Thursday, August 30, 2007


I was walking to worship on Sunday morning with Eddie, one of our church members. On our way across the street, Eddie replied to my inquiry about his weekend. He said, "I am just so sad. I miss Tracy. I still feel so sad."

"Yes, Eddie," I replied. "I also really miss her."

She has been gone almost a month, and the tears still come without notice. I'm still sad.

Dear Lord, please continue to touch the dark places left by our loss. Please continue to provide peace in our places of pain. Provide hope in our places of doubt. And remind us that from death comes resurrection. Blessed are those who mourn. They shall be comforted. Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The First Day of School

The public schools in Washington, D.C. are back in session today. Traffic was heavier this morning as school buses became part of the mix. Backpacks have been purchased. Pencils have been sharpened. Butterflies have appeared in stomachs. The newspapers have published stories on the many faults and shortcomings of the public school system. The mayor has made new promises that things will soon be different. Here we go!

Individuals from Mount Vernon Place joined a team of people from Asbury United Methodist Church on Saturday morning, participating in the DC Public School Beautification Day. We planted flowers. We pulled some weeds. We met the principal. We met some parents of the students who attend the school. We met some of the students who attend the school. And, we saw firsthand glimpses of what the newspapers have told us.

When we arrived at the school, it was the principal who greeted us. None of her team was there. No teachers were there to assist us. None of the other school employees were there. It was the principal who was alone - trying her best to make sure that all of the bulletin boards were covered in every classroom. She was also sifting through the many books that had finally been delivered to the school - discovering that while there were plenty of some books there were other classes that would definitely have a shortage of books. And, she was doing her best to welcome us and offer her appreciation to us.

Still, the entire time we were there, I kept asking myself, "Where is everyone else? Where are the teachers? Does anyone care about the students as much as this principal does?"

I recognize that we were volunteering on a Saturday, and that weekend time is precious time - particularly the weekend before school starts. Still, something was missing. The leader of the team was present - but everyone else on the team was missing.

And, in the midst of it all, I was led to give thanks for the church. While it is easy for some people to believe that the pastor is responsible for everything, I cannot imagine being the only one available and ready to welcome people into the church whether it is a Monday, Tuesday, Saturday or a Sunday. Seeing the principal all alone on Saturday has reminded me of just how thankful I am for the people of Mount Vernon Place who continue to claim their gifts and share them with others - the people who live out the claim placed on their life at their baptism - when we become part of the priesthood of all believers.

Thank you, Michael, for making coffee and making sure that the details of the fellowship hour are always tended to.

Thank you, Beth, for organizing opportunities to faithfully serve in our community.

Thank you, members of the choir, for offering your voices as joyful sounds to the Lord.

Thank you, Anne, Ariana and Greg, for standing at the door yesterday, saying to all who entered, "Welcome to Mount Vernon Place!"

Thank you, volunteers, who are taking meals each night this week to a couple who were in a car wreck.

Thank you, Barbara, for writing down every single joy and concern that was expressed in worship on Sunday and for being willing to faithfully pray for each person.

Thank you, church members, who brought cookies for the children under the care of the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Childcare. And, thank you, Annie Lou, for delivering these cookies.

Thank you, men and women, who brought food and served with us at Calvary Women's Shelter last night.

Thank you, Megan, for putting signs outside before church yesterday morning.

Thank you, Theon and Nathan, for helping to take everything down following church yesterday.

Thank you, the faithful community of Mount Vernon Place, who are trying to be like Christ in downtown Washington.

Gracious and Loving God, thank you for the joy and the privilege of learning. We give you thanks and praise for schools, for teachers, for leaders and for students. Please be with the people in this city on this day as they start a new school year. Open the ears and the minds of students. Instill within teachers courage, insights, wisdom, patience and understanding. And, show us how we can be better partners with the children, men and women who educate and are educated in this city. Amen.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Do You Need Healing?

Earlier this month, an advertisement covered the back page of the free newspaper given out at Metro stations in Washington. I have since tucked the paper away, placing it in the middle of a pile of papers on my kitchen table because the advertisement is so thought-provoking to me.

The top line reads, "Do you need healing?" I suppose that the majority of the people getting on the Metro on any given day need healing. People need healing from their headaches. People need healing from broken relationships. People need healing from ankles that have been twisted, alcoholism that has robbed their spirits, cancer that has entered their bodies, and other illnesses. We are all in need of healing - healing of some kind.

However, there was a limited amount of healing being offered. One of the tools for healing being offered on August 2 was olive oil from the Holy Land, Jerusalem. Yet, the advertisement alerts all who read to "call now and reserve yours." There is a limited availability. Not everyone gets the total package being offered.

There are many things in this life with limited availability. I am reminded each day that hundreds of people in this city have a limited amount of food. There is a limited amount of shelter, too. There is also a limited amount of health care coverage. There is even a limited amount of textbooks in the public schools of this city. There is not, however, a limited amount of healing.

The God I know and love longs to heal anyone and everyone of whatever ailment we are facing. God lingers close, promising to never leave us or forsake us. God knows everything we are facing, no matter how painful it is, because God has also felt it, experiencing the most intense pain of all - the death of his own child. And while the healing God offers does not always come in the package we imagined, I believe God is constantly healing us.

God heals us of our past. God heals us of our brokenness. God heals us of our disease. And this healing does not run dry. There is an unlimited supply. And you can call now. You call by saying, "Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh upon me again this day. Renew me. Touch me. Transform me. Penetrate through the places of brokenness and decay in my life. Heal me. Amen."

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Design for a Dream

Following is the sermon I preached on August 19. It is the final sermon in a series on "The Discipleship Adventure" and is based upon Acts 2:37-47 and Matthew 28:16-20. It is a sermon that instigated a tremendous amount of comments and feedback. As you will read, I continue to reflect on Tracy's death and all I have learned from it:

I received an email from a friend earlier in the week. It was filled with good news as a baby has been born. The baby is the first for the couple, and they are elated. The father of the child could hardly wait to share what had happened in their life. They have been given a child. He wanted to share the good news as soon as possible.

Craig calls often to tell me about certain sales or deals that come to his attention. We both love getting a deal or finding a good sale. There are times when he cannot wait to tell me about a deal, promotion, coupon or sale. He calls with the news of his discovery because he is so excited about it. He wants to share the news as soon as possible.

There are times when we cannot wait to tell people about good news. When I got engaged, I sent an email to many of my friends and family. When we have a child born in our lives, we send out birth announcements. If we get a new job, we often call people and tell them about it. If we buy a house, we send out pictures of the house on a change of address card. We like telling good news. We enjoy sharing with others the good things that happen in our lives.

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I can tell others the good news of Christ. Many of my thoughts are focused upon the future of this church and how we can best offer to new people an experience of the resurrected Lord. In my mind, I can picture a sanctuary filled with people of all ages, nationalities, economic backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and races. I can picture this congregation going out into the city often, serving people in a myriad of ways through its ministries and faithful service in this community. I can visualize us baptizing infants and adults, welcoming into our fold people who have always been a part of a church and people who are discovering the power of a personal relationship with God and the gift of being in an authentic Christian community for the first time. I can imagine a building filled with people at all hours of the day and night, giving people a place to belong, a place to serve, a place to grow, a place to exercise, a place to learn, and a place to enjoy the company of others. These are the details of my dream.

In 1960, there were over 4500 people on the membership roster of this church. In the 1940s and 50s, we filled the sanctuary to a capacity so large that it would make the Fire Marshall angry if he came to worship. Today, however, we can easily fit everyone into this space that seats 150. And, and a year ago we were thinking of having worship in the trailer on the front lawn of the church.

When I arrived here two years ago, many of you told me that you had voted. You had voted to spend whatever money was in the church coffers, and then you would hand the keys to the church over to the conference and say, “That’s it. We’re finished. We have done all that we could do.” You were tired. You felt as though you had done everything and still nothing seemed to bring new people into the church’s doors. At the rate of spending, we were forecasted to close two years from now. Rather than dedicating space in a beautiful office building in 2009, Mount Vernon Place would be slated for closure. Times have changed, however.

Something rather exciting and remarkable is happening here. While this area was once filled with crime and decay, we now sit on the edge of one of the most vibrant communities in the city. An advertisement for a new condominium development reads, “Move into Madrigal Lofts this year and be part of the emerging scene in one of DC’s most sought-after neighborhoods.” Madrigal Lofts is a few blocks down the street. The sought after neighborhood is right here.

There are condominiums and apartment buildings being created all around us. One development down the street will hold 441 condos and 244 apartments. Its advertisement reads, “Dine here. Shop here. Picnic here. Swim here. Work out here. Live here.” Well, my friends, I want the people living in this building to go to church here!

A colleague of mine who has done an extensive amount of research on this area claims that 60 to 80 percent of the 136,000 people who live in downtown Washington – are either dechurched or unchurched people. Approximately 92,000 individuals living around us are not currently involved in a worshipping community. My friend, Paul, writes, “If you have ever taken a stroll thru the cafĂ© culture of Dupont Circle on a Sunday morning or seen half the world out walking their dogs in Capitol Hill, you are left wondering if anyone goes to church in this city.”[1] The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.

We look for a final time today at the church found in Acts 2. It is the first church, the beginning church. The people who have gathered have heard a powerful message proclaimed about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They respond by repenting of their sin and being baptized. They turn away from the ways of the world and turn towards the teaching of Christ. They devote themselves to learning as much as they can about Jesus, fellowshipping and breaking bread with the people who can teach them more about their faith. They radically hold in common all that they own, making sure that everyone is taken care of in their community – that there is not a needy person among them. They praise God with all that they have and all that they are. And something happens in the midst of these actions and reactions. When others see this community – a community that celebrates God’s presence, grows in faith, welcomes everyone into its midst, and serves everyone around them – especially those who do not have their basic needs being met – when people see the extraordinary, rare qualities of this community, other people want to be part of it. We are told that “day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved.”[2]

The church does not grow because of a mass marketing campaign, a new building or expensive programs. The church grows because its members are being like Jesus. The church grows because its members are embodying simple practices that Jesus taught them. They are doing the things Jesus showed them how to do – loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind and loving their neighbors as themselves. The church grows because its members have formed an alternative community with practices that stand in stark contrast to the rest of Rome, and people in the community are hungry for something different.

The Gospel lesson read this morning is often labeled “The Great Commission.” Jesus has been crucified and resurrected from the dead. He comes back, appearing to his disciples and offers them a final message. The message is rather simple.

“Go.” Go out from this place. Don’t stay here and expect people to come to you, but go out.

“Make disciples of all nations.” Don’t look for people who are from the same place as you or even the people who have the same background, values or lifestyle. But go and make disciples of all people.

“Teach them to obey what I have commanded you.” Teach them to put God first in their lives and to love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. Teach them to serve the poor, to give release of the captives and recovery of site to the blind. Teach them to be a radical community that stands in stark contrast to the ways of this world. But don’t always use words. In fact, preach and teach the Gospel with your lives, using words only when necessary.

“And remember that I will be with you.” Christ will remain with you and never leave you.
Go. Make disciples of all nations. Teach them everything. Remember I am with you.

As many of you know, we experienced a tragic death in our congregation nearly three weeks ago when a young woman chose to end her own life. Since Tracy’s death, I have done a tremendous amount of soul searching, thinking, praying and writing. My identity as a pastor has been shaped and reshaped as I have been asked to do things that I never imagined I would do. For the first time in my life, I have wished I owned a clerical collar because the work that was before me was so daunting – work that I could never have done without the understanding that I not only could go as a pastor but that I had to go. So many of the spaces where I have walked these weeks have been holy – ground that I am not worthy of walking on – but ground on which I have been called to walk, held up by the loving arms of God who has promised me time and again that God is with me.

But I have also learned a tremendous amount about the role and the responsibility of the church in the last three weeks. We live in a city that breeds success, beauty, perfectionism and wealth. In this city, people are called to be the very best – the very best attorney, the very best Senate staffer, the very best lobbyist, the very best staff assistant, the very best of whatever it is that we spend our days doing. As Beth Ludlum taught me a long time ago, “in this city, you are whoever you say you are.” We are directors of non-profits. We are Capitol Hill staffers. We are accountants. We are lobbyists working to change legislation. We are front desk managers. We are physicians.

Rarely, however, do we get a chance to say who we really are – people who are somewhat uncertain about tomorrow. Individuals who would like to do a variety of things in our lives including having children but have no idea how we can afford to do them. We are people who appear to have it all together even in the times when we are filled with doubt and despair on the inside. We are men and women who surround ourselves with people, gathering some twenty people for happy hour on Thursday while feeling all alone on Friday. Yet, we cannot tell people who we really are. We are afraid to tell others how we really feel. We choose to hide the messes in our lives from the people around us. What people want to hear about is our job title, our pedigree, and our successes – not our shortcomings, fears or our failures.

What has happened since Tracy’s death is a renewed awareness of the pain people carry. I have had conversations with people in the last two weeks who have told me about their wounds and their bruises – revealing more to me about the person than I ever knew before. I have had people send me emails about similar losses in their family and the scars that have been left. I have learned more about clinical depression and mental illness, struggling with why we can talk about any other part of our body that is sick but if our mind is sick, we cannot talk about it – we try to hide it. So much pain has been unearthed to me as the masks have been removed. And, I have started to take off my own mask. Instead of lying to people who ask, “How are you?” with a response like, “fine, thank you.” I have said, “I am really struggling.” When you give people this response, you can then discover who is ready to listen and who does not give a damn about how you are doing.

And, I have discovered again what I have known all along – that our first and deepest identity is as children of God, made in the image of God, beloved in God’s eyes. We are people who God knows so well that God even knows the number of hairs on our heads. We are the reason God’s heart beats and sometimes skips a beat. We are all beloved – even when the people in our life do not call us beloved.

And, an encounter with this God who knows me so well has changed my life. A journey with the crucified and risen Savior gives me hope for today and strength for tomorrow. The promise of eternal life is why I can get through the loss of Tracy or anyone else because I believe that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – including death itself. This book has reminded me time and again that there is something more to this life than trying to be the best – but what this life is about is being in relationship with God and with others – humbly serving others – giving what I have away so that others can experience a better life. And if we believe that this news is good news, then why do we keep it to ourselves? If we believe that the Gospel still has the power to transform lives, then why would we keep this transformation from others? How is it that we can keep such good news – news that is better than a birth, a new job, a sale, or a marriage – to ourselves?

The Krewsons gave me a subscription to a magazine called Charisma. The most recent issue focuses on finding God on a college campus. Several different students are highlighted in the issue, and I was struck by many of their comments. One young woman writes, “The absence of college students in America’s churches is overwhelming. And it’s not because students don’t love God. It’s because they don’t have a place to connect. Students are searching for an authentic spiritual experience with depth and relevance…I don’t really want to become a carbon copy of my parents. I have different perspectives and different cultural influences than they do. I want to be me. I have dreams, ambitions, and hang-ups just like everyone else, but I need a place where I am loved and accepted anyway. For many college students, church is not that place. Churches are trying so hard to be relevant bastions of spiritual depth that they are missing the integral element of Christianity: love. After all, Jesus commanded us to love God and love people. If the church could really focus on this gospel, and actually live it out, the missing college students might start turning up.”[3]

Her desire is for a place where all people are loved and accepted regardless of who they are or where they have been, and a place whose first priority is to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, strengths and minds while going out and loving our neighbor as ourselves while also loving the person in front of us by asking how they are and not being satisfied with “fine, thank you” as a response.

And still, few churches are living this dream. So many churches are grasping to keep doing what they have always done, spending money on things that do not matter – things that do not change lives. Too many churches spend time arguing about parliamentary procedure instead of how best we are going to serve the people in this city. Too many churches spend time thinking about how to care for the people inside the church, forgetting that the people Christ calls us to encounter and serve are outside the church.

This place is the only place I have discovered in Washington where people who are twenty or thirty-something can develop a beautiful friendship with an eighty or ninety-something. This is the only place I have discovered in Washington where a person who has a mental illness and is known by many of the police in the neighborhood is just as valued as a visiting judge who was appointed to the bench by a United States President. This place is one of the few places where people ask me, “How can I pray for you this week or what is really happening in your life?” and then wait to hear the answer. We have so much to offer to the people living around us.

There are thousands of books that have been written on church growth. You and I could fly around the country this year, attending a seminar every single week of the year on how to bring people inside our doors. Still, the design for the dream of having a church filled with people was discovered 2000 years ago.

The members of the early church celebrated God’s presence in their lives, especially when they gathered as a community. They connected with others, providing places where people could come just as they are. They grew in their faith, trying to learn as much as they could about scriptures and God’s teaching. They went out and served the community, making sure that everyone’s needs were taken care of. And, day by day, the Lord added to the number those being saved.
[1] I am indebted to research completed by Paul Nixon for these statistics.
[2] Acts 2:47.
[3] “God on Campus” in Charisma, September 2007, 27 – 35, 32.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Removing the Mask

I have been reading a little book this week called, "Take the Dimness of My Soul Away." It was written by William Ritter and includes several of the sermons he preached in response to his son's suicide some 13 years ago. The book is filled with sadness and hope, reflections and encouragement. While much of the book has spoken to me this week, there is a quote in the book that has really struck a chord in me. Quoting the great theologian Albert Outler, Ritter includes these words:

Mrs. Outler and I live in a quiet, peaceable neighborhood, and we take long walk-talks in our five-block area almost daily. Over the years we have come to know many of our neighbors. And the better we get to know any one family, the more we learn of the tragic mixture of human happiness and wretchedness in a setting that looks as if it were as favorable an environment as one could find. There is not a single family in our area, as far as we know them, without its share of heartbreak (William A Ritter, Take the Dimness of my Soul Away, Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2004, 18).

Outler is right on target. Our lives so often appear to be right on target. We tend to live our lives in such a way that the white picket fence is the norm and not the exception. The favorable environment is the environment we want others to see, so we often hide what is really happening inside of our houses, our lives, our minds and our hearts. We are afraid that if people see inside the picket fence - if people walk beyond the door of the "perfect" house - then people may not know what to do with us. People may not want to be our friends or our colleagues if they know everything about us. We may scare people away if they know what is really happening on the inside.

It seems as though the city I live in breeds this fear of being known more than many other places. I live in a city in which you are whoever you say you are. You are a White House intern, a Senate staffer, a lobbyist, an attorney, a staff assistant. You are whoever you say you are. In fact, the most common first question asked in this city is, "What do you do?" Rarely do people ask "How are you?" And if they do ask you this question, then people only want to hear a simple, easy answer, "Fine thank you."

But the more time I spend with people, the more I realize how all of us have our own share of heartbreak. Each one of us has a "tragic mixture of human happiness and wretchedness" in our lives. We are sad at times. We are lonely at times. We have so much debt that we have no idea how we can possibly get out of it. We do not feel like we really belong even though we live in a house with four other people and have coworkers surrounding us all day long. We wonder what we will do on Friday night, fearing another weekend night alone. We yearn to be known - to fall in love and live happily ever after with our spouse. We are depressed. We drink too much. We don't eat well. There are some days when it takes everything in us just to get out of bed.

But what would people think about us if they knew the truth? How would people react if they really knew what is happening on the inside?

And so we put on a mask. We appear to be people living lives where everything is just fine. We act as though life is rather perfect. We keep the mess tucked away inside our neat packages. We hide behind whatever mask we can find.

I have learned more about life during the past two and one-half weeks than any manual on life could ever teach me. I have gained more insights in what it means to be a pastor than I could have ever learned in a seminary course. And, I have also been reminded of what our call is as the church.

The church is called to be a place where it does not matter what you have done or what you have failed to do. We are called to be a community in which everyone is accepted regardless of who they have loved or who they have failed to love. We are called to be a place where it does not matter what we wear, what we believe, or what we choose not to believe. We are called to be a place where we can come - just as we are - and be embraced, welcomed, accepted, cherished - not because of who we work for, but because we are beloved children of God, made in the image of God.

Last night I had dinner with a young couple who are new to Mount Vernon Place. When I asked them what they like about our church and what keeps them coming back, they told me how they love the diversity of the congregation and how what I say in the beginning of worship about how all are welcome in this place, regardless of anything else, is true - it is really being lived out.

There are not many places in the city like this one. Still, we are trying to be such a place, and we are going to continue to work hard to make sure that we continue to be such a place.

If you yearn for a place where all are welcome and no one is sent away, please join us. If you are hungry for a few moments in life where you can be exactly who you are - baggage and all - then come join us. If you want someone to listen to you - your fears, your doubts, your frustrations and your failures - then come join us. Come, remove the mask.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Pain of Suicide

A clergy colleague of mine pointed out a very raw, heartfelt, honest entry posted on her friend's blog. I found Dixon Kinser's words on his brother's suicide helpful, healing and heart-breaking. As we continue the process of healing from Tracy's death, this blog may be helpful to you. The entry is titled, "Back on the Horse."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Signs of New Life

Yesterday was a full day. It was a day to worship, a day to offer thanksgiving, a day to celebrate a life that was beautiful and often filled with joy, and a day to grieve a life that ended too soon. As I was leaving the church yesterday, I was both exhausted and overwhelmed.

As I walked to my car, I stopped and looked again at the progress being made on the church building. Large pieces of machinery are digging a big hole. Different types of underground tubes are being installed. The inside of the historic church is down to a shell, as they start to rebuild and renovate the inside. The place looks like a mess.

Still, it is filled with hope.

Something is happening here!

A glorious, historic church building is being restored while the foundation for a new office building is being prepared. Inside the office building the church will have a beautiful fellowship hall, a nursery for our children, classrooms for our adults, a great lounge in which to hangout or watch a movie, a kitchen where meals can be prepared for hundreds of people, and beautiful office space where work can be done.

There is so much promise in the mess. There is so much potential. Still, we have to wait a while for the potential to be realized. We have to wait months to get back into the historic church and two years to get into the new building.

When I got home, I parked across the street from where I live. Getting out of my car, I noticed amazing flowers that I have not noticed before. I am not sure how I have missed them as they are huge.

Many different kinds of sunflowers have been planted at a charter school. There are small sunflowers and huge sunflowers. In fact, some of them are the biggest sunflowers I have ever seen. There was such a sense of creation and recreation in these flowers. These flowers are a clear and tangible sign of God's creative hand that is always at work in our lives.

A 1917 building is being renovated from top to bottom. Old buildings have been torn down so that something new may emerge. Extensive excavation is being done so that a foundation can be laid and a building emerge on top of it. Flowers shout out on a street where not everything is perfect.

New life is all around us! Signs of something about to spring forth are in our midst.

And I am reminded of a hymn that is in the United Methodist Hymnal called "Hymn of Promise." The words of the hymn by Natalie Sleeth read:
"In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree, in cocoons, a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody, there's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity, in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see."


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Finding a Way Out of the Wilderness

Following is the sermon I preached on Sunday. It is based on the story of the Woman at the Well found in John 4 as well as the 105th Psalm.

I talked with my twelve-year-old niece, Kayla, on the phone last week. Kayla is about to start middle school, and on last Monday she went to her new school to enroll. It was her first visit to the school, and everything seemed very big. The day we spoke had been quite an overwhelming day for Kayla.

Kayla and her mother moved to Denver last summer. The move was a major shift for Kayla, taking her out of a class of fifteen students in a small, country school house to a larger, suburban elementary school. While Kayla flourished in the larger elementary school, the middle school Kayla will attend this fall is huge. It has big hallways, big classrooms, a big gym, and a big cafeteria. Kayla will no longer be part of a small, quaint community.

When we spoke on the phone last Monday, I could hear the sounds of fear and insecurity in her voice. She told me a little about her school, and I could ascertain that everything was just too big and too daunting. I responded to Kayla by telling her that we have five weeks to pray. We have five weeks before school starts – five weeks in which to ask God to give Kayla a sense of community, to provide her with a friend in every class, and to fill her life with peace and security. When I told Kayla what I would be praying for these things, she smiled – the kind of smile that one can hear over the phone and said, “Oh, thank you Aunt Donna. Yes, we can pray.”
I wish I could tell Kayla that life will be easier when she is older. I would love to promise Kayla that this time will be the last time that the hallways seem too wide or that the community seems too big and distant. But I cannot promise Kayla these things. For I am reminded often that life can be downright difficult. No matter what age we are, life can seem overwhelming.

Many of you have met Tracy. She started worshipping with us last fall when we were in the sanctuary of Asbury United Methodist Church in the afternoons. She would often sneak in late and sneak out early before getting to the place where she would stay for the entire service. By the time we moved our service to this place, she had become a regular participant in the life of this community. She would walk up the side steps after the service had started to take a seat near the back of the theatre. She often joined us for Front Porch Friday events, bringing lots of food the last time we gathered for the jazz concert at the Smithsonian garden. She has been to the movie night discussions, providing leadership for the discussion on the movie, Crash. And she was here throughout the sermon series, “Why Does the Bible Include That?” attending many of the conversations that followed worship in the trailer. I remember her comment especially on the sermon preached on homosexuality when she shared how the sermon made her feel like she feels as an attorney in the courtroom waiting to hear how the judge was going to rule, thinking she was “winning the argument” one moment and “losing the argument” the next. Tracy was on a spiritual quest to find the truth – crying out to God in some conversations, questioning God during other conversations, and seeking God’s peace and comfort in her life.

Tracy was a brilliant young attorney who was an incredibly competent prosecutor for the District government. She was involved in several social activities from yoga to happy hours, volunteering to book clubs. She faced many of the same issues that we all face when we move to this city and navigate our way through life as a twenty or thirty something. And, I would give anything to tell her today what I told Kayla – that we have time to pray for whatever it is that she was facing. Yet, my opportunity to tell her about God or to pray with her ended sometime last weekend when she discerned that whatever she was facing was just too much – too big – too uncontrollable.

All week long, I have been examining the past. I have been going back over emails I shared with Tracy, trying to find answers. I have been asking myself what more I could have done as her pastor – what stories about Jesus I could have told her. I have been thinking about whether we should ever let anyone sit in alone in worship, even though I know that some people enter this space wanting to remain anonymous. I have been asking what, if anything, could have been done to prevent such a tragic loss. And while I have not received many answers for the questions I have asked, I have found comfort and healing when I opened the pages of scripture.

The Psalm read today is a Psalm that speaks of God’s goodness – an unfailing goodness that is steadfast. The Psalmist calls us to give thanks to the Lord. We are called to sing to the Lord and tell of God’s wonderful works. We are then taken through a brief history lesson, reminding us of God’s faithfulness to the people from generation to generation. Verse 8 tells us how God remembers his covenant forever – a covenant we spoke of last week when we read the story of Noah’s Ark and remembered God’s brand. God created a rainbow to remind God and all of us that no matter how far we travel from God, God will remain with us. No matter how many times we turn our back on God, God will not let go of us. And no matter how disappointed God grows with us, God will never again destroy creation.

The Psalmist tells us of God’s journey with the Israelites. The Israelites were led into bondage in Egypt and remained there for forty years. God did not let go of them, however. Instead, God led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The Israelites complained about food, and God gave them bread from heaven. God instructed them to take just enough food for the day, and the Israelites instead stored up as much manna as they could. Still, God keeps providing for them. The Israelites continue their journey and seemingly forget all that God has done. God has not let them down once. Still, the Israelites question why God would lead them only to let them die of thirst. God then strikes a rock and water gushes forth. God provides for the people at every step of the way. God is with the Israelites when they are being obedient, and God is with the Israelites when they doubt God. God is with the Israelites when they are being patient, and God is with them when they are begging for easy answers and quick solutions. God’s faithfulness to the Israelites is a testimony to how relentless God is in his pursuit of us. God longs to be near to us, and for us to respond to God’s love and mercy. God’s goodness is unfailing despite our actions. God is mindful of his covenant forever!

In our lesson from John, Jesus is on his way home. He is journeying from Judea to Galilee when he stops for a rest near a well in Samaria. It is the middle of the day, and the temperature is similar to what we have been experiencing in Washington this week. It is hot and muggy, and Jesus is exhausted. He sits down at the well for a rest.

All of the other women come early in the morning when the sun is just starting to rise. The other women come in the morning with their children – but not this woman. This woman comes when no one else is around. She comes by herself at a time when she knows she will not see anyone. Her desire is to sneak into the city center, fill her jar with water and return home as quickly as possible. Her desire is to sneak in and sneak out without having to encounter the scorn of the other women, the looks of judgment from the people who know all about her. She wants to avoid the looks of disgust – the displeasure of those who know that she has been married not once or twice but five different times. She comes at a time when she can most easily forget it all and lay the past aside. But today is a different day. Today she encounters Jesus at the side of the well.
Jesus asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked that the man is speaking to her. After all, Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans have not spoken with each other since the writing of 2 Kings when we are told that the Samaritans are the people who continued to make their own gods instead of trusting God. This Jew is different, however. He speaks to the Samaritan woman, and he asks her for a drink. He then tells her all about herself saying, “I know all about you. I know everything you have done. I know the mistakes and the heartaches of your past – the five husbands you have had. I know your loneliness, your regret, your emptiness and your sadness. Still, I have come seeking you. I have come to be in relationship with you. I have come to you with something you need.”

Jesus then explains how the water from the well can satisfy the woman only for a while. The bottles and the pills can kill her pain for a night. The avoidance of others can help her to forget the pain that comes with the scorn of others in the neighborhood. But what Jesus has cannot be found anywhere else – not in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble, not in the intimacy of a steamy romance, not in a great night at the bar, or an evening out with best friends. What Jesus has to offer is life – refreshing, eternal, pure, amazing life – life in which grace runs rampant, filling our soul long before we can even respond to it. It is a life in which we have a constant companion – one who knows all about us and loves us in spite of it all. It is a life in which we can live freely and fully for all eternity.

In verse 10, Jesus says, “’If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink.’” Jesus says that if you knew who was right in front of your face, then you would not be accepting the defeat this world has given you but you would instead accept this gift – the gift of the one sitting here asking you for a drink. “If you knew the gift of God” right in front of your face, woman of Samaria, then you would ask him for so much more. You would ask him for life – a life in which the mockery of others does not really matter. You would ask him for a drink of his water – water that quenches our thirst for satisfaction and inclusion, enabling us to see that the pain of this life is only temporary. You would bathe yourself in his grace, grace that not only forgives you of everything you have done in the past but forgets all about it.

The woman does not get it. The woman at the well thinks Jesus’ water can prevent her from having to come to the well day in and day out. This is not the power of Jesus’ water, however. Jesus does not promise that the pain or the challenges of life will all go away. What Jesus promises is that he will be with us through the pain, the sorrow, the loss and the disappointment. He promises to give us life.

In her book, Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a woman who has experienced one heartache after another. The woman feels like her life is falling apart, and she checks into a convent for a silent retreat, hoping that God will be revealed to her in a powerful way on the retreat, providing her with strength and healing to carry on.

Upon her arrival at the convent, the woman encounters a nun in the elevator. The nun asks the woman, “What brings you to us, my dear?” And the woman responds, “My mother has just died, I think my father may be an alcoholic, my marriage is falling apart, and I feel like I am going crazy.” The nun responds, “God must love you very much,” and then gets off the elevator.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells in her book how she does not understand what the nun is saying, how the nun’s response of “God must love you very much” is very puzzling. Taylor writes, “I am still not sure what that nun was trying to tell the woman in the elevator, but I think it had to do with everything that the woman was about to find out – that in the very midst of her losses, with pieces of the sky still falling all around her, she was about to be more eligible than she had ever been to discover the power of Christ that is made perfect in weakness.”[1]

I know enough about Jesus to conclude that wherever there are places of pain, Jesus is there. Whenever we are experiencing pain or doubt, disbelief or denial, Jesus places himself in positions where we are sure to encounter him. Jesus shows up, enabling us to see him when we are trying to avoid everyone and everything else.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, life is not easy. While we may have wanted to find our life partner at the age of 22, some of us are still single. While we may have wanted a marriage to last a lifetime, some of us experienced the pain of a bitter divorce or were widowed much too soon. Many of us wonder how we are going to make ends meet financially. We have high risk mortgages on houses that are not worth what we paid for them two years ago. We live in small spaces with rents that keep rising. We are in debt and cannot seem to get out of it. We struggle to find balance between work and play, exercise and habits of healthy living. We yearn to be known for who we really are while wondering if people will still like us if they learn everything about us. We are tired of being passed over for every job that we have applied for. We long for real community. We pretend that we have it all together when deep inside we want to curl up in a ball, and pray that we don’t have to come out until all of the problems or dilemmas have been solved. We just want it to go away, but the “it” does not go away.

And so we keep going to the well, getting whatever bit of water we can to keep us going for one more day. We reach out for a one night stand that makes us feel wanted, a bottle of booze that takes away the pain, a new outfit that makes us feel attractive, a higher paying job that helps us feel successful, and a new mask that enables us to hide who we really are from others. All of these aids help for a moment. They get us through another day, pushing the pain aside for a moment or an evening – but they do not cure or heal the pain. These bottles of water we pour into our body are not life-giving water.

At some point last weekend, Tracy chose a permanent solution for very temporary problems. At some point last weekend, she could only see the darkness around her, and she gave in to that darkness, putting an end to it once and for all. I would give anything if I could talk with Tracy today. I would give anything to have the opportunity to go and tell her again about Jesus’ love, guidance and companionship. I would give anything to sit with her in worship, to pray with her during communion, but I can’t.

What I can do, however, is to offer the gift to all of us who are here today. It is a gift that God sent to us some 2000 years ago, and his name is Jesus. And Jesus still comes to us when we are trying to avoid life. He still comes to us when we think that no one really knows us or cares about us. He comes to us when we are trying to simply survive on another day’s worth of water, and he offers us water that gushes forth from the springs of life. He comes to us, offering us grace and forgiveness despite how many mistakes we have made. He offers us his presence – a presence that does not put an end to the problems of this world, but a presence that remains with us always, holding our hands, helping us navigate the rough terrain, and giving us everything we need to make it through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. His light shines, and no matter how dark the world may appear, the darkness has never overcome this light.

While we may not always recognize him, the gift is here. Christ, the one who knows everything about us and still loves us, is here – longing to be in relationship with us – longing to care for our every need. May we have the courage to accept this gift, allowing his light to shine. May we come forward and drink one more time.

God must really love us. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Perfect in Weakness” in Home By Another Way, Cambridge: Cowley, 1999, 168 – 173, 173.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Hindsight is always 20/20

I have always been good at looking behind me. When I buy a new outfit, I bring it home and then review my decision over and over again, wondering if I really can afford my purchase. When I bought my condo in 2005, I spent the next twelve months looking at the real estate listings online, trying to figure out if I could have gotten a better condo somewhere else. While I have a mortgage that cannot be changed anytime soon, I have used different calculators often, putting in the numbers to see what my payment would be if I had a 5.5%, 30 year fixed mortgage instead of an 80/20 mortgage with the 80 percent mortgage fixed at 5% and the 20 percent mortgage floating at prime plus one. While we booked the reception site for our wedding, I keep looking at other options, wondering if we made the best decision. I am not very good at making decisions and moving forward. I spend a lot of time reviewing the past.

I am not the only one who spends time in the past. When tragedy struck our nation on 9/11, we looked back over everything in an effort to discern how the terrorist attacks could have been prevented. When a mentally ill student went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, we examined what would have happened if the classroom doors had been equipped with locks while asking ourselves what the university officials could have done differently. And now that a bridge has collapsed in Minneapolis, we are looking at things that should have been done a long time ago to strengthen the bridge. We are good at looking back. We are good at making ourselves miserable over things that we cannot change. No matter how much time we think about what could have been done, nothing will change what happened in New York City, Blacksburg or Minneapolis. The past is the past.

Like many of Tracy's friends and family members, I have been spending a great deal of time this week wondering what could have been done differently. What could I have done to make sure that Tracy knew she was beloved by God and many others? What could I have done to add more joy to her life? What could I have done to reach out to her more often? Could I have made a difference?

I have gone through old emails and notes that I wrote to her. I have thought about the last time I prayed for her and with her when she came forward for communion. I have pondered the conversations we shared. And, I have made myself miserable. There is nothing we can do to bring Tracy back. While we can think all we want about what we could or should have done, we cannot change what has happened. We can, however, change what we do in the future.

One of Tracy's friends sent me a statement earlier today on the sorrow of suicide. She concludes her thoughts on Tracy's death with these words:

So maybe we all need to give ourselves a break. And what I need to ask—what we all need to ask—is “What if…?” What if I use this tragedy to better educate myself and others on mental illnesses? What if I reach out to people who seem in pain or are engaging in self-destructive behavior rather than judge or gossip about them? What if I try to prevent another family from experiencing this horrible, horrible pain by volunteering at a suicide hotline, a homeless shelter, an addiction group, or at some other place helping people with mental health issues? What if I lobbied Congress to force health insurance companies to decrease barriers and red tape and increase coverage for mental health treatment? What if I release myself from all this guilt and use this painful experience to grow as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a coworker, an attorney, and a human being? That’s how I can honor my friend’s memory.

So, “What if?”

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


I would give anything if I could have lunch with Tracy today. Having lunch with Tracy is always a treat. She'll come to the church's office, step inside and tell me about everyone she has encountered along the way, and we'll then walk to one of her favorite places, a Mexican fast-food restaurant a few blocks from the church.

I saw Tracy a lot weekend before last. She was at the church for a movie on Saturday night, participating in a discussion on Hotel Rwanda. She came again on Sunday morning for worship. I remember her sunburn as she had been at the pool all day. I remember hugging her when she walked out of worship. But I wish I could linger with her over a cup of coffee. I would give anything to hug her again today.

I sent Tracy an email yesterday morning. The subject line was, "I am praying for you." The message was rather simple, "Tracy, you have been weighing heavy on my heart all weekend. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. I look forward to seeing you soon." I sent the message a little after 8:00 yesterday morning...before I received a call about Tracy.

Tracy took her life sometime over the weekend. At some point over the weekend, she discerned that it was too hard to keep going - that the darkness was more appealing than the light. At some point over the weekend, the depression got the best of Tracy, and she decided to put an end to it once and for all.

I have a friend whose father committed suicide after college. I have read several accounts or heard stories of people who have taken their own lives. However, I have never lost a friend this way. I have never received a phone call telling me to pull over on the side of the road because of such bad news.

I met Tracy last October at my friend, Jenni's wedding. In this picture, Jenni is the bride in pink. Tracy is the supportive friend - the one who seemed to enjoy the weekend festivities tremendously. She started coming to worship at Mount Vernon Place not long after the wedding. She would sneak in and sneak out on some Sundays. On other Sundays, she would stay and linger over coffee. She's led discussions at our church before. She's been a regular participant in our young adult activities. Craig and I spent a good part of the 4th of July with her, watching her take delight in using the grill, flirting with a group of guys nearby, and enjoying an afternoon at the pool. I have been Tracy's pastor, and she has been a friend.

And while the pastor is supposed to be strong, my heart is aching. While the pastor is supposed to tell everyone to stop asking themselves what more they could have done to prevent her death, I am sitting here this morning wondering why I did not call her more often. I am wondering why we allowed her to sit by herself in worship on many Sunday mornings. I am pondering what we could or should have done. Is there anything we could have done that would have prevented this action from taking place?

I learned a long time ago that our minds are powerful things. I know well the pain of depression having experienced it second hand through many close friends. I know that there is stress associated with trying to make ends meet financially in a city where the cost of living is so high. I understand what it is like to be in a job where we may not fit in with our coworkers or feel that our gifts are not being utilized. But again, I would give anything to tell Tracy today that while the darkness is there, this darkness has never overcome the light - the light of Christ who promises to always be with us.

The God I know and love allows us to make our own decisions - to seize life or to end life. God does not prevent us from making decisions that will hurt us or even kill us. And while this part of God is hard to understand, this ability to make choices is a precious gift from God.

I believe God was with Tracy throughout her life - at every hour of her life. God has been with Tracy in the depression. God has been with Tracy in the challenges. And, I believe God was with her over the weekend - at the very moment she decided to end it all. While we would give anything for God to have stopped her from taking the pills, this is not how God works. We are not puppets on a string. Rather, we are individuals with choice, and Tracy chose to end her life.

There is a passage in Romans that I keep reading over and over again. It will likely become the scripture for this Sunday's sermon. Romans 8:35 - 39 reads:

"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As it is written: 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are surrounded as sheep to be slaughtered.'
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Tracy, your pain is over. The pain of this life has ended. May you now rest in the tender arms of mercy of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.