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.