Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Preparing to Preach...

Last month, I had the privilege of serving as one of the keynote speakers for the Holston Conference Minister's Convocation.  It was an extraordinary gift that could still inspire dozens of blog posts about all I learned from speaking alongside Matt Miofsky and Andy Crouch. But as Easter approaches, there is one conversation shared over coffee with Andy that continues to inspire me.

Andy didn't learn the lesson in seminary. Rather, it was offered to him by a business leader, one who accepted the role of CEO of a then-failing company. As such, the lesson could be used for any speaker about to address an audience.

1) Do your homework.
2) Love your audience/people/congregation.
3) Be yourself.

Andy offered the three steps before describing how much relief they offer when he travels to speak to audiences across the nation. He named how much he pours into his preparation, making sure he has done the homework needed to offer his very best. He next shared how he had been awake in the middle of many nights praying for the pastors who would gather for our event in Tennessee, as well as praying for Matt and me. He sought to gain a sense of how much God loves these pastors and convey a sense of that love through his words. He then named the third step of effective preaching - be your fullest, most authentic self.

I've shared this wisdom with several people who are preparing for their first appointment. I've described the steps to other people who are intimidated by speaking in public. The words are a means of grace, and I'm seeking to fully embody the teaching.

It's my tenth year spending the days leading up to Holy Week at Holy Cross Abbey. I arrive at this place with more books than articles of clothing - an array of fiction, non-fiction, theology, church leadership, and memoir. I also have materials for exegeting John's account of the resurrection. I'm reading as much as I can for two days before sitting down to formulate words on Thursday that I'll continue to return to over the next ten days. But I'm also praying for each person who will come to our church on Easter morning as I long for them to experience the deep, wondrous, grace-filled, never-ending, never gives up on anyone, love of God that is revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I'm seeking to imagine their faces as they enter the sanctuary.  I am praying for our members to arrive early and be filled with warmth, hospitality and an eagerness that understands the precious gift we are offered to welcome dozens of first-time guests on Easter. I am longing for God to show me how to love all who come - whether it's their first time in church or people who are with us every Sunday - throughout my preparations. And, I'm promising to be my full, authentic self - the one called to offer the unique set of gifts God has given to me.

Thank you, Andy, for the lesson and the many ways you are a means of grace.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Intangible Religious Benefits

I signed dozens of letters last week to accompany financial statements that reflect how much a person gave to our church in 2017. Once the letters were in the mail, I started to focus on my own statement, and especially the words printed at the bottom. They are a disclaimer that is likely required by law, "Unless otherwise noted, the only goods or services provided are intangible religious benefits." It sounds simple enough. And yet, these words have been provoking countless questions within me.

What are the intangible religious benefits our church provided last year?

In what did people invest their resources?

How did people benefit from the ministries of MVP?

New York Times bestselling author Brene Brown preached at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday. Her remarks resonate deeply with me. I see organized religion (the negative word for "church") providing people with numerous reasons to give up on it all together. But I also deeply need the gifts she speaks of. I desperately need the church - and especially the church at its best.

Each week I gather with people I might not choose to spend time with if given the choice. There are people who see things very differently than me, and some of them are not afraid to tell me about it. But I have yet to grow, let alone be transformed, if I am only spending time with people who think like me. Like Brene, I want to pass the peace with people who disagree with me, to receive their deepest desire for peace in my life while I wish the same for them. I believe this happens every Sunday at MVP.

Our church last year embarked upon a powerful journey of learning about racial justice. Throughout the year I gathered with people to read books I likely would have never read on my own, and many of these books transformed me. But the conversation about them transformed me even more. Paul wrote to the Romans, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect." It is in reading, discussing and praying with others that my mind as been transformed, and also that I have been able to more faithfully discern what is the will of God, particularly when it comes to racial justice in our nation. I would never take this journey on my own, but I am more committed than ever to be an agent of change when it comes to racial justice because of the people who journey with me.

If I have just one sermon to preach, it is "you are beloved." I seek to speak these words as often as I can - not only because I believe others need to hear them, but also because I need to hear them. We are battered and bruised throughout the week, constantly given invitations to question our worth and sometimes our humanity. I need to gather with people who remind me that I am beloved. And I long to be part of raising children who know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are deeply beloved by me, by our church, and especially by God. I hear this message at church more than anywhere else.

I also need a visual aid of what it looks like for all to be welcome and no one turned away. Our American culture preaches the myth of scarcity - that there will never be enough - tempting people to cling tightly to what they have, to build walls, to protect the resources of the rich at the expense of the poor. But the table of our Lord is one place where all are given the exact same amount of bread and all are satisfied. I need to come to this table and see how there is always more than enough. I long to see replicas of the eucharistic feast throughout our city, and I pray our church encourages such places and patterns of behavior through how we serve and care for others.

Like Brene, I also need to sing with others. I don't sing much throughout the week, let alone with dozens of other people. Last night, a very small group of individuals gathered for a Monday worship experience. There were five of us standing around the piano as worship began, belting our words of praise through song. In many eyes, the gathered crowd might be perceived as a failure because they were so easy to count. But in singing together, we learned that wherever two or more are gathered, God is with us. I need to be reminded I am not alone - never alone. The church has a powerful way of walking with people - through casseroles delivered in sickness, through emails or notes that simply say "I'm praying for you," and through voices lifted in harmony and song. Where else do you sing together in a way that lifts your spirits and reminds you that you're not alone?

But I most need the church because I've learned it's impossible to follow Jesus on my own. From the beginning, Jesus has surrounded himself with ordinary people who he has given authority to do extraordinary things. We cannot become the fullness of who we are called to be on our own. We need people who show us how to selflessly serve others, how to increase our faith, how to keep on showing up even when we are struggling, and countless other things.

What are the intangible religious benefits you receive from church? I pray a few are able to roll immediately from your tongue. And if not, will you come sing with me on Sunday?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Will You Choose Thanksgiving?

A lively, gifted woman, someone who is in Washington with her family for just this year, sat down on the floor and gathered the children around her on Sunday. She lost her mother just two weeks ago and is grieving. She had a valid reason to cancel or postpone her time with the children. But instead she fully showed up and offered a children's sermon that is still speaking to me. 

She recalled with the children the Thanksgiving after the Colorado Rockies lost the World Series. Her family was not only disappointed, her uncle was angry. Instead of going around the table to share what they were most thankful for prior to carving the turkey, this angry uncle invited everyone to articular their anger. "What are you angry about this year?"

The family all took turns, and anger soon consumed the room, enough anger that someone suggested a do-over. "Let's now share what we're thankful for this year." Each person again took their turn, and the mood of the room brightened as the anger dissipated. 

I suspect that if we were offered an opportunity to respond to the question, "What are you angry about?" tomorrow, we might have plenty to say. I can offer my list of top ten reasons to be angry in a matter of minutes. But I'm not sure such an exercise leads me to a place of life, let alone joy.

I was reminded last week with the children that thanksgiving is a choice. Every single day we can choose to dwell on all that is wrong, on all we do not have, on all that is not living up to our expectations. We can choose to allow anger and disappointment to be our most powerful emotions.

Or we can choose to be thankful - to see how in the midst of our disappointment or sadness or anger, there are countless reasons to be thankful.

I choose thanksgiving - not just the feast and the excuse to indulge - but the spirit of saying "thank you" and embodying gratitude.

What about you? 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Day to Remember and Repent

It was 100 years ago today, on October 8, 1917, when the cornerstone was laid for our glorious, historic church building designed to be the "representative church" for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Today we remembered this historic occasion by telling our unvarnished truth, repenting of our sin, and then hanging a new banner, signed by many people in worship, next to the original cornerstone. You can learn more about our journey on our website. What follows is the litany we shared in worship.

Litany of Remembrance and Repentance

One:   Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

All:    We confess that it is sometimes easier to hide the truth, especially when the truth binds and suffocates instead of setting people free.

One:   But the only way to be free is to tell the truth – the unvarnished truth.

All:    What is this truth?

One:   Our church was founded as the “representative church” for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the denomination formed in 1844 to support its members who wanted to hold slaves.

All:    Lord, forgive us and those who came before us.

One:   Our church was part of a denomination in which every bishop was a slaveholder.

All:    Lord, forgive us and those who came before us.

One:   Our church once bowed to cotton and Caesar more than to Jesus as Lord.

All:    Lord, forgive us and those who came before us.

 One:   We gather in a building constructed as a monument to America’s original sin.

All:    We lament a history in which people valued property over people.

We lament the ways in which this church contributed to the wounds of an entire nation.

We lament the proclamation of white supremacy and the belief that such a proclamation is consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One:   “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”

All:    We repent of every way in which we have failed to reject racism that denies the dignity of anyone, choosing to instead participate in, gain privilege from, or remain silent in the face of injustice in our judicial system, our educational system and our economic system.

One:   “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

All:    We do. Forgive us for denying our power and choosing to instead be silent or apathetic in the face of racial injustice and intolerance. Give us wisdom and courage to disrupt, dismantle and destroy racism of every form, public and private, spoken and silent.

One:   “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”

All:    We do. Forgive us for failing to remember how you made one body from Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. Help us to always find our most authentic selves in this community as we work to faithfully and fully embody our oneness in Christ Jesus.

One:   God, help us be the church.

All:    Jesus, enable us to be the most faithful church we can be as we seek to be a sign and symbol of your kingdom in this city, nation and world. Amen.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Are You Ready to Welcome My Mom in the Morning?

If you follow me on Facebook, then you're likely aware that I post a PSA about every 90 days. Immediately after I visit the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Clinic, I share how many biopsies were needed or seek to capture my joy for not needing any at all before encouraging all who will read to please have their skin checked by a dermatologist. I've heard the words "skin cancer" multiple times and the dreaded word "melanoma" on four occasions - enough to have a Vitamin D deficiency at this point in my journey.

But my mother just heard the word "melanoma" spoken on the phone for the first time last week. Her primary care physician discovered an odd looking mole on her shin and insisted that it be removed. When the call came from the lab, she heard a sentence that includes "stage 3," "new skin cancer center," "appointment with specialist and plastic surgeon on Monday." She's since done her share of research with the aid of Google, and the results have been enough to keep her body awake at night as her mind ponders the worse case scenario.

I may not have helped today when I shared how she should prepare to spend at least two weeks in a recliner if a complex wound closure is needed. I've then reassured her that her diagnosis is worse than any of the four I've had - reassurance that's not exactly helpful in hindsight. And then I said once this morning and again this afternoon, "Mom, you really need a church."

My mom has always had a church. The child of a Methodist pastor, she was raised to never miss Sunday morning worship. She drug our sorry behinds out of bed every Sunday morning, regardless of where we had been the night before. My family was always at church. Faith was and is central to our lives.

But something has changed in the last few years. My mother moved back to Missouri to be near family, and going to church has become something she dreads. She's now in her 70s and single. An hour in a sanctuary has turned out to be one of the loneliest hours of the week. She reports how she sometimes only sees couples or families or groups of people who clearly know each other. Often, no one speaks to her even though it's clear she's a visitor. There is no other venue in the community where she feels more alone than in the church.

But she needs a church.

She needs a pastor who will pray for her. She needs a community where someone might feel called to accompany her to her doctor's appointment and where others might show up with a meal - even people she has never met before. She needs to be reminded that she is not alone - that we are never alone - no matter what we're going through.

She's visiting another church tomorrow.

If she comes to your church, are you ready to welcome her? Are there people in your congregation who are more eager to welcome a guest than they are to sit in their familiar spot? Is there someone in your pew who might reach up and simply acknowledge a visitor sitting nearby who they notice is crying? Is there a compassionate team of people who feel called to show up because God shows up and the only way we know God shows up is through us? Are there people in your church who feel called to care for people - and not just those whose names or stories they know? Will someone be with her - really be with her - in the weeks to come?

I hope so.

In fact, I'm counting on you to be this kind of church.

Because my mom really needs a church right now.

And as I ponder who might come into our sanctuary tomorrow, I pray no one goes unnoticed. If there is someone going through a crisis that has kept them up through the night, I pray they feel like they are seen. I pray someone notices their tears or their anxiety. I pray they know they do not have to be alone. And I pray I'll always be the kind of pastor who is eager to show up in the suffering and pain of life - when the darkness is far more visible than the light.

God, will you please help your churches be the fullest expression of your love and light that we can be? And, will you please help my mom find a church family who can journey with her during this season - and every other season of life? God, she's going to church again tomorrow. She's counting on your people showing up for her. Please help that congregation welcome her in the morning. Amen.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Tracking Faithfulness

"My obedience would be the only thing I would track."

The words echoed through my ears last Sunday afternoon when I sat around one of seven round tables hosting people who had come to learn how we can more faithfully be in ministry with people who are experiencing homelessness. The woman speaking was sharing her own story of being in community with people who are experiencing homelessness, a testimony that included admonitions to cherish dignity, kinship and mutuality. She had learned years ago that it's almost impossible to track success when it comes to ministry with people who sometimes face more obstacles than a turtle turned upside down until it rests on its shell. But her words opened an invitation for me to examine nearly every other aspect of my life.

What are the numbers you track?

What statistics have the power to define you?

I often track the number that appears on the scale while failing to track my obedience to counting calories on My Fitness Pal. Is it any wonder that one number doesn't budge much without the dedication to the other?

But what has the capacity to rob my joy even more are numbers related to my role as a pastor. And I know I'm not alone as I heard an extraordinarily gifted colleague share this week about all the good things happening in her church - the signs and wonders produced by people who are taking their discipleship seriously - before adding, "But our average worship attendance still gets me down."

Last week, while at Duke Divinity School, I heard a powerful testimony about the excellence being sought within the faculty. The professor of New Testament shared how the school is seeking to have "elite scholars who exemplify something of the subject matter they teach." The scholar knows that wisdom is about habits. "We have to become the person who thinks like the sort of person who lives as Christians when it comes to our loves, our passions and our habits." He then spoke of the hours of scholarship that are required for him to do his work. He cannot be faithful if he simply produces another book or offers a profound lecture that wows his students. His faithfulness comes through his obedience - his spiritual disposition, his deep and wise engagement with the text, his embodying the core practices of the church that transform us.

Too often we are tempted to believe that our objective is to have at least five people pat us on the back and say "great job," or worse yet, give us a standing ovation at least once a year. We have been seduced into believing that our faithfulness is measured by a number that the denomination most wants to know if you're a pastor. But what if, instead, we sought to track our faithfulness through these questions?

How much time did I spend searching the scriptures this week?

When did I put my own priorities aside to serve a neighbor in need?

Am I setting aside one day each week to find wonder, joy and delight in God and the gifts God has given to me? What are my practices of Sabbath keeping?

How much time do I devote to reading books that reveal a deeper understanding of who God is or how God is at work in the world?

Am I seeking to faithfully love God with my prayers, my presence, my gifts, my service and my witness?

Can people see what it means to be a Christian through my character?

If the life of another human being is what most motivates someone to follow Jesus, then how is my life motivating people to want to follow Jesus?

Am I fully seeking to love the Lord my God with my heart, soul, strength and mind?

I don't know about you, but I have some work to do.

And, I suspect that the more I track my own obedience to faithfulness, the more I'll see and sense God powerfully at work in my life and the world around me.

What will you track today?

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?