Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Perhaps no other story has impacted my life more than the story of South Africa. South Africa's story is one filled with pain and hope. I do not recall efforts in the United States to impose sanctions upon the country years ago. I do not remember my eyes seeing much on the television regarding the struggles of the country. Perhaps I was too young to notice. More likely I was involved in other things. Fortunately, however, my eyes were opened through a South African professor who taught at Duke Divinity School for several years, including the time when I was a student.

Peter Storey taught two classes: "The Local Church's Mission in God's World" and "God and Caesar: The Church's Role in Ending Apartheid." I enrolled in both of the classes during my final year of seminary. My entire body was awakened. Then in 2004, as an administrator at Duke, I traveled with the Storeys to South Africa for a "Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope." My life has not been the same since.

I experienced a new calling while in South Africa and began to pray a prayer, "God, please take me out of my place of comfort and success, please give me a heart for hurting and broken people, and please make me more prophetic." I returned home from South Africa, told the dean of the Divinity School that it would be my last year in admissions and continued praying this prayer. It is this prayer that led to my appointment at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in 2005.

The story of South Africa is filled with pain. It is filled with great lines of separation, barriers that were seemingly impossible to break. The lines and the barriers separated black from white. The lines were all based on a person's skin color. Whites were in a place of privilege. Blacks were sometimes in a cage like animals. Whites were treated as children of God. Blacks were treated as anything but made in the image of God. There were times on the pilgrimage where all I could do was to cry when I realized this horrible hatred, and how each of us has within us the capacity to hate - to torture - to tear down instead of build up.

I preach about South Africa often. I use the story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to talk about what real reconciliation and forgiveness look like. I read books about South Africa. And, I try to take advantage of other opportunities I have to learn more about the pain and the hope of this nation.

On Sunday night, I went to see, "My Children! My Africa!" at the Studio Theatre in Washington. This play, written by Athol Fugard, is undoubtedly the most powerful play I have seen. The play has three characters, and each character tells the story of the pain of apartheid. Anela Myalatya (Mr. M) is a teacher who is assigned to one of the schools for black children. Isabel Dyson is a white student who visits the black school for a debate. Thami Mbikwana is a black student who is the star of Mr. M's class and debate team. Soon, Isabel and Thami develop a friendship. Mr. M then recruits them to enter into a debate contest together. Things run smoothly for a while but the struggle is always apparent. Isabel speaks of her family's response to her spending so much time in a black township. Thami talks about the political uproar developing around him. And, Mr. M continues to speak of hope.

Mr. M wants nothing to do with the political machine that feeds upon hatred. He chooses instead to stay in the classroom. He speaks lovingly of the power of words - words that unite, words that build up, words that provide a glimpse into another world. He yearns for his students to use the power of words over the power of stones and guns. His hope is that apartheid can end - not with brutal fighting but with the power of words.

Mr. M teaches, against all odds, because he has hope. Mr. M has hope that apartheid can end through the power of words. Mr. M seeks to impart his hope upon his students. His commitment is unwavering.

Mr. M has also left an impact upon me this week. His vision for hope keeps returning to my mind as I think about why I do what I do. There are many times when I love being a pastor. There are times when I think this role is the most amazing role any of us can play. It is a privilege for which none of us is truly worthy. There are other times, however, when I wonder how much longer I can do what I do. I yearn for rest. I yearn for projects to be completed. I yearn for a Saturday and a Sunday when I do not have to work - when I can enjoy a weekend like the people around me. Still, when I start thinking about all the other things I could be doing with my life, I come back to this hope within me.

I have this hope, a hope imparted to me by my professor, Peter Storey, that things in this world can be different. I have this hope that the rich and the poor can dwell together. I have this hope that people can take what they have and share it with others. I have this hope that a life that seems to be drowning can discover purpose again and be transformed. I have this hope in a Gospel that sets the prisoner free - the one who is in bondage to sin, addiction, and despair can be absolutely liberated because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have this hope that the Spirit of the Lord gave to Jesus when he said, "I have come to preach good news to the poor." I have this hope that people will discover that the greatest blessing is not taking care of ourselves but taking care of others. I have this hope - a hope that comes from a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. I have this hope that people can see that their greatest worth is not in the title on their business card but in the fact that they are a beloved child of God - made in God's image, precious in God's eyes. I have this hope that the church - every church - will see that it exists not for its own members but for the people outside - for the transformation of the world. I have this hope that the people who gather inside a church will resemble the creative nature of God's hand - that a congregation is called to be reflective of the extraordinary diversity God created. I have this hope that the church will be the church - a place very different from the rest of society - a place whose doors are open to all people.

I have this hope....and I would not trade the opportunity to share it for anything in the world.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bright Beginnings

I attended an Open House earlier this week at a place not far from the church. I have been invited to Bright Beginnings before, and I am not sure why I waited so long to visit.

Bright Beginnings is a beautiful childcare center that serves 92 children in the District of Columbia. The children range in age from infants to pre-K, and I am told that there are some 30 -50 infants on the waiting list for their services. The space Bright Beginnings occupies is covered in bright colors. The smell of orange juice and peanut butter sandwiches filters through the air. Tiny toilets can be found in each bathroom. Bright Beginnings appears to be like every other childcare center in the city. However, Bright Beginnings is different.

The children at Bright Beginnings are all homeless. None of them have a permanent place to call home. They are residents of shelters in the city. They sleep on a relative's couch at night. They stay in transitional shelters. And, seeing these little faces smiling back at me elicited a myriad of thoughts in my mind.

I think of the great care many of my peers undertake when expecting a child. Many of them paint the color of the baby's room yellow, blue or pink. We buy special furniture. We purchase special laundry detergent to get all of the baby's little things clean before we bring the baby home from the hospital. We go on Consumer Reports time and again to see who manufactures the best car seat or stroller. We purchase five different kinds of diapers until we find the one that works best for us. We get the baby everything she or he might need. (It is interesting that I have even thought about how Craig and I cannot have a child until we can afford a larger house since babies need their own rooms.)

But what would it be like to have a child and not have a place to call your own, let alone a separate room for the child? What would it be like to depend upon the city or a distant cousin for a bed at night for you and your child or children?

Too often we think that the only people who are homeless are men with substance abuse problems. We look at the people on the streets who shake a can in our faces and assume that every homeless person is the same, and we conclude that it is their fault that they are homeless. "Can't they just get a job?" we ask ourselves.

Last weekend, the people at Mount Vernon Place raised money for Rachael's Women's Center by participating in a mini-walk for the Fannie Mae Help the Homeless Walkathon. Two staff members of Rachael's shared information with us prior to our walk. Their statistics are startling. They told us about the homeless population many of us do not always see - women and their children. And, they helped us to see how hard it is to make ends meet in a city like Washington when the cost of housing is so high. An individual making minimum wage who has a child cannot possibly afford to live in this city. There is a huge difference between a minimum wage and a livable wage.

The conversations with the people at Rachael's Women's Center and Bright Beginnings have recalled to mind a time in my life when I, too, was forced to leave the place I called home. My parents had recently divorced, and my mother was doing everything within her power to keep life as close to normal for my sister and me. She was teaching at a college, adding an extra course each semester to her already full load, and working at a women's clothing store at night. She wanted desperately for my sister and me to have the opportunities that we had always had. Still, it was tough to stay afloat. The bills were larger than the income and dollars coming in. Not enough changes had been made. It was like treading water, and the water became too deep.

An eviction notice was served, and we must have thought that it would go away. We pleaded with the landlord to help us one more month, but it did not work. Individuals dressed in orange from the county jail arrived one day and moved all of our belongings to the sidewalk. My furniture. My clothing. My prized possessions. My pictures. Everything was at the top of the driveway.

Fortunately, it did not stay there for long. We had people who we could call, and they immediately came to our need. We were able to move into another duplex that day with the help of a friend who owned a moving company.

I have never written about this time in my life before. It still haunts me.

I see evictions happening in the neighborhood where I live all of the time. It is not unusual to come home and see a pile of stuff on the side of the street. Each time I see this, I say a prayer for the one whose stuff my eyes can see.

But we must do more than pray. We must continue to educate ourselves on why people are homeless. We must continue to ask ourselves why some people have so much why others have so little. We must look with compassion upon every person we see - the man at the edge of the lawn whose body and belongings are covered in plastic, the people who sleep on the grates outside of the city-owned building where we have worship services, the coworker who has recently gone through a divorce and seems to be having a hard time juggling everything.

If you live in a city, then you have plenty of opportunities to confront individuals who are struggling through life. It is an enormous responsibility to see so many people with significant needs and then read the scriptures where we are told that we will be judged - held accountable - for how we treat the hungry and the homeless.

I am grateful for what my eyes have seen this week. I am grateful for Rachael's Women's Center and Bright Beginnings. May the visions not escape my mind nor the words my ears. May I allow what my heart has experienced to penetrate into actions that will make a difference.

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.
I was homeless, and you gave me a place to lay my head.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


There is an amazing process of restoration taking place at Mount Vernon Place right now. If you walk through the 1917 historic building, you can see the original brick walls, along with the metal casing for new walls that will be installed. It is quite remarkable to see the building being turned from something so old into something seemingly new and spectacular.

In addition to the interior of the church, much of the exterior is also being transformed and restored, including the lights.

The existing lights were all removed a few months ago, and a sample photo of the restoration was recently returned. It is amazing to see the difference.

It seems as though layers of paint and other chemicals have been added to the fixtures through the years. The paint was intended to help the fixtures - to make them look better. Yet, the paint covered the core of their beauty. The paint prohibited the fixtures from shining.

I have thought a lot about the fixtures as I share the photos with people who come to my office. I wonder what else the church has covered - how many layers have been added on top of the original state or purpose of the church.

The church exists for the transformation of the world. The church is Christ's body in the world and is called to be a vehicle through which real change occurs as we seek to love God and neighbor with all that we have, all that we are, and all that we do. Yet, somehow this core is too often covered with other layers of stuff. The stuff is intended to help. It is intended to add to the structure. Yet, the stuff has little to do with what it means to be a church. It often takes away from the church's original purpose - from its original, spectacular beauty.

We had a lot of 'stuff' happening at Mount Vernon Place when I got here two years ago. There were several activities, concerts, performances, meetings, and events happening nearly all of the time. Yet, new people were not coming in. Lives were not being changed, touched and transformed. The church's core purpose had been covered with all kinds of stuff - but the stuff was not necessary (or had little to do) with the proclamation of the Gospel.

When I come to Mount Vernon Place now, I see all kinds of beauty. I see beauty in the diversity of the congregation - in a community where all are welcome and accepted just as they are. I see beauty in the 25 people who raised over $500 for Rachael's Women's Center on Sunday by participating in a mini-walk to Help the Homeless. I see beauty when people come and study the scriptures for the first time. I see beauty when we go and serve at Calvary Women's Center one Sunday night a month. I see beauty when a baby smiles as I preach while people pass him around. I see beauty when a 93-year-old woman nearly dances in the front row to "This Little Light of Mine." I see beauty when Larry plays his violin, offering a wonderful gift to the congregation.

I see beauty - not because we are entertaining others or taking care of ourselves or doing what we have always done before. I see beauty because we are trying to remove all the layers of paint - the layers of things that do not matter when it comes to being the church - the body of Christ in the world.

There is a spectacular beauty that shines when we gather - a powerful light that shines, and the darkness has never overcome this light.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wendell Berry

Last week, I attended Pastor's School and Convocation at Duke Divinity School. This event is hosted annually by the Divinity School and provides a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and learn something new. I learned a lot last week - not new things, necessarily - but things I needed to hear.

The event was headlined by Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who has authored over 30 books - mainly fiction and poetry. Several of Mr. Berry's books were assigned to me when I was a student at Duke. Other books have crossed my desk after being highly recommended to me. Some of the books have resonated with me. Yet, I must confess that I never really understood or appreciated his poetry and his writing - not until now - until hearing him and seeing his witness.

Mr. Berry is in his 70s. He rarely leaves the state of Kentucky. His comfort zone is on the farm, and his community is his family, his neighbors and his characters. In fact, one of the individuals who shared the stage with him said that while most of this society is attached to prestige and money, "all the things the minor prophets denounced...Wendell is still attached to his family, children and grandchildren." While he was introduced at Duke by Time magazine's "America's Best Theologian," Mr. Berry is filled with humility, and he captivated an entire audience of preachers and budding scholars. He captured us with his ability to talk about rest - about living the Sabbath - about keeping life holy - and about being the church Christ has called us to be.

Mr. Berry is a no-nonsense kind of person - not the kind that puts others down - but the kind that wants the best for others and for this land. He lives his faith, and he wants others to live their faith, too.

He started his part of the conversation last week with the words, "You can't practice Christianity just in church. Sometimes I don't know what you do in the church other than just letting your mind wander." He then described for us what a neighbor really is - what authentic Christian community looks like - what the church is called to be when we practice our faith faithfully.

People in community are not just people who live near each other. They are people who need each other.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is supposed to be a virtue which is the most boring subject. If you love your neighbor as yourself or have the sense to act like you do, the result is you have a neighbor in the operative sense, and if you have a neighbor in the operative sense, then you have help. The key is you have to keep your neighbor close to yourself.

What a blessing to think about these words - to imagine a people who need each other and who help each other. Too often the church is filled with people who come in and go out. They meet for a weekly gathering and then go off to do their own thing during the week. I prefer to imagine a church filled with people who need each other and who help each other.

I imagine my friend Louie who is in the hospital today - how he needs our prayers - and how his wife needs our support - how she needs someone to take her to the hospital to see her sick husband and how she needs people to call her so that she can talk about how hard it is to see him so sick and to not be able to communicate with him. They need us.

I think of the woman who has lost both a cousin and a college friend to death this week - even though they were both in their 20s. This woman needs our support right now. She needs us to pray for her and to journey with her during this difficult time. She needs us to listen when she is mourning the loss of these individuals and when she is shouting out her anger or doubt with God. She needs us.

I think of the individuals in our church who are no longer able to get out. I know how much they love to be visited and how they would take delight in our stopping by more often - with communion or a word of cheer. They need us.

And, I think of how we all need one another on this journey called faith. We need to learn from each other. We need to hear how God is at work in each other's lives so we can see more of God in our lives. We need people to hold us accountable. We need individuals who know everything about us (or almost everything) and love us in spite of it all.

On the second day Wendell Berry spoke, he said this, "When the people have made dark the light within them, the world darkens." He's right. We all have a light to shine. Some of us share our light with others - going out of our way to share our God-given light and gifts to those around us. Others prefer to keep the light to themselves, hoarding it away, keeping the world around them a little dark. Yet, if we are all living in community - in authentic community - we cannot help but to allow our light to shine. What a powerful image!

I'll continue to think about this kind of community while working hard to see how we can better embody it at Mount Vernon Place. In the meantime, I am also reading Mr. Berry's poems on Sabbath - on working for six days and resting on the seventh - so that I might better see God at work in my life and in the world around me.

Thank you, Mr. Berry, for leaving your farm in Kentucky in order to share your time with a bunch of pastors in North Carolina.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Week in Review

I admire people who update their blogs on a daily basis. It is a discipline of sorts - one that requires getting up early, constant creativity, and instant inspiration. It is a discipline I think of having - but I don't have it yet. Yikes! It's been 10 days since I have written anything - other than two sermons and lots of reports for the annual charge conference.

I have lots of good excuses for not writing on the blog, however...

My sister visited last week from Colorado. It was Dana's first visit to Washington since I moved back in 2005. She arrived on Thursday, and we made a quick trip to New York City where we saw "Grease" on Broadway and walked all over the city. It was wonderful. Dana also got to visit Mount Vernon Place for the first time on Sunday. It was the perfect day to visit. It was one of the best days I can remember in a long time, in fact.

We welcomed 11 new members into the church on Sunday. Their age range spans over 60 years. Several of them are new to the church - not just our church but any church. Two of them came back after being at other churches more recently. Many of them live in the neighborhood and walk to church. One of them was baptized. All of them make my heart soar to new heights. They represent the fruit of our labor and are a testimony to how God is at work in this place. It was absolutely wonderful to welcome these new people into the life of our congregation. I am so excited to be their pastor. I'll write more on them later...

Following worship on Sunday, we made our way to North Carolina where I participated in Convocation and Pastor's School at Duke Divinity School. Wendell Berry spoke, and it is a rare privilege to see and hear Wendell Berry. I'll write more on him later...

The best part of being back at Duke was the joy of seeing so many people who I know, love and respect. A few of them said, "welcome home," and I realize that Durham will always be a bit like home. Many of them reminded me of the privilege I had to be the Director of Admissions for four years. Several of them demonstrated to me again that the church is in very good hands under their capable leadership. It is always good to be in a place that is like home.

It's been a great week!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Her Shoes

One of my favorite movies of all time is "The American President." In this 1995 film, Michael Douglas plays the star role of President Andrew Shepherd. President Shepherd is an extraordinarily popular president with very high public opinion polls. He is also a widower who is ready to start dating again. His attention is captured by a lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade. The two start to date, and the president's friends and family have a variety of opinions to offer the moment the president starts seeing this woman. Lucy, the president's daughter, also has advice to offer. One evening, the president is about to go out on a date and Lucy informs her father that he should compliment Sydney on her shoes. "Tell her you like her shoes. Girls love that stuff."

My friend, Tracy, loved shoes. She had amazing shoes. She had plaid pumps and the newest open-toed shoes. She had strappy sandals and shoes with very high heels. She had the latest fad shoes and she had classy, timeless shoes. She had tennis shoes and running shoes. She had a lot of shoes. She clearly loved the ability of shoes to add one more detail to her finished look.

However, I never recall looking at Tracy's shoes. I never remember walking down the street with her saying, "What great shoes." I do not recall ever complimenting on her shoes. I did not even know that Tracy had big feet like me - with her feet being a size 10 and mine being a size 11. Of course, the majority of the time I was with Tracy was on the weekend or at church where there was no need to "pull out all the stops." Still, I had no idea how many times she must have thought, 'These are great shoes," or heard the words, "I love your shoes," until the shoes were in a box in Tracy's apartment, ready to be loaded into her mother's car. I had no idea until it was too late.

At Tracy's memorial service, one of her friends who spoke shared how she had selected her outfit for that day because she knew that Tracy would have approved of her dress and her shoes. This friend expressed how Tracy had one day told her that she needed to wear higher heals to make her legs look not so short. Tracy noticed details all the time. And in Tracy's absence, I have realized how often I miss the small details.

One of the many marks Tracy's life now has on mine is to try to notice the small things and to do the little things that make a big difference. I am trying to write more notes to friends - notes that tell them how much I appreciate them. I have picked up the phone to call people more often, just to say "hello." I have met friends for lunch, coffee, or Happy Hour more in the last few weeks than I have in the last year. I am trying to make time for more people in my life.

Tracy has been gone over two months now. I have presided over dozens of funerals and memorial services before, and I cannot remember the specific day on which any of them died - I can only remember the month or the season of the year. Yet, I am not sure I'll ever forget July 31 - the day Tracy died - or her smile or her organized apartment or her shoes piled into a box.

Compliment someone on their shoes today. Women love that stuff.