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.