Saturday, December 23, 2006

What I Would Have Written

Do you need any holiday stamps?

She asked me this question two weeks ago, and I said, "No thank you." However, when the woman at the Post Office asked me this question again last Saturday, I replied, "Yes, I'll take 120 of the Virgin Mary stamps."

What was I thinking? I was thinking that I would have time this week to get all of the cards addressed and the letters in the mail. I was thinking that there would be a few hours before today when I could get the cards off to everyone expecting one. After all, I always write a holiday letter. I always send Christmas cards.

But not this year. There is just not enough time with preparations for my Doctor of Ministry courses, cookie baking and church responsiblities. I have put the cards back in a drawer and will save them for next year.

However, had you received a Christmas card with a letter inside, this is what I would have written:

Greetings from Washington! While I would love to say that it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, I write to you when the temperatures are over 60 degrees outside and my Christmas tree is still boxed away in the coat closet at home. Where on earth has 2006 gone?

If anyone ever tells you that changing a declining church into a growing church is easy, please tell the person they are crazy – absolutely, positively crazy. My appointment at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church continues to amaze me and challenge me on so many levels. The people who make this place their church home have undergone some significant challenges this year, none of which have been easy. We spent all summer packing, cleaning, storing and selling things in preparation for the church’s upcoming renovation and demolition. The church had two yard sales, bringing in close to $5,000 for missions. One of the most meaningful contributions, however, was sending a load of things (several pews, a piano, baptismal font and altar) to a church in Mississippi that had sustained damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina. When the church sent us a picture of the sanctuary with their ‘new’ things in it, we were delighted to see how everything seemed to fit like a glove. God is so good! In August, the church ended its shared ministry with the Chinese Community Church, a twelve-year-old relationship that has guaranteed at least 70 more people in the pews for our Sunday morning worship. We then moved out of the sanctuary on the last Sunday in August in anticipation of the arrival of an office trailer and the commencement of a massive asbestos abatement project in September with demolition of two buildings to follow in December. But, we’re still waiting. Our development has been significantly impacted by the sale of our developer to an investment firm that is now in the process of selling the Washington portfolio to another developer. In the meantime, I am learning more about real estate development, contracts, and construction than I ever dreamed was possible. My negotiating skills are improving each day. I also try hard to remember to ask God for forgiveness every time I say out loud how I really feel about New York City developers.

The wonderful part of all of these transitions is that the church is starting to grow again. We have taken in seven new members this year. While this number is about half of what we took in each month when I was at First UMC in Hendersonville, this number represents a 700% increase over last year. Even more exciting is the rich diversity of our worshipping congregation. And, our 80 and 90 year olds are rallying in ways that continue to cause me to smile and laugh often. One of my members – a 94 year old woman who I affectionately call “spit-fire” – even told a newspaper reporter recently how her main mission in life is to see me through the construction project before my hair turns gray!

Life in Washington is transforming me, too. I remember well some of the prayers I spoke when I was discerning a call to leave Duke and return to the local church. “Take me out of my place of comfort. Make me more prophetic. Give me a heart for hurting people.” Certainly God has removed me from my place of comfort as there are times when I realize I do not have any idea how to really make this church grow again. I am trying hard to become more prophetic each day as I speak truth to power – not a hard thing to do when the White House is less than a mile away. However, it is having a heart for hurting people that has caused the most pain in my life. I cannot escape the gap between those who have and those who have not whether I am walking down the street on which I live or standing outside the doors of the church. There are poor people everywhere. I watch them dig through the trash cans that fill the city streets. I wake them up each morning when I arrive at the church, asking them to leave the space right outside the doors during the day. I see their blankets, and I smell their odors. I wonder who to give money to and who to ignore. And, I read the Gospel in ways I have never read it before – especially the words spoken by Jesus about whosoever does it to the least of these does it onto me. These words haunt me at times and make me realize how far the church has fallen short of being the community Christ has called it to be. If I have one dream for Mount Vernon Place, it is that people will come here and see something different. I pray that people will see this church being the hands, eyes, ears, mouth and feet of Jesus – the church Christ has called it to be – and not a place that entertains or performs or has people walking in and out without allowing the Gospel to transform all of us in hopes that our community will be transformed, too.

There are magnificent people in my life who make me laugh, sing, think and want to be a better person. Amongst this year’s blessings was the opportunity to officiate at my best friend, Jenni’s wedding in October. In addition, I have met the kindest, most sensitive, joy-filled individual with whom I share most of my free-time. Craig adds beautiful balance to my life, and our relationship is certainly a gift from God. My family is all doing great, too. Dad visited in November, and I so enjoyed him. Mom still loves being mayor. Dana is engaged to be married sometime next year.

You are thought of often, especially during this time of year. Please come and visit. I always love sharing Washington with others.


Oh, and let me know if you need any holiday stamps. I have 120 of them.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rejoice in the Lord....always

The Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday is Philippians 4:4-7: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

I was surrounded yesterday with people who are rejoicing. They are not rejoicing because all of their Christmas shopping is done or because they anticipate the arrival of family next week for the celebration of Christmas. In fact, none of them are Christmas shopping this year. And none of them will have anyone come in from out of town to bring them Christmas cheer. Still, they were rejoicing as if they had just read this passage from Paul.

I went to the nursing home yesterday to visit a member of the church who has recently suffered a stroke. Ruth is an amazing person who has lived in Washington since the early 1940s. She is someone I have grown to love and appreciate as she is at the church any time the doors of the church are unlocked. You could always count on Ruth to be there whether it was Wednesday morning Bible study, Sunday worship, or Wednesday evening activities. She's quite remarkable and quite wonderful. She is in a different place right now as a stroke has removed her ability to enjoy her Massachusetts Ave. apartment for now. She can no longer walk all over downtown as she loves to do. She's not wearing her favorite outfits right now -- two pantsuits in very bright colors. Instead, she has different clothing, and she sits in a chair, allowing the wheels to take her to therapy instead of her feet taking her to the church.

If we were Ruth, many of us would find ourselves complaining right now. But not Ruth. Ruth was filled with laughter and joy when I saw her yesterday. She boldly sang "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" with me. She smiled. She said everything was fine. She said she was thankful. Ruth was rejoicing. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Accompanying me on my visit to Ruth yesterday was another one of our members. I take Eddie with me to nursing homes because I always get to see him rejoicing when we walk into a room. Eddie has an uncanny way of bringing comfort and joy to others. He has a way of making jokes that can always bring smiles. He has a way of reaching out and taking people's hands that enables the person holding his hand to grasp tightly. Eddie is a remarkable care-giver. And while he has never been to seminary, I always learn a lesson in pastoral care from him. Eddie always rejoices with the people we are visiting, encouraging them to rejoice, too, despite their circumstances.

I saw a bit more of Eddie's joy an hour before we left to visit people, however. I was sitting at a window table at a restaurant on 7th Street when Eddie went by on his bicycle, smiling as he peddled. Eddie's bike is not new. In fact, he bought it at a corner market for $30. He came in rejoicing on the day he bought it -- showing everyone his new found treasure. When I asked Eddie where he was going on his bike yesterday, he informed me that he was going to the downtown holiday market --a place where he could admire artwork and compliment the artists. Seeing other people show their art was enough to make Eddie rejoice. While he wanted to buy different things, he did not. He simply went to see the art and then was able to rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Prior to leaving the church to visit in the afternoon I met a man named Michael. Michael likes stuff. He has lots of stuff. He has some six different grocery carts. He has a couple of bikes. He has dozens of blankets and lots of clothes. He picks up things all over town and brings them to the corner of the church's parking lot. The corner was becoming quite a mess, as you can imagine. It seemed to be growing each day as I would drive into the parking lot. I was never able to meet the person who kept his stuff there, however, until yesterday when Michael was cleaning up his mess. Our building engineer had noticed him in the morning and asked him to clean up the corner, and he spent all of Thursday cleaning. The progress he made was amazing!

When I was leaving the church last night, I noticed Michael cleaning another spot at the church -- a pile of belongings that I did not know belonged to him because they were in a different place. This particular pile has caught my attention often. No one would see it from the street or the sidewalk as it is down in a window well next to the church. Michael has collected enough milk crates to make steps that lead down into it. He has made a place to sleep there at times while simply putting a lot of stuff there at other times. He then carefully covers it all up with plastic each morning, doing whatever he can to make sure nothing gets wet. The pile has made me ask often how on earth anyone could live this way, and why some people in our neighborhood have so much while others have so little.

Michael taught me a lot yesterday. When I complimented him on his cleaning job, he smiled big, sharing how he was thankful to have a place for his belongings. "The stuff is not safe at the shelter -- it will all disappear," he said. He was rejoicing. He was rejoicing because he had a 'place' to put his things.

Michael's 'place' is not a place many people would put their things. It is dirty. It is wet. It is near trash. It is open to all. Still, Michael is thankful to have it.

I then mentioned to Michael that the buildings would soon be demolished. I told him how fences would go up around the church sometime soon, closing the property off for construction. It was then that Michael's rejoicing ended, and his face became filled with uncertainty. "But where am I going to put my stuff?" Michael was immediately disheartened.

I now cannot seem to get Michael's face out of my mind. I learned yesterday that the building project is impacting him just as much as it is some of the members of the church.

It was only recently that I noticed everything in the window well. I now cannot help but to notice it. I have to stop and look in it each morning and each afternoon. I have prayed often for the person who spends time in that well, and now I know his name.

Michael, we can still rejoice. You do not know where your stuff is going to be kept come January. But we can rejoice. For the scriptures appointed for this week tell us one more thing. They tell us that a day is coming when the outcasts will be gathered together and everyone will have enough. And it is then that you will have the seat of honor. It is then that you will be welcome anywhere at anytime. It is then that your stuff will not really matter because you will have everything you have ever needed.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Vision at the Corner of 7th and H

There are many things I love about the city. I love the diversity of people. I love the movement of the trains and buses. I love the hustle and bustle. I love the city streets. And I love the entertainment found on many sidewalks.

The corner of 7th and H in Chinatown attracts a myriad of performers. There is a man who plays the "drums" -- any cylinder form he can find -- to the delight of my ears throughout the summer months, allowing me to hear his beat several blocks away. There is a preacher who shouts words of hell, fire and damnation that I usually ignore. There are several guitarists who strum to their heart's delight. And, there is a man who plays an electric keyboard as he sings along.

The man with the keyboard has a mediocre voice. He has no backup band or flashy clothing. He does not attract a large group of people outside of CVS. He does, however, have vision.

The other day I was waiting to cross the street on my way to the gym when he announced with a speaker, "Thank you for coming. The next show will start in five minutes. Please hang tight for five minutes."

I cannot imagine anyone waiting five minutes for the start of the "show." I did not happen to see anyone sticking around instead of crossing the street. I did see, however, several people smiling at his words.

The man has vision. He visualizes a day when people will gather around to here him sing. When people will stick around for the start of the next show. When his group of fans will grow. When he will sing not on a street corner but on a stage. And, the man inspires me, reminding me of how important it is have a vision.

I, too, have a vision. I envision a church that is constantly looking at itself to see who is missing. I envision a church where people are more excited about leaving the doors of the church, taking the light out into the city, instead of keeping the light of Christ locked inside. I envision a church of old and young, rich and poor, black and white, brown and tan, educated and uneducated, city dwellers and suburban retirees, full and empty. I envision a church that is convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ still has the power to transform lives and a church that sees this transformation on a regular basis. I envision a church where people gather often -- for coffee and conversation, for worship and Bible study, for ministry on the streets and in the city, for music and dancing, for games and play, for exercise and activity, for the pure privilege of encountering Jesus Christ in a myriad of people and places.

While it is not a performance, we do have singing, and music, and laughter, and conversation. We'll pass a plate though you do not have to put anything in it. You'll hopefully leave with a smile on your face. The next service starts on Sunday at 11:00. You'll find us on the corner of 9th and Mass.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Terms of the Contract

There is something incredible about Advent. Advent is the liturgical season that accompanies my favorite time of the year -- a time when we sing some of my favorite hymns, decorate the sanctuary in wonderful ways, and reach out to the community. Advent is also a time when the scriptures convict me -- reminding me that Christ is coming again. This arrival is what we are waiting for, and we are to wait with joyful expectation.

We are learning a lot about what it means to wait at Mount Vernon Place. It's true that we don't spend all of our time talking about what it means to wait for the return of the Christ child. We do, however, talk a lot about waiting for two of our buildings to be demolished while another one is built. We talk about waiting for our sanctuary to be renovated. We talk about waiting for a trailer to arrive, a signal that the asbestos abatement has commenced. And, we are learning a lot as we wait -- not about patience, exactly, but about real estate development, legal contracts, and companies that believe in going above and beyond the call to duty.

Last year, the congregation reluctantly but hopefully voted to sell a portion of its property. We entered into a contract with a local company -- the kind of company where your number one contact at the company is part of the original family -- the kind of company that sends you fruit baskets for Christmas and tulips on Easter -- the kind of company that works hard to understand its constituency and do whatever it can to ensure that the constituency achieves great success with its development -- the kind of company that knows what the legal document says but is willing to go above and beyond the terms of the contract in order to assist the client.

We have a variety of contracts in our life. We have work contracts. We have construction contracts. We have contracts on our copying machines, elevators and furnaces. There are contracts everywhere. A contract lays out what one party can expect from the other party. And it is true that it is often rare to find one party willing to exceed the terms of the contract.

During this season of waiting, we are waiting for one who constantly exceeded the terms of the contract. This one came so that we might have life -- no ordinary life -- but life abundant. This one came to bring forth justice and righteousness -- not just for a few people but for all people. This one came for the forgiveness of our sins -- not only the sins of our past but the sins of our future, too. This one constantly exceeded the terms of the contract in every way possible. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Locked Out

"Pastor, it's mighty hard for a handicapped person to get into the church right now."

These are the words with which I was greeted on Sunday morning. They came from my parishioner, Gilbert, a 96 year-old-retired attorney who has been a member of Mount Vernon Place for decades. Gilbert is one of many members whose Sunday routine has been interrupted because of the renovation project at the church. He used to be able to walk in the front doors off of Massachusetts Avenue, take the elevator to his Sunday school room on the third floor, take the elevator back to the second floor where the sanctuary entrance is located, and then step onto a motorized lift with his walker in order to be lowered down into the sanctuary.

Since we had to vacate the building with the elevator on September 1, however, Gilbert and many others have had to adjust to a different routine. They have had to walk in one door for Sunday school and then back outside in order to walk into another door for worship in the undercroft theatre, as this way is the only way one can get from Sunday school to worship without using any steps. Gilbert and many others are making sacrifices each time they come to the church. They cannot step in from the cold or the rain and be done with it. Instead, they have to step in for one thing, step back outside, and then step back in for another thing. If I were them, I might stay home and watch a television evangelist for my dose of good news! But they, thank God, keep coming.

If this new routine were not enough, we have found that there are doors locked at times that are not supposed to be locked. We are using doors that we have never used before, and many of them lock without us wanting them locked. They lock without us having a key to get them opened. They lock, leaving Gilbert and many others stuck outside.

Pastor, it's mighty hard for someone with a handicap to get into church today.

I keep thinking about Gilbert's comment and the one door he can use being locked. How many other individuals feel locked out of the church? How many handicapped people have stayed away from Mount Vernon Place because it is too difficult to get inside? How many handicapped people have refused to sing in the choir because the choir loft requires that one be able to climb stairs? How many handicapped people have said "no" to reading scripture or serving communion because the chancel area has stairs?

Not only this, but how many people believe the doors of the church are "locked" to them because of the sins of the past or of the present? Because they do not have anything to wear that comes even close to what they see Sunday church folk wearing? Because they have been told that they are going to burn in hell because of their sexual orientation? Because they do not know anything about the Bible? Because someone once told them they were not good enough to be loved by God?

It's true that the doors to many churches around the world have appeared locked to countless children of God. The church has not done a good job of reminding itself that we are all sinners in need of God's grace and redemption. The church has often forgotten what Jesus said about how we are to not judge others. The church has failed to practice what it preaches.

It's true that we are having a hard time getting all of the doors unlocked on Sunday mornings. There is always one door that seems to stick. But I hope and pray that no one will feel locked outside of the church for long. I pray that somewhere, there will always be an opening for anyone and everyone to come to inside.

Now, let me try to find that key.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


It's Thanksgiving morning, and my eyes are already red. They are not red because I am tired. They are not red because something is burning in the oven. They are red because I have been reminded in so many powerful ways on this morning of how blessed I am. They are red because I realize how thankful I am for all of the many blessings in life.

My dad visited me this week. Dad lives in Missouri where he is the President of Linn State Technical College. He is an amazing individual with a sense of humor that can make me laugh until my tummy hurts. He has a work ethic that makes me want to work even harder than I already work. He is a bit hard headed, which makes me think that I, too, can do anything I want to do. And, he loves his family -- which makes me realize how loved I really am. I am enormously proud of my dad. I am grateful for all he has taught me in my 34 years. I am thankful for the lessons in life that he has given me -- lessons that have demonstrated to me how I should work hard to reach my goals while never forgetting the people who have helped me along the way -- lessons on why I should love God and his church -- lessons about how to never give up. Thank you, dad.

I am also enormously thankful for the people to whom I am privileged to be pastor. I realize each day how much I love the people who call Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church their church home. These individuals awe and amaze me. They make me laugh. They make me think. They make me want to serve as faithfully as I possibly can.

One of our members had a stroke this week. When the call came informing me that she was in the hospital, I quickly put my coat on and rushed out the door. When I arrived at the hospital, I was reminded how thankful I am for having been able to hear the story of this woman's life -- her arrival in Washington during WWII, her love of the church, and her journeys as a resident of the neighborhood. I was also reminded that the call of a pastor is a precious privilege as I was not only invited to come to the hospital, but I was beckoned there. And once I arrived, I realized again how the ground on which I walk is sacred, indeed.

On this Thanksgiving morning, I also remember and give thanks for the precious friends in my life. One of the greatest joys of being back in Washington is the gift of being near so many of my closest friends. This year I was able to visit my friend, Kimberly, at the hospital on the day her second child, Abby, was born. I was also able to officiate at my best friend, Jenni's wedding -- a woman whose friendship continues to sustain me in so many lifegiving ways. Last week, I shared a simple meal of soup with Kim, a colleague I met in 1994. These women are such gifts to me. I celebrate their friendships and the ways in which I experience the love of Christ through their lives.

And this is just the beginning of my thanksgiving. God is so good.

Thank you, Lord, for my home and the gift of warmth that exudes from it. Thank you, Lord, for my call to ministry and the joy of being at Mount Vernon Place. Thank you for life in the city. Thank you for my family. Thank you for my friends. May my life demonstrate to you time and again how thankful I really am.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Living in Exile

I get to talk about my church a lot. It seems as though countless people are interested in hearing the story of Mount Vernon Place -- its history, its current state, and its plans for the future. While people will listen patiently to stories of the church's past, there are dozens of people who are spending time talking about the church's future.

I had two such conversations last week. The people at the table were a little different between Thursday's meeting and Friday's meeting. Still, everyone seemed interested in the future of Mount Vernon Place. And, everyone had an idea for what can happen at 900 Massachusetts Avenue when the property is redeveloped.

I sat patiently and listened to the words of denomination officials, seminary professors, and community leaders before being asked to share a few words about what is happening at Mount Vernon Place right now.

A smile soon filled my entire face as I started to talk. A new analogy quickly came to mind when I thought about how we are a congregation living in exile. We have left much of what is most comfortable to us.

We moved out of two buildings and sold or gave away many of the belongings.

We vacated our sanctuary at the end of August, moving worship to the undercroft theatre beneath the sanctuary.

We let go of many programs, unable to support them with the space needed.

We combined two, very independent and different Sunday school classes into one class.

And, none of these changes have been easy. Just like the Israelites, we have complained about what we have been asked to do. Still, we keep thinking about the 'promised land' that is coming -- a renovated sanctuary building and space in a new office tower. And, we keep experiencing the presence of God in bold, new ways. Something amazing is happening!

We are learning about what is really important.

We no longer climb the stairs to entire a monumental-like building. Instead, we enter a space that is a little dark and dingy in the basement. We no longer keep silent when it comes to the sharing of the joys and concerns. Instead, we speak up, sharing with others what God is doing in our lives and where we need to feel the presence of the Lord. We no longer remain in our seats when it comes time to share the passing of the peace. Instead, we walk around the room, shaking as many hands as possible. We no longer sit with 40 people in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. Instead, we had 58 people in the theatre today!

There is something powerful about letting go of all that we have in order to see what we might become through the grace of God.

We are now awaiting the arrival of an office trailer where we will move our offices, our Bible studies, and our opportunities for worship. I am curious to see what kind of transformative time we will have in the trailer. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy the manna God provides each morning -- bread from heaven in the least expected places.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

It's Cold Outside

I met several of the church's neighbors yesterday morning. I did not meet them at a holiday open house or a neighborhood association meeting. I met them instead when I walked around the church with a friend who was visiting for the first time.

I was giving my friend a tour, and we made our way around the massive building. It was not the architecture or the church's future plans that caught our attention, however. My attention was caught by how many people the church had apparently hosted on the night before. There were boxes, blankets, and plastic tarps everywhere. Temporary homes could be found in the bushes, while grocery carts held the entirety of one individual's possessions.

I then climbed the steps to go inside the church and met three individuals at the top of the stairs. One woman introduced herself as "one of the people who slept here last night."

But as we walked around, I realized that a dozen or so people slept on the lawn of the church on Friday night. There was stuff everywhere.

The woman was still at the church this morning when I arrived. I went out to say "good morning" and asked her how she was. She quickly said, "I am cold."

I was cold, too -- not because I had to sleep outside last night but because I had just made my way from my car to the office, spending a total of three minutes outside.

The woman was wet, along with her belongings.

I was wet, too -- not because I had to sleep outside last night but because my umbrella was not large enough to completely shelter me from the wind and rain.
One of the hardest parts of living in the city is seeing the gross gap that separates the rich from the poor. The church is sandwiched between the two. We face a building on one side where attorneys bill for $500 an hour and couples drop over $100 for dinner. We see thousands of people flock to the city each year, making their way across the street to a myriad of conventions. And we see people sleeping all around us -- not at the hotel next door or the one behind the church -- but on the lawn and the porch.

And, I hate it.

I hate it because I realize that I, too, am part of the problem.

I hate it because I realize that I have more than I could possibly use.

I hate it because I do little to alleviate the pain or ask the difficult questions about why there are so many hungry men, women and children in the world's wealthiest nation.

But my life in this city will not allow me to say "I hate it," and do nothing about it, forgetting how many homeless children of God there are living all around me. I have to see and smell the poor when I leave my home and when I walk to the church. I have to see their boxes, their tarps, and their carts while I smell their urine in the nearby alley. The poor are here -- all around me.

Jesus makes it very clear that those who follow him have a responsibility to the poor. In fact, Jesus says "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." He then casts people into the outer darkness saying, "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me....for just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Matthew 25:41-45).

We warmly welcomed the stranger who came to church today, taking a break from the convention she was attending. We loved having her with us. We bent over backwards to make her feel at home.

I also invited our neighbor who slept outside to worship, but I did not offer her something to drink or something to eat. And, I wondered what would happen if she really came to worship.

Why, Lord, does following you have to be so hard?

Grant me courage. Give me compassion. Loosen the hold I have on my pride and my possessions. And Lord, please be with all who sleep outside on this cold, rainy, windy night. Do not allow me to forget them when I put my head on my pillow and cover my body with as many blankets as I would like.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Flashback to '94

It is raining in Washington this morning. A steady stream of rain was accompanied by strong gusts of wind when I first went outside just after 6:00 this morning. It was raining twelve years ago, too.

I remember well catching an early morning flight from Cleveland to Washington. I had spent the last week in Cleveland, volunteering time to campaign for my boss, U.S. Representative Eric Fingerhut. It had been a hard fight. We had worked long and hard. We were hopeful he would win. But when the ballots were counted, Eric, along with dozens of other Democratic Representatives and Senators, were defeated, transferring the balance of power to the Republican party for the first time in years, leaving some 2000 Democratic staffers unemployed.

When my flight arrived in Baltimore, I took the train to Union Station and slowly made my way towards the Cannon House Office Building. Capitol Hill was a rather quiet place. The Cannon building was even quieter. The Republicans were still out celebrating with Newt Gingrich while the Democrats were trying to collect themselves. People stopped by when they saw me entering the office to say a few simple words, "I am sorry your boss lost."

The ensuing weeks were busy and challenging. There were letters to write, White House tour tickets to send, and boxes to pack for the Congressman. And, there was resume paper to purchase and phone calls to make.

My friend, Sharon, who had been through it before said, "You'll get through it, Donna. You file for unemployment benefits, and you move on." Unemployment benefits? I was a twenty-one year old recent college graduate. I was not about to file for unemployment....or so I thought. The day came, however, when I arrived in one of the huge committee rooms in the Rayburn building to complete the paperwork. I was with people whose last names begin with "C" and "D," and I could not believe that the huge room was full of people -- unemployed people -- people whose jobs were about to come to an end as soon as the new year began.

In 1994, my entire identity was based upon the business card I used to hand out often -- the card with a beautiful, gold-embossed seal at the top and the title, "Scheduler to U.S. Representative Eric Fingerhut" below my name. It was an impressive card and a great position for someone right out of college. It bought me the respect of my college classmates and gave my mother bragging rights. It was the answer I provided to the most popular questions asked in Washington, "What do you do?" or "Who do you work for?"

But the identity was gone on one cold, November night.

I started to pound the pavement immediately, distributing one resume after the next, trying to meet as many people as possible. I interviewed with different offices on the Hill, in the White House, at different agencies within the Clinton Administration, and with different firms around town. Nothing happened, however. People were great. They affirmed my gifts. I even got to interview in the West Wing on one day and with a cabinet secretary on another day. Still, I kept coming up as the second choice, forcing me to keep returning a different card to the unemployment office each week, indicating how many job contacts I was making.

With extra time on my hands and little money to spend at the bars on Saturday nights, I also did something I had not done in a while -- I got out of bed on Sunday mornings and went to church. I went back to church, trusting that I could find a community that would embrace me whether I was employed or not. And, the community I found at church was just what I needed. They welcomed me. They embraced me. They listened to me. They prayed for me. And through them, I discovered an identity much larger than anything I had ever known before. In the days of my unemployment I discovered that my truest identity was not as a scheduler for a Congressman from Ohio but as a child of God -- made in God's image, beautiful to behold, precious in his eyes. And my faith in this God provided a foundation that could never be taken away from me.

While the pain of the moment stung like hell, I can now say that my unemployment was a gift. It was a gift that placed me on a path for which I offer thanks and praise. And still, I can imagine the pain filling the halls of the Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn House Office Buildings on this day. I know the pain, the disappointment, and the anxiety that fills the hearts and minds of countless staffers whose bosses have lost their elections and whose futures are filled with so many unknowns.

One thing is known, however -- you are a beloved child of God, made in God's image, beautiful to behold. And, you're welcome in this community of faith whether you have a job or not. I would love to hear your story and be in prayer for you during this time.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Campaign Rhetoric

As with many people living in Washington, I am very curious to see what happens in tomorrow's elections. While I am tired of the campaign commercials airing on television, I do enjoy reading the different predictions and commentaries on who is ahead and who is behind.

One of the races receiving national attention is the race for U.S. Senate in Missouri. I was raised and educated in Missouri, and much of my family still lives there. I know the name Jim Talent but the name Claire McCaskill is a new name to me. One cannot escape any of the newspaper articles or television commentaries on what might happen tomorrow without seeing both of these names mentioned, however.

When I called home this week, I asked a couple of simple questions, "What do you think of Jim Talent and Claire McCaskill? Who are voting for?"

The response was rather to the point, "I like them both. I think they both have great qualities. However, I did not vote for either of them. When I completed my absentee ballot this week I voted for every race and item on the ballot with the exception of the U.S. Senate seat. As far as I am concerned, it is time for voters to stand up and say they will not put up with all of the negative campaign ads. You would not believe some of the commercials. It has gotten so ugly, and I figure it is time for a referendum. I could not support either of them after the things they have said in this race."

These comments have made me think a lot. They come from someone who has never missed the opportunity to vote before. They come from someone who is politically active. They come from someone who has refused to participate in the process of electing a U.S. Senator because of the ways in which the candidates have acted.

I wonder how many people have given up on the church because of the ways in which the church has acted (or failed to act). Someone recently commented on how some D.C. neighborhoods are filled with so many people on Sunday mornings -- people walking their dogs, drinking coffee, or meeting their friends for brunch -- that it makes you wonder if anyone is in church on Sunday mornings. But how many of these people have been turned off by the church? How many of these people have been alienated by the church? How many of these dog walkers have read the Gospel accounts only to conclude that those who go to church today do not appear to be following Jesus as they are not doing the things Jesus asked them to do? How many of these coffee drinkers believe the church is no longer relevant?

While I love the rich diversity of the city, the city also makes me think -- a lot. Life in Washington presents more opportunities to be like Jesus than my earlier years in Missouri and North Carolina presented to me. When I arrived to work at First UMC in Hendersonville I did not have to unlock the church's doors with a homeless person sleeping six feet away. When I lived in Columbia, Missouri, I did not have to pass the man each morning who asks me for change in order to get something to eat.

My friend in Missouri would have voted for a U.S. Senator had the candidates acted like Senators.

I wonder how many people would come to church if the church was acting like Jesus -- if the pastor stopped to say "good morning" or bring a cup of coffee to the person sleeping on the church's stoop this morning instead of quietly locking the door behind her. I wonder how many people would come if we lived this radical life that Jesus lived -- a life that healed the sick, fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, and befriended the lonely.

We have heard so much rhetoric in recent weeks about what candidates will do once they step into office. Candidates for political office always promise more than office holders can possibly deliver. They often say they will vote one way during the campaign only to change their mind once they get into office. Candidates also drag their opponents into the mud, making us wonder which person, if any, we are to believe.

Lord, may our rhetoric -- may the words that come from your church -- not be rhetoric -- but words that are accompanied by our actions -- by a living faith.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Prophetic Voice in an Unexpected Place

I heard one of the more prophetic voices I have heard in a long time on Sunday night. The prophetic message came not from a preacher or even a television evangelist (smile). The prophetic voice came from a musician at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.

Apparently I had heard Catie Curtis' music before, as Craig took me to the concert as a big surprise after hearing my response to her CD playing in the car. However, I did not know much about her music until she started singing. And, I found myself saying, "Amen" more than once during the concert.

It is clear that Catie has been pushed aside by many people in her life. She is quick to tell you about how hard it is to be the mother of two children when the other parent is not a father. She is also quick to tell you about how many times her lifestyle has been judged. Catie has a remarkable take on the pain in this world -- pain caused by politicians who wear the label "Christian" and from countless people in the church. And, Catie spoke to me. She spoke directly to my heart.

She spoke so loudly that I wanted to shout out loud when I got an invitation to stand in line this Saturday morning for tickets to the lighting of the White House Christmas tree. I have stood in line before. There have been times in my life when I would wait in line for hours to be in the presence of a President. I used to give hours of my time volunteering on the White House Advance team. But something struck a chord with me when the friend's email arrived yesterday.

Too many times last week I opened my Washington Post to a picture of another young widow being presented with an American flag at Arlington cemetery -- an incredible token, for sure, but one that cannot possibly take the place of a life lost too soon.

We are now preparing for an All Saints Day Vigil at our church. On Wednesday evening we will read the name of every single member of the coalition forces who has died in Iraq -- over 3000 names. Meanwhile, I keep reading arguments about just how many Iraqis have died. No one seems to want to admit the truth.

There may be a warm, fuzzy feeling emulated on the lawn of the White House when the Christmas tree is lit in a few weeks but there is certainly not much peace on this earth.

God, please let there be peace on earth.

Following are the lyrics to one of Catie's songs that spoke to me:

People Look Around
Written by Catie Curtis and Mark Erelli

Mississippi River divides this land in two,
Like the way we tend to think of things;
Black and white, red and blue.
If they can keep us fighting about marriage and God,
There will be no one left to notice if the leaders do their jobs.
And the truth is bigger than these drops of rain, falling.
The truth is bigger than these drops of rain,
Falling in the ocean, falling...
When the water is rising and there is no higher ground,
You can wave your hands up on the roof,
But you might be left to drown.
In the streets of New Orleans;
a makeshift funeral pall,
Here lies Vera, God help us all.
And the truth is bigger than these drops of rain, falling.
The truth is bigger than these drops of rain,
Falling in the ocean, falling...
Jesus said, "Feed the hungry,"
Jesus said "Help the poor,"
"Take care of each other love one another,"
People look around.We let them down.
Mississippi River flooded New Orleans,
And we stared in disbelief at our TV screens,
If they can keep us fighting another endless war,
How many tears before the truth cannot be ignored?
And the truth is bigger than these drops of rain, falling.
The truth is bigger than these drops of rain,
Falling in Lake Pontchartrain.
Falling in the ocean, falling...

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Little Boy from Birmingham

Yesterday was an amazing day as I spent the afternoon visiting some of our members who are now in nursing homes. One of our newest members, Eddie, went with me.

Eddie is someone in whose words and actions I often hear and see the living God. Yesterday was no different.

Our first stop was a visit with a woman who has recently had to trade an independent life in her own home for a dependent life in a nursing facility. The change has not been easy. She misses the food she used to eat, the home she helped to build, and her neighbors. She wants badly to go home, and she is depressed.

Eddie was amazing with her, however. He was the "wounded healer" who was able to minister to her in a powerful way. He listened carefully to her words of sadness and complaint. He wished her joy when she spoke of darkness. He reminded her of how precious life is when she said she simply wanted to die.

When we got in the car, Eddie said, "Pastor Donna, we have to go back there soon. We need to spend an entire afternoon with her. We need to get her out of her bed and into a place where she can simply feel the sun on her face. We need to make time to go and listen to her -- listen for several hours." He continued to explain how he knows exactly how she is feeling because he has been placed in a hospital when he did not want to be there. He knows what it is like to have "people caring for you who don't really care about anything but getting paid." He knows what it is like to need only a little sunlight on your face. And, most importantly, he knows how hard it is to find someone who will spend time doing nothing else but listening.

Eddie taught me more about pastoral care yesterday than any course or textbook has ever taught me. He taught me much about how it is not the big things that matter -- but the ordinary things -- the things that are so extraordinary in today's world.

Eddie then made me laugh for hours. On our final stop we sang to a church member living in nursing home -- a church member who does not remember a lot but who can sing every word to "Jesus Loves Me." And when we got into the car we kept singing different songs.

Eddie is not from the United States, and English is not his first language. Chinese is the language he most readily speaks and writes. Yesterday, he requested a song saying, "Pastor Donna, do you know the words to 'The Little Boy from Birmingham?'" I responded by asking if he meant Birmingham, Alabama. He responded with an emphatic, "no." And, I soon realized that the song he was requesting was not about a boy in Birmingham but rather about a "child in Bethlehem!"

I cannot believe I actually get paid to do my job. What an extraordinary privilege I have been given.

Temperature Changes

I recently wrote an article for the Duke Divinity School alumni magazine. The article is about one of my favorite times of the week -- our Wednesday Bible study group. It is a group filled with many of the church's longest serving members, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s.

This group demonstrated its incredible commitment and tenacity to me once again this week when they arrived to study the Bible in a church with no heat.

The gas was turned off a couple of months ago in preparation for our upcoming renovation project. We were supposed to be out of the church completely by the first of October -- before the cold temperatures arrived. However, a few things have been delayed, included the arrival of our office trailer.

Still, the people come, and they keep coming! On Wednesday, we kept our coats on while we read. We drank warm coffee. We ate breakfast breads. We experienced the incredible warmth of community. And, we were reminded again of how much we take for granted.

We have choices when it comes to being able to step inside from the cold -- choices that many of our neighbors do not have -- children of God who live all around us -- sleeping and gathering on the church's lawn and nearby parks throughout the cold winter months. We can get in our cars and turn the heat on. We can go home to our houses or apartments and turn the furnace on. We can get into a bed and cover our bodies with many blankets. Others, however, are relegated to a few boxes and whatever else they can find to cover their bodies through the night.

The gas man returned on Thursday to turn the gas back on at the church. The heat is flowing from the radiators throughout the sanctuary building. And, all are welcome to step inside and enjoy the warmth when Sunday arrives. I can almost guarantee you that warmth will flow not only from the radiators, but also from these amazing people who continue to allow me to bask in the light and the warmth of God whenever I am in their presence.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Counting the Hours at the Courthouse

I spent a good part of yesterday morning at Judiciary Square. It is no secret that people living in the District of Columbia get called for jury duty often. I suppose I am lucky that I made it for almost a year and a half without being called to report to the courthouse for jury duty. And, it is true that I complained to myself on the Metro ride to the courthouse, while standing in line to check in once I arrived, and while sitting in the jurors' lounge while waiting to be called.

You see a myriad of people at the courthouse. There were hundreds of people just like me -- people wearing coats with a tag attached labeling them as a potential juror. There were many attorney types who wheeled around briefcases filled with folders. There were other individuals who appeared rather worried, labeling them as the one whose fate would be placed in the hands of the potential jurors who filled the lounge at the end of the hallway.

I was also amazed to see what people were reading as they waited for their name to be called. Plenty of people had Monday's edition of The Washington Post with them. Others had magazines. Some had nothing. And one woman had a book called, "God Don't Like Ugly."

When I saw the book, I concluded that the woman was brilliant. After all, what judge or attorney could see this book and want the person reading it to be on the jury? Often times, it is an ugly side of a person who sits on the side of both plaintiff and defendant. There are plenty of plaintiffs in court out of sheer greed. There are plenty of defendants in court for the same reason. Our ugliness can get us in court for dozens of different reasons. And, God don't like ugly.

I did not have a book with such a title to take with me when I was called to approach the bench. I approached it, instead, with a simple greeting, "Good Morning." One of the attorneys then asked, "So you are a pastor?" The judge followed by asking where I served only to tell me that he had seen different shows in my church's theatre. No one wanted a pastor on the jury, I soon learned, as I was the second person dismissed out of the pool of potential jurors.

And still, I learned something yesterday. The judge explained everything to the potential jurors as if we had never been in a courtroom before. He told us about how long we could anticipate serving as a juror. He explained the "hush" button, a button that, when pushed, makes a lot of sound so as to "hush" the voices from the ears of potential jurors. He shared how 8 people would be chosen to sit on the jury, and he went through the process of selection. He also shared details of the case.

No one in the court room was made to feel like an outsider. Rather, everything was explained until it made sense to everyone -- to those who had served as a juror several times before and to those who had never been in a court room before.

How many times do we take time to make sure everyone feels welcome in our churches? How many times do we explain what we are doing throughout the service to everyone -- to those who are worshipping for the first time and to those who have been coming to church for over 80 years? Do we make everyone feel welcome by sharing what we are doing, what will come next, what the desired outcome will be, and how long we are expected to be there?

The judge made me appreciate him and his profession almost immediately. He made me appreciate the fact that jury duty is not just a duty but also a huge responsibility. He made me stop complaining and instead made me be willing to serve -- no matter how much I did not want to be there.

And the judge taught me more than about being a juror. He reminded me of the teaching work we have to do in the church, too.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

And they're off!

One of the joys of embarking upon a massive renovation and building project is being able to give away many items that will no longer be needed in the new church once it is finished. The congregation at Mount Vernon Place has given away air conditioners and kitchenettes, toys and dishes, chairs and Bibles in the last several months. And yesterday, one of the most meaningful contributions was loaded onto a truck in route to Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

One of the buildings about to be demolished at Mount Vernon Place has a lovely chapel in it. The Shure Chapel was dedicated in memory of a long-serving, beloved Minister of Music, Dean Shure. It is a beautiful space with stained-glass windows, pretty pews, and deep blue carpet. The space was used weekly by the Chinese Community Church's Cantonese and mandarin speaking services until August of this year. It was the site of many weddings in the 50s and 60s. It is a beloved space -- so much that many of our members wanted to pick it up and transport it directly into the new building once it is finished in 2009.

This summer, however, the congregation of Mount Vernon Place discerned that there were other congregations that could use the belongings in the chapel right now. Many of these churches are along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, the region that was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. And one of these churches will receive a shipment later this week of pews, a piano, an altar, a baptismal font, kneeling pads, and Bibles.

The things were picked up yesterday by a large Mayflower truck driven by a woman named Elizabeth. Our friends from Federal Moving and Storage donated their time to load the items into the truck -- a task that started at 8:00 yesterday morning and ended at 4:30 yesterday afternoon. And, members of Mount Vernon Place have given generous gifts to pay for the trucking costs.

It is our hope and our prayer that the people of St. James United Methodist Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi will be as excited to receive these items as we are about giving them. It is our hope and our prayer that these items will be another sign of God's presence in the aftermath of a storm.

What a joy it is to give!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Glimpse

Today was stewardship Sunday at Mount Vernon Place. Today is the day annually set aside for members to ponder anew how they can support the church in the coming year with their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. Ordinarily, stewardship Sunday is not one of the favorite Sundays of the year. Many people loathe for the pastor to talk about money, concluding that the pastor has no business meddling in one's financial business.

But, today was an amazing day! The choir sang beautifully, offering an incredible anthem based on the Sermon on the Mount. The children's message went off without a hitch as the children responded to the message as if they had cue cards. And, the sermon was well received (at least that is what the people told me as they left the worship space)! But the best part of today was the potluck lunch that followed the worship service.

We gathered for lunch together, recognizing that it may be one of the last times we'll be able to sit down as a congregation in our current building until the construction project is finished in December of 2007. We gathered in order to talk about the new ministry team structure being proposed for 2007. We also gathered to see new artist renderings of different rooms in the building to be built. And something happened when we gathered.

When we gathered, I caught a glimpse of the community described in Acts 2. Most people brought something to the meal, but many others did not. Still, everything was shared. Everyone was fed -- even a man and his two children visiting from New York City -- a family who found the church in the Yellow Pages. No one was sent away hungry. We gathered together as people of all ages and backgrounds in order to break bread together. People ate their food with glad and generous hearts. And, we praised God for what God is doing in the midst of our community -- for providing a more intimate worship space while we rebuild, for our new members who joined the church two weeks ago, for the incredible space that is about to be built, and for the gift of simply being together.

It was a glad and joyous day. If we have a few more days like today, then I am quite confident that the Lord will also add to our number, just as the Lord added to the congregation in Acts 2.

What a joyous day!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It's me, it's me, it's me, O Lord...

Do you remember the song we used to sing as little kids? The song with the lyrics, "It's me, it's me, it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my father, nor my sister but it's me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer." We typically would sing this song right after we sang the lyrics to "Jesus Loves Me." We used to sing these songs a lot, in the middle of Sunday school or at some point in summer Bible School. I wonder why we stop singing these songs as adults? Why are these songs sung most often by children and not by adults?

Since Mount Vernon Place is located in the center of a major city, we often have people who come in the doors in order to request something from the church -- a few dollars for the Metro, some money for food, or directions to the nearest shelter. Yesterday, a young man walked into the doors with a simple request, "I need some prayer." I met him at the door, and he immediately began to share with me how he had recently been "down and out" with no job and two kids to care for. However, God has answered his prayer as he has just found a job. He now needs to be able to get to his job. He then said, "My only request is for you to pray that I will be able to get back and forth from work this week." He did not ask me for money for the Metro or fare for the bus. Instead, he said he knew that God would provide for his needs and said, "Will you please pray for me?"

It's been a long time since I have walked up to anyone and said, "Will you please pray for me?" More often than not it seems as though I rely upon my own ability to get me to and from work, to keep my body healthy, and to keep food on my table. I often forget that all of these needs are met not through anything that I do but rather through the resources that God has entrusted to my care. Too often, I turn towards my own strength and ability to meet my needs instead of saying, "I know that God will provide." I take so much for granted.

This young man reminded me of a lot I learned as a child. He reminded me that all that we have is a gift from God. He also reminded me that no matter what our needs are, that we should ask the Lord to supply them. He very poignantly claimed that God would provide his needs.

I took the man's hands yesterday, and we prayed together. It was a simple but powerful prayer -- the kind of prayer where you can feel God coming close in order to listen. And, there is no doubt in my mind that this man made it to work today...through the grace of God. I also made it to work today...through the grace of God.

At Mount Vernon Place, we are trying to create an authentic Christian community where all are welcome. We are trying to create a place where we can bring our deepest sorrows and are abundant joys. We are trying to create a place where anyone can come...just as they are. I yearn for a place where anyone can walk in and say, "I just need a little prayer," and be greeted by people who are prepared to pray, trusting that God really does supply our every need.

It's me, it's me, it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Taking the Bus

I took the bus to work on Thursday morning. It is true that taking the Metro is so much easier. I live less than two blocks from the Columbia Heights Metro stop, and the church is only about three blocks from the Mount Vernon Square Metro stop. Taking the Metro is quick and easy. Taking the bus is a different story.

The bus can take twice as long as the Metro. The bus drops me five blocks from the church instead of three. The bus forces me to practice my balance as I have to stand up as it starts and stops during rush hour traffic. Still, I took the bus. I took the bus because I always learn something on the bus.

The bus reminds me of the rich diversity of Washington as it moves from the upper parts of 14th Street to downtown Washington. The bus forces my eyes to gaze upon things that I could easily avoid if I were below ground on the Metro -- like the incredible children who play at a ministry called Martha's Table, making me question why so many children have more than they could ever use while these children have so little. The bus forces me to see how so much of our city is still divided by the lines of color as not very many white people step on board until the bus gets closer to downtown. The bus forces me to see the homeless -- people who are not allowed to dwell inside Metro stops, motivating me to examine what all I have. And while the journey on the bus takes twice as long as it takes for the Metro to arrive at my final destination, I am almost always glad that I chose to take the bus.

Scripture shows us how Jesus rarely took a direct route. More often than not, Jesus took the long way to wherever he was going. He went into villages that he could have easily avoided. He took the one lane roads instead of the multi lane interstate. And it is by taking the road less traveled, the less efficient route, that Jesus saw the people who needed to be touched by his love and told about a different kind of kingdom.

I'll see you on the bus.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Looking Like the Church

On Friday night, several people from Mount Vernon Place went to see the Washington Nationals play the New York Mets at RFK Stadium. The invitation to attend the game was extended to all young adults and those who are "young at heart" at the church, and we ended up with 18 people in attendance, including several guests. One of the "visitors" looked at the group and said, "Your church looks like the church." When I looked a little perplexed by her statement she continued to explain, "Donna, look at how many different people are here tonight. You have four different ethnicities represented in this group. You have different ages. You have different economic backgrounds. Your church looks like the church."

Our guest noticed one of the many things I really love about Mount Vernon Place. When I was in seminary we spent a lot of time talking about diversity but all of the churches I have ever been a part of have had a hard time achieving this diversity within the congregation.

Mount Vernon Place is different, however. At Mount Vernon Place there is an extraordinarily rich diversity of people from places around the globe. There are many different skin colors and many different stories. There are several people in their 90s and a new, seven-week-old baby. There are some people who have a lot and there are other people who have very little. There are several sinners and a few saints. There are some who are quick to believe and others who are quick to doubt. Yet all these people find a place to call home in our community of faith.

And it is my hope and prayer that the church's makeup will grow even more diverse in the years to come. It is my hope and prayer that the church will continue to be a place where all are welcome -- no matter what you look like or act like, no matter where you live or have lived, no matter what you have or what you don't have, no matter what you have done or are doing. After all, I, too, love a church that looks like the church.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"I LOVE it!"

I went to a Pampered Chef party on Saturday afternoon. The event was actually a bridal shower for my friend, Jenni, who is getting married next weekend. I have been to a Pampered Chef party before. I love their products and have received several of them as Christmas presents from my mom. The one thing about Pampered Chef is that the company has quite a following. The company has won the hearts and affection of several satisfied customers.

This fact was quite evident on Saturday afternoon when we played a little "game." While the Pampered Chef person was cooking, demonstrating different products to us, we were to shout, "I love it," if she used a product that we own. Not one product was used without someone at the party saying, "I love it!." One person had the pizza stone. Another had the handy measuring cup. Still another had the knife and the food chopper and the crinkle cutter and so on. And each time someone shouted, "I love it," there was another person in the room who was eager to buy the product so she, too, could have another item in the kitchen to love -- another gadget in the kitchen to make her life easier.

As Christians we profess that one of the things we love is Jesus. We profess that Jesus makes all the difference in our lives -- that he eases our burdens, that he makes life easier, that he brings joy, that he shows us a new way, that he offers grace, that we love him. Still, it is true that I rarely see the overwhelming endorsement of Jesus in the way I saw people endorse Pampered Chef on Saturday afternoon.

What would it look like if our churches were filled with signs that we LOVE being in worship? That we LOVE serving our neighbors. That we LOVE being in a community where all are welcome and accepted just as they are. That we LOVE knowing that we are forgiven. That we LOVE hearing how Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom. That we LOVE singing songs of praise. That we LOVE Jesus!

Pampered Chef's advertising slogan is "Discover the chef in you." At church, you can "discover the Christ in you."


Thursday, September 21, 2006

One Barrier Down...

A barrier has been removed this week. The gate blocking one of the entrances to the church has been taken down. Look at how different things look as a result of this change:

Dear God, help us to continue to remove whatever barriers exist between your church and your children -- all of your children. Help us to not pass you by when we see someone who is hungry, someone who is hurting, someone who is lost, someone who has no place to lay his head, someone who is in need of your love. Amen.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Prayer for this Day

I included as part of my devotional time this morning a prayer book by Ted Loder called, "Guerrillas of Grace." A particular prayer titled, "It Would Be Easier to Pray if I Were Clear," has certainly spoken to my heart on this day:

O Eternal One,
it would be easier for me to pray
if I were clear
and of a single mind and a pure heart;
if I could be done hiding from myself
and from you, even in my prayers.
But I am who I am,
mixture of motives and excuses,
blur of memories,
quiver of hopes,
knot of fear,
tangle of confusion,
and restless for love,
for love.
I wander somewhere between gratitude and grievance,
wonder and routine,
high resolve and undone dreams,
generous impulses and unpaid bills.
Come, find me, Lord.
Be with me exactly as I am.
Help me find me, Lord.
Help me accept what I am,
so I can begin to be yours.
Make of me something small enough to snuggle,
young enough to question,
simple enough to giggle,
old enough to forget,
foolish enough to act for peace;
skeptical enough to doubt
the sufficiency of anything but you,
and attentive enough to listen
as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity
into the chancy glory of my possibilities
and the power of your presence.

Small enough to snuggle, young enough to question, simple enough to giggle, old enough to forget, foolish enough to act for peace. I love these words!


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Breaking Down the Barriers

As we get closer to the scheduled demolition of two of our buildings at Mount Vernon Place, there are new signs and walls emerging all throughout the church. When I returned today after being gone a few days I was greeted with several new signs on the doors and a new wall that separates one part of the church from another part.

The wall is not very attractive right now -- but it gets the job done as it definitely keeps people out of the restricted areas that will soon be demolished.

The message on the signs is quite clear. They quickly tell people inside the building where they are and are not to be within the walls of the church. I got the point rather quickly when I walked into the church today. I felt very unwelcome. The signs and the wall stuck out at me like a sore thumb...and I belong here. I know what is happening and why the signs exist.

All of this made me think about other barriers at the church. One of them is a horrible, metal gate that blocks one of the entrances to the church. It is an eyesore -- one that sends the message that people are not welcome on our porch or that we are afraid that someone might get inside who is not welcome inside. The barrier is one that I used to be able to ignore a little easier since we never used these doors. However, these doors are now the main entrance to our offices, and I have to walk through the gates each day. I have learned how hard it is to welcome people inside when the gates do not open all the way. The gates will thankfully be coming down very soon as part of the renovation project, and they will not be replaced when the work is over. The barrier will be broken down.

But what are the other barriers that exist at the church? Someone recently asked me how new people could possibly feel welcome inside such a large, stately structure. I have thought a lot about her question.

I also wonder about the other barriers we have created between those inside the church and those outside the church. If everyone inside the church is dressed in their Sunday best then how will those who prefer shorts and jeans feel? If everyone inside knows the routine -- why we say certain things or recite a prayer called, "The Lord's Prayer," then will the person who is new to the liturgy feel comfortable? If everyone is old then will the young person feel a sense of community? If everyone seems to have it all together then how will the person feel who is filled with guilt from the events of the weekend?

We're talking a lot at Mount Vernon Place about what it means to be the church -- about what it means to be the kind of place where all people are welcome. I pray that the barriers we have grown accustomed to will start shining in a different light so that we can see them, address them and remove them. I pray that all people -- every single person who visits our church -- really will feel welcome at Mount Vernon Place -- that we will be a church for all of God's children.

In the meantime, we have some barriers to break down.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Purple Showers

I am in Florida this week, enjoying a few days of vacation in Sarasota. The friends with whom I am staying have this amazing plant by the pool -- a "purple showers" plant. Each morning the plant is covered in perfect purple blossoms. The problem is that the flowers only last one day. The plant is covered with flowers throughout the day but the flowers all fall off at night. You get to enjoy the beauty during the day, but the plant becomes pretty much like every other plant at night. And yet, beauty comes again in the morning. New flowers appear each morning.

God, help me not to miss the purple showers in my life. May the blossoms of beauty linger a little longer so all can catch a glimpse of your grace.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Election Day

It's election day, and I am eagerly waiting for the returns to find out who will be the new mayor of Washington. It is my first election day in D.C. since moving back to the city last summer, and I have been amazed at the amount of campaigning taking place all over the city.

There are signs and people everywhere! In fact, it has been hard to go anywhere today without seeing dozens of signs, especially outside of each polling place. It has been impossible to walk along the street without being handed a piece of campaign literature. Everyone wants my vote. Everyone wants to tell me why they should be elected mayor, or city council chair, or something else.

Many promises have been made to the city of Washington in recent weeks. Adrian Fenty has promised one thing. Linda Cropp has promised another thing. It does not matter what the promise is -- affordable housing, stronger schools, lower taxes, less crime -- many of these promises will be nearly impossible to keep once a person is in office. The promises are enough to get someone elected -- but the promises are not always enough to get someone re-elected.

Several of the polling places I have passed today are in churches, making the lawn of the church look rather full -- not with people -- but with a myriad of colorful signs. Each sign has a name on it. Some of the signs will be noticed when people walk in to vote, while many other signs will be ignored. Still, each sign represents a commitment -- a person who has promised to provide leadership in this city for the next few years.

Thankfully, there are other 'signs' at the church that point to promises that will never be broken. The sign of the cross proclaims more promises than any political candidate could ever make or deliver. The cross promises that someone will make sense out of the mess in which we find ourselves. The cross promises that the children will all be blessed -- regardless of where they go to school or on which street they live. The cross promises that the hungry will be satisfied. It promises that the poor will be called 'blessed.' The cross promises life -- life abundant and life eternal. And, well, Linda Cropp, Adrian Fenty, and everyone else is going to have a hard time keeping up with these promises.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Next Generation Resources

This weekend, I had the opportunity to see many of my friends from Duke Divinity School at a board meeting in Charlotte. The people I gathered with this weekend are incredible people who are doing amazing things as pastors, foundation leaders, and real estate developers. They are some of my favorite people -- people who always cause me to think a lot, ask several questions, and be more committed to my vocation as a pastor.

Many of us took a course together at Duke called "Religion and Philanthropy in the South." It was a wonderful, practical course that dealt with how the church can be an agent of change in the community. The course was team-taught by Jackson Carroll and Mark Constantine, and Mark was with us yesterday. In fact, Mark is largely responsible for why we were all together in the first place. Mark has a remarkable commitment to many different causes. But, he is especially committed to helping young people make their visions a reality. Through his course, Mark taught us how to create a foundation and a non-profit organization. Yesterday, however, was not a course. It was the real thing.

Our colleague and convener, Steve, has a complex question he is hoping to answer through a new organization: How do we equip future, emerging congregational leaders with the resources they need to lead strong congregations that will, in turn, build healthy communities?

Steve is passionate about the church and has a clear vision for an organization that can resource future congregational leaders. He knows that by 2030 more than 50% of the U.S. population will be non-white. He also knows that there are significant problems facing society in this post 9/11 and post Hurricane Katrina era. Rather than talking about these issues, Steve wants to do something about them. And, he believes the church can play a pivotal role in bringing about the changes that are needed in order for more of our communities to be healthy. The church must first, however, have leaders who are committed and well-resourced.

After our time together, I have no doubt that this next generation of pastors is going to be equipped quite well, especially if the people I met with yesterday have anything to do with it. Stay tuned...

Friday, September 08, 2006

No Experience Necessary

I tried something new this week and saved $30 in the process. I visited the Aveda Institute located a few blocks from the church, on the second floor of the Verizon Center development. I have read about the Aveda Institute, having picked up a pamphlet months ago. The Institute prepares men and women to cut hair, do manicures and pedicures, and offer a myriad of spa selections. The difference between the Aveda Institute and an Aveda salon boils down to two things -- price and experience. If you go to the Aveda Institute, you sign a waiver that states how you realize your service will be performed by a student -- by someone who is still in school and who might mess up. However, you get the service at a fraction of the normal cost. A hair cut, for example, is $18.

I walked into the doors of the Institute at the appointed time. I made my way through the simple store filled with shampoos, conditioners, makeup, candles and lotions. I sat down at the bench where all customers are directed to wait, and I waited for my name to be called.

As I sat there I looked around, examining each student to see if I thought they had enough experience to cut my hair. Numerous thoughts went through my mind as I waited. Would that person be able to handle my ultra thick hair? What about that woman -- isn't she too young to cut hair? Look at her -- she doesn't know how to style her own hair -- how could she possibly style my hair? I wonder if I can switch my service to a pedicure instead of a haircut.

My mind didn't get far, however, before Rachel walked over, extended her hand to greet me, and ushered me to her chair. She assessed my hair carefully, asking me what I wanted her to do. She then called her instructor over to double check her plans.

The treatment then began. I was refreshed by a scalp massage, a short shoulder massage, and an amazing shampoo. And, an hour and a half later, I had a great haircut, and Rachel had learned how to use a new tool that she had not yet learned to use in her education. Furthermore, I was out only $18 plus a $4 tip.

I have thought a lot this week about my impressions of the students in the Institute. It certainly was not right for me to try to size everyone's gifts up while waiting on the bench. I was certainly premature with my judgment. I wanted the person cutting my hair to look competent. I wanted her to look like she spent time on her own hair. I wanted her to give me a fabulous cut -- even though she was a beginner.

I wonder what first-time visitors at our church think of me when I introduce myself as the pastor. Do I look like a pastor? Do I appear competent enough to share the good news? Does my life embody a life of the sacred -- a life of prayer, of service, of ministry to the poor, of study of scripture -- a life of faith?

There are so many things I love about Jesus. One of them, however, is that when he called a group of disciples he said that no experience was necessary. He called people who were in entirely different fields. He called fishermen and tax collectors -- not religious scholars to be his disciples. He called people like Peter who wanted to trust but had a hard time -- not people who had their walks of faith all figured out and perfected. Jesus demonstrated that he could use anyone in his quest to heal the sick, share good news with the poor, and bring about a new kind of kingdom.

Thankfully, Jesus still calls people who do not have it all together -- people who are still learning -- people who are still making mistakes -- people like you and like me.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The date has almost arrived when two of Mount Vernon Place UMC's buildings will be closed. In fact, all of the church's belongings must be moved out of our two educational buildings by this Friday in order for demolition permits to be in hand by December. And everything seems to be in a state of disruption.

We have started a 4:00 p.m. worship service two blocks down the street at Asbury UMC -- a space in which we will remain until our sanctuary renovation is finished in December of 2007. We have had two yard sales. We have put our remaining things in storage. And, we now have holes in our walls.

While the winds of Friday's storm blew out a window on the third floor, this hole is not the result of a storm. Rather, this hole represents an effort to give to others.

Deuteronomy 24:19 says, "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings."

Now I have gleaned countless cantaloupes in North Carolina. I have bagged hundreds of sweet potatoes with youth from around the country. I am familiar with the hunger relief efforts of the Society of St. Andrew. However, I have never before thought about gleaning a building.

Our minister of music, Sally Long, has done an incredible job of contacting different organizations who may be able to use the doors, the lights, the air conditioners, the ceiling fans, and many other items in the two buildings about to be demolished. Today, one organization picked up more than a dozen air conditioning window units. They are all shapes and sizes, all models and makes. And soon they will be installed in the homes of individuals who have weathered the summer heat of 2006 with fans but who will be able to choose to enjoy air conditioning in their home when the summer heat returns next year.

It has been a blessing to see different needs being met by things that would have otherwise been left for demolition and dumpsters. Once again, I have realized how much we take for granted -- lights, ceiling fans, doors, hardware, windows. We toss so much aside when it is no longer needed instead of thinking how what we are placing in the trash may be someone else's treasure.

God, help us all to be better stewards of what you have given to us. Teach us once again that it is more blessed to give than it is to receive. Help us to share what we have with those around us. Amen.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lessons Learned from the Local Steak 'n Egg

There is a wonderful, front-page article in today's Washington Post titled "Grits and Determination: A Recipe for Success." The article reads, "To see and hear and smell how America works, go to the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Chesapeake Street NE and step into the Steak 'n Egg Kitchen. The Tenleytown diner is a round-the-clock crossroads for people from all over the world -- all colors and ages and religions and socioeconomic stripes. It's usually accepting, often accommodating, always unlocked."

The writer of the article continues, "At the Steak 'n Egg, you have front-row seats for the extravaganza that is existence. You can see up close the specialties and speciousness of the species. 'You see prostitutes sitting next to Secret Service agents next to a 12-year-old kid who has run away from home for a while,' Barrie says about his counter. 'You have the whole United Nations sitting there.'"

  • usually accepting
  • often accommodating
  • always unlocked
  • front row seats for the extravaganza that is existence
  • prostitutes and Secret Service agents
  • the whole United Nations
Perhaps the Steak 'n Egg has a thing or two to teach us about how to be the church.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cleaning out the Closets

We have been busy cleaning the church out for months now. Cleaning out the belongings of a building with over 100 working rooms is no easy task. As with our own homes, we tend to fill whatever space we have with whatever belongings we can acquire. We keep things we do not need just because we have space for them. We fill closets until they get to the point where the door no longer opens.

I have learned in the last several weeks that our church has too many closets -- too many closets that have not been opened in decades. We also have many rooms that have not been organized in years. We have too much clutter, and something had to be done with all of the things we no longer use.

After two yards sales that brought in over $4700 to be used for missions, we turned to Craig's List with a posting for "Free Desks." Having never listed anything on Craig's List before, I have been amazed at the response! People are so eager to receive whatever it is that is free. I have recieved about 30 responses to this posting. Several students want a desk. Many non-profit organizations need desks. Other people simply need furniture to fill their empty space. I have met so many people this week who have come through the doors of our church eager to receive a free desk. They have left with a desk, a chair or two, and many other items as we have not allowed anyone to leave the building with just one thing! And, they have left with huge smiles on their faces.

Needless to say, I have learned a lot this week. We need to be better about cleaning out our clutter more often. We need to spend time periodically going through our closets and our rooms in an effort to get rid of what has not been used for a long time. We need to be careful about what we put in closets -- what we hide away to be dealt with another time. And, we need to constantly look at all that we have and make decisions to share a portion of what we have with those who need it.

The clutter in our lives does not limit itself to our homes or our workplaces. We all have things we are carrying that we need to let go of -- guilt, anger, bitterness, jealousy, and the list goes on and on. We all have "stuff" in our past or in our present that we are not particularly proud of -- stuff we have tried hard to hide away, craming it all into a dark closet in hopes that the door will never be opened by anyone but us. Furthermore, we all have something - no matter how big or how small - that can be shared with someone in need.

I think I'll go clean out some more closets.