are and what they are capable of doing. In the words of Greg Jones, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, we all need what he calls "holy friends." The church can cultivate such friendships as people point out the sins we have grown to love, name the gifts we have been afraid or unwilling to claim, and help people dream dreams they would never dream on their own.

Eddie's gifts have been showcased in a particular way for others to see when one of his pieces was framed for display. I saw other gifts showcased in a similar way on Sunday morning. Our congregation doesn't have a ministry intern this summer, something we have had in the previous few summers. As a result, a myriad of people have been helping with worship leadership. On this past Sunday morning, one person passionately led the call to worship and different prayers before inviting people to give, another person gathered with the children for a message designed just for them as he shared about his recent visit to Wesley's Chapel in London, another person described his first experience as a delegate to Annual Conference, and one person read the scripture lesson with power. Four individuals were given an opportunity to shine, and they brought their full selves for God and all in attendance to see. It was beautiful, and I have now seen gifts in some of them that I had never seen before. Even more, I now have the incredible joy of naming these gifts and extending additional invitations for them to use these gifts in a way that blesses our entire community.

Who first allowed you to use your gifts?
When did you first discover your particular talents?
What happened when other people started to affirm your gifts?

I pray our church will always be a place where people can step back and say, "Wow. I really do have something to offer this community and the wider world. Thank you, God, for this gift."

Who in your community has gifts that are ready to be placed on a lamp stand for all to see and behold?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A More Permanent Response

"How are you responding?"

A dear friend called with this question yesterday morning. It's a question pastors are called to grapple with on a regular basis since senseless gun violence is part of American culture, almost as common as patriotic songs and apple pie on Flag Day.

"I'm angry," I said with fire in my mouth.

"But I don't know how to respond to tragedy in my backyard faithfully as I'm not sure I can also faithfully name every other precious child of God who has been gunned down on the streets of America."

I realize this one hit close to home, and it's a Member of Congress along with Congressional staff, the first badge I wore in Washington. But what about others? Can we get as incensed with their murders or gunshot wounds as we do when those with power are the latest victims of America's addiction to guns and the handcuffs placed on countless Members of Congress by the NRA?

How will I respond?

I'll pray. I'll pray fervently for all who were on that ball field yesterday morning. I'll pray for those who knew and loved the shooter. I'll pray for those who were shot and in recovery. I'll pray for every ear who heard the pops coming from guns.

I'll promise to pray not only when guns are shot in a community I know well but when tragedy strikes all around our city and nation - which is exhausting to even think about.

But I'll also pray for wisdom and courage to know my role in speaking out against, marching for, and playing my part in helping our country grapple with its gun addiction and remove assault rifles from ordinary citizens in our country.

Why is it that it takes one of their own being shot for Congress to come together as one body? What would it take for this same body to come together and wrestle with a more complicated question, "What is my role, my responsibility, in making sure this never happens again?"

Come, Prince of Peace, and help me be an instrument of your peace.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Sight and Sound of Gratitude

I have a new favorite thing. I love pushing the new "thankful" button on Facebook or opening a post to which someone has reacted with "thankful." I used the button so many times over the weeekend while responding to a friend's new family portraits that I even apologized for causing so much noise in her life!

And while my husband is a bit annoyed at the new sound filling our home on a regular basis, I smile every time I hear the noise and see the flowers dancing across my screen. The sight and sound literally fills me with joy!

And I wonder. Does gratitude always offer the gift of joy?


We are midway through a series on vocation, call and work, one of my favorite topics to wrestle with. Yesterday we talked about work's challenges, using Moses as our guide. Can you imagine how many times Moses must have been tempted to toss his hands in the air and walk away? He is simply trying to be faithful to God's call on his life but is constantly surrounded by people who quarrel, grumble and bicker. The Israelites are being led from bondage to freedom. They receive one miracle after another whether it is bread from heaven or a walk on dry ground. But all they can see is what's missing - what they don't have. Meanwhile Moses remains faithful as he cries out to God, uses the tools God has given to him, and continues on the journey.

But how many of us walk through life like the Israelites? How many of us wake up thinking about what we want instead of what we have in our midst, under our noses, in our possession? We may have an abundance but can only see what's missing, reducing our lens to the myth of scarcity.

On the contrary, what if living a life of gratitude literally adds joy to our days like the purple flowers dancing across our iPhones? What if seeking to always first behold what we have and giving thanks for these things before ever pondering what we want but don't yet have is the key, the secret, to a more abundant life?

I'm looking for more purple flowers in my life. I want to be thankful at all times and in all seasons.

What about you?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Look What's Here!!!!


I'm long overdue for writing and have a dozen ideas for different blog entries I want to share with you. But for now, I am celebrating the arrival of "A New Day in the City." Roger and I started working on it nearly three years ago, and my first copies arrived on Friday. The book offers seven conversations for congregations who long to experience revival: pruning, strategy, vision, mission/evangelism, excellence, and working together. It's the book I wish I had when I first arrived at Mount Vernon Place nearly twelve years ago, and I pray it inspires new life in congregations near and far. It's been a privilege to work with both Roger and the folks at Abingdon. I am over the moon excited about this book!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nancy

I don't have a single picture of her, but I'm not sure I'll ever forget her.

She grew up in our church, her parents having met in the choir in the late 1800s. She lived just off Connecticut Avenue for her entire life, first in the family home she sold some ten years ago and then in a retirement community. She's the only older member I've ever brought a can of Heineken to, sneaking it into the home like a high school student with a fake ID. More often than not, I would find her with the Wall Street Journal and a stack of lottery tickets she had recently scratched. She loved taking a cab over to a nearby hospital where she would listen to music playing in the lobby. She was proud of the outdoor furniture she had bought for the home and furious when all the chairs were taken, leaving her with the option of finding a place to sit inside. She loved her church, though she hadn't been there in more than ten years.

And, I loved her. I always knew she would make me laugh. I always knew I'd be greeted with a generous smile. I always knew she would encourage me by letting me know how she was aware of everything happening at the church since she read the bulletin each week. And, I always knew she would ask me to pray for a sound mind. She was so afraid of losing her mind before her body failed.

Two weeks ago, Nancy's health started to change in different ways. Part of her dignity was removed when her body no longer allowed her to do everything she needed to do. She was so frustrated, but still making her aide and I laugh through it all. It was nearly two weeks ago when she told me she wanted to just go to sleep. "I'm ready to go," she repeated often on each of my last three visits.

She said it again yesterday, waking up for just a minute or two at a time. And even though she didn't speak much yesterday, her sense of humor came shining through once more in her facial expressions.

At the end of my visit, we took hands, her aide holding one hand and me holding the other. We asked God to linger close, to remind Nancy that it was okay to let go and that she was not and would not be alone. When the prayer was over, Nancy said, "Amen." She was with us the entire time.

She took her last breath this morning. Her prayer was answered. My heart both aches and gives thanks at the same time.

And now we plan her celebration of life. There will be party favors - a scratch ticket will be given to each person who attends, with a quarter to make the scratching easy. Perhaps someone will win. But I feel like I already won so much through my relationship with this precious child of God.

Thank you, Nancy, for the privilege of being your pastor. You were truly one of a kind. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

I Now Know



"180 over 120," she said, before asking if my blood pressure normally runs high.

"I've never seen it that high," I responded. And I wasn't that concerned. After all, the nurse had just weighed me in a very public area, and I knew what came next. I was about to be asked to undress for a full body exam, something I endure every 90 days with the doctor looking carefully at every inch of my skin while an assistant blows up images of my bare body on a screen. The process has worked. Their discoveries have led to my hearing the words, "It's melanoma," four different times.

With all these things in mind, I sought to put her mind at ease, "My blood pressure always rises in this office." The words worked. She showed me to my exam room and didn't ask to take it again.

But I now know that my blood pressure was high enough for me to experience dangerous consequences. I now know she should have sent me straight to the emergency room or at least mentioned her finding to the doctor about to examine me. He's not trained in matters of the heart, as he specializes in skin, but he would have likely experienced a sense of her alarm. Nevertheless, they went on with their routine.

An hour later, I left the office with a sense of relief that no biopsies were ordered. My concern had been transferred to the status of my heart, motivating me to order a blood pressure monitor that night. While the numbers have decreased substantially, they are still more elevated than they have ever been. And just as I can sometimes name each knot the massage therapist finds in my shoulders, I can also name each additional millimeter of mercury.

I'm religious about meeting my personal trainer for strength training twice a week. But, my time for aerobic exercise has been swallowed too often by work. My diet has been enlivened by Girl Scout Cookies and extra treats (have you tried Aldi's version of Girl Scout cookies!!?). We've been hiring a new staff member, and I long to get it right. I'm the medical power of attorney for one of our oldest members who is facing significant health challenges that lead to numerous calls and difficult decisions. Most workweeks have been six days with the seventh claimed by errands and endless to-do lists before seeking to be fully present to my husband since I haven't been all week. And, while I adore nearly every ounce of my work, believing that I really do have the best job in Washington, there is a lot on my plate right now.

I can more than relate to Shauna Niequist's words, "But it's like I was pulling a little red wagon, and as I pulled it along, I filled it so full that I could hardly keep pulling" (Present Over Perfect). You should see my wagon! Do you have any idea how much I'm getting done? I kept convincing myself it was okay because I love what I do so much.

But I now know how heavy the wagon has become. I know now I not only can but must empty the wagon a bit. I now know I need to monitor what's going into my body and stop sacrificing my health for seeking to be the most faithful pastor I can be. I now know I'm on the edge of needing medication for this body that used to have low blood pressure.

I've spent the last four days at a monastery, a place I journey to every Lent in order to read, plan sermons, and pray. I've never regretted coming to the abbey. I love this place. But I almost cancelled last week. How could I go away with one member in the hospital and another member entering Hospice care? Was it really faithful to leave my husband with a snow storm on the horizon? God didn't let me second guess myself for long. And I'm now praying God doesn't allow me to second guess my renewed commitment to taking better care of myself upon my return.

And while this post feels so incredibly vulnerable, I know I'm not alone. I live and serve in a city where we often speak of how busy we are as if our busyness is a badge of honor. I am part of one of the least healthy professions. We clergy love to tell other people how to care for themselves while doing a miserable job of taking care of our own selves. And I suspect I'm in good company when it comes to seducing myself to believe that extra hours in the office or meeting the needs of others are more important than just one hour at the gym.

I don't want the sun to set prematurely on me. I now know I was in serious danger, and I do not want to allow myself to go there again.

I love my red wagon. I adore nearly every single thing that I've placed inside it. But, it's time to take a few things out of my wagon.

What about you?


Monday, January 30, 2017

Pray for a Pastor

It was a day or two before Thanksgiving in my second year of seminary. My father had picked me up at the St. Louis airport, and we were midway into our drive to his home in mid-Missouri. The conversation had turned to what I was learning in seminary, and I started to share a host of new insights gained from my professor of Christian ethics, Stanley Hauerwas. If you know anything about Hauerwas who was named "America's Best Theologian" by Time, then you know he has the capacity to turn your head inside out and upside down as he presents new ways of thinking about what it means to be a Christian. I was five minutes into sharing my new knowledge with Dad, explaining what I had learned about capitalism, when Dad nearly drove off the road as he asked, "What in the hell are they teaching you?"

I can almost picture everything about that conversation. I might not ever forget it as it's the first time I realized how controversial following Jesus can be. Most of us prefer a watered-down version of the Gospel when we realize how hard it is to fully take on the name of Christ in all we say, all we do, and all we are. There is a reason Jesus was a threat to both the religious and political establishment of his day. We often forget some of why he was crucified.

And, while I'm not a betting woman, I'm willing to bet your pastor has heard a thing or two in recent weeks that echo the sentiment of, "What in the hell are you thinking? Or teaching us? Or preaching to us?" There is a good chance your pastor has heard a word or two about what she is to say and not say, what she is to do or not do, how she is to offer a more limited view of who Jesus really was and is, at such a time as this.

No matter what your pastor proclaimed or prayed yesterday, someone in the congregation was likely disappointed. Some people stepped inside sanctuaries yesterday longing to hear a word about how to think theologically about immigration and refugees. Their hearts were breaking, and they prayed their pastor would have something to say about how our nation is called to be more compassionate, to follow the instructions to welcome the stranger found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Countless other parishioners hesitated as to whether to actually come to worship. They held their breath during the pastoral prayer and the sermon, praying the pastor would not say anything "political" before rolling their eyes the moment the word "immigration" was mentioned. Your pastor was damned before she ever said a word yesterday.

Meanwhile, your pastor may be second-guessing everything today because she has never before pastored a congregation in a time when the nation feels as deeply divided as it does now. She's longing to please everyone, a trait at the core of her personality, while knowing that this goal is not achievable right now. She is carefully receiving every word and waiting for additional criticisms to come. But more than anything, she is longing to be as faithful as she can to Jesus, the one who called her and claimed her, the one who gave her a vision of what God's kingdom can look like on earth, a vision so compelling that she was willing to let go of other dreams and go to seminary.

If you're not currently praying for your pastor, I invite you to start doing so today and allow these prayers to continue to rise up like incense filling a room. If you're not sure what to pray, it can go something like this:

Gracious God, thank you for the ways in which you call and equip people to serve as priests, pastors, shepherds, and teachers. I thank you, especially, for my pastor - for his willingness to drop everything in order to go to the hospital when a person is sick or extend the workday an extra hour when one is in a challenging situation and needs to talk. Thank you for how he seems to love my children, getting down on his knees to share another story about Jesus. Thank you for his spouse and children, people who know plans cannot be made on Saturday night and that weekends together are one day maximum. Thank you for his love of scripture and the ways he seeks to bring it to life. Thank you for all he does to help me be a more faithful disciple of your Son, Jesus.

Will you hold my pastor tightly during this time? It must be impossible for everyone to hear and appreciate his preaching on a subject like immigration when your scripture has so much to say but opinions and convictions are tightly held. It must be impossible to say the words "justice" or "mercy" without being told you're being too political. It must be impossible to please everyone, especially when a congregation is diverse in every possible way. Will you please help him to be faithful? Will you give him the capacity to glean the words he needs to say from you and you alone? When criticism comes, will you grant him a wise spirit that can discern what he needs to hear and explore further and what he needs to let go of? And will you show me how I can support him, even if I might not always agree with him? I want our church to be a faithful representation of your light, your love, your mercy, your grace and your justice. And while I might disagree with him on certain things, I believe my pastor wants this, too. So please strengthen him once more. Watch over him. Bless his family, and bless him - especially at such a time as this.

Thank you, God, for our pastor.

Amen.