Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Community Created by Craigslist

We have continued the process of cleaning out the church building as it appears that the renovation of the historic building is going to finally commence after a long delay. It seems as though the process of cleaning out the church is never-ending. When you open a closet door, you never know what you are going to find. Furthermore, there are several rooms at the church where the door has remained closed for decades -- literally.

We found an entire woodworking studio at the church. It's true that some of the directories at the church point to "The Carpenter's Studio" but I had never seen the room myself until recently. We found three big pieces of equipment that made everything from bookshelves to offering plates. We don't have many carpenters in the church today, however. It's time to let these things go.

The church also had what seemed to be a piano in every room. We sold several pianos this summer when we started cleaning out the buildings to be demolished. One piano remained, however. It is the piano we have been using for worship in the Undercroft Theatre. But now that we have vacated the space we have a piano that we no longer need. It's time to let it go.

The Carpenter's Shop was full of other items, too, as it has become a storage closet in more recent decades. It seems as though when some things were removed from the church, people would stick the items in the room with the carpenter's equipment and shut the door. We found two porcelain sinks a few weeks ago. I am not sure exactly where they were installed in the church when they were once used. I only know that we do not need them now. It's time to let them go.

Add to this mix a half a dozen filing cabinets and countless chairs that have been discovered in recent days, and we have too much stuff. We have many things that need to go in order for the renovation and repair work to begin. As a result, we have been selling or giving away things on Craigslist.

I never knew about Craigslist until I moved to Washington in 2005. I now know that one can find anything and everything on Craigslist from a job to a rocking chair, a night of romance to a place to park your car. Craigslist offers pretty much whatever it is that you want or think you need. It costs nothing to post on the site or respond to someone else's posting. Furthermore, the things being sold on the site are often sold at a bargain price. Most people who post things on Craigslist want to simply get rid of something, knowing that someone else is in need of what they no longer want.

I have used Craigslist often in order to advertise the church's yard sales or to get ride of things the church no longer needs. Craigslist has helped the church raise thousands of dollars for missions while also allowing us to meet many of our neighbors who have come in to get something. Craigslist has also taught me a few things:

1) Your trash may be someone else's treasure.
2) There are a lot of lonely people in Washington who will do anything to find companionship or intimacy -- even if just for a night.
3) There is joy that comes when you give things away, knowing that the person taking them from you needs exactly what you have to offer.
4) There is no need to charge someone more money than what an item is worth. People get excited when they know they are getting a bargain, and it is fun to watch the excitement.
5) People will buy things for a variety of purposes -- tables for a party in someone's apartment on Saturday night, chairs for a wedding, antique sinks for a historic home, filing cabinets for a non-profit organization, kitchen equipment for a restaurant that is yet to be open.

I wish more people and businesses in our community operated under the principles of Craigslist -- don't charge more than is necessary, give things away whenever you can, never throw something away without first trying to recycle the item, do whatever you can to meet your neighbors, offer hospitality to strangers, lend a hand when you can by helping someone load a car or truck, use your gifts to meet the needs of another person, and let go of things you no longer need. Can you imagine this community? I can.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Asbestos Abatement

For the last several weeks, Mount Vernon Place has been undergoing a serious type of surgery. Like cancer that has overtaken an individuals body, our two buildings that are about to be demolished are filled with asbestos. There is asbestos in the floors, in the walls, in the ceilings and around the pipes. In fact, there is enough asbestos to fill an entire trailer when it is all removed.

I have learned a lot about asbestos in the last several months. I now know that it was used as a way of fireproofing parts of the building, as an absorber of sound in other parts of the building, and as a form of insulation. It appears that asbestos was a rather useful product. Like polybutylene pipes, asbestos was once believed to be a great thing. While polybutylene pipes could wind and bend around a house, they are now the reason why many houses have experienced devastation as a result of their leaks. While asbestos was once an inexpensive solution to many building issues, it is now the cause of the most expensive litigation in history, involving over 6000 defendants and 600,000 claimants because breathing the substance can cause significant health problems.

As a result of the asbestos in our buildings, we cannot simply demolish them and move forward. Instead, the asbestos must be carefully removed before a demolition permit can be received. As a result, the church is spending tens of thousands of dollars to have the asbestos completely removed. The asbestos must be removed before something new can emerge. The asbestos must be taken care of before the project can move forward. The asbestos is an impediment to progress.

Today is Ash Wednesday. On this day, we are reminded that from dust we came and from dust we shall return. This day marks the beginning of the season of Lent -- the season in which we journey towards the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter morning. It is also a day on which we begin to search ourselves, asking God to help us see the places of decay within each one of us.

The words of David found in Psalm 51 are often read on Ash Wednesday: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (verses 1,2).

Verse 10 continues, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me."

I started my day today asking God to show me the places in my life where I need a new and right spirit. What are the things in my life that need to be removed? Where are the places of sin and decay?

Like asbestos, we do not always know the aspects of ourselves that are more harmful than they are helpful. There are some things in our life or aspects of our personality that we have grown to simply accept -- believing that the things are not that bad. We try to keep these things hidden, pretending that they do not exist. However, we cannot grow into the individuals God has called us to be until we address the problem. We must be cleansed. We must remove the sin.

The process of removing the sin in our life was paid for long ago -- not with the tens of thousands of dollars used to pay for asbestos abatement, but with Christ's death on a cross. We receive the forgiveness of sins not through a long process of removal, but with a few words, "Have mercy on me, Jesus, a sinner," and accepting the freedom Christ gives us to live a changed life.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Crossing the Street

We crossed the street on Sunday morning. While I cross many streets throughout the week in downtown Washington, this crossing was a significant one as the entire Mount Vernon Place congregation crossed over 9th street from our church to another historic building in downtown D.C.

For the next twelve months, Mount Vernon Place will be worshipping in space that is not our own. The National Music Center at the Carnegie Library has graciously agreed to accept us as Sunday morning tenants while our 1917 building is being completely restored and renovated.

Our new space is stunningly beautiful. It was built at the turn of the century, and many of our members remember coming to the building when it was the main library in Washington. Others remember the building as the City Museum in more recent years. It was wonderful to watch the reactions of these members on Sunday morning as they recalled different times when they had been in the building before.

The space is a gift to us in so many ways. It is, without a doubt, the closest space available that we could find for our Sunday morning worship. I can sit in my new office in the trailer and see the building from my window! It is also a space that we can use for Sunday school, 11:00 worship, and coffee hour following. Furthermore, it is a space where we have been received warmly and wonderfully. We have received incredible hospitality from the staff of the National Music Center -- hospitality that has called to mind the passage from Hebrews that instructs us to "not neglect to show hospitality to strangers."

I have realized often in the last week that our needs as a congregation are being met by our community. A local construction company has set up a trailer for our offices and gathering space during the week. A local organization has opened its doors for our Sunday worship. Our community is serving us in powerful, important, blessed ways.

It is my hope and my prayer that as our needs are met by the community in the coming weeks that we will also be reminded, as a church, how we are called to serve the community around us. I pray we will take every opportunity that we have to show hospitality to strangers when the doors of our building open again. I pray we will be ready to serve others as we are being served now -- whether the other is one in need of food, or shelter, or companionship, or clothing, or anything else.

Thank you, God, for taking care of our needs. Thank you for opening doors for us when other doors closed. Thank you for our neighbors who are caring for our needs. God, use this time to teach us, to shape us, to mold us, and to stretch us. Prepare us for all of the ways that you are going to call us to serve in the years to come. Make us instruments of your peace and of your goodness. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blessing and Testimony

In the first week of seminary at Duke Divinity School, my professor of Old Testament read a book excerpt by W.E. Sangster:

To have a cure of souls...is the highest task to which any minister can be called. To stand in the pulpit on Sunday and see the eager and expectant faces of the people turned toward you, and know they have come for worship and for the bit of bread that you have been preparing for them in the week; to feel as you look at them: 'These are my people'; to know that in all the great hours of their life, when they want to be wed, when a child is born into their home, when trouble comes, when the doctor is going in and out, when bereavement robs them of every scrap of joy -- to know that in that hour the door is open, and you not only may go but you must go; that the cry of their heart then is for their minister...to dwell upon that is to know a joy which, to my mind, not even the unquestioned delights of scholarly research can surpass. To receive the confidence of people, to konw the secrets they have told to no other living soul; to blush with them over their sins and exult when them when the sin is flung under the table; to know their private affairs and to be the sharer of their highest ideals, is to have a joy of which not one of us is really worthy. From The Approach to Preaching as recorded in The Upper Room's A Guide to Prayer for Ministers & Other Servants

I have been reminded often in recent days of the incredible privilege I have to be the pastor at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. Last Sunday, I did something I have never done before. During the serving of communion, I offered people who did not want to receive the elements the opportunity to come forward and receive a blessing. To my delight, I had the awesome gift of placing my hands on the shoulders of four individuals. Two of the people were visitors and two people are members of the church. As I placed my hands on their shoulders and asked God to bless them -- in the highs and lows of their lives -- to be with them in whatever it was that they were facing -- to shine through them in their studies and in their vocation -- to be able to see themselves the way that God sees them - precious -- I realized how rare it is to experience the art of blessing. We say, "God bless you" often when people sneeze, but we rarely take time to really pray that another person will be blessed. It was a powerful experience for me -- one that I will not soon forget and one that I look forward to repeating again soon.

Today, Sangster's words took on a whole new meaning for me as one of our new members stood and offered a testimony. As part of our time of sharing celebrations and concerns, this woman rose in front of the congregation to tell them what a blessing they were to her. She then talked about how she had been embraced by the congregation and how she had been able to confess her sins as a result of our community of faith and receive a word of truth that led to forgiveness. Her testimony was the culmination of that sin being "flug under the table" once and for all. It was an amazing, powerful moment.

There is something happening at Mount Vernon Place -- something that enables me to experience the presence and the power of the living God whenever we gather. I see people growing in their faith. I see people taking delight in each other and the ways in which they see God at work in their life. I see individuals desiring to go out and serve the needs of the community. And, I see myself loving "my people" in ways that I have never loved them before. What a privilege it is to be a pastor -- a joy for which I am truly not worthy.

I can't wait to see what happens next week!