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!