Friday, September 28, 2007

A Full House

My office is in a trailer. Each morning, I report to work, unlock a padlock, pull open a large fence, walk up a ramp, and enter the space. The trailer sits on the edge of the church's lawn, on space that actually belongs to the city. It is a humble space. It is the only space that we have access to at the moment on a regular basis without paying rent.

When we first ordered the trailer, we thought we would be having worship services at 11:00 on Sunday mornings in the trailer. We were not expecting much then. We anticipated having about 25 people on a Sunday morning, offering a different experience to others on Sunday afternoon. We did not expect to grow much until we got "home" to our big building after the renovation.

We soon learned that the Sunday afternoon experience was not that great because the beauty of our community was missing. It was hard to attract newcomers without the old timers. We therefore made some changes and started to rent a great theatre across the street from the church. Our worship attendance has grown since we have been in the theatre. We have had to order new hymnals because we did not keep enough out of storage. And, we get to welcome new people into our midst nearly every Sunday.

Still, people cannot believe that we are operating out of a trailer. When a reporter from The Washington Post met me on Wednesday afternoon, he was amazed to find me in a trailer. He walked back to my office and was so surprised to see my worship vestments hanging in the corner. He looked from one end of the trailer to the other end and said, "This is it? This is all you have?" "Yes, this is all we have," I responded, "in addition to the space we are renting on Sunday mornings."

Later that night, I was reminded again of all that can happen in a trailer. I presided over the Lay Leadership Committee in my office. A group of five gathered together to think about who can best lead our church in the coming year. We had a fantastic meeting as we prayed, discerned and talked together. We reviewed what has happened this year and talked about how best to get our new members involved, making sure that there is a balance of the old and the new on each committee. It was a blessing to talk with each other about all that God is doing in our midst.

Meanwhile, another group met in the larger area of the trailer. This group is one of two new community groups that are off and running. They are organized by neighborhood and are inwardly growing and outwardly focused groups who gather together to eat, study, share, grow and serve in our community. The room was filled with laughter. And, each person in the room was not at Mount Vernon Place a year and a half ago. Each person was new, and one of the individuals will make her first profession of faith when she joins the church a week from Sunday.

The longtime members filed out of my office as our meeting ended first. As they walked out, they were greeted with the sound of laughter and the site of authentic community being formed. It was a full house.

It is God's house...even though it is just a trailer.

I'll be the first to tell you that you do not need a church building to build the church.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


We toured the historic building last week with Bishop Schol, the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. It is amazing to see all of the work taking place inside the building. While the sanctuary is still recognizable, it is hard to discern what was in every other space prior to the start of the restoration work. We are 9 months away from a grand celebration. We are 9 months away from the time in which we will return to our church home. In the meantime, take a look at how things appear today:
The site of our future chapel. We can imagine many people coming inside this open door off of K Street for 7:00 a.m. services of morning prayer, noontime services of praise and celebration and evening vespers. We can imagine all kinds of people walking in these doors - the people who work in hotels nearby, the individuals who are employed by law firms across the street, our neighbors who live on the lawns nearby, and the people who live and work in the buildings all around us.
These steps have caused the church problems for decades. The water sealant was stripped long ago, creating a great deal of water damage underneath. The steps are being stripped so that everything can be resealed again. It is a long, tedious process and the final solution has not been found yet.
The window restoration has been a subject of intense emotion and debate in the congregation. Bids for the work ranged from less than $200,000 to more than $700,000. We selected Lynchburg Stained Glass for the work after scrutinizing the proposals of several other artists and workers. When the sanctuary was first built, almost every window was made of stained glass. The windows are stunning, telling the stories of Jesus to people coming inside and out.
Bobby, one of our neighbors on the lawn, took this photo of the four of us who toured the building last week. Nathan, one of our interns from Wesley is on the far left, followed by Bishop Schol, myself and Don Graham. Bishop Schol has been supportive of the project from the beginning and has become a valuable mentor. Don Graham is the chairperson of our steering committee. He has given hours of time to the project, and we have learned so much together.
It is a blessing to be at the National Music Center for now. But we can hardly wait to get home again!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Practice What You Preach, Preacher

The words, "hell," "fire," "damnation," and "judgment" do not normally fill the pages of my sermon manuscripts. The pages from which I preach most often are filled with words like "love," "grace," "forgiveness," and "serve." I do not like the subject of judgment. I do not enjoy hearing preachers preach about how God really feels about us. Yet, when preparing a sermon series on "theology 101," I knew that I could not escape the subject of judgment, just as I cannot escape God's judgment.

On Sunday morning, I tuned my radio to a Christian station as I traveled the two miles to the church. The radio preacher was preaching on judgment. He had lots of images of hell to share with his listeners. The glimpses of his sermon were nothing like the one I was about to preach, however. His sermon was all about choosing Christ. He led me to believe that if I would simply allow Christ in my heart, then everything would be okay.

My sermon was based upon the passages found in Matthew 11:20-24, Jeremiah 26 and Romans 2. I also referred to the judgment scene found in Matthew 25. Jeremiah tells of a God who is filled with both love and wrath. Paul tries to make sense of judgment in Romans. And, in both Matthew passages, Jesus makes it clear that judgment has nothing to do with accepting him but all with how we serve him - how we serve him by what we do to the poor living all around us. Judgment has to do with whether or not we are putting God before everything else. And if we are putting God in first place, then we naturally will be doing the things of Christ - seeking the lowly who need to be exalted, giving the hungry something to eat, befriending the lonely, and forgiving those who have hurt or betrayed us, to name a few of the Christlike character traits.

On Sunday morning, I arrived at the church office extra early. I read my sermon a few more times and then led our new member class (we have 14 people in the class - thanks be to God - but that is an entirely different story), and then looked at the clock. I had less than ten minutes to grab everything and get across the street to our temporary worship site. I was in a rush. I normally like to be there at least 20 minutes early. Time was ticking. I walked out the door with several of our prospective new members, crossed the street, and encountered another person coming to church. I stopped to hug her and then approached the doors of the National Music Center where we are currently worshipping. Right there in front of my eyes was a man who clearly needed some help. He was babbling as though he had consumed too much strong drink or was mentally ill. He was reaching out his hand to those who were entering, and I was taken back by it all. Truth be told, I was a little annoyed that this person was nearly blocking the doors to our church. I did not speak to him. In fact, I walked inside and asked a member of the Trustees if we should ask him to leave - if we should move him over instead of inviting him in! (I am even more ashamed of my actions as I write this post.)

Again, I was about to preach on judgment. I was about to preach a sermon in which I would tell others and myself that we will be held accountable for what we do to the least of these around us. And, I failed the test miserably before worship even began. I failed the test when I passed by this man, failing to even look him in the eye and say "good morning." I failed the test because I was so concerned about what others would think of this person. "Will he scare people away?" I thought. "Will people still come if they have to walk so close to him?"

Oh God, forgive me. Forgive me for not practicing what you teach and what I preach. Slow me down, Lord. Help me to see what is really important. Give me the courage and the wisdom to be like you. Help me, Lord. Forgive me, Lord. Create in my a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.

There is a passage in scripture that is similar to the one I have described. A beggar sits outside the gates of the temple all day long. People pass him on the way inside the temple - on the way to worship God. They pass him on the way to worship a God who yearns for them to love God and love their neighbor as themselves. Still, no one stops.

A significant part of my vision for Mount Vernon Place UMC is that we will be a people who exist for others. We will be people who are inwardly growing in our faith and who are constantly looking outside our doors to see who we can clothe, feed, befriend, house, forgive, and welcome. I long for us to be a prophetic church. I long for us to be a community of individuals who look and act like Jesus - who stop and say "good morning" to the person sitting outside and welcome them all in - regardless of what they have done, how they are dressed, what they are saying, or how 'different' they appear. This kind of community is one that I visualize often.

I only pray that the leader of this congregation, the pastor, has the wisdom to lead the way - to practice what she preaches.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wide Open Spaces

There is a door at Mount Vernon Place that is wide open right now. It is a large hole that has been cut by the construction crew as part of the renovation work. There is currently nothing covering the hole. In fact, the church seems rather open (once you get inside the fence) to people, animals, or birds. It appears that anyone could walk right inside. Someone has been visiting our church all summer after moving here from the Northwest. She came to Mount Vernon Place by accident. She intended to visit a church a few blocks over, but she could not find a single door that was unlocked. It was Sunday morning, but the doors of the church were locked. Either the security guard had stepped away or someone failed to completely unlock the doors. She was locked outside. As a result, she walked down the street and found an unlocked door at Mount Vernon Place, and she has since become part of our worshipping community.
As a church, are we better at locking doors or making them appear as though anyone can walk inside? Are our doors locked or unlocked? Are people coming hoping to find an unlocked door and then being turned away only to go to another place - perhaps not even a church?
Fridays are my day off at the church. And while I recognize that the purpose of Sabbath is to rest and worship, I often find myself doing different things around the house and in the neighborhood. And, grocery shopping is something I normally do on Friday mornings.

There is a Giant Food Store up the street, and the sale advertisement for Giant now starts on Fridays. As a result, the store is not always easy to navigate on Fridays. Yes, the produce aisles are well stocked. And, I can always find the foods that are on sale before they are sold out. However, I have to navigate my cart around the large carts that the Giant employees are using to stock the shelves. And, while I know the Giant employees are doing their job - trying to be helpful, the Giant employees sometimes leave the carts in such a way that no one else can get through the aisle. They sometimes stand around laughing instead of helping other customers. I have even noticed the managers having a long discussion the middle of the aisle, unaware of how they were blocking the aisle from the full use of customers.

I wonder how often we in the church do these things...

I wonder how often we block the aisles, preventing someone from truly navigating the waters of faith, worship and spirituality. I wonder how often our efforts to keep the shelves stocked with "things we have always done" prohibits others from experiencing the Living God. I wonder how many times others have been turned aside because the people on the inside were standing around talking, unaware of the person who is begging for someone to speak to her or sit by her. And, I wonder how our actions can lead others to believe that they are not welcome - that the doors of the church are locked to them - because of who they are, what they have done, what they have failed to do, who they have loved, who they have failed to love, or even what they are wearing.

There is a door that is wide open at Mount Vernon Place. This door will not be kept wide open for long, however. As the construction project moves along, it will be filled and covered.

However, I hope we will do whatever we can to make sure that the doors of our church are always wide open to all kinds of people - to everyone in our neighborhood - the homeless man who sits outside, the woman who awakes from the grate where she has been sleeping, the people who work as attorneys across the street, the young adults who are trying to decide whether to take a long run or come to church on Sunday, the people who have always been there, the people who are amazed that they have actually come to church, the people who are filled with faith, and the people who are filled with doubt.

May our door be open. May the space be wide open for all people to come and experience the presence of our Living God. Amen.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Trouble in the Bathroom

Like many of you, I have been very troubled by the reports of Senator Larry Craig's (R-ID) arrest in an airport bathroom. The reports of what happened disgust me. It would be one thing to have an openly gay Senator who has always voted to give all people the same rights despite their sexual orientation. It is quite another thing to have a Senator tapping his foot, reaching his hand under the metal wall, and pleading guilty to a lesser crime when the Senator has voted against every piece of legislation that would have treated gay and lesbian people the same as every other individual in this country.

While Senator Craig is innocent until proven guilty, he already said he was guilty. He entered a guilty plea. He now is trying to reverse this plea. Today's news story is that he may change his mind and stay in the Senate. He has hired Stan Brand, the attorney who represented Major League Baseball in the steriod cases, and Billy Martin who represented Michael Vick in the dogfighting case. He has hired two people to stand by his side who are used to standing with people who did something terribly wrong - something they knew they should not have done.

The report in today's paper also tells of a family that has forgiven him. His children are standing by his side, telling all that their father was a victim of circumstance. The children are filled with grace - something we are all called to be filled with as we are called to forgive one another - and something that seems difficult to find in this case.

The best piece I have seen on Senator Craig's situation is an op-ed that appeared in Monday's Washington Post. Written by James McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who found himself in a similar situation, the article tells of the pain and the shame associated with being gay. McGreevey writes of the quest to stay in the closet and the desire to run for public office as an effort to build another closet. It is a powerful statement - one worth reading.

I have watched too many friends almost suffocate in the closet. I have had too many friends come close to choosing death over life as a gay man. I have watched friends go to seminary, hoping that seminary and ordination would be the closet that would cover "it" for life. I have watched friends get married, thinking that this vow would make "it all go away." And, I have watched these same people continue to suffer - through depression, through pain, through what appears to me to be a living hell.

If you have read my blog this summer, then you know that the mantra of this season is making room for people to be who they really are. I do not want to lose another friend because she or he is dealing with something that cannot be shared. I do not want another person to leave ordained ministry because the church cannot accept who he or she really is - a gay man or a lesbian woman. And, I do not want to watch another person fall from power - whether it is the leader of a large church in Colorado or a United States Senator from Idaho - because of the choices they make regarding their sexual passions.

Our sexuality is a complex, beautiful gift from God. Sexuality is also a gift that can cause us to do things we might never have done before. The rise and ease of internet pornography is allowing people to enter places they could once only create in their minds (see the cover article of the current edition of Christian Century to see how many pastors are entering this place). The stress of being in a position of power where everyone thinks you have it all right can cause one to bundle up everything else on the inside and not tell a soul what is really happening. And, despite how good we think we are, none of us are perfect.

Senator Craig, I don't know if you are gay or straight. I have a hard time believing that you are a victim of circumstance - that your tapping your foot or reaching under the partition were not intentional. I am praying for your family, and I am trying to also pray for you. But I also pray that this story - this situation - will open your eyes to the pain of people around you - the ones you have voted against time and again. I pray this situation will also open the eyes and the hearts of your colleagues as we all ask ourselves, "I wonder what kind of pain, burdens, secrets or closets other people are carrying in this place, under this dome, in this city. How can I help them? How can we all seek to be more authentic?"

James McGreevey ends his op-ed with these words, "I pray that the tide of American history continues to sweep toward the inevitable expansion of freedom that recognizes the worth and dignity of every individual - and that mine is the last generation that is required to choose between the affairs of the heart and elected office" (James E. McGreevey, "A Prayer for Larry Craig," Washington Post, September 3, 2007, A15).

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Work in Progress

One of our architects sent me great pictures this week of our sanctuary at Mount Vernon Place. The building is being restored from top to bottom, and the first picture was taken before any work had started in the historic building. The second picture shows the work in progress as the chancel area is transformed.