Monday, December 24, 2007

Thin Places

The Gospel of Luke provides us with the best account of what happened on this night. Luke writes in the second chapter,

"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing to you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.'"

I imagine this scene as a thin place - as a place in life where heaven seems to come down to earth, leaving a very thin place separating the two.

I can only imagine how privileged the shepherds were that night - how privileged the people were who received the message from the angels and then traveled to the borrowed barn in Bethlehem where their Savior was born. It was like heaven - but on earth. It was hard to tell the difference between the two.

I have been thinking a lot about thin spaces lately. It seems as though many times in the last week heaven has descended to earth, angels have appeared, and I have felt myself surely in the presence of the Lord.

This time of year fills my mail box with dozens of cards from across the country. There are some cards that arrive, bringing news from individuals with whom I only communicate at Christmas. It seems as though many of these cards come from Hendersonville, North Carolina - the community in which I was first appointed as a pastor. Each card comes with a blessing - each card seemingly reminds me of the holy ground on which I walked with these individuals for one transformational year. Some of the cards tell me what a difference I made in one's spiritual life. Other cards tell me that I am still missed. Still others remind me of the sacredness of being pastor - of the privilege I have of journeying through life with people. Many of the cards have brought tears to my eyes. They have taken me to a thin place - a place where I know God is lurking - almost close and tangible enough to touch God.

I experienced another thin place on Friday. My friend, Louie has been sick for nearly three months, two of which were spent in a hospital and the last few weeks in a nursing center. Prior to his sickness, Louis was the one member of Mount Vernon Place who made me laugh more than any other. He brought so many smiles to my face with his wonderful, spunky personality. He and his wife of 59 years demonstrated to me often how to love life - how to seize life and make the most of it - the ups and the downs.

Louie also gave his heart to the church. He spent hours trying to find the right contractor for our stained class window restoration. He poured over our insurance policies, making sure we were getting the best coverage for the church. He knew about the boiler - when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He seemed to know every nook and cranny of the church, and I am not sure we'll ever find a more faithful member of the Trustees than Louie.

I had lunch with Louie and his wife not long before he got sick. I am not sure I'll ever forget this lunch. I am so glad I accepted the invitation. It was one of the last extended conversations we shared as he has not been able to talk since he got sick.

I saw Louie last Wednesday. I held his hand for a long time. I wiped his mouth. I told him I loved him. I prayed for him. And, I laughed with him. But I had no idea it would be the last time I could tell him of God's love for him and how much I appreciated him.

On Friday afternoon, I was shepherded into a small conference room with Louie's wife and one of the interns at Mount Vernon Place. We were asked to sit down and wait for the doctor - a person who arrived a few minutes later to share news that no one likes to hear - news of Louie's death. We then entered a room where Louie had breathed his last breath.

It was a thin place.

It was a place where I knew God had been present and was present. I believe with all of my heart that God was right there - that God was with the doctors who administered CPR a final time and then removed the tubes for the last time. I believe God was there, ready to receive into his tender arms of mercy one of God's precious children. And, I believe God was there as we entered that room broken hearted in order to say a final goodbye.

On this night, heaven came down to earth. On Christmas, God came down to us. God came to us in the form of Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came, born in the most humble of ways, teaching people how to live by loving God and loving neighbors. Jesus reached out to the least, the last and the lost, telling us to do the same. Jesus then suffered and died upon a cross, but on the third day he rose again, giving us strength for today and hope for tomorrow. His life, death and resurrection assure us that no matter what happens on this earth - no matter how dark it might appear - that the darkness has never overcome the light.

Thank you, God, for the thin places of life. Thank you for Louie. Thank you for the privilege of being a pastor. Thank you for the gift of Christmas - for the gift of your Son.

Glory to God in the highest!

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Denied

Early last Tuesday morning I was waiting for a bus. Heading downtown for a 7:30 meeting, I walked out of my building at 7:10 a.m. I turned the corner and started down 14th Street just as a bus was arriving at the stop. I ran down the block in hopes of catching the bus only to watch it slowly pull away. I was one minute too late.

I continued to wait, looking up the street, looking at my watch, and worrying about being late. Soon, another bus was in sight. It approached the individuals standing at the bus stop, a rather long line by now. And, it went right on by. In fact, it whizzed right on by - passing each one of us.

We had been denied.

We were denied access because the bus was already too crowded. Ten minutes later another bus arrived. We finally boarded, crowding into the already full aisle for the ride downtown. It was 7:45 when I finally arrived at my meeting.


I do not like being denied.

I went to worship with my fiancee this week. Craig is a Roman Catholic. We went to Mass on Saturday night, and I found it to be a tremendous blessing to be in worship on a Saturday night. It was a blessing to hear the texts read and proclaimed - the same texts I would read and proclaim on Sunday morning. It was a blessing to hear the music and to sit in the quiet. I was so grateful for the time to pray - the space to center myself and dedicate Sunday's worship to God, asking God to already go ahead of us and fill the space where the Mount Vernon Place congregation would worship the following morning. Yes, the service was a blessing. But, I cannot go to worship with Craig without feeling denied. I cannot attend Mass without feeling as though I am left out whenever it comes to the Eucharist. It is clear that I am not welcome at the table. Even though I have the authority in the United Methodist Church to pray, "Pour out thy Holy Spirit upon these gifts of bread and wine, making them be for us the body and blood of Christ," I cannot partake of the feast with my fiancee. I am not allowed at the table where he partakes.

One of the things I love about the United Methodist Church is our founder, John Wesley's, beliefs about the Lord's Supper. Wesley taught that Holy Communion is a means of grace - it is a way in which we can experience the presence of God in our lives and the power of Christ's forgiveness. The Lord's Supper is a visible sign of an invisible grace. And, Wesley believed that all should come to the table - that it was a converting ordinance - that the bread and the wine had the power to transform lives. Wesley even said that we should come when we do not feel like coming. I love this theology. And, I love remembering who exactly was at Christ's table on the night in which he gave himself up for us.

On that Thursday night, Christ gathered twelve men around a table. They were ordinary men. They had seen Christ perform significant miracles but they still doubted their faith. They were people who promised to stay awake for the night only to fall asleep. They were individuals who Jesus knew would deny him. Still, Jesus gathered with them around the table. Jesus invited them to eat with him, and he gave thanks for them. He then offered them everything that he had.


Ordinary people.

People filled with doubt.

Sinners.

People who would deny Jesus.

People like you and like me....were all invited to the table.

I love the Lord's Supper. I yearn to both celebrate and partake of the feast. The Sundays on which we celebrate Holy Communion are my favorite Sundays because I have the awesome task of taking a little bread and a little juice and asking God to bless them, making them become the body and the blood of Christ. I then get to see all kinds of people coming forward - those who believe and those who doubt, sinners and saints, children and elderly individuals - all coming forward to the table - receiving signs of the greatest gift ever given.

Each Sunday, I tell individuals how the table does not belong to me. It does not belong to Mount Vernon Place. Rather, it is the table of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Look who he invited.....no matter who we are, what we have done, who we have loved, or who we have failed to love....we would surely be invited. Again, look who he invited - the ones who would betray him!

The body of Christ broken for you.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Thanks be to God. The access will never be denied.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Change

Change is the one constant in life.

I speak this phrase often at Mount Vernon Place. A lot is changing at Mount Vernon Place. There have been significant changes in the last year. We are no longer worshipping in a magnificent sanctuary. We are not even in our own building. And, buildings that meant a lot to people - buildings where people were married or learned the stories of Jesus or fellowshiped with friends - are no longer standing. Instead, a hole is getting deeper and deeper in order for a new building to come up.

The congregation is also changing at Mount Vernon Place. Several newcomers now make up a significant portion of the congregation. New people are filling leadership roles on important committees and ministry teams. New liturgies are being introduced. New ideas are constantly emerging. Change - significant change - is happening.

My neighborhood of Columbia Heights is also changing. The city's largest shopping complex, a huge place located a block from where I live, will open in the spring. New condominiums and apartment buildings are almost ready for occupancy. Nice restaurants and a fancy spa have already opened. New people are moving in all of the time, making the neighborhood more and more diverse. And, while some of the change is welcome, there are many people in the neighborhood, people who have lived here for a long time - sometimes all of their lives - who do not like the change. The Washington Post wrote a great article that captures some of the feelings earlier this week. The change is causing tension.

I love the change that is happening at Mount Vernon Place. I get excited about what is happening when I look out on Sunday mornings and see new people smiling back at me or when I go and serve in the community with people who were not at the church one year ago. I am also excited about the new building that is on the horizon.

And, I like the change happening in my neighborhood. It is one of the reasons I purchased a place in this neighborhood in 2005. While the traffic is increasing each day and more people get off at the Metro stop each evening, I see the change as something that is good.

But I learned of a change this past week that I do not like at all. Last week, I learned that one of my favorite people at Duke Divinity School is leaving the administration.

If any of you know me, then you know that I love Duke Divinity School. I believe that Duke is one of, if not the best, theological schools in the country. Duke has some of the strongest theologians and Biblical scholars on their faculty. The seminary boasts one of the youngest student bodies in the nation. The institution prides itself on being one of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the United States. It has an amazing field education program that is funded by an endowment that makes an education affordable. The seminary is located in the heart of a leading university - a university that is consistently ranked in the top ten year after year - allowing us to learn not only about the divinity of Christ but also the coaching skills and techniques of Coach K while learning cheers like "Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell."

Yes, I love Duke. My passion and love of the school are the reasons why I accepted an invitation to return to the school and serve as the Director of Admissions from 2001 -2005. And, one of the reasons why I love the school so much is because of a man named Greg.
Greg was the Director of Admissions when I was discerning a call to ministry and applying to seminary in 1997. He hosted me on my prospective visit day. He sent letters telling me of my acceptance and of my being selected for a Dean's Scholarship. He greeted me in the parking lot when I brought my family to campus for the first time - calling me by name even though he had only met me once before. He led orientation when I was a first year student. Greg was then promoted to Associate Dean of Student Services. In this role, Greg was directly responsible for recruiting me to return to the Divinity School. He cornered me one fall asking if I could pray about coming back to the school. He called one morning saying, "I am sorry to be bothering you but the search committee has just met and we really want you to apply for this position." He took me out to dinner, along with the Dean, on the eve of my interview. And, he was the first person to celebrate with me when I had been offered the position.

For four years, Greg was my boss. He was with me when I was missing the parish tremendously, asking questions like, "Why on earth did you pull me out of the local church?" He was there to say, "great job" when we set new records in the admissions office for the number of inquiries and applications received in a year. And, he was there when I discerned it was time to go - time to go back into the parish. All the while, Greg was demonstrating to me what it looks like to live a balanced life - what it looks like to put your family first. Greg came into the office after taking his children to school. He worked hard during the day, but he never allowed work to impact his time with his children and his wife. He always showed what it looked like to love God, neighbor, family and then work. I will never forget his example - particularly since balance is something I struggle to find.

Greg is leaving the Divinity School. The student services staff is being reorganized. New people have been temporarily appointed to take his place, along with the places of two other key leaders who are leaving. And, I don't like the change. I find the change very hard to accept. I cannot imagine the Divinity School without Greg!

But, I am trying to repeat the words I repeat to the people in our church. Change is the one constant in life.

Thank you, Greg, for being my mentor, my example, and my friend.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Cross Endures

I had lunch last week with a friend of mine. I met Tracy at the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation, an intensive two-week academy for rising juniors and seniors in high school. The Academy is one of the most amazing programs I have experienced. It is based upon our baptism - about what it means to live out our calling as baptised individuals who have been bathed and claimed by Christ. And, it is transformational in every sense of the word.

The extended community of DYA was heartbroken this year, consumed with grief, when a DYA alumnus was struck by lightening while playing soccer and killed. The young man was on the soccer field, practicing a game he loved with his high school classmates when his life came to an end all too soon.

Tracy told me a story that was relayed to her by the young man's pastor. The young man's body was prepared for viewing. Just before his family said goodbye to him, his father slipped a metal cross on a colorful ribbon around his neck. It was a cross given to him at another formative youth event. The cross was made of metal and it meant a lot to the young man. The young man's body was then cremated. Yet, something unusual happened.

The parents went to get their child's ashes and opened the box. Inside of the box were the usual ashes but the metal cross rested on top of it all.

The cross should have melted.

The heat of the crematorium should have consumed it.

But it did not.

The cross endured.

The cross endured!

I have thought a lot about Tracy's story in the last several days.

It seems as though this time of year can remind us about everything that we do not have instead of all that we do have. We are reminded often of the loved one who is no longer with us because of death or divorce. We think about the people who were once part of our lives but who are no longer. We see families knit together perfectly, enjoying the holidays, and we wonder why we do not have the same bliss. We worry about our finances and our health. We experience the pain of loneliness. Yet, the cross endures.

It does not matter what we are going through during this time of year. No matter how dark things may appear, the light shines. The light shines and the darkness has never overcome the light. Life begins. Life ends. But the cross endures - promising us all that even death itself cannot extinguish the light.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Christmas Giving

Last year, I had the privilege of hearing Michael Slaughter speak. Rev. Slaughter is the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio. Each year, Rev. Slaughter challenges his church to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas.

"Why do you act like Christmas is your birthday," he asks.

His question is on target. We do celebrate Christmas as if it were our birthday. We put together lists of the things we want, starting at a very early age in life. We tell others exactly what we want for Christmas, forgetting that Christmas is not our birthday but Christ's birthday.

Christmas is the birthday of the one who came proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of site to the blind.

Christmas is the birthday of the one who turned this world upside down, inaugurating a new kind of kingdom - a kingdom radically different from the ways of this world.

Christmas is about Christ - not us!

We did something a little different at Mount Vernon Place yesterday. We asked people to do their Christmas shopping at church. We invited people to give gifts that matter- gifts that keep on giving. People were invited to buy dinner for women at Calvary Women's Shelter, glucose testing strips for Christ House, a sheep for Heifer International, a net for a child in Africa, yarn for a prayer shawl, or free trade coffee and chocolate. One of our new members made beautiful cards that explain the gift - a card that enables the recipient to understand the meaning and the significance of the gift.

People gave. They gave generously. Our small congregation raised over $2500, and as a result of their giving, other people will receive a gift.

Homeless men will receive the gift of medical care.

People around the world will receive eggs and milk and meat from animals that were purchased.

Individuals in our congregation will receive a prayer shawl - tangible evidence of God's love and grace in their life.

Women - our neighbors - will receive a home-cooked meal delivered to their home at Calvary.

The gifts will keep on giving.

What are you giving for Christmas?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas...

Craig and I had the privilege of going to the White House last night with people from our church. The house is exquisite in every possible way. The beauty radiates from everything - the flowers, the decorated Christmas tree balls from each of the national parks, the lights and the gingerbread house covered in white chocolate. There is something magical about this time of year. Enjoy it.




Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thankful

I had an idea last week. I thought about it often - how I would write a blog entry each morning during Thanksgiving week. I would write each day about something for which I am thankful - a blessing in my life for which I am grateful.

The week came....and the week went. Even Thanksgiving day came and went without my writing a thing. I thought often about how thankful I am but I never typed anything.

Now that the week is over and I have caught up on several things, it is time to share my thanksgiving with you.

I am thankful for what is happening at Mount Vernon Place. I consider the opportunity to watch this historic church be restored from top to bottom to be a rare privilege - a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am excited about our getting back into our sanctuary next summer. It is truly amazing to see the structure being restored - to see the outline of the new chancel floor or the new walls being put in place. I can hardly wait to see what God has in store for this church.

While the building is exciting, it is even more exciting to see the congregation developing. We have an amazing group of new members at the church. There is a renewed emphasis upon serving the community in a variety of ways - we have raised over $2400 this year for a homeless day program. We delivered new blankets to another shelter today. Many people have volunteered to serve dinner at this shelter on a monthly basis. And, the mother of one of our new members knitted 25 scarves for the residents of the shelter - scarves that were delivered this past Sunday. I love the energy - the passion - the new ideas - that are surfacing each week at the church. God is clearly at work.

I am thankful for Craig. Over a decade ago the Indigo Girls recorded a song with a line, "The best thing you ever did for me was to help me take my life less seriously. It's only life after all." Craig helps me take life less seriously often - in the best of ways. He makes me laugh. He makes me smile. He has an uncanny ability to celebrate and seize the gift of life - helping me do the same. He shares life with me - all of life - whether it is listening to my stories, unloading my dishwasher, or reminding me that I am working too hard. Craig adds beauty, delight and joy to each day. I am thankful for him, for our upcoming marriage and for the lifetime that awaits us.

I am also thankful for the gift of living in Washington. My family was in town last week, and I played the role of tourist again. I journeyed along the National Mall, taking in the Vietnam War Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the Lincoln Monument, the White House, the Washington Monument, and Tidal Basin. I was reminded often of what a gift it is to live in this city. I was also reminded of how blessed this nation has been, and I gave thanks for the incredible men and women who have provided great leadership to our nation. I was struck, once again, by the things President Roosevelt stood for, and I gave thanks for his willingness to stand up for the poor. I gave thanks for President Lincoln's leadership - a leadership that brought equality to all people. And, I gave thanks for the men and women who have faithfully served this country as members of the Armed Services. May we continue to fight for the poor, for the equality of all people, and for the veterans returning from war.

And, I have given thanks for the gift of family. My father is one of the funniest people I know. He has a zest for life, a strong work ethic that has been passed down to his children, and an ability to make people laugh...hard. There were several years when I did not have a relationship with my father - when I kept him locked outside of my life, unwilling to hear his side of my parents' divorce or forgive him for what he had done. I am thankful for the gift of reconciliation and forgiveness. I am thankful to have him in my life. And, I am thankful for our visit last week. It was great to have him, his wife, and my little brother here - all four of us in my 537 square-feet home.

God is good. I am thankful. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

What are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Everything Communicates

On Friday and Saturday of last week, I traveled to Atlanta to spend time going over grant applications with an organization I greatly respect. Some of the deliberations were easy and others were quite difficult. In the midst of our conversations, one of the employees of the foundation shared with me how their director of communications reminds her often that "everything communicates." Who they fund communicates their mission. What they do communicates their motives. Every memo, decision, action, hire, grant effort, and activity communicates who they really are.

Everything communicates.

I am a pastor. Everything I do communicates. My actions on Sunday morning communicate - I am judged by whether or not I go out of my way to greet a first-time visitor and whether or not I remember their name when they return next week. My sermon communicates - hopefully it communicates the Good News of Jesus Christ but it also communicates whether I am liberal or conservative, open or closed, joyful or tired, and what kind of a church I visualize in my mind. Our church building communicates. Right now it is being restored. The restoration process communicates that we want to be an active presence in downtown Washington in the years to come. We want to serve our community, provide a space for authentic relationships to be lived and restored. We want to tell children the stories of Jesus. And, we want to celebrate God's presence in our lives in a sanctuary where the windows tell the stories, along with the beauty of the space. The way I spend my time communicates. If I go and visit the sick and the shut-ins, then I am considered a compassionate pastor. If I neglect to show hospitality to the stranger or our members, people will think there are problems. Everything communicates.

But as Christians, our entire lives communicate. I am amazed at how many of the books written today about how God is not great or why religion is wrong have been written out of disgust over the church. The authors of these books are disillusioned because the church has not been the church. Rather, the church has been too much like the world. Christians have preached one thing and done another thing. They have said they believe in a Savior who called for love of God and neighbor and then hated their neighbor. They have heard the call for justice and done everything but working for it. The church's communication - their actions and their words - has been a raw, empty communication. It has been a communication filled with more hatred than love.

I wonder what we communicate at Mount Vernon Place.

I am hopeful that we communicate a Gospel that is open to all people - young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, Caucasian and African American, believers and doubters. I am hopeful that when people enter our temporary space that they feel welcome to come on in - just as they are. I am hopeful that people experience joy when they worship with us and that they receive the presence and the power of the living God. I am hopeful that people are given a reason to want to come back - a reason to get out of bed early on Sunday morning and spend a couple of hours at church. I am hopeful that people see a group of remarkable individuals who are trying to figure out how to be more faithful. I am hopeful that people see sinners and saints, and people who are working towards the latter. And, I am hopeful that people see a congregation filled with individuals who are more concerned about God's needs and desires than they are the church's needs and desires - that we focus our time and our attention on what is happening outside the doors of the church instead of inside.

Everything communicates.

God, forgive me for not always communicating your love and grace. Forgive me for coming up with names for some of the people around me that are outside of what you call them - beloved children of yours who are made in your image. Forgive me for preaching the Gospel with my words more often than with my life. Help me to communicate better your message of hope and salvation. Help me to be a better ambassador of your Son who preached good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of site to the blind. Amen.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Front Page News

Last week, I opened my newspaper. It was Wednesday - one of my favorite days to open the newspaper pack because of the store ads. But this Wednesday was a little different. When I opened the paper, I found something a little unusual on the front page of The Washington Post. The front page had pictures of the usual suspects - Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. John Edwards was photographed beneath them. And then, at the very bottom of the front page, there was a picture of me in front of the church's office trailer and construction project, along with an article on churches that are developing their property.

I have been in the newspaper several times since arriving at Mount Vernon Place. Never, however, have I been on the front page. Needless to say, it was an exciting day - a day on which I bought newspapers at 7-11, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and CVS before dropping lots of quarters and dimes into several newspaper machines around the city. I also heard from a lot of people last Wednesday - people I have not heard from in a long time. It was great. I loved it! I loved it until one night this week.

On Sunday evening I was leaving the church. It had been a long day, and the sun was starting to set. I was walking through a small park in front of the church when a man stopped me. The man is someone I see often. He often dwells in the neighborhood - sitting in this park or on the benches outside the place where we are currently worshipping. He always has something to say - though he has not and will not tell me his name. Instead, he comments on what I am wearing or what I am doing. This time he said, "Front page news, huh?" He then proceeded to ask how a church could ever spend so much money when there are so many people just like him - people who are homeless and living in the streets. "What are you going to do for me?"

His question haunts me.

I think often of the endowment that could have been created with the money we are spending on the restoration of the church and the building of another space. It is a huge amount of money.

Still, I get excited every time I go inside the church and see the work that is being done. I think often about all of the amazing ministries that will take place inside the building. I imagine lots of people coming together for a meal or a cup of coffee. I visualize people's lives being transformed through small groups and Bible studies. I think of the different kinds of worship we can have - in a small chapel, a huge sanctuary, a theatre, and a fellowship hall. It is going to be fantastic space - space that will enable people to celebrate God's presence, grow in faith, connect with one another, serve the community and share the good news. I cannot wait!

I also cannot stop asking the question, "What are we going to do for him?"

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Parent of a Rock Star

Last Wednesday night, on Halloween, Craig and I went to see The Bravery at the 9:30 Club in Washington. The Bravery is a band that formed within the last few years, and they have become very hot. Faces of the band members have appeared on the cover of magazines throughout the world. Their songs can be heard on several television and radio commercials. They have two albums for sale. And, they have performed on several of the late night television talk shows.

It was my first Bravery concert. While I have been invited to see the band several times, this night is the first night my schedule permitted me to go. I now wonder why I waited so long.
It was a great concert. The band members are fabulous entertainers and know how to work the audience. While the sound level was loud enough to cause my ears to ring, the music was good. It was very good. Yet, no matter how good the music was, the best part of the concert was watching two of the individuals standing next to me.

The mother of one of the band members is a member of the church where I am a pastor. Abbie sings in our choir, and Abbie is the one who taught her son, the lead singer, to sing. We have heard a lot about the band as part of the regular "joys and concerns" time that proceeds our prayer time on Sunday mornings. As a congregation, we have prayed for safety on their travels, for wisdom as they make big decisions, and we have praised God for their success. However, I never realized the impact this child is having on his parents until I stood next to them at the concert.

The parents took absolute delight in their son. They sang along the words of his songs. They danced when he danced. Abbie even waved at one point to her son during the concert, her son waved back, and Abbie remarked, "He waved at me" just as a 16-year-old fan would do. Abbie reacted to the crowd filled with many people who are clearly fans of the band. Abbie and her husband were mesmerized by watching their son perform - by watching their son do what he loves to do.
At some points during the concert, the words spoken from the mouth of the son were not the words a parent loves to hear. When this happened, Abbie covered her mouth as if to imply, "Oh my." But when the band started to play again, she would become overtaken with delight once more.
I keep thinking about Abbie and the concert. And, I wonder if this is how God responds to us.
God created us. God is both our mother and our father. God knows everything about us and loves us. God keeps an eye on us and longs to see us doing what we do best. God longs to see us using the gifts that God has given to us. And, I wonder if there are times when God is dancing right along with our dance in life - when God is smiling down upon all that we do. I also wonder if there are times when God responds, "Oh my" to our words or our actions. Yet, no matter what causes the "oh my," God keeps on loving us, keeps on supporting us, keeps on desiring to be with us - to wave back at us.
Thank you, God, for loving us.
The pictures posted here were downloaded from flickr.com. They are not my pictures but were rather taken at a concert in London.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hope

Perhaps no other story has impacted my life more than the story of South Africa. South Africa's story is one filled with pain and hope. I do not recall efforts in the United States to impose sanctions upon the country years ago. I do not remember my eyes seeing much on the television regarding the struggles of the country. Perhaps I was too young to notice. More likely I was involved in other things. Fortunately, however, my eyes were opened through a South African professor who taught at Duke Divinity School for several years, including the time when I was a student.

Peter Storey taught two classes: "The Local Church's Mission in God's World" and "God and Caesar: The Church's Role in Ending Apartheid." I enrolled in both of the classes during my final year of seminary. My entire body was awakened. Then in 2004, as an administrator at Duke, I traveled with the Storeys to South Africa for a "Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope." My life has not been the same since.

I experienced a new calling while in South Africa and began to pray a prayer, "God, please take me out of my place of comfort and success, please give me a heart for hurting and broken people, and please make me more prophetic." I returned home from South Africa, told the dean of the Divinity School that it would be my last year in admissions and continued praying this prayer. It is this prayer that led to my appointment at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in 2005.


The story of South Africa is filled with pain. It is filled with great lines of separation, barriers that were seemingly impossible to break. The lines and the barriers separated black from white. The lines were all based on a person's skin color. Whites were in a place of privilege. Blacks were sometimes in a cage like animals. Whites were treated as children of God. Blacks were treated as anything but made in the image of God. There were times on the pilgrimage where all I could do was to cry when I realized this horrible hatred, and how each of us has within us the capacity to hate - to torture - to tear down instead of build up.

I preach about South Africa often. I use the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to talk about what real reconciliation and forgiveness look like. I read books about South Africa. And, I try to take advantage of other opportunities I have to learn more about the pain and the hope of this nation.

On Sunday night, I went to see, "My Children! My Africa!" at the Studio Theatre in Washington. This play, written by Athol Fugard, is undoubtedly the most powerful play I have seen. The play has three characters, and each character tells the story of the pain of apartheid. Anela Myalatya (Mr. M) is a teacher who is assigned to one of the schools for black children. Isabel Dyson is a white student who visits the black school for a debate. Thami Mbikwana is a black student who is the star of Mr. M's class and debate team. Soon, Isabel and Thami develop a friendship. Mr. M then recruits them to enter into a debate contest together. Things run smoothly for a while but the struggle is always apparent. Isabel speaks of her family's response to her spending so much time in a black township. Thami talks about the political uproar developing around him. And, Mr. M continues to speak of hope.

Mr. M wants nothing to do with the political machine that feeds upon hatred. He chooses instead to stay in the classroom. He speaks lovingly of the power of words - words that unite, words that build up, words that provide a glimpse into another world. He yearns for his students to use the power of words over the power of stones and guns. His hope is that apartheid can end - not with brutal fighting but with the power of words.

Mr. M teaches, against all odds, because he has hope. Mr. M has hope that apartheid can end through the power of words. Mr. M seeks to impart his hope upon his students. His commitment is unwavering.

Mr. M has also left an impact upon me this week. His vision for hope keeps returning to my mind as I think about why I do what I do. There are many times when I love being a pastor. There are times when I think this role is the most amazing role any of us can play. It is a privilege for which none of us is truly worthy. There are other times, however, when I wonder how much longer I can do what I do. I yearn for rest. I yearn for projects to be completed. I yearn for a Saturday and a Sunday when I do not have to work - when I can enjoy a weekend like the people around me. Still, when I start thinking about all the other things I could be doing with my life, I come back to this hope within me.

I have this hope, a hope imparted to me by my professor, Peter Storey, that things in this world can be different. I have this hope that the rich and the poor can dwell together. I have this hope that people can take what they have and share it with others. I have this hope that a life that seems to be drowning can discover purpose again and be transformed. I have this hope in a Gospel that sets the prisoner free - the one who is in bondage to sin, addiction, and despair can be absolutely liberated because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have this hope that the Spirit of the Lord gave to Jesus when he said, "I have come to preach good news to the poor." I have this hope that people will discover that the greatest blessing is not taking care of ourselves but taking care of others. I have this hope - a hope that comes from a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. I have this hope that people can see that their greatest worth is not in the title on their business card but in the fact that they are a beloved child of God - made in God's image, precious in God's eyes. I have this hope that the church - every church - will see that it exists not for its own members but for the people outside - for the transformation of the world. I have this hope that the people who gather inside a church will resemble the creative nature of God's hand - that a congregation is called to be reflective of the extraordinary diversity God created. I have this hope that the church will be the church - a place very different from the rest of society - a place whose doors are open to all people.

I have this hope....and I would not trade the opportunity to share it for anything in the world.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bright Beginnings

I attended an Open House earlier this week at a place not far from the church. I have been invited to Bright Beginnings before, and I am not sure why I waited so long to visit.

Bright Beginnings is a beautiful childcare center that serves 92 children in the District of Columbia. The children range in age from infants to pre-K, and I am told that there are some 30 -50 infants on the waiting list for their services. The space Bright Beginnings occupies is covered in bright colors. The smell of orange juice and peanut butter sandwiches filters through the air. Tiny toilets can be found in each bathroom. Bright Beginnings appears to be like every other childcare center in the city. However, Bright Beginnings is different.

The children at Bright Beginnings are all homeless. None of them have a permanent place to call home. They are residents of shelters in the city. They sleep on a relative's couch at night. They stay in transitional shelters. And, seeing these little faces smiling back at me elicited a myriad of thoughts in my mind.

I think of the great care many of my peers undertake when expecting a child. Many of them paint the color of the baby's room yellow, blue or pink. We buy special furniture. We purchase special laundry detergent to get all of the baby's little things clean before we bring the baby home from the hospital. We go on Consumer Reports time and again to see who manufactures the best car seat or stroller. We purchase five different kinds of diapers until we find the one that works best for us. We get the baby everything she or he might need. (It is interesting that I have even thought about how Craig and I cannot have a child until we can afford a larger house since babies need their own rooms.)

But what would it be like to have a child and not have a place to call your own, let alone a separate room for the child? What would it be like to depend upon the city or a distant cousin for a bed at night for you and your child or children?

Too often we think that the only people who are homeless are men with substance abuse problems. We look at the people on the streets who shake a can in our faces and assume that every homeless person is the same, and we conclude that it is their fault that they are homeless. "Can't they just get a job?" we ask ourselves.

Last weekend, the people at Mount Vernon Place raised money for Rachael's Women's Center by participating in a mini-walk for the Fannie Mae Help the Homeless Walkathon. Two staff members of Rachael's shared information with us prior to our walk. Their statistics are startling. They told us about the homeless population many of us do not always see - women and their children. And, they helped us to see how hard it is to make ends meet in a city like Washington when the cost of housing is so high. An individual making minimum wage who has a child cannot possibly afford to live in this city. There is a huge difference between a minimum wage and a livable wage.

The conversations with the people at Rachael's Women's Center and Bright Beginnings have recalled to mind a time in my life when I, too, was forced to leave the place I called home. My parents had recently divorced, and my mother was doing everything within her power to keep life as close to normal for my sister and me. She was teaching at a college, adding an extra course each semester to her already full load, and working at a women's clothing store at night. She wanted desperately for my sister and me to have the opportunities that we had always had. Still, it was tough to stay afloat. The bills were larger than the income and dollars coming in. Not enough changes had been made. It was like treading water, and the water became too deep.

An eviction notice was served, and we must have thought that it would go away. We pleaded with the landlord to help us one more month, but it did not work. Individuals dressed in orange from the county jail arrived one day and moved all of our belongings to the sidewalk. My furniture. My clothing. My prized possessions. My pictures. Everything was at the top of the driveway.

Fortunately, it did not stay there for long. We had people who we could call, and they immediately came to our need. We were able to move into another duplex that day with the help of a friend who owned a moving company.

I have never written about this time in my life before. It still haunts me.

I see evictions happening in the neighborhood where I live all of the time. It is not unusual to come home and see a pile of stuff on the side of the street. Each time I see this, I say a prayer for the one whose stuff my eyes can see.

But we must do more than pray. We must continue to educate ourselves on why people are homeless. We must continue to ask ourselves why some people have so much why others have so little. We must look with compassion upon every person we see - the man at the edge of the lawn whose body and belongings are covered in plastic, the people who sleep on the grates outside of the city-owned building where we have worship services, the coworker who has recently gone through a divorce and seems to be having a hard time juggling everything.

If you live in a city, then you have plenty of opportunities to confront individuals who are struggling through life. It is an enormous responsibility to see so many people with significant needs and then read the scriptures where we are told that we will be judged - held accountable - for how we treat the hungry and the homeless.

I am grateful for what my eyes have seen this week. I am grateful for Rachael's Women's Center and Bright Beginnings. May the visions not escape my mind nor the words my ears. May I allow what my heart has experienced to penetrate into actions that will make a difference.

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.
I was homeless, and you gave me a place to lay my head.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Restoration

There is an amazing process of restoration taking place at Mount Vernon Place right now. If you walk through the 1917 historic building, you can see the original brick walls, along with the metal casing for new walls that will be installed. It is quite remarkable to see the building being turned from something so old into something seemingly new and spectacular.

In addition to the interior of the church, much of the exterior is also being transformed and restored, including the lights.

The existing lights were all removed a few months ago, and a sample photo of the restoration was recently returned. It is amazing to see the difference.

It seems as though layers of paint and other chemicals have been added to the fixtures through the years. The paint was intended to help the fixtures - to make them look better. Yet, the paint covered the core of their beauty. The paint prohibited the fixtures from shining.

I have thought a lot about the fixtures as I share the photos with people who come to my office. I wonder what else the church has covered - how many layers have been added on top of the original state or purpose of the church.

The church exists for the transformation of the world. The church is Christ's body in the world and is called to be a vehicle through which real change occurs as we seek to love God and neighbor with all that we have, all that we are, and all that we do. Yet, somehow this core is too often covered with other layers of stuff. The stuff is intended to help. It is intended to add to the structure. Yet, the stuff has little to do with what it means to be a church. It often takes away from the church's original purpose - from its original, spectacular beauty.

We had a lot of 'stuff' happening at Mount Vernon Place when I got here two years ago. There were several activities, concerts, performances, meetings, and events happening nearly all of the time. Yet, new people were not coming in. Lives were not being changed, touched and transformed. The church's core purpose had been covered with all kinds of stuff - but the stuff was not necessary (or had little to do) with the proclamation of the Gospel.

When I come to Mount Vernon Place now, I see all kinds of beauty. I see beauty in the diversity of the congregation - in a community where all are welcome and accepted just as they are. I see beauty in the 25 people who raised over $500 for Rachael's Women's Center on Sunday by participating in a mini-walk to Help the Homeless. I see beauty when people come and study the scriptures for the first time. I see beauty when we go and serve at Calvary Women's Center one Sunday night a month. I see beauty when a baby smiles as I preach while people pass him around. I see beauty when a 93-year-old woman nearly dances in the front row to "This Little Light of Mine." I see beauty when Larry plays his violin, offering a wonderful gift to the congregation.

I see beauty - not because we are entertaining others or taking care of ourselves or doing what we have always done before. I see beauty because we are trying to remove all the layers of paint - the layers of things that do not matter when it comes to being the church - the body of Christ in the world.

There is a spectacular beauty that shines when we gather - a powerful light that shines, and the darkness has never overcome this light.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wendell Berry

Last week, I attended Pastor's School and Convocation at Duke Divinity School. This event is hosted annually by the Divinity School and provides a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and learn something new. I learned a lot last week - not new things, necessarily - but things I needed to hear.

The event was headlined by Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who has authored over 30 books - mainly fiction and poetry. Several of Mr. Berry's books were assigned to me when I was a student at Duke. Other books have crossed my desk after being highly recommended to me. Some of the books have resonated with me. Yet, I must confess that I never really understood or appreciated his poetry and his writing - not until now - until hearing him and seeing his witness.


Mr. Berry is in his 70s. He rarely leaves the state of Kentucky. His comfort zone is on the farm, and his community is his family, his neighbors and his characters. In fact, one of the individuals who shared the stage with him said that while most of this society is attached to prestige and money, "all the things the minor prophets denounced...Wendell is still attached to his family, children and grandchildren." While he was introduced at Duke by Time magazine's "America's Best Theologian," Mr. Berry is filled with humility, and he captivated an entire audience of preachers and budding scholars. He captured us with his ability to talk about rest - about living the Sabbath - about keeping life holy - and about being the church Christ has called us to be.

Mr. Berry is a no-nonsense kind of person - not the kind that puts others down - but the kind that wants the best for others and for this land. He lives his faith, and he wants others to live their faith, too.

He started his part of the conversation last week with the words, "You can't practice Christianity just in church. Sometimes I don't know what you do in the church other than just letting your mind wander." He then described for us what a neighbor really is - what authentic Christian community looks like - what the church is called to be when we practice our faith faithfully.

People in community are not just people who live near each other. They are people who need each other.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is supposed to be a virtue which is the most boring subject. If you love your neighbor as yourself or have the sense to act like you do, the result is you have a neighbor in the operative sense, and if you have a neighbor in the operative sense, then you have help. The key is you have to keep your neighbor close to yourself.

What a blessing to think about these words - to imagine a people who need each other and who help each other. Too often the church is filled with people who come in and go out. They meet for a weekly gathering and then go off to do their own thing during the week. I prefer to imagine a church filled with people who need each other and who help each other.

I imagine my friend Louie who is in the hospital today - how he needs our prayers - and how his wife needs our support - how she needs someone to take her to the hospital to see her sick husband and how she needs people to call her so that she can talk about how hard it is to see him so sick and to not be able to communicate with him. They need us.

I think of the woman who has lost both a cousin and a college friend to death this week - even though they were both in their 20s. This woman needs our support right now. She needs us to pray for her and to journey with her during this difficult time. She needs us to listen when she is mourning the loss of these individuals and when she is shouting out her anger or doubt with God. She needs us.

I think of the individuals in our church who are no longer able to get out. I know how much they love to be visited and how they would take delight in our stopping by more often - with communion or a word of cheer. They need us.

And, I think of how we all need one another on this journey called faith. We need to learn from each other. We need to hear how God is at work in each other's lives so we can see more of God in our lives. We need people to hold us accountable. We need individuals who know everything about us (or almost everything) and love us in spite of it all.

On the second day Wendell Berry spoke, he said this, "When the people have made dark the light within them, the world darkens." He's right. We all have a light to shine. Some of us share our light with others - going out of our way to share our God-given light and gifts to those around us. Others prefer to keep the light to themselves, hoarding it away, keeping the world around them a little dark. Yet, if we are all living in community - in authentic community - we cannot help but to allow our light to shine. What a powerful image!

I'll continue to think about this kind of community while working hard to see how we can better embody it at Mount Vernon Place. In the meantime, I am also reading Mr. Berry's poems on Sabbath - on working for six days and resting on the seventh - so that I might better see God at work in my life and in the world around me.

Thank you, Mr. Berry, for leaving your farm in Kentucky in order to share your time with a bunch of pastors in North Carolina.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Week in Review

I admire people who update their blogs on a daily basis. It is a discipline of sorts - one that requires getting up early, constant creativity, and instant inspiration. It is a discipline I think of having - but I don't have it yet. Yikes! It's been 10 days since I have written anything - other than two sermons and lots of reports for the annual charge conference.

I have lots of good excuses for not writing on the blog, however...

My sister visited last week from Colorado. It was Dana's first visit to Washington since I moved back in 2005. She arrived on Thursday, and we made a quick trip to New York City where we saw "Grease" on Broadway and walked all over the city. It was wonderful. Dana also got to visit Mount Vernon Place for the first time on Sunday. It was the perfect day to visit. It was one of the best days I can remember in a long time, in fact.

We welcomed 11 new members into the church on Sunday. Their age range spans over 60 years. Several of them are new to the church - not just our church but any church. Two of them came back after being at other churches more recently. Many of them live in the neighborhood and walk to church. One of them was baptized. All of them make my heart soar to new heights. They represent the fruit of our labor and are a testimony to how God is at work in this place. It was absolutely wonderful to welcome these new people into the life of our congregation. I am so excited to be their pastor. I'll write more on them later...

Following worship on Sunday, we made our way to North Carolina where I participated in Convocation and Pastor's School at Duke Divinity School. Wendell Berry spoke, and it is a rare privilege to see and hear Wendell Berry. I'll write more on him later...

The best part of being back at Duke was the joy of seeing so many people who I know, love and respect. A few of them said, "welcome home," and I realize that Durham will always be a bit like home. Many of them reminded me of the privilege I had to be the Director of Admissions for four years. Several of them demonstrated to me again that the church is in very good hands under their capable leadership. It is always good to be in a place that is like home.

It's been a great week!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Her Shoes

One of my favorite movies of all time is "The American President." In this 1995 film, Michael Douglas plays the star role of President Andrew Shepherd. President Shepherd is an extraordinarily popular president with very high public opinion polls. He is also a widower who is ready to start dating again. His attention is captured by a lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade. The two start to date, and the president's friends and family have a variety of opinions to offer the moment the president starts seeing this woman. Lucy, the president's daughter, also has advice to offer. One evening, the president is about to go out on a date and Lucy informs her father that he should compliment Sydney on her shoes. "Tell her you like her shoes. Girls love that stuff."

My friend, Tracy, loved shoes. She had amazing shoes. She had plaid pumps and the newest open-toed shoes. She had strappy sandals and shoes with very high heels. She had the latest fad shoes and she had classy, timeless shoes. She had tennis shoes and running shoes. She had a lot of shoes. She clearly loved the ability of shoes to add one more detail to her finished look.

However, I never recall looking at Tracy's shoes. I never remember walking down the street with her saying, "What great shoes." I do not recall ever complimenting on her shoes. I did not even know that Tracy had big feet like me - with her feet being a size 10 and mine being a size 11. Of course, the majority of the time I was with Tracy was on the weekend or at church where there was no need to "pull out all the stops." Still, I had no idea how many times she must have thought, 'These are great shoes," or heard the words, "I love your shoes," until the shoes were in a box in Tracy's apartment, ready to be loaded into her mother's car. I had no idea until it was too late.

At Tracy's memorial service, one of her friends who spoke shared how she had selected her outfit for that day because she knew that Tracy would have approved of her dress and her shoes. This friend expressed how Tracy had one day told her that she needed to wear higher heals to make her legs look not so short. Tracy noticed details all the time. And in Tracy's absence, I have realized how often I miss the small details.


One of the many marks Tracy's life now has on mine is to try to notice the small things and to do the little things that make a big difference. I am trying to write more notes to friends - notes that tell them how much I appreciate them. I have picked up the phone to call people more often, just to say "hello." I have met friends for lunch, coffee, or Happy Hour more in the last few weeks than I have in the last year. I am trying to make time for more people in my life.

Tracy has been gone over two months now. I have presided over dozens of funerals and memorial services before, and I cannot remember the specific day on which any of them died - I can only remember the month or the season of the year. Yet, I am not sure I'll ever forget July 31 - the day Tracy died - or her smile or her organized apartment or her shoes piled into a box.

Compliment someone on their shoes today. Women love that stuff.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Full House

My office is in a trailer. Each morning, I report to work, unlock a padlock, pull open a large fence, walk up a ramp, and enter the space. The trailer sits on the edge of the church's lawn, on space that actually belongs to the city. It is a humble space. It is the only space that we have access to at the moment on a regular basis without paying rent.

When we first ordered the trailer, we thought we would be having worship services at 11:00 on Sunday mornings in the trailer. We were not expecting much then. We anticipated having about 25 people on a Sunday morning, offering a different experience to others on Sunday afternoon. We did not expect to grow much until we got "home" to our big building after the renovation.

We soon learned that the Sunday afternoon experience was not that great because the beauty of our community was missing. It was hard to attract newcomers without the old timers. We therefore made some changes and started to rent a great theatre across the street from the church. Our worship attendance has grown since we have been in the theatre. We have had to order new hymnals because we did not keep enough out of storage. And, we get to welcome new people into our midst nearly every Sunday.

Still, people cannot believe that we are operating out of a trailer. When a reporter from The Washington Post met me on Wednesday afternoon, he was amazed to find me in a trailer. He walked back to my office and was so surprised to see my worship vestments hanging in the corner. He looked from one end of the trailer to the other end and said, "This is it? This is all you have?" "Yes, this is all we have," I responded, "in addition to the space we are renting on Sunday mornings."

Later that night, I was reminded again of all that can happen in a trailer. I presided over the Lay Leadership Committee in my office. A group of five gathered together to think about who can best lead our church in the coming year. We had a fantastic meeting as we prayed, discerned and talked together. We reviewed what has happened this year and talked about how best to get our new members involved, making sure that there is a balance of the old and the new on each committee. It was a blessing to talk with each other about all that God is doing in our midst.

Meanwhile, another group met in the larger area of the trailer. This group is one of two new community groups that are off and running. They are organized by neighborhood and are inwardly growing and outwardly focused groups who gather together to eat, study, share, grow and serve in our community. The room was filled with laughter. And, each person in the room was not at Mount Vernon Place a year and a half ago. Each person was new, and one of the individuals will make her first profession of faith when she joins the church a week from Sunday.

The longtime members filed out of my office as our meeting ended first. As they walked out, they were greeted with the sound of laughter and the site of authentic community being formed. It was a full house.

It is God's house...even though it is just a trailer.

I'll be the first to tell you that you do not need a church building to build the church.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Construction

We toured the historic building last week with Bishop Schol, the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. It is amazing to see all of the work taking place inside the building. While the sanctuary is still recognizable, it is hard to discern what was in every other space prior to the start of the restoration work. We are 9 months away from a grand celebration. We are 9 months away from the time in which we will return to our church home. In the meantime, take a look at how things appear today:
The site of our future chapel. We can imagine many people coming inside this open door off of K Street for 7:00 a.m. services of morning prayer, noontime services of praise and celebration and evening vespers. We can imagine all kinds of people walking in these doors - the people who work in hotels nearby, the individuals who are employed by law firms across the street, our neighbors who live on the lawns nearby, and the people who live and work in the buildings all around us.
These steps have caused the church problems for decades. The water sealant was stripped long ago, creating a great deal of water damage underneath. The steps are being stripped so that everything can be resealed again. It is a long, tedious process and the final solution has not been found yet.
The window restoration has been a subject of intense emotion and debate in the congregation. Bids for the work ranged from less than $200,000 to more than $700,000. We selected Lynchburg Stained Glass for the work after scrutinizing the proposals of several other artists and workers. When the sanctuary was first built, almost every window was made of stained glass. The windows are stunning, telling the stories of Jesus to people coming inside and out.
Bobby, one of our neighbors on the lawn, took this photo of the four of us who toured the building last week. Nathan, one of our interns from Wesley is on the far left, followed by Bishop Schol, myself and Don Graham. Bishop Schol has been supportive of the project from the beginning and has become a valuable mentor. Don Graham is the chairperson of our steering committee. He has given hours of time to the project, and we have learned so much together.
It is a blessing to be at the National Music Center for now. But we can hardly wait to get home again!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Practice What You Preach, Preacher

The words, "hell," "fire," "damnation," and "judgment" do not normally fill the pages of my sermon manuscripts. The pages from which I preach most often are filled with words like "love," "grace," "forgiveness," and "serve." I do not like the subject of judgment. I do not enjoy hearing preachers preach about how God really feels about us. Yet, when preparing a sermon series on "theology 101," I knew that I could not escape the subject of judgment, just as I cannot escape God's judgment.

On Sunday morning, I tuned my radio to a Christian station as I traveled the two miles to the church. The radio preacher was preaching on judgment. He had lots of images of hell to share with his listeners. The glimpses of his sermon were nothing like the one I was about to preach, however. His sermon was all about choosing Christ. He led me to believe that if I would simply allow Christ in my heart, then everything would be okay.

My sermon was based upon the passages found in Matthew 11:20-24, Jeremiah 26 and Romans 2. I also referred to the judgment scene found in Matthew 25. Jeremiah tells of a God who is filled with both love and wrath. Paul tries to make sense of judgment in Romans. And, in both Matthew passages, Jesus makes it clear that judgment has nothing to do with accepting him but all with how we serve him - how we serve him by what we do to the poor living all around us. Judgment has to do with whether or not we are putting God before everything else. And if we are putting God in first place, then we naturally will be doing the things of Christ - seeking the lowly who need to be exalted, giving the hungry something to eat, befriending the lonely, and forgiving those who have hurt or betrayed us, to name a few of the Christlike character traits.

On Sunday morning, I arrived at the church office extra early. I read my sermon a few more times and then led our new member class (we have 14 people in the class - thanks be to God - but that is an entirely different story), and then looked at the clock. I had less than ten minutes to grab everything and get across the street to our temporary worship site. I was in a rush. I normally like to be there at least 20 minutes early. Time was ticking. I walked out the door with several of our prospective new members, crossed the street, and encountered another person coming to church. I stopped to hug her and then approached the doors of the National Music Center where we are currently worshipping. Right there in front of my eyes was a man who clearly needed some help. He was babbling as though he had consumed too much strong drink or was mentally ill. He was reaching out his hand to those who were entering, and I was taken back by it all. Truth be told, I was a little annoyed that this person was nearly blocking the doors to our church. I did not speak to him. In fact, I walked inside and asked a member of the Trustees if we should ask him to leave - if we should move him over instead of inviting him in! (I am even more ashamed of my actions as I write this post.)

Again, I was about to preach on judgment. I was about to preach a sermon in which I would tell others and myself that we will be held accountable for what we do to the least of these around us. And, I failed the test miserably before worship even began. I failed the test when I passed by this man, failing to even look him in the eye and say "good morning." I failed the test because I was so concerned about what others would think of this person. "Will he scare people away?" I thought. "Will people still come if they have to walk so close to him?"

Oh God, forgive me. Forgive me for not practicing what you teach and what I preach. Slow me down, Lord. Help me to see what is really important. Give me the courage and the wisdom to be like you. Help me, Lord. Forgive me, Lord. Create in my a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.

There is a passage in scripture that is similar to the one I have described. A beggar sits outside the gates of the temple all day long. People pass him on the way inside the temple - on the way to worship God. They pass him on the way to worship a God who yearns for them to love God and love their neighbor as themselves. Still, no one stops.

A significant part of my vision for Mount Vernon Place UMC is that we will be a people who exist for others. We will be people who are inwardly growing in our faith and who are constantly looking outside our doors to see who we can clothe, feed, befriend, house, forgive, and welcome. I long for us to be a prophetic church. I long for us to be a community of individuals who look and act like Jesus - who stop and say "good morning" to the person sitting outside and welcome them all in - regardless of what they have done, how they are dressed, what they are saying, or how 'different' they appear. This kind of community is one that I visualize often.

I only pray that the leader of this congregation, the pastor, has the wisdom to lead the way - to practice what she preaches.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wide Open Spaces

There is a door at Mount Vernon Place that is wide open right now. It is a large hole that has been cut by the construction crew as part of the renovation work. There is currently nothing covering the hole. In fact, the church seems rather open (once you get inside the fence) to people, animals, or birds. It appears that anyone could walk right inside. Someone has been visiting our church all summer after moving here from the Northwest. She came to Mount Vernon Place by accident. She intended to visit a church a few blocks over, but she could not find a single door that was unlocked. It was Sunday morning, but the doors of the church were locked. Either the security guard had stepped away or someone failed to completely unlock the doors. She was locked outside. As a result, she walked down the street and found an unlocked door at Mount Vernon Place, and she has since become part of our worshipping community.
As a church, are we better at locking doors or making them appear as though anyone can walk inside? Are our doors locked or unlocked? Are people coming hoping to find an unlocked door and then being turned away only to go to another place - perhaps not even a church?
Fridays are my day off at the church. And while I recognize that the purpose of Sabbath is to rest and worship, I often find myself doing different things around the house and in the neighborhood. And, grocery shopping is something I normally do on Friday mornings.

There is a Giant Food Store up the street, and the sale advertisement for Giant now starts on Fridays. As a result, the store is not always easy to navigate on Fridays. Yes, the produce aisles are well stocked. And, I can always find the foods that are on sale before they are sold out. However, I have to navigate my cart around the large carts that the Giant employees are using to stock the shelves. And, while I know the Giant employees are doing their job - trying to be helpful, the Giant employees sometimes leave the carts in such a way that no one else can get through the aisle. They sometimes stand around laughing instead of helping other customers. I have even noticed the managers having a long discussion the middle of the aisle, unaware of how they were blocking the aisle from the full use of customers.

I wonder how often we in the church do these things...

I wonder how often we block the aisles, preventing someone from truly navigating the waters of faith, worship and spirituality. I wonder how often our efforts to keep the shelves stocked with "things we have always done" prohibits others from experiencing the Living God. I wonder how many times others have been turned aside because the people on the inside were standing around talking, unaware of the person who is begging for someone to speak to her or sit by her. And, I wonder how our actions can lead others to believe that they are not welcome - that the doors of the church are locked to them - because of who they are, what they have done, what they have failed to do, who they have loved, who they have failed to love, or even what they are wearing.

There is a door that is wide open at Mount Vernon Place. This door will not be kept wide open for long, however. As the construction project moves along, it will be filled and covered.

However, I hope we will do whatever we can to make sure that the doors of our church are always wide open to all kinds of people - to everyone in our neighborhood - the homeless man who sits outside, the woman who awakes from the grate where she has been sleeping, the people who work as attorneys across the street, the young adults who are trying to decide whether to take a long run or come to church on Sunday, the people who have always been there, the people who are amazed that they have actually come to church, the people who are filled with faith, and the people who are filled with doubt.

May our door be open. May the space be wide open for all people to come and experience the presence of our Living God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Trouble in the Bathroom

Like many of you, I have been very troubled by the reports of Senator Larry Craig's (R-ID) arrest in an airport bathroom. The reports of what happened disgust me. It would be one thing to have an openly gay Senator who has always voted to give all people the same rights despite their sexual orientation. It is quite another thing to have a Senator tapping his foot, reaching his hand under the metal wall, and pleading guilty to a lesser crime when the Senator has voted against every piece of legislation that would have treated gay and lesbian people the same as every other individual in this country.

While Senator Craig is innocent until proven guilty, he already said he was guilty. He entered a guilty plea. He now is trying to reverse this plea. Today's news story is that he may change his mind and stay in the Senate. He has hired Stan Brand, the attorney who represented Major League Baseball in the steriod cases, and Billy Martin who represented Michael Vick in the dogfighting case. He has hired two people to stand by his side who are used to standing with people who did something terribly wrong - something they knew they should not have done.

The report in today's paper also tells of a family that has forgiven him. His children are standing by his side, telling all that their father was a victim of circumstance. The children are filled with grace - something we are all called to be filled with as we are called to forgive one another - and something that seems difficult to find in this case.

The best piece I have seen on Senator Craig's situation is an op-ed that appeared in Monday's Washington Post. Written by James McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who found himself in a similar situation, the article tells of the pain and the shame associated with being gay. McGreevey writes of the quest to stay in the closet and the desire to run for public office as an effort to build another closet. It is a powerful statement - one worth reading.

I have watched too many friends almost suffocate in the closet. I have had too many friends come close to choosing death over life as a gay man. I have watched friends go to seminary, hoping that seminary and ordination would be the closet that would cover "it" for life. I have watched friends get married, thinking that this vow would make "it all go away." And, I have watched these same people continue to suffer - through depression, through pain, through what appears to me to be a living hell.

If you have read my blog this summer, then you know that the mantra of this season is making room for people to be who they really are. I do not want to lose another friend because she or he is dealing with something that cannot be shared. I do not want another person to leave ordained ministry because the church cannot accept who he or she really is - a gay man or a lesbian woman. And, I do not want to watch another person fall from power - whether it is the leader of a large church in Colorado or a United States Senator from Idaho - because of the choices they make regarding their sexual passions.

Our sexuality is a complex, beautiful gift from God. Sexuality is also a gift that can cause us to do things we might never have done before. The rise and ease of internet pornography is allowing people to enter places they could once only create in their minds (see the cover article of the current edition of Christian Century to see how many pastors are entering this place). The stress of being in a position of power where everyone thinks you have it all right can cause one to bundle up everything else on the inside and not tell a soul what is really happening. And, despite how good we think we are, none of us are perfect.

Senator Craig, I don't know if you are gay or straight. I have a hard time believing that you are a victim of circumstance - that your tapping your foot or reaching under the partition were not intentional. I am praying for your family, and I am trying to also pray for you. But I also pray that this story - this situation - will open your eyes to the pain of people around you - the ones you have voted against time and again. I pray this situation will also open the eyes and the hearts of your colleagues as we all ask ourselves, "I wonder what kind of pain, burdens, secrets or closets other people are carrying in this place, under this dome, in this city. How can I help them? How can we all seek to be more authentic?"

James McGreevey ends his op-ed with these words, "I pray that the tide of American history continues to sweep toward the inevitable expansion of freedom that recognizes the worth and dignity of every individual - and that mine is the last generation that is required to choose between the affairs of the heart and elected office" (James E. McGreevey, "A Prayer for Larry Craig," Washington Post, September 3, 2007, A15).