Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Our Purpose

I am in Kansas City this week, participating in a class at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The Church of the Resurrection was started 17 years ago in a funeral home chapel. It now has over 12,000 members and has long been one of the fastest growing United Methodist Churches in the country. I have heard the pastor of the church, Adam Hamilton, speak often. I even had the opportunity to enjoy an Eastern North Carolina bar-b-que lunch with him one day when he was speaking at Duke. However, this week was my first time worshipping with the church.

I have never been in a sanctuary designed for 3600 people before. I have never been greeted by people wearing the same headsets as the individuals who work at the Gap wear. And, I have never watched a video screen more than I watched the pastor in worship before. There were parts of the service and the experience that I loved and there were other parts that would take a long time for me to fully appreciate. What I have learned this week, however, is how much we can learn from this extraordinary pastor and congregation.

The church is very clear about its purpose. The purpose of the Church of the Resurrection is "Building a Christian Community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians." Pastor Adam and his staff will tell you time and again about the ways in which they are attracting new people into the life of the church - people who have been turned off by the church, people who are non-practicing Catholics, people who were once Buddhists, people who want nothing to do with Jesus. They have built a church with people who first encountered Christ in a 3600 seat sanctuary. Everything centers around this vision - the vision of reaching non-religious and nominally religious people for Christ. There is even a sign above one of the doors that reads, "Let us never forget our purpose."

I have thought a lot this week about how many churches have no idea what their purpose is. Countless congregations have no vision or real understanding of why they exist. If I were to ask several members of the church I serve what the purpose of the church is, I bet there would be a dozen different responses.

By the grace of God, I have been reminded this week of the importance of casting a vision and recasting it time and again. I have been told again of the power of purpose - of the power of reminding individuals as to why we gather and for what purpose we are sent out on Sunday mornings.

The people at Mount Vernon Place are going to be reminded again this Sunday of our mission to "Share the Love of God in the Heart of the Nation's Capital with the Nation's Capital at heart." We are going to spend more time talking about what it looks like to share God's love and what's happening in the heart of the nation's capital. We are going to pray for God to show us how to be more faithful in sharing this love. We are going to be more intentional about living out this vision - our purpose. We have so much work to do.

Let us never forget our purpose.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

All in a day...

A great deal of progress was made on the demolition project at Mount Vernon Place yesterday. When I arrived in the morning, one of the workers said, "Watch! It will all be down in an hour or so." I watched, and I watched and I watched. The process of tearing down the last portion of the building was fascinating. And while it took longer than an hour to get the rest of the building down, there is now a large pile of rubble where two buildings once stood. The rubble will be sorted the rest of this week with all of the materials being recycled.

The process of demolishing two buildings has taken a month or so to complete. The hardest part was separating the buildings to be demolished from the historic church on one side and a historic hotel on the other side. However, once the buildings were detached from the historic buildings, the project continued on a fast pace. And several times I have thought to myself, "Why can't the new building go up as quickly as the old buildings came down?"

There are several things in our lives that come down easily. It does not take much for a relationship to be destroyed. One unkind word can split a friendship in two. One case of bad judgement can ruin one's professional career. One decision can end a relationship. All in a day, a good thing can come to an end.

My former work supervisor cautioned me often on my tendency to externally process things. Greg pointed out how I tend to share my thoughts out loud instead of keeping them to myself. Several thoughts should have never escaped my lips. They should have been kept in my mind, instead. Greg told me time and again to be careful what I said. I wonder how many things I tore down with words that should have never been said out loud.

We also make bad judgments when it comes to actions we take towards others or things we purchase or decisions we make. We have all torn down things - our bank account, the trust of others, our image, our marriages, our self esteem - because of things we did that we should not have done. It does not take long to tear something down. How many times have you written an email that should have never been sent?

I laughed when I was in the construction trailer yesterday and noticed a drawing on the board. It is a drawing that shows the demolition and excavation work to be completed. It shows what needs to be removed between the church and the hotel in order for something new to emerge. We are not as careful about tearing things down in our own lives. We do them, and then see the big hole left as a result.

It is going to take two years for a building to be built on top of the place where the rubble now stands. It will take two years to create something new. We do not always have the option to start all over in this life. There are people who will never forgive us for what we have done to them when we tore something apart - trust, relationship, stability, reliability.

Yet, there is one who always provides a clean slate. There is one for whom nothing we do can keep him from loving us and yearning for us to come home. I am thankful that no matter how much demolition I have done in my life, Jesus still longs to be in relationship with me, to build me up, and to accept me just as I am. Like a little pile of clay, the master potter is never done with his creation.

Thanks be to God!

Monday, June 18, 2007

songs, dances and parties

I am in Chicago for a couple of days, spending time with 20 young seminary students through the Fund for Theological Education. The program is called the "Congregational Leadership Intensive," and these young adults have been brought together to talk about pastoral leadership.

We started last night with a conversation on what energizes us. Each participant was asked to share the place where she or he gets fed or receives energy. One woman said, "Do you ever have a song in your heart that no one else can hear?" A young man said, "I leave my church every Sunday wanting to dance!" Still another person said, "When a party goes well it is a neat feeling of being together."

I love these comments. I loved hearing them especially on a Sunday evening on which we had experienced a magnificent worship service at Mount Vernon Place. Several things happened yesterday that made me have a song in my heart and a dance in my feet.

* We had several members come back who have not been in church for months, including many children who lined up to offer hugs and stood at the table greeting people. It is always good to welcome people home.

* We struggled together over a difficult passage and the topic of money and wealth as our sermon series on "Why Does the Bible Include That" continued.

* We shared with one another what God is doing in our lives while also letting people know the burdens and the hurts we are carrying.

* We placed our hands on a young couple who used to be part of our church family but now live in Boston. The husband is about to go to Iraq as a member of the Army National Guard while the wife is in law school. We invited them to come forward, we placed a shawl around them that had been knitted for them by a member of the church in our prayer shawl ministry, and we prayed for them. Children came forward to pray. People in the 90s came forward to pray. Young adults came forward to pray. People who know them came forward to pray. And people who had only heard about them came forward to pray. We wrapped them in our love and in our prayers, and placed their care under the hand of the Almighty God.

When the service had ended, I wanted to dance! I wanted to leap for joy, knowing that I had experienced the presence and power of God. I had a song in my heart that I was eager to share. I had a really neat feeling of being together.

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


The demolition has been in full operation this week at Mount Vernon Place. I have been amazed at what has been accomplished. The 1940 building is completely down, and the 1958 building should be down by the end of the week. I'll write more later...for now, take a look at the progress!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Rocking the Boat

Preaching is the thing I enjoy most about being a pastor. I love to stand before the gathered community of God, seeking to offer a Word that will be hopeful, helpful and formational. There are times when I stand before the people on Sunday, preach a sermon and then sit down and say, "Well that was a flop." There are other times when I preach a sermon and cannot get over the comments people share with me when they walk out the door, surprised to hear how the message impacted them. And there are other times when I am preaching to the gathered community of faith and then somehow find myself hearing the sermon, too. Yesterday was one such day.

It was the seventh sermon in a series called, "Why Does the Bible Include That?" Yesterday's topic was "Women, Children and Slaves vs. Men, Parents and Landowners: Am I Really Supposed to be Submissive?" As part of the sermon, I reviewed the history of Mount Vernon Place UMC, looking again at the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and how we were founded as the "representative church" for this denomination - a denomination that started over the issue of slavery because the Southern Church wanted to be able to hold slaves in 1844. Over $200,000 was sent to Washington in 1917 to build our monumental church - a structure that has stained glass in every window - including the windows in the bathrooms. This money came from people who believed that they were first class citizens while people of color were second class citizens. It came from people who believed that it was okay to wave the Confederate Flag or treat people of color like "less thans."

But then something happened. The congregation began to change. The people who made Mount Vernon Place their home began to do things that were against the cultural norm, let alone the teachings and beliefs of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Mount Vernon Place became one of the first places in the city where integrated audiences could enjoy the theatre together in a space below our sanctuary. Mount Vernon Place began to welcome people of color when no one else would. The people who joined this church rocked the boat! They knew what they were taught by their denomination and by the culture around them, but they did something else. They became a sign of God's Kingdom at the corner of 9th and Massachusetts.

We have recently been getting our finances in order at the church. What I have discovered is how different groups opened their own accounts at certain times in history instead of being part of the church's main operating account. One of these groups is the Social Concerns Commission. The Commission has played an active role in the church for decades. They once hired a full time social worker to be in community with the homeless in the neighborhood. Mary hosted Men on Mondays and Women on Wednesdays for the neighbors in the community. The Social Concerns Commission welcomed the poor, they fed the hungry, clothed the naked and gave the thirsty a drink. They were instrumental in hosting the Downtown Cluster's Geriatric Daycare Center in our building for many, many years. The Commission opened its own account, however, because they found the church to be too conservative. The leadership of the church would not allow them to do what they really wanted to do with their money. The leadership would not allow them to be the Body of Christ in the fullest possible sense of the word, so the Commission rocked the boat. They established their own account and their own budget in order to do the things Christ had called them to do.

I have just returned from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Western North Carolina is my home conference. It is the place where I first fell in love with being a pastor. It is the place that nurtured my call to ministry and told me about my gifts for ministry. It is the place where I have so many clergy colleagues with whom I have shared so much. It is a place that I love visiting and a place that causes me to be teary-eyed each time I leave. I love Western NC.

While at Annual Conference, we tended to the business of electing delegates to the General and Jurisdictional Conference. I am thrilled that the delegation includes more women than men and that it is a diverse delegation. These elections were exciting. The rest of Conference, however, left me sad.

One of the first pieces of legislation that we dealt with was regarding the amount of furniture that should be in clergy parsonages. It was clear that the Cabinet had spent a great deal of time on this matter. People argued over whether or not the required 4-bedroom homes should have furniture provided or furniture that the pastor brings with them. It seemed as though everyone took for granted the blessing of having a 4-bedroom home. Where I live, people who live in 4-bedroom homes are considered rich. In most places in this world, people with 4-bedroom homes would be considered extremely wealthy. In South Africa, anyone with an extra bedroom is expected to open it to the poor. However, the argument last week was not about whether or not our pastors need 4-bedroom homes or how best to be good stewards of our property by sharing it with those in need. The argument was sadly about furniture.

The majority of the petitions offered to the Conference dealt with homosexuality. Some delegates to the Conference wanted to affirm our church's position that our churches are welcome and open to all of God's children. Other delegates wanted to close the doors of our church a little tighter. We spent so much time and energy on talking about who could be excluded and who could be included.

I heard a lot about what "Jesus said" on issues that Jesus never once mentions in the Bible. I did not, however, hear what "Jesus said" when it came time to discuss matters that Jesus really said something about.

What would it look like to rock the boat today?

When is it appropriate to stand up and say, "I know what I have been taught, and I know what culture reinforces, but I just cannot believe that our church today is how Jesus intended it to be." When is it time to stand up and say, "Why should pastors be required to live in a 4-bedroom house?" or "How can we continue to be a prophetic church while paying our District Superintendents $92,000, providing them with a $17,000 housing allowance and a $3,000 utility allowance?" Does Jesus not have a word or two to say about wealth and stuff and possessions?

I am so thankful that the members of Mount Vernon Place rocked the boat. They cleared the path for the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic congregation that now gathers at Mount Vernon Place. Yesterday, our Minister of Music pointed out how we have someone in the congregation from Taiwan, someone from the Philippines, someone from Hungary, someone from Sierra Leone, someone from Japan, someone from India, and the list goes on and on. We have rich people and we have poor people. We have people who have it all together and we have people who are mentally ill. We have old people and we have young people. We are the Body of Christ.

God, help us to listen for your still, small voice again. Enable us to see your vision for your church. Forgive us if we have stepped too far away from the community you called us to be. Forgive us if we have been silent when we should have spoken up. Thank you for the men and women who have carried your Good News into places where they were not accepted but rather condemned. Thank you for people who have been instrumental in making sure that your Gospel was a liberating word - a word that set the captives free wherever they are. Lord, while I find it scary to ask you, I do humbly ask that you would help me to speak up and to speak out when your voice needs to be heard. Give me the courage to rock the boat when the boat has traveled too far from you. Give me the courage to rock the boat when the boat has been idle for too long. And please, Lord, be with your beloved United Methodist Church as we move towards General Conference and seek to discuss matters that tell others who we really are and whether our doors, our hearts and our minds are really open or too closed to the world around us. Amen.

A full text of yesterday's sermon can be found here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Quite a Community

I love the church, and I specifically love the church I am privileged to be a part of. Each week, I see more and more transformation taking place whether it is the way people are interacting with one another, the concerns they are bringing with them, the ways in which issues like immigration reform are being raised, the new faces in the congregation, the phone calls I get between Sundays about prayers being answered, the young couple who came with their infant baby yesterday because they want him to be baptized, or the two 90+ year-olds who have just gotten new Bibles because they have fallen in love again with the reading of scripture. Something is happening at Mount Vernon Place - not just with our buildings - but with us - and I am glad to be able to witness it.

And while we have a ways to go to reach N.T. Wright's description of the church, I would love to have someone describe our church this way:

"It's a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It's where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It's where one group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice. It's where you'll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose, and getting in touch with a power to carry that purpose out. It's where people bring their own small faith and discover, in getting together with others to worship the one true God, that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts."

N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, 123.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

You know their names?

The demolition process has continued this week at Mount Vernon Place. Bits and pieces of the two additions are being stripped away from the historic church building. It is a fascinating process to observe, and we see people stopping all throughout the day to simply watch the buildings coming down, piece by piece.

Enough of the buildings are down that the fence had to be extended yesterday. A tall fence now circles the entire church property, extending all along the sidewalk and park boundaries. It took nearly all day for workers to get the fence in place, and a couple of our neighbors got fenced inside in the process.

I was outside with some of the construction workers when I heard one of them say, "We are getting rid of all of the bums today. No one will be able to stay here anymore." Our administrative assistant, Carol, and I quickly corrected them saying, "They are not bums. They are our neighbors."

I then called out to Esau, one of the neighbors who was fenced inside - showing him how to get out. I then asked about Dennis' blankets and Michael's stuff. After mentioning three of the neighbors, one of the workers said, "You know their names?" He had a hard time believing that we actually knew these people - that we could call some of the individuals who sleep nearby by name. "Of course we know their names," I said. "We see them every single day. They are our closest neighbors."

The question has made me think a lot. Who are the people around me who go nameless? Who are the people around me who I conclude are not worth calling by name? While I loathe admitting it, perhaps I, too, have the ability to look beyond certain individuals instead of looking into their eyes, recognizing how they, too, are a beloved child of God - a child who God knows by name.

Often we are good at avoiding the people who are different from us - people who have a different skin color or economic background or moral life or sexual orientation. We are good at avoiding the handicapped woman in a wheelchair, the older woman who sits by herself on the city bus, the man who stays by his cart all day in the park, the person who approaches us in the Metro station asking us for a quarter. We would rather stay around people like us -- people just like us because these people don't make us so uneasy.

The construction worker gave me plenty to think about yesterday. I hope that we, too, gave him something to think about. While Michael, Dennis and Esau will no longer be right next to the church - inside the fence - they will still be in the neighborhood - just outside the fence. Perhaps the next time this worker sees them, he will call them by name.

Merciful God, forgive me for passing some people by. Forgive me for not seeing everyone with the eyes with which you see them. Forgive me for looking beyond some or around others. Help me to see every single person around me as you see them - beloved, precious, beautiful, and called by name by their creator. Amen.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Proposal

"Will you marry me?" I have often thought about the day when this question would be asked, who would ask it, and where we would be at the time. There have been times when I wanted to be asked the question earlier in life, and there have been times when I have been thankful for my singleness - for the ability to follow God's claim on my life without wondering who might be impacted by the call to move to a new place. There have been times when I thought I had met the person with whom I could spend the rest of my life, and there have been times when I have been so thankful to look back on the past, giving thanks and praise for a few more years of growth and maturity. The right time for the question has arrived, however. I was asked the question, "Will you marry me?" on Sunday night at the edge of the Pacific near the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.

I knew the question was coming. I had helped to select my ring at a local jewelry store. I had a good idea that the question would be popped while in San Diego. Still, I never imagined a scene so perfect and so filled with the presence of God.

The day started with a trip to Mt. Soledad. It continued with a visit to Sunset Cove and then another beach or two before arriving in the quaint community of Coronado. We drove to the hotel, walked all over admiring the weddings and graduation receptions taking place, went inside to enjoy some refreshment at the bar, and then went back outside where Craig led me to a series of rocks on the edge of the ocean.

We climbed on top of the rocks before Craig got down on one knee, said the sweetest things I have ever heard, and then said, "Will you marry me?" I replied, "Yes!" and just as I did, a huge wave soaked us. The rocks were dry when we climbed on top of them. The rocks were covered with water, however, along with half of our bodies, when we climbed down from them.

Craig tells me that he wanted to propose on the rocks, recognizing who our rock is - how Jesus is the foundation on which we stand and on which we intend to build our marriage.

The beauty of creation was all around us - we could see and experience God. Yet, nothing spoke of God's presence and power more than the wave - a wave that reminded me of the waters of our baptism when we were first cleansed of our sin and initiated into Christ's holy church - a wave that reminded me of the source of living water - a wave that surprised us, refreshed us, and made us laugh.

Isaiah 43 begins:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you,
O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I am told any time I work with a couple about to be married or a couple going through a rocky time in their relationship that marriage is not easy. It is a series of give and takes, concessions and professions. There is no doubt in my mind that we will have our highs and our lows, our laughter and our tears. I firmly believe that God is the one who sustains a marriage - that God must stand at the center in order for any marriage to endure the test of time and temptation.

Craig and I have experienced God's presence often in our relationship, especially on Sunday. May God continue to be with us when we cross over the rivers or when we are surprised by the crashing waves, and may we continue to drink of the living water that never runs dry.

Thanks be to God!