Thursday, March 29, 2007

One of Those Weeks

It's been one of those weeks - one of those weeks when you experience the presence of God in real, abundant, vital, life-giving ways. What a joy to experience the following blessings:

1) The phone call of a former parishioner in North Carolina who called to simply say, "We are thinking of you and want to see if you need anything."

2) The visit from one of my current parishioners who made me his version of crab cakes - from canned chicken that his mother received from the government - chicken that would have otherwise not been used. He was so pleased to share his creation with his pastor, complete with garlic sauce in a jar where I could see at least 12 cloves of garlic!

3) The greeting by one of our homeless neighbors on Tuesday morning -- a greeting that began with, "What a glorious morning, Donna" -- from a person who had awakened on the lawn of the church with birds chirping nearby. Oh how many things I take for granted!

4) The email from one of our new members. It was sent to many of her friends and co-workers, inviting them to worship at our church on Palm Sunday and Easter. She mentioned over and over again how much she LOVES her church. What a blessing to have new members like this one!

5) The arrival of my mother and niece from Colorado on Tuesday night.

6) The phone call from my former professor and hero who lives in South Africa but is in the states for two weeks.

7) A visit to the White House where we were greeted and escorted to the door by my mother's Congresswoman -- what incredible constituent service!

8) Glorious -- near perfect -- weather in Washington.

9) The arrival of spring with fresh flowers pushing through the ground all around us.

10) A trip to New York City -- our train departs in one hour!

God is so good. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sunlight, Hippos, and Blue Sky

Two of our buildings at Mount Vernon Place are finally ready to come down. After a long process of negotiating with developers, the abatement of asbestos, and the removal of windows, the demolition permit is finally ready. The two educational buildings will be demolished after the first of May, and demolition day cannot come soon enough as far as I am concerned -- we have been waiting and waiting and waiting.

The buildings look rather condemned right now. There is no electricity going into the buildings, so the lights remain off. No one is occupying the buildings right now (at least that we know of). Furthermore, there is an ugly fence that goes around the buildings with large "keep out: construction zone" signs posted at the entrance. I watch people pass by often throughout the day, wondering what they are thinking when they stop and look at the church. Fortunately, we have banners in different places informing people that while our building is closed our church is still open.

While I know that some of the members of Mount Vernon Place are hurting over the decision to demolish two of our buildings so that something new can emerge, I must admit that there is little remaining charm to these two buildings. The cost of operating the buildings is horrendous. Some of the walls and floors have been in need of repair for some time now. Furthermore, the only way Mount Vernon Place could possibly begin to afford the repair bill for the historic church is through the sale of the property on which these two buildings are situated.

But there is one room in the buildings that catches my attention each time I walk by the church now. There is one place where a glimmer of life still shines. From Massachusetts Avenue you can see painted on the wall a bright blue sky, a hippo swimming in the water, and a brilliant orange sun shining for all to see. I never appreciated this room before, when children were still using it. But now the room is the only thing that speaks to me, seemingly calling out, "why would you let go of this?"

The room reminds me a lot of my journey at Mount Vernon Place. When I was appointed as the pastor of the church in the summer of 2005, I was told often about how the congregation had decided that it had done what it could do and that they would one day close the doors, returning the property to the Baltimore-Washington Conference. When I arrived, there was a large sum of money in the bank, and the congregation had voted to spend this money on whatever it wanted, keeping different activities going even though the congregation had dwindled to a small, remaining remnant and the activities were not bringing many new people into the congregation. "We voted to spend this money and once it is gone, we'll give the church back to the conference," I was told time and again. The money would last for four years at the rate the congregation was spending -- something that caused me serious concern.

For the last 20 months, I have been trying to find the places where there is still a glimmer of life at Mount Vernon Place. I have been looking for the places where bright sunlight is still shining, where hippos are still swimming, and where a blue sky still provides calm -- in a church where the membership roster once had over 4500 names but where the active membership is now 88.

What has amazed me is how easy it has been to find the sunlight, hippos and blue sky. The members of Mount Vernon Place represent an uncanny ability to be absolutely resilient. I know of no other pastor in the country who arrived at a church with a 92-year-old Finance Chair, a 90-year-old Lay Leader and a 96-year-old chair of Staff Parish Relations. What sunlight -- to have people serving so faithfully in their 90s!

We have a Minister of Music who has been at the church over 30 years. She has watched her choir soar to the place where everyone could not fit in the loft and dwindle to a remaining 7 faithful voices. Still, she continues in her role, along with her husband who is the one at the church who is always willing to lend a hand no matter what the task is. What sunlight!!

We have a group of older adults who gather for Bible study once a week. They drive in from Northern Virginia to meet in our trailer where at the ages of 80 and 90, they continue to struggle with how to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. What sunlight!!

And now there are new pockets of sunlight pouring into Mount Vernon Place. We have new members who are taking active roles in the life of the congregation. We have new condominiums and apartment buildings going up all around us -- thousands of new residents who call our neighborhood home. We have new ministries that have emerged from a prayer shawl knitting ministry to a ministry for men on Saturday mornings. We have been collecting different things for Easter baskets for a ministry that serves homeless children and women, and people have given so faithfully. We have two very gifted interns from a nearby seminary. We have people going out into the community to serve in the name of the Lord. We have an atmosphere in worship where people can come just as they are and share whatever it is that is on their hearts. What sunlight!

The sun is still shining, the hippos are still swimming and the blue sky is providing calm!!

We're going to destroy two of our buildings soon so that something new can emerge. Still, Mount Vernon Place's doors are not closing. We intend for them to stay open well beyond four years from now. We are building a building that we hope will still be providing a beacon of light to the city 100 years from now. And, slowly but surely, many of our members who once said, "We'll spend our money and then close" are now excited -- not about closing the church but about making sure that the doors stay open in the decades to come.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Life in the Tree

The Garden of Eden that once appeared in a tree at Mount Vernon Place was removed long ago. When the Barbie doll figurines, the plastic snake and the bright bandanna disappeared, I knew it would not be long before something new would emerge in the tree. My colleague, Nathan, pointed out to me this week that our neighbor, Dennis, has again created a theological masterpiece in the tree outside of the church.

The crucified Christ is hanging in the tree. It is positioned on top of a beautiful cross that looks more like new life, with flowers and greenery coming up from the bottom. All of these things are then glued on several large, beautiful shells. At the bottom of the work you can see small, colorful beads glued together and several smaller shells. And, Dennis added bright colored M&Ms inside the shell -- M&Ms that were no longer there when I showed the shell to a friend yesterday.

When Nathan asked Dennis where everything came from, Dennis did not seem to want to talk about his work of art. I have not seen Dennis this week to ask him about his creation or what everything means, but I do keep thinking about this piece -- the shells, the crucified Christ, the signs of new life, and the placement of the M&Ms. I continue to believe that Dennis has a lot to teach me about Jesus.

Jesus came so that all might have life -- life abundant and life with out end. Jesus called people to give the hungry something to eat, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick -- to ensure that people have the basic necessities of life. Jesus inaugurated a new kind of kingdom -- a kingdom that stands in stark contrast to the ways of this world. In Jesus' kingdom, everyone is taken care of. In Jesus' kingdom, everyone has a place to call home.

Dennis has a place to call home -- but it looks nothing like my home. His home does not have a heater or an air conditioner. It does not have a lock that can keep his belongings safe or even a door that he can close in order to keep people or rats outside. While I go in and out of the church, Dennis spends most of his days on the church's lawn. I have never seen him eat a full meal. I rarely see him in different clothing. Still, I have never heard him complain -- even on the coldest of days. He often has a kind word to say, and he always takes time to call me by name.

Dennis brings signs of God's presence to our church. Through the Garden of Eden, he reminded us of a time when everything was just right. Through the newest creation, he reminds us that resurrection and new life are taking place all around us -- because of the death of Christ on a cross.

I wonder what Dennis has received from us. Has Dennis learned anything from the people who go in and out of our church? Has he received any signs pointing towards how we are a people who are trying to work to make all things right once again, through the grace of God? Has he received any signs of resurrection and new life from us? Have we given him a glimpse of grace?

Like I said, Dennis has a lot to teach me about Jesus and what it means to faithfully follow him.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


I took two pictures this week of signs hanging at the Mount Vernon Square / Convention Center Metro stop. One of the signs was hung in late November advertising "97 & 1 Fun Holiday Things to Do," and the other sign was hung in early January, advertising the Washington Auto Show which was held at the Convention Center January 24 - 28, 2007.

The signs are out of date. They are advertisements for things that are no longer relevant -- things that happened in the past. Still, no one has taken the time to take the signs down. Someone put a "wet floor" post in front of one of the signs this week while another person empties the trash near the other sign throughout the week, but no one has taken the time to remove the signs. The banner and the sign still hang for all to see -- while providing absolutely no helpful guidance or assistance to anyone passing by in the second week of March.

The signs at the Metro have made me think a lot about the church. I know that there are many physical signs in my church's building that point to things that are no longer part of our offerings or activities. One sign outlines the location of several different "departments" at the church that are no longer in existence while also including the Carpenter's Shop, the Sunday School Superintendent's Office, and a dozen or so different Sunday School classes. Times have changed at the church since these signs were installed. These signs will soon come down as part of the renovation -- though no one has taken the time to update them in recent years.

But there are many other things at our churches that are either no longer relevant or out of date. Our churches have a hard time adjusting -- of letting go of things that were helpful and relevant in the past but no longer work today. We continue to do exactly what we have always done, expecting different results in turn (which is the definition of insanity!).

We are in the process of letting go of many things at Mount Vernon Place -- not exactly because we have wanted to, but because a building project has forced us to. In addition to letting go of two buildings about to be demolished and the rest of our property for at least a year, we have let go of some of our staff positions, some of our Sunday school classes, some of our different "ministries" and some traditions. What is happening as we let go, however, is new life is emerging. New things are emerging that make sense for today -- for 2007 -- for the time in which people are moving in all around us -- the time in which we sit at the edge of one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city.

It is not easy to take down the old. It is easier to let old things remain, especially when we have nothing to take their place and don't like looking at empty space. If someone takes the time to remove the signs at the Metro, then another company or organization can imagine the possibility of their sign -- their advertisement -- in its place. The same is true with the church. It is only after we let go of some of the past that we can envision the future.
As we proceed with our journey through Lent, may we continue to look for the dead, out of date places in our lives -- the scabs of the past. May we continue to let go of the old so that something new may emerge. The process of taking down the old is not always easy, and it sometimes brings more scorn than encouragement. Still, the old, the dead, and the decayed must come down in order for something new and living to emerge.