Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Garden of Eden

I started noticing a few things hanging from one of the trees on the lawn of the church a few weeks ago. I did not think much about it, however, concluding instead that someone was simply hanging a few things out to dry. But yesterday, I got a full glimpse of the tree when I was outside updating some of our information signs.

What on earth is that? I thought to myself.

I stepped closer and noticed that there were two Barbie dolls in the tree, along with a rubber snake.

I turned around and asked one of our neighbors who was picking up his blankets a few feet away if he knew anything about the tree.

Do you know who did this? I asked.

Yes, Dennis replied.

Did you do this, Dennis? I asked.

Yes, Dennis replied.

Well what is it, Dennis?

It's the Garden of Eden, said Dennis.

Of course, it's the Garden of Eden.

Dennis had created an incredibly creative visual of the story found in Genesis 2 and 3. The story begins with God placing man in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. "And the Lord God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

God then makes woman, and the two come together, becoming one flesh.

In the beginning of the third chapter of Genesis, a snake appears. The snake is "more crafty that any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

The woman replies, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'"

And guess what happens? The woman takes the fruit from the tree and eats it. She then gives some of the fruit to her husband. Their eyes are then opened, and they know they are naked.

The story of the garden of Eden is the story of the first human transgression and the punishment that comes with it. It is the story of man's first sin. Everything was perfect before the man and woman ate from the tree in Eden.

I spent the day wondering why Dennis created his version of the garden of Eden on the church's lawn. Did this creation serve as his reminder that there was a time when everything was right -- when those who had too much shared with those who had too little, when people were not greedy, when all men and women dwelled together in unity?

And why is it that Dennis chooses to sleep in the same place each night -- not next to the church where it might be safer or on the porch where there is a covering, but in the open, under a tree -- a few feet away from a wooden cross? Why does he go away each day only to return to this same spot each night?

While Dennis told me tonight that he wasn't thinking theologically when he created the garden, I think Dennis knows a few things that we don't always remember. There was a time when everything was right -- when there would be absolutely no reason for anyone to be without food or shelter. This time is represented by the garden he created.

There is also a time coming when everything will be made right. Jesus came so that we might have life and life abundant. Through his life, he taught us how to live -- how to share and care for one another. Through the cross, he triumphed over sin and death -- assuring us that he will always have the final word.

Dennis' garden was taken down today. Someone removed the things from the tree, along with his collection of blankets hidden in the bushes. When I asked Dennis if he needed to go to a shelter tonight, he assured me that he would be just fine. He was disappointed that his things were gone, but he was still smiling.

I look forward to seeing Dennis tomorrow. And, I'll be keeping my eye on the tree. It won't be long, I am sure, until more things will appear in the tree. And if I keep my eyes open, I may learn a thing or two.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

What Justice Looks Like

We started a new study on last Sunday night on N.T. Wright’s new book, Simply Christian.
Our discussion of the book began with the place from which Wright begins his book -- on the topic of justice. N.T. Wright believes that we all have in our minds an ideal for the perfect world – a world in which everything is fair and all things work out for the best. This ideal is a world where we not only are aware of what is right and what we should do, but how we actually live our lives in a way which is right. Yet, just as we gain a glimpse of what is right, we wake up from our dream and step into reality.

N.T. Wright pens on page four, and I quote, “It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all. The voice continues to echo in our imagination, our subconscious. We want to go back and listen to it again, but having woken up we can’t get back into the dream. Other people sometimes tell us it was just a fantasy, and we’re half-inclined to believe them, even though that condemns us to cynicism.”

As part of the discussion last week, we were asked to share what this dream looks like for us. What is our dream of justice?

One of the things I mentioned in response to the question is how my dream of justice is one in which there are no more gray blankets filling the nooks and crannies, window wells and alleys of this city. I have noticed these blankets more often in recent weeks than I have ever noticed them before. I have found the blankets on the steps of our church and in the corners of our porches. The blankets have caught my eye as I have walked through several public parks. One can see them stuffed behind trees and hidden behind bushes. They are worn as capes by homeless men and women. The blankets seem to be everywhere, and each blanket I see represents a person whose body is colder than mine is on this night. Each blanket I see represents a person whose body is colder than mine on most winter nights. Each blanket I see reminds me how not everything has been made right – at least not yet.

But in my dream, there are no blankets. In my dream, everyone has a place to call “home” – where their belongings are kept safe, where the seats around the kitchen table are occupied by family members having dinner together each evening, and where a warm, cozy bed is readily available for all people – a bed covered not with a gray blanket but with a down-filled, colorful comforter on top.

We have a long way to go before this dream is a reality. In fact, there are times when I don't even have a clue as to where to start making the dream a reality. But one thing is for certain -- the blankets no longer fade into the scenary of the city as they once used to do. Instead, the blankets remind me of our neighbors -- the men and women who sleep near the church -- the people who will be covered with gray blankets on this chilly night.

God, may your presence be known to Caroline and Clifton, Michael and Dennis, and to everyone else who does not have a place to call home.

What is your dream of justice?

NOTE: This discussion inspired today's sermon. You may read the full text later in the week on the Mount Vernon Place UMC website. You may also come and join us as we continue the discussion on Simply Christian.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lessons Learned in Yoga Class

I went to yoga this week. While it was surprising to my sister and some friends, it was my first time attending a yoga class.

The class started at 5:30, and I reported to the gym a few minutes early. I walked into the studio, disappointed to discover that the room was nearly full, leaving the only remaining space at the front of the room, just beneath the only light illuminated in the entire room -- you get the picture!

I unrolled my mat, removed my shoes (forgetting to remove my socks!), and placed my body on the ground with all the other classmates. We started breathing together, an exercise that I loved as I was reminded to pay attention to my breathing patterns. Breathe in through your nose. Exhale through your mouth. My stomach muscles were in tune. My body was in tune. My nose and my mouth were in tune. The class then continued.

We pushed our bodies up using our arms and our legs. We lifted our legs in the air for a few minutes and then our arms. We did a variety of poses, all of which were new to me. I was doing fine for a while. I was doing fine until the instructor started to do things that I knew my body could never do. She lifted her entire weight on her head and her elbows in an upside down position. I was amazed! Thankfully, she did not stay there for long before returning to something that I could do.

"Breathe in. Breathe out. Pay attention to the air flowing in and out of your body," she kept saying. When I was paying attention to my breathing, I had an easier time doing the different exercises. When I forgot about my breathing, I was miserable, checking the time and counting the remaining minutes until class ended.

"Breathe in. Breathe out. Pay attention to your breathing." These simple words made everything so much easier. These words told me what I needed to get through the class.

Since returning to the office this week, I have found myself running around in an effort to do everything expected of me. I have been a salesperson this week, promoting some of the church's remaining items on Craigslist. I have been an advertising executive this week, painting over some of the church's banners and hanging them on our new fence for all to see. I have been a pastor this week, praying at the bedside of a parishioner recovering from surgery. I have been a developer this week, pushing for the new schedule on which our building redevelopment will occur. And, I have been a 30 something young adult, trying to have fun with friends at various points in the week.

There have been times when I remembered to pay attention to the source of my being -- to the One who enables me to breathe. There have been other times this week when I tried to accomplish too much on my own, doing a little of everything but doing nothing particularly well.

There is no way I could ever get through a yoga class without paying attention to my breathing. Likewise, there is no way I can possibly get through any day well without paying attention to the One who makes each day possible --without beginning each day and sometimes each hour with prayer, allowing this One to flow through me, controlling my words, my thoughts and my actions.

I'll try yoga again next week. For now, I am going to go spend some time in prayer. There are just too many difficult things to do and accomplish in the coming days, and I need to pay attention to my spiritual journey.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Yearning to be Extreme

Nathan Howe, one of the interns at Mount Vernon Place, preached yesterday's sermon in honor of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rightly so, Nathan spent a lot of time quoting Dr. King's sermons. King's words, like the words of Jesus, are often enough.

It was a blessing and a challenge to sit and listen to Dr. King's words again -- words that we have all heard before but words that we cannot hear enough. I was particularly struck by Dr. King's words from his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In this letter, King shares his reaction to being called "extreme." He writes:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergyman would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.

King then continues:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus and extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like am ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvery's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

And towards the end of the letter he writes:

There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey Gad rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

While these words were written 34 years ago, King's description of the church is too often accurate for today. There are many in our churches who are afraid to speak up, naming the injustices all around us. Many of us casually ask the homeless to leave our property without asking ourselves whether we will be judged for our actions -- for asking them to leave instead of offering them something to eat and something to drink. Many of us continue to hold harsh feelings towards those who have hurt us or stepped on our toes instead of remembering how Jesus calls us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us. And, many of us allow things to continue in a way that is so different from the community Jesus called us to create.

I live in a city in which the discrepancies between those who have and those who have not grows wider each day. If I walk from my house in Columbia Heights to downtown, I can begin my journey encountering people who are asking for money in order to buy something to eat and street light cameras that have been installed by the police department to capture the crimes taking place around the neighborhood. I can then continue to walk to Adams Morgan where the diversity of the city is most beautiful and the smells coming from restaurant doors represent countless different countries around the world -- a diversity that is rarely realized in many cities and schools in this nation. My journey continues to take me through Dupont Circle where I see many people who are gay and lesbian, people who I know have been pushed outside the doors of the church more than they have been welcome on the inside. I then continue to walk down Connecticut Avenue where I see coats in the store window that cost over $1000 and diamond rings with a stone the size of a dime and a cost the size of my second mortgage.

Meanwhile, I know that I have yet to organize a prayer vigil in response to violent crimes in this city -- in response to innocent lives that have ended too soon.

I have yet to do anything substantial other than preach a couple of times on what it means to be a church that is intentionally open to all people regardless of their race, economic status or sexual orientation.

I have not done anything when it comes to leading the congregation in a serious struggle with what it means to increase the minimum wage, provide access to quality health care for all people, or have more affordable housing, to name a few of the issues that we could address.

Oh God, as we thank you for the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we pray that you would help us all to become more prophetic. May we not be thermometers that are simply taking note of what is happening around us but may we be thermostats that are prepared to engage the society and stand up for something different. God, help us to be like your Son -- the greatest gift and example you have given to us. Amen.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Home Away from Home

Progress is being made on the development at Mount Vernon Place! Our temporary office trailer arrived on Wednesday, and the asbestos abatement will commence on this Monday! We have been waiting for these two things since September, when we vacated the two buildings and prepared ourselves for demolition. We have waited patiently and expectantly. We have waited with delight and wonder. We have waited, and when I finally saw the trailer on Wednesday afternoon, I laughed. I laughed out loud for it is hard for me to completely imagine being in this space for over a year.

The interior of the trailer is absolutely beautiful, complete with hard wood floors and granite countertops. It is much more spacious on the inside than it appears on the outside. Still, this trailer is about to become our home as our entire operation is moved from three massive buildings (over 50,000 square feet) into a space that is 52 feet long and 10 feet wide -- it's even smaller than my 537 square feet apartment!!

We'll start discussing this week the things that we anticipated bringing with us that need to now be left behind. We'll continue discerning this week how best to utilize this space for mission and ministry. We'll continue to think creatively about where and when we can worship God and serve our community. And, we'll continue to ask God to lead us and guide us, shining light on this unknown path.

I have said often how our church is living in exile as we are away from the sanctuary and space we love, living in a wilderness-like place that is unfamiliar to us, journeying towards the promised land of a renovated building and new construction.

While the last few months have not been easy, we have been reminded often since the beginning of September how God is not limited to a beautiful sanctuary or a massive building. We have seen and experienced the presence of the Lord in real and powerful ways in the last four months as we have followed God into uncertain and unfamiliar territory. We have grown -- both as individuals and as a congregation.

I would venture to guess that there is going to be some complaining in the coming weeks as we vacate the historic building completely and move into new space -- just like the Israelites. I would be willing to bet money that there will be people who will question the direction we are going -- just like the Israelites -- asking, "Why did they make us move out of the sanctuary into this place? Couldn't they do the renovation work around our schedule?" And, I am absolutely positive that we will experience God's leading and faithfulness once again -- that God will show up in unexpectant places with unexpectant gifts like bread from heaven and water from rocks -- just like the Israelites.

Please keep us in your prayers and come join us on the journey!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


I went skiing last week in Colorado. Before you get too impressed, let me tell you that I chose to ski one day out of four. My sister, Dana, had the bright idea that after two times down the bunny slope that I was ready for a slope that I later learned was "almost blue" -- something a ski instructor told me when I was struggling to stand again on one of the steepest parts of the slope when it was too late to do anything but try to get down with both skis on my feet!

The one thing that amazed me last week was how many people I saw being taken down the mountain on a stretcher with skis. There were three different people hurt in a matter of moments -- three different people who were unable to ski down the mountain on their own. When I saw these people, I returned home to check the agreement I signed when getting my skis. It reads:

"I understand and am aware that skiing/snowboarding is a HAZARDOUS activity. I understand that the sport of skiing/snowboarding and the use of this equipment involves a risk of personal injury to any and all parts of my body. I hereby agree to freely and expressly assume and accept any and all risks of injury or death to the user of this equipment while skiing/snowboarding."

I signed my name, paid The Sports Authority store $29.98 for the use of the equipment, and returned to Keystone where I paid $70 for a lift ticket. I spent $100 a day, along with hundreds of other people, on something that was HAZARDOUS. I spent $100 a day, along with hundreds of other people, on something that made my ankles hurt. I spent $100 a day, along with hundreds of other people, on something that could have killed me.

I keep wondering what the agreement would look like if we signed something on the day we decided to follow Christ. The more I understand the Gospel, the more I realize how Jesus also calls us to do something that is a little hazardous. He sends us out like sheep in the midst of wolves. He tells us to take nothing for our journeys. He commands us to shake the dust from our feet if we find ourselves in a place where we are not welcome. He tells us to lift high the cross -- something on which he was crucified. He asks that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to live a life that stands in stark contrast to the ways of this world.

He risked everything for us -- including his life.

I took the risk of skiing. It was filled with a few thrills and a lot of fear. Still, I'll try it again when I return to Colorado next year.

Now, if I can just take more risks when it comes to following Christ.