Saturday, May 26, 2007


The demolition work has begun at Mount Vernon Place. The demolition crew started yesterday to carefully separate the buildings to be demolished from the 1917 historic church.
Stay tuned. Something is happening here!


Several people, ministries and organizations have been displaced as a result of the construction and renovation work being done at Mount Vernon Place. When we vacated two of our buildings last August, the Downtown Cluster of Congregations Geriatric Daycare Center also vacated our building, moving to the nearby Asbury United Methodist Church. The Chinese Community Church discerned it was time for them to buy a church of their own. The Womens Infants and Children's van stopped coming and providing assistance on the church's property. And, our congregation moved from worshipping in the sanctuary to the basement theatre and then across the street to the National Music Center at the Carnegie Library.

We have adjusted to our changes well. The Chinese Community Church is growing, bringing in some 70 new children since they moved closer to Chinatown. I am told that the people at the Geriatric Daycare Center love their new space. And, we have adjusted well, bringing in several new faces along the journey. I learned this week, however, that the displacement is not over.

One of our homeless neighbors has been using a window well at the church for months now. It has become his storage site, and he has stored just about everything next to the church. He has placed as many as four bikes and three grocery carts in the window well. I have seen milk crates and eggs, toys and shoes, shirts and hats, all in the window well. The stuff has grown at times to the point that the well is overflowing while shrinking at other times. Michael has been told about the upcoming demolition for several months now, and he has tried his best to clean his stuff. However, he kept telling us that he had nowhere else to put it. But Michael learned this week that he had to move his belongings because demolition was starting.

I am not sure where Michael took his stuff. But it is gone now. And while I hated at times looking at the mountain of belongings growing next to the church, I am sure that I'll miss seeing Michael outside looking for something each afternoon.

I continued my journey down the sidewalk yesterday and found that Dennis' tree was no longer covered with toys for the children. Instead, the entire tree was empty. Dennis had taken everything down when he saw an orange fence around the tree he decorates. The fence was put up to protect the trees and the land during the renovation project. However, I did not get to tell Dennis about it before he discovered it himself. And, Dennis was nowhere to be found. I was horrified, wondering if I would ever see Dennis again. I was afraid that Dennis would think we were kicking him off the property since I had been unable to talk with him prior to the orange fence being installed around the tree he decorates and the place where he sleeps at night. He had been displaced.

People are displaced in the city all of the time. In my neighborhood of Columbia Heights, there is a massive amount of development taking place. Several old buildings have been demolished in order for a new shopping center, condominiums and grocery store to be built. Property values have escalated. Long time store owners have sold and left the neighborhood. Many newcomers love the change while the old timers crave the past. The changes are a blessing to many and a displacement to others as they are asked to leave - to go somewhere else. We see the same thing happening in cities and neighborhoods across the nation - something new comes in and the old has to go.

I found Dennis before I left the church on Wednesday evening. He was sitting outside and while I had tears in my eyes, he was fine. He assured me that he would still be sleeping nearby. He also told me that he would find another tree somewhere to decorate - to add color to for the enjoyment of others.

We are displaced when we lose our jobs, experience the ending of a relationship, graduate from college, or move to a new place. And while some of the displacement is sought, other displacements come by surprise.

We talk a lot about being displaced every Sunday at Mount Vernon Place. We talk about what it means to be worshipping in a space that is not our own. But we also talk about how we have experienced displacement in our own individual lives as we share our joys and our concerns - as we tell others of our transitions, our losses, our endings and our beginnings.

May we continue to be a community that welcomes the individuals who have lost their footing, experienced a challenging transition, or found themselves pushed aside. May we be sensitive to the needs of those in our city who are impacted the most by the changes around us. May we gather together that which has been torn apart.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Name Change

I attended the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference today of the United Methodist Church. Annual Conference is a time at which clergy and laity gather from all over the area. It is a time to worship together. It is a time to laugh together. It is a time to make important decisions regarding the future of the church. And, it is a time in which our appointments to a local church are set for the coming year. While I have attended several annual conferences, I have never been to an annual conference session like today.

The Clergy Session is a session in which the main business is a report from the Board of Ordained Ministry. The report includes the people who are retiring from ministry, the people who are coming into the ministry, the pastors who have gotten in trouble, and the pastors who have had their names changed in the last year.

Three individuals have had their names changed this year. It is clear that two of the three name changes are related to either a marriage or a divorce. The other name change was rather different, however. The name had been changed from Ann to Drew.

The names were before us. Someone then asked a question. The Bishop responded. And then Drew went to the podium. He shared his entire story - his story of being born a gender that never made sense to him - a story of being in a body that did not seem right - his story of being called his 'father's son' even though his body was that of a father's daughter. And, he shared the story of the church he pastors - how attendance is now four times what it was five years ago, and how giving has tripled. He told of the support he has from his members, and how families are coming to the church for the first time in years.

I'll be the first to admit that I was very uncomfortable when the conversation started. I turned to my neighbor when I noticed the name and said, "Do you know Ann? What happened? Was it a sex change or what?" I actually did not know what to think. But my snickering was silenced the moment Drew started to speak. It was further silenced when a doctor shared a presentation on gender issues. And then the bishop spoke.

All of this was repeated at the full session tonight, with the exception of the doctor's presentation. And, my heart was touched. While I cannot begin to understand the complexity of Drew's situation, and while I am still very uncomfortable about the issue, I watched as he courageously addressed the entire annual conference, his papers shaking while he spoke. I wondered what it would be like to have my deepest issue and pain laid out for all to see. I watched the entire room grow silence. And, I stood in awe. The more I heard his story, the more I appreciated him. The more I heard his story, the more I realized how we do not have all of the answers we need and how we are all so much more complex than we like to realize. The more I heard his story, I realized how God uses a variety of people to build his church. New people are coming to Drew's church. A lot of new people are coming. Lives are being touched and transformed by the ministry of this one called Drew.

And, then I watched as my spiritual leader began to speak. Bishop Schol addressed the conference with the media flashing photographs of him and Drew repeatedly. He shared the deliberate process he has undertaken since Drew first came to him one year ago to share what was happening in his life. The Bishop explained what the United Methodist Book of Discipline says and does not say. And then he prayed. He prayed in a way that makes me realize that he is my pastor. He prayed for Drew. He prayed for the congregation Drew serves, asking God to protect them and be with them, to keep the world's hatred away. He prayed for the media that they would not report the story in an effort to sell papers or start a frenzy. And I cried as the bishop's voice began to shake, joining him in his tears.

The blog entry on marriage and homosexuality has generated more comments than any other posting on my blog. The sermon did the same thing when it was preached. I do not believe there are any easy answers to these matters. There is not a quick fix solution or a one size fits all belief. What I have learned, however, is how much we grow when we do not point fingers or spread hatred like the Institute on Religion and Democracy. We do not grow when we sweep the issue under the carpet, pretending it does not exist. We grow when we take the time to hear one's story, to see one's gifts, to understand one's pain, to think about the other individuals who may have the same pain with us going unaware. We grow when we do not allow the differences between us to continue to separate us, putting us on opposing sides ready to fight and choosing to split instead of coming together. We grow when we look at each person and remember how they are a precious child of God, made in God's image, beautiful to behold.

I am quite sure you will be able to read about Drew in tomorrow's paper. Pick up a copy of the Baltimore Sun or the Washington Post. Go to the IRD website and see what people are making of the story. What I hope will continue to happen, however, is that the story will be told not by people with hatred behind them but to people who will be willing to listen - to listen for the voice of God in each one of us.

Life is so complex...and yet so beautiful.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Marriage, Divorce and Homosexuality

"Pastor, you must have guts if you preached that sermon."

"Wow. Your sermon really touched me."

"Can you believe she preached that?"

"I have never heard a preacher address the issues that really matter to me."

"Thank you for preaching this sermon today."

I have received more comments on last week's sermon than I have ever received before. We are in the middle of a sermon series called, "Why Does the Bible Include That?" Last week's sermon was on marriage, divorce and homosexuality. It is a sermon that made me struggle, learn a lot, and be blessed tremendously. It is a long sermon. Still, the comments I have received have motivated me to post it here:

I was recruiting students for Duke Divinity School at one of our United Methodist colleges in the South when I first met Michael. The chaplain had gathered a group of six students who were interested in learning more about Duke, and Michael was one of the students eager to learn. I can still visualize that first meeting, picturing the different students and the chaplain who sat around the table. All of them told me that Michael would be a bishop in our church one day. Michael had already been elected to two General Conferences, the legislative body of our church that meets every four years. He was a regular preacher, filling the pulpits of churches around the state. Some people had even labeled him a church politician already. Michael had a plan. He was on his way to becoming a leader in our church.

Two years later, I got to welcome Michael as a member of the entering class at Duke. He arrived on campus, excited to finally be in seminary – to finally be studying the things he loved – scripture, theology, church history, and Methodist doctrine. As expected, Michael quickly became involved in everything the seminary had to offer. He offered his beautiful voice to the chapel choir. He provided leadership in the student government. He sat outside on the steps, using his personality to lighten the load of other students. Michael had so many gifts. He could teach. He could preach. He could listen. He could laugh. “He is going to be an amazing pastor,” we all thought to ourselves.

Michael and I spoke often during his fall semester, developing a solid friendship. And just as I will never forget the first time I met him, I will also never forget the details of a conversation we shared in the spring semester of his first year. I was working late when Michael came in and said, “Do you have a few minutes?” He closed the door, sat down, and began to share what was happening in his classes at school. The conversation on school soon turned much more complicated and complex as Michael shared with me how hard it was to be at Duke, knowing that he would never be able to fully respond to God’s claim on his life.

“I will never be able to be a pastor, Donna. I’m gay,” he said. “I have given my entire life to the church. I have followed Jesus to the best of my ability. I have prayed for years that God would take away my feelings for other men. Still, here I am, unable to deny something that is at the core of my being, knowing that I will never be able to be the pastor God has called me to be – at least not in our denomination.”

It did not take long for tears to start rolling down both of our eyes. The tears soon turned to reservoirs of water that did not appear to be running dry anytime soon. Michael cried because he was afraid – afraid to tell his parents who he really was, afraid to tell his classmates, and afraid to tell his church. His parents, his classmates, and his church all expected him to be a bishop one day, while Michael was coming to grips with how he would likely never be a pastor, let alone a bishop.

I cried because Michael was one of the students who I knew was going to make an impact within our church one day. I knew this from the moment I met him. And, I knew that our church was about to lose a remarkable individual who always seemed destined to serve.

Two scripture lessons have been read this morning. One of the passages mentions the topic of divorce. The other passage mentions the topic of homosexuality. One of the scriptures is quoted often. The other scripture is rarely mentioned. Neither of the passages appears in the lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings assigned for pastors to preach on throughout the years. And both of the passages make me uncomfortable. Both of the passages are easier to avoid than they are to preach.

In our text from Matthew, the Pharisees are in the process of trying to trick Jesus. They want Jesus to say something that will support their belief that a husband should be able to rule over his wife. Jesus responds to their test with a description of marriage. He tells the Pharisees how God created male and female, just as it is spelled out in the book of Genesis. The man and the woman become one flesh, says Jesus, offering assurance that the man and the woman are equal. One is not above the other. The Pharisees continue the conversation by reminding Jesus what is written in Deuteronomy. Chapter 24:1 reads, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” When this happens, the woman leaves and becomes the wife of someone else in Deuteronomy. It is an easy way out. All that is needed is a certificate of divorce.

Jesus’ words do not provide an easy way out of marriage, however. Jesus restricts divorce to one situation. The only case for divorce, according to Jesus, is adultery.

The disciples react rather strangely. They seem to believe that it is easier to stay unmarried than it is to stay faithful to one woman because they ask, “’If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry?’”[1] It apparently was quite common for men to be unfaithful in their marriages. Still, not everyone can remain single and celibate. Jesus knows that remaining celibate can be a challenge.

Jesus understands that keeping a marriage together can be very difficult. Jesus and his disciples are aware that sexuality is a complex, powerful, beautiful, and sometimes destructive gift. Sexuality is a gift in which passion can sometimes rule over us. Still, Jesus’ words in this passage seem rather strait-forward. The only reason for divorce is adultery. Jesus makes no mention of growing distant, financial stress, differences in childrearing, or any other reason as grounds for divorce. Marriage is an act of faithfulness and an act of discipleship. Marriage is a covenant created by God – one that God can keep together. The only situation in which a divorce should be granted is when one of the partners is unfaithful.

There are several passages of scripture that are used when people are debating the issue of homosexuality. Several people turn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. However, a careful reading of this text will demonstrate how this story is the story of rape and inhospitality, not the story of consensual sexual relations. The behavior in this passage should be condemned! Rape should always be condemned whether the act is between two people of the same sex or two people of the opposite sex.

Other people point to the passages found in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” A similar passage appears in Leviticus 20:13. These passages are part of the holiness codes. And as one scholar explains, as United Methodists, we should resonate with Leviticus’ call to holiness, a call repeated by Jesus and John Wesley.” He goes on to explain, “Scripture, however, is clear that with Jesus’ advent, God’s holy order has changed.”[2] The purity codes were set aside with the arrival of Christ. In fact, the laws concerning circumcision and dietary practices were almost all set aside in the first century. Leviticus, then, is not the best passage for Christians to turn to for wisdom on this topic – unless we want to give up eating shellfish, too.

The most relevant New Testament passage on the topic of homosexuality is the passage from Romans that was read today. Paul is writing to a church that he has never visited. He starts his letter by offering thanksgiving for the church in Rome. He builds them up, giving thanks and praise for their ministry. He then offers a word about salvation in Verse 16, assuring everyone in Rome that salvation is available to all. The Jew and the Gentile have been delivered from sin, death and evil.

Paul then talks about the state of much of humanity. While we have been delivered from our sin and evil, there are people who are living lives contrary to the goodness of God. Paul explains to the people in Rome how we all know what is right, and we all know God. Yet, we do not always make the right choices in light of our knowing God. We do not always honor God with the choices we make nor do we always give thanks to God. And when we are not honoring or giving thanks to God, we tend to exchange the authentic, God-given way of life for a life that is less than authentic.

Paul continues his letter with a description of what can happen when we are not honoring and giving thanks to God by giving four examples of the God-given thing being exchanged for another thing. The glory of God has been exchanged for images resembling ourselves in Verse 25. The truth of God has been exchanged for the worship of creature and not Creator in Verse 25. Women exchange natural intercourse for the unnatural in Verse 26. And men give up natural intercourse in exchange for passion for one another in Verse 27.

My professor of New Testament, Richard Hays, explains, “When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.”[3]

Dr. Hays’ statement makes sense when you think of the ways in which the creation story is told, and when you examine our bodies. A man and a woman’s body are designed to go together. We are designed in such a way that we can become one flesh in an act of love.

Another scholar who I greatly respect explains the passage a little differently, saying Paul is not condemning all of humanity in this passage, but rather is condemning the idolatry of humanity. Paul is condemning anything that is done without first obeying and giving thanks to God. He goes on to write, “Paul is not condemning homosexual practice in general but homosexual practice that is an excess of desire and rooted in pagan idolatry.”[4] This scholar believes that any relationship or act that is chosen before God is out of order. However, some relationships – including the relationship between gay men and lesbian women – can glorify God.

Here is where the argument takes off. Some people say that anyone who is homosexual is not putting God first, regardless of the widely held, and most accepted conclusion that homosexuality is not a choice. Other people say that it is the way in which the homosexual lifestyle is framed – it can be possible to put God number one, to give God all thanks and praise, and to still be a gay man or a lesbian woman.

The United Methodist Church first published a statement on homosexuality in 1972. In this year, the newly fashioned Social Principles included a statement that continues to be part of the Social Principles today. A section of our Book of Discipline titled, “Human Sexuality” begins with these words, “We recognize that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society. We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible, fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift.” The Discipline continues with words on how sex outside of marriage is wrong, as is the exploitation of sex. And then this statement is made:
Homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human
fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.[5]

With this statement, our argument continues. In fact, one of the essays I read in preparation for this sermon was titled, “Will Homosexuality Split the Church?” It was written in 1999 – just before the 2000 General Conference. Homosexuality has already split the Episcopal Church in the United States. The issue of gays and lesbians as members of our churches’ lay and ordained ministry has been brought to the floor of our denomination’s General Conference every year. And, an argument will take place on the floor of the Baltimore Washington Conference in two weeks when legislation is presented that would remove the words, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Churches in this conference are bringing forth legislation in hopes of changing the Book of Discipline at the 2008 General Conference.

One of the things that bothers me the most about most discussions on this issue is the mean spirited debate that is sparked almost anytime the issue is discussed. I have never heard such hateful, demeaning words used by church people than the words some so-called followers of Jesus use to describe gay men and lesbian women. I do not know of any group today that is more discriminated against in our society and in our church than gay men and lesbian women. I do not know of any other group in our society today that is more feared and more despised as a collective group. And I do not know of any other issue that elicits such a mean, judgmental, hypocritical spirit from people who call themselves followers of Christ.

We are so good at picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that apply to us, laying aside the rest of the Bible’s teaching. I specifically selected two passages today. One of the passages includes the words of Jesus himself. The other passage includes the words of Paul. While Jesus makes it clear that the only grounds acceptable for divorce is a partner who is unfaithful, we do not judge (and nor should we judge) individuals who are divorced today. Divorced people are allowed to not only join our churches without any questions asked, but divorced people are allowed to lead our churches as pastors and as laypeople. I do not believe that divorced people should be discriminated against. Divorce is an epidemic in my family. My parents are divorced. My sister is divorced. I know well the pain of divorce and believe that divorce is just as painful as death, especially when your parents have been married for 23 years and the only life you know is one in which Mom and Dad are both at home, still madly in love with each other. And while we should not discriminate against or judge divorced people, we should do whatever we can to make sure that marriages last a lifetime, praying for every married couple in our church and in our lives. We should continue to do whatever we can to make sure that the divorce rate decreases in this country.

But why are we so filled with acceptance of one group that Jesus actually says something about, while being filled with judgment when it comes to the gay and lesbian community? How can we let one scripture slide so easily while we shout out loud other scriptures on a topic that Jesus never once mentioned? How can we so easily allow men who have been unfaithful to their wives over and over again to lead our churches while not allowing two individuals who are in a committed relationship be part of our churches?

It amazes me that the very people who shout words like “fairy” or post signs that read “God hates faggots” are the very people who stand behind the Bible. But if we are going to stand behind this book, then we had better read all of it.

Paul’s words do not end with a passage on men exchanging natural intercourse with unnatural intercourse. Paul continues to write something for all of us. He writes, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” Paul is not talking about sex here. Rather, he writes, “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” I think we can all find an adjective here that applies to us. And if we cannot find one of these words, then we should turn the page of scripture one more time and start with the first verse of chapter 2, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

My professor, Dr. Hays, calls this passage a “homiletical sting operation.” He writes, “The radical move Paul makes is to proclaim that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, stand equally condemned under the just judgment of a righteous God. Consequently, for Paul, self-righteous judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself.”[6] Did you hear that? Our judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as homosexual behavior according to Paul.

Hays continues, “Thus, Paul’s warning should transform the terms of our contemporary debate about homosexuality: no one has a secure platform to stand upon in order to pronounce condemnation to others. Anyone who presumes to have such a vantage point is living in a dangerous fantasy, oblivious to the gospel that levels us before a holy God.”[7]

Last week I was talking with one of my clergy colleagues. She was telling me how thankful she was to be a pastor. “It has been one of those weeks where I have given thanks and praise often for the gift of this call,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me about a conversation she had the day before.

The parents of one of her newer members were in town and had made an appointment to come and see her. They wanted to see this pastor in order to say “Thank you.” The parents have a twenty-something son who is a member of her church. This young man is gay, and he just told his parents about his sexual orientation two months ago. The young man was filled with pain when he told his parents. He knew he would disappoint them. He was afraid to tell them, but also could not stand the pain of living in a closet any longer. When he went home to finally tell his parents, he shared how it was his church in Washington that had provided him with the most support. In the church, he discovered the one community where he could truly be himself and be cherished for who he was. He found not a community of judgment but a community of open arms – a community that embodied the love of Christ to him.

The parents came to say thank you. They told my pastor friend how they could not imagine the pain their son had carried. They shared with her how they were a close-knit family and if the son was uncomfortable with telling his parents, then they could not imagine everything that he had been through. They continued to say how thankful they were that their son did not turn away from the church. “He could have gone the other way,” they told my pastor friend. “But you gave him a place where he could become more spiritually alive than he has ever been before.”

The more I get out into the downtown community, the more I learn about what other people think of our church. People often ask me about what is happening here before telling me about an experience they have had here. I was recently having a conversation with someone who shared with me, “I have watched your church for years. I have always been fascinated by your beautiful building. But the church has always seemed so closed. It never appeared to be open to me.”

I am not sure if this man was speaking of the gates that used to cover every single door to our church or if he was speaking of the kind of people he did or did not see walking in and out of our doors. However, his comment has made me think a lot.

When I read the stories of Jesus, I have a direct encounter with a savior who welcomes anyone and everyone. The Jesus I know and love was always spending time with the person on the outside – with the despised and condemned individual. Jesus touched people who no one else would touch. He ate with people who climbed trees in order to avoid the crowd. He met a woman at the well who was the scorn of society. He was constantly on the outside. Jesus does not turn a single person away, as far as the story is told. Jesus always erred on the side of inclusion and not exclusion, and Jesus calls us to be just like him. And when Jesus wanted to teach a lesson about judgment, he asked people to pick up and throw a stone at the woman caught in adultery – but the only person who could throw a stone was the person who was without sin. Not one person could throw a stone that day, and not one of us can throw a stone on this day, either.

I hope and pray that someone will never again say to me, “Your church seems so closed to me.” Rather, what I long for and what I pray is happening here is that people will say to me, “The thing I love about your church is how it looks like the body of Christ – how it is truly open to everyone.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are divorced, you are welcome here. If you are a gay man or a lesbian woman, you are welcome here. If you are a sinner who feels like you have done everything wrong, you are welcome here. Welcome to the body of Christ. May we all encounter Jesus here – not only through a reading of the text – but through the grace of Christ which we have received and which we share with others as we all seek to do what Paul asks us to do – offer our best, our very best to God, and give God thanks.

[1] Matthew 19:10.
[2] Daniel M. Bell, Jr. “Will Homosexuality Split the Church?” in Questions for the Twenty-First Century Church, Edited by Russell E. Richey, William B. Lawrence and Dennis M. Campbell. Nashville, Abingdon, 1999, 276.
[3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperSanfrancisco, 1996, 386.
[4] Bell, 277.
[5] The United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2004, 101.
[6] Hays, 389.
[7] Hays, 389.

Lessons in Urban Ministry

There are things I absolutely love about the city. I love the diversity of the people and the energy I receive when I walk down a crowded street. I love public transportation - especially when it runs as well as Washington's system of trains and buses. I love being able to walk to the dry cleaner, grocery store, and CVS. And, I love where our church is located.

We're directly across the street from the Washington Convention Center which means that I can almost always tell you what convention is in town. I have learned many things about conventions since working at Mount Vernon Place - like how AIPAC is the only group that gets police escorts for their buses - no matter what time of day it is or how 15,000 people attend Digestive Diseases Week and each one gets a purple backpack.

I also love how there are new buildings going up all around us. I can hardly wait to welcome our new neighbors at the Ten Ten Mass building or at the City Vista development down the street. There will soon be people moving in all around us.

Again, I love the city. But there are parts of city life that I would rather avoid. Parking would rank near the top of the list. The high cost of living is also a downside. And there are other issues that pastors serving in the city have to deal with that many other pastors do not. I was brought to a whole new chapter in my lessons on urban ministry yesterday.

I was outside talking with Michael, one of our homeless neighbors, when one of our church's interns from Wesley arrived on the scene. Theon approached me and said, "What are you doing, Rev?"

I responded, "Cleaning up crap."

Theon assumed that I was doing the less than wonderful things a pastor has to do - whether it is dealing with the budget or difficult people or tending to the physical plant. Theon then came inside the trailer and started to tell me about his recent trip to Mississippi. As we talked, I could not help but to look out the window behind him where I saw more crap that needed our attention. "Theon, would you be willing to help me?" I asked. Theon immediately said "yes," and we walked outside, gathering trash bags before we left. Theon soon learned that the word "crap" was not a euphemism.

One of our neighbors had left quite a mess when he stayed on the church's lawn throughout the weekend and on Sunday night. When we met him on Sunday, he told us he was cleaning up his mess. The mess, however, was not trash. The mess was something I would do anything to avoid. When you are homeless, there are not many places in the city whose restrooms are open to all of the public. Even Starbucks requires a key to use the bathroom, making sure that only paying customers come inside. This neighbor apparently had no where else to go. And, there was no one else to take care of the soiled blankets he left behind. The blankets had to go.

Theon and I held our breath, completed the clean up job, and both got a lesson in urban ministry. No one had taught me about this aspect of ministry before.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A New Hat

A new hat arrived on my chair last week while I was out of the office. The hat appeared to be a joke to me. After all, why do I need a hard hat, let alone one that says, "Pastor Donna?" I thought the hat was a kind gesture from our friends at Clark Construction, a kindness that says, "welcome to the club, we're glad to be here." I later learned, however, that the hat is not a joke but a necessity.

Two individuals came to the church on Monday afternoon to look at the sanctuary. They are looking for performance space that can be used sometime in 2008. I told them I would be glad to show them our sanctuary. We walked over to the building, entered the doors and we were about to walk down into the sanctuary when someone said, "You cannot go in there. You need a hard hat."

Something is finally happening at Mount Vernon Place. We have waited, and waited and waited. The sanctuary renovation was supposed to start last December. The contract then got hung up in CarrAmerica's sale to Blackstone and Blackstone's sale to Tishman Speyer and Tishman Speyer deciding that they did not want the church's property which, in turn, allowed the contract to go back to Bob Carr and his new company, Carr Realty Properties. Did you get that? The contract flipped and flipped and flipped again. You can imagine the impact these twists and turns have had on us. I have learned how to cuss like a developer at times. I have learned how to negotiate like a used car salesman. And I have learned that everything seems to cost more money and take more time than we originally anticipated.

But now something is happening. I have to wear a hard hat in order to enter the sanctuary! The sanctuary that was once filled with people and beauty is now empty and filled with plastic coverings and lots of uncovered wood. They are actually working on renovating the space! We've waited six months, and work has finally commenced!

It's what we want. It's what we have been waiting for. Still, now that it is finally happening, we realize that we may not be quite ready. We may not be fully prepared. There are still things to do. We have to figure out what to do with some of our pews that were in the choir loft. They are in great shape, and we decided yesterday to keep several of the shorter pews for the new building. I have then listed the 9' pews on Craigslist today. The pulpit will no longer be the central focus of the new chancel area, so we need to decide what to do with the old one. We have been packing and cleaning and selling stuff for a year, and now there is more to do! Again, it's what we want - but we are not quite ready.

This process of asking, waiting, getting, and discovering that we are not ready is a lot like prayer. We ask God for something. We continue to ask, begging for God to respond to our prayers. We wait patiently at times. We get upset and impatient at other times. We cry out. We yell. We demand. We ask nicely. God answers - in God's own time. And, we then decide that we're not quite ready. We thought we were ready for what we were praying for but we're not.

We pray for the house to sell. A buyer is identified. The contract is signed. And when closing day comes we wonder if we are making the right decision to move.

We pray for a new job. We send resumes. We have several interviews. We are offered a new position. We accept the job. We then ask everyone if they think we can really do the job. "Do you really think I am qualified for this position?" we ask.

We pray for a historic church to start growing again. The decline has been significant. There are only a few people left. "We need new people," we think to ourselves. We work hard on evangelism efforts. We spend lots of money on new brochures. Nothing works. We continue to wait and pray, pray and wait. And then something starts to happen. New people begin to come. New ministries are started. Signs of life emerge all around us. And then we ask ourselves, "What if my church changes too much? Do I really want it to grow? What if they forget about me? What a second, God, is this really what we want?"

We are now fully under construction at Mount Vernon Place. A hard hat is needed if you come into our building. It is there to protect us from any kind of debris that may fall from the ceiling and hurt us in the midst of the change and transformation that are happening all around the building. And while we do not require a hard hat to come into our place of worship, we hope and pray that the change and transformation happening there will be just as significant as the building renovation.

Be careful what you pray for. God is definitely listening.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

My Mom, the Mayor

The first call I made today was to my mother. Mom lives in Colorado, so I had to wait until at least 8:00 a.m. my time to call her. Of course, she was already out of bed by the time I called. She had already greeted the day with the words with which she begins every day, "Good Morning, God" or "This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

My mother is a remarkable woman. She is quite easy to celebrate on this day. I cannot thank her enough for the sacrifices she has made for my sister and me. I cannot thank her enough for the self-confidence she instilled in me or the lessons she has taught me.

When my parents split, Mom did everything she could to make sure that my sister and I were not impacted any more than we had to be. She not only taught a full course load at a local college, she taught an overload of courses and then worked at a clothing store at the local mall so that we could enjoy a 40% discount.

I have no idea how Mom afforded to send me on a trip to England in the 9th grade or how she afforded the sorority bills when I was in college. I am not sure how she did it all - but I do know that she always put the needs of her daughters before anything else.

When I graduated from college in 1993, Mom decided it was time for her to do something new. It was time for her to start life over again. She had gotten us both through school with free tuition and room since she was a professor. She had worked as hard as she could. Now it was time for her to get a restart on life. She did a nationwide job search through a national publication on education and ended up getting a job as a dean at a community college in Southeastern, Colorado. She moved to what seemed to me the middle of nowhere, taking a job in a town where she knew no one. And, she has flourished. She made a difference on the students at the school there just as she had done before. She developed friends immediately. She got involved in a church. She met an amazing man and remarried. She opened a small business. And she ran for mayor.

People sometimes wonder where I got the courage to do what I do. They wonder how I have been blessed to have so many opportunities in life. They ask where my independence comes from or my motivation to take on any challenge.

Thanks, Mom, for all that you have given to me, all that you have taught me, and the ways in which you have always loved me. I am so proud of my mom, the Mayor.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I picked up my car from the body shop on Friday afternoon. While I needed the car to get out of town for a wedding, I have to admit that I dreaded going to get it. I have learned to really appreciate life without a car in the last three weeks - especially now that gas prices have crept up to over $3 a gallon again!

The last three weeks without a car have been rather magnificent -- forcing me to do things I ordinarily would not have done. I have walked to work several times, making the two mile trek downtown in the beautiful spring weather. Not only have I gotten great exercise, I have also gotten a closer look at my neighborhood and the city - the new condos being built, the new stores that have recently opened, and the people everywhere.

I have taken the bus more in the last three weeks, even taking it to a meeting in Silver Spring, affording me the opportunity to see the University of Maryland for the first time as the bus drove through campus on my route to Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. I now know where there is another Chick-fil-A nearby!

I hitched a ride with a friend following the meeting last week, allowing me to spend time with a very gifted colleague who always inspires me in ministry. I would have never had the opportunity to eat with this fellow clergywoman had I not asked her for a ride back to the city - something she seemed pleased to provide to me.

I have seen so many beautiful people on the Metro and on a bus in recent weeks. The city is filled with beautiful diversity. I love looking at people, wondering who they are, what they do, why some of them are smiling and others look so sad. I do not see as many people when I am driving by myself.

I have not had to worry about getting any parking tickets near the church or whether or not it was street cleaning day in my neighborhood. My car was away. It was off the street in a place where it could not be ticketed or towed.

And, I have not had to think about when someone might be trying to bust the locks again -- I cannot help but to wonder how long my car will look this good. The new paint job looks so great!

Several people have sent me an email in recent days about a push to get as many people as possible to not buy gas for one entire day. They point out the impact that our not buying gas for one day would have on the oil companies. I cannot help but to wonder, however, the impact that our not driving would have -- on our community, on our environment, and on our economy. While I realize that people living outside of a city with good public transportation need cars, there are plenty of people in the city for whom a car is a choice, not a necessity. Do those of us who live so close to a Metro stop, bus line and Zipcars really need a car of our own?

I am still trying to figure out what to do with my car. One thing is for certain - life seemed a bit less stressful without it during the last three weeks.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


My visits to the gym have become more routine lately. They are so routine that the man at the front desk even knows my name! Now while this feat may not seem that unique to many of you, the fact that the person who checks membership cards at the gym knows my name is a huge feat to me because it confirms that I have actually become somewhat of a regular at the neighborhood gym. Who knew?!

The Monday spinning class has become one of my favorite activities at the gym. Spinning is a group activity in which approximately 16 people get on a stationery bike. The instructor comes in and turns the lights down low and the music up high. Each of the bikes have a knob on them that the participant can adjust, making it seem as though you are climbing a mountain or coasting along a flat road on your bike. There are times in the class when the instructor asks you to set the knob at a 5 and there are other times when you are asked to adjust the knob at a 10 - implying that it is taking everything you have to get up a steep incline. There are times when you stand up and peddle and times when you sit down to peddle. There are times when you sit up straight and there are times when you bend your body over your bike.

The first time I went spinning I nearly made myself sick, and I was afraid to get off the bike when class was over, unsure of whether I would ever be able to walk again. The ensuing times have been quite remarkable for a variety of reasons. And, I have recently discerned that spinning has a lot in common with my appointment at Mount Vernon Place -- with trying to turn around a church that has been in decline for nearly 50 years.

Spinning class starts at 6:30. Each Monday night, I am completely covered in sweat by 6:35. My heart rate escalates within a matter of moments. I know almost immediately that my body is working....hard. The same is true with serving a church that has been in decline for a long time. It does not take long to figure out that the task is going to take all that you've got and then some. The honeymoon does not last long in appointments to declining churches. One must get started immediately and push as hard as she can. Some of the pushes gain instant supporters in the congregation while other pushes gain instant critiques. Still, one must keep pushing.

Spinning class makes you feel like you have traveled for miles when in fact you have gone no where. The class is 45 minutes long and my legs swear that they have peddled across the state of Texas by the time class ends. Yet, I find myself still in Washington with no odometer to prove how far I have peddled when all is said and done. The same is true with an appointment to a declining church. You try new things, anticipating that at least a dozen new people will come -- to the movie night, or the book club, or the after church discussion -- and then get started with 2 or 3 people in the room. You place advertisements in the Washington Post, convinced that you'll have the biggest Easter attendance ever. Yet, when the Easter service has ended you find yourself being able to account for every person who was there - knowing who brought them or who told them about the church.

After a few weeks of spinning, you realize that your body feels healthier and that your pants look a little better on you. The same is true with one's appointment to a declining church. Two years into it, you realize that things have started to change. You realize that the longtime members who are no longer able to come because of physical ailments have somehow been replaced by new people who are in their 20s and 30s. You have people call you on the phone to tell you how excited they are about a sermon that you are preaching next week because they noticed the sermon series on the website. You receive a note from a college student who writes about what an impact you and your congregation have had on her life this semester.

And somewhere in the midst of it all, you realize that you wouldn't trade what you have for anything. You sign up for another class. You climb on the bike one more time. You sweat within a matter of moments and you peddle as fast as you can, convinced that you're really going somewhere this time.

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