Monday, December 24, 2007

Thin Places

The Gospel of Luke provides us with the best account of what happened on this night. Luke writes in the second chapter,

"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing to you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.'"

I imagine this scene as a thin place - as a place in life where heaven seems to come down to earth, leaving a very thin place separating the two.

I can only imagine how privileged the shepherds were that night - how privileged the people were who received the message from the angels and then traveled to the borrowed barn in Bethlehem where their Savior was born. It was like heaven - but on earth. It was hard to tell the difference between the two.

I have been thinking a lot about thin spaces lately. It seems as though many times in the last week heaven has descended to earth, angels have appeared, and I have felt myself surely in the presence of the Lord.

This time of year fills my mail box with dozens of cards from across the country. There are some cards that arrive, bringing news from individuals with whom I only communicate at Christmas. It seems as though many of these cards come from Hendersonville, North Carolina - the community in which I was first appointed as a pastor. Each card comes with a blessing - each card seemingly reminds me of the holy ground on which I walked with these individuals for one transformational year. Some of the cards tell me what a difference I made in one's spiritual life. Other cards tell me that I am still missed. Still others remind me of the sacredness of being pastor - of the privilege I have of journeying through life with people. Many of the cards have brought tears to my eyes. They have taken me to a thin place - a place where I know God is lurking - almost close and tangible enough to touch God.

I experienced another thin place on Friday. My friend, Louie has been sick for nearly three months, two of which were spent in a hospital and the last few weeks in a nursing center. Prior to his sickness, Louis was the one member of Mount Vernon Place who made me laugh more than any other. He brought so many smiles to my face with his wonderful, spunky personality. He and his wife of 59 years demonstrated to me often how to love life - how to seize life and make the most of it - the ups and the downs.

Louie also gave his heart to the church. He spent hours trying to find the right contractor for our stained class window restoration. He poured over our insurance policies, making sure we were getting the best coverage for the church. He knew about the boiler - when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He seemed to know every nook and cranny of the church, and I am not sure we'll ever find a more faithful member of the Trustees than Louie.

I had lunch with Louie and his wife not long before he got sick. I am not sure I'll ever forget this lunch. I am so glad I accepted the invitation. It was one of the last extended conversations we shared as he has not been able to talk since he got sick.

I saw Louie last Wednesday. I held his hand for a long time. I wiped his mouth. I told him I loved him. I prayed for him. And, I laughed with him. But I had no idea it would be the last time I could tell him of God's love for him and how much I appreciated him.

On Friday afternoon, I was shepherded into a small conference room with Louie's wife and one of the interns at Mount Vernon Place. We were asked to sit down and wait for the doctor - a person who arrived a few minutes later to share news that no one likes to hear - news of Louie's death. We then entered a room where Louie had breathed his last breath.

It was a thin place.

It was a place where I knew God had been present and was present. I believe with all of my heart that God was right there - that God was with the doctors who administered CPR a final time and then removed the tubes for the last time. I believe God was there, ready to receive into his tender arms of mercy one of God's precious children. And, I believe God was there as we entered that room broken hearted in order to say a final goodbye.

On this night, heaven came down to earth. On Christmas, God came down to us. God came to us in the form of Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came, born in the most humble of ways, teaching people how to live by loving God and loving neighbors. Jesus reached out to the least, the last and the lost, telling us to do the same. Jesus then suffered and died upon a cross, but on the third day he rose again, giving us strength for today and hope for tomorrow. His life, death and resurrection assure us that no matter what happens on this earth - no matter how dark it might appear - that the darkness has never overcome the light.

Thank you, God, for the thin places of life. Thank you for Louie. Thank you for the privilege of being a pastor. Thank you for the gift of Christmas - for the gift of your Son.

Glory to God in the highest!

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Early last Tuesday morning I was waiting for a bus. Heading downtown for a 7:30 meeting, I walked out of my building at 7:10 a.m. I turned the corner and started down 14th Street just as a bus was arriving at the stop. I ran down the block in hopes of catching the bus only to watch it slowly pull away. I was one minute too late.

I continued to wait, looking up the street, looking at my watch, and worrying about being late. Soon, another bus was in sight. It approached the individuals standing at the bus stop, a rather long line by now. And, it went right on by. In fact, it whizzed right on by - passing each one of us.

We had been denied.

We were denied access because the bus was already too crowded. Ten minutes later another bus arrived. We finally boarded, crowding into the already full aisle for the ride downtown. It was 7:45 when I finally arrived at my meeting.

I do not like being denied.

I went to worship with my fiancee this week. Craig is a Roman Catholic. We went to Mass on Saturday night, and I found it to be a tremendous blessing to be in worship on a Saturday night. It was a blessing to hear the texts read and proclaimed - the same texts I would read and proclaim on Sunday morning. It was a blessing to hear the music and to sit in the quiet. I was so grateful for the time to pray - the space to center myself and dedicate Sunday's worship to God, asking God to already go ahead of us and fill the space where the Mount Vernon Place congregation would worship the following morning. Yes, the service was a blessing. But, I cannot go to worship with Craig without feeling denied. I cannot attend Mass without feeling as though I am left out whenever it comes to the Eucharist. It is clear that I am not welcome at the table. Even though I have the authority in the United Methodist Church to pray, "Pour out thy Holy Spirit upon these gifts of bread and wine, making them be for us the body and blood of Christ," I cannot partake of the feast with my fiancee. I am not allowed at the table where he partakes.

One of the things I love about the United Methodist Church is our founder, John Wesley's, beliefs about the Lord's Supper. Wesley taught that Holy Communion is a means of grace - it is a way in which we can experience the presence of God in our lives and the power of Christ's forgiveness. The Lord's Supper is a visible sign of an invisible grace. And, Wesley believed that all should come to the table - that it was a converting ordinance - that the bread and the wine had the power to transform lives. Wesley even said that we should come when we do not feel like coming. I love this theology. And, I love remembering who exactly was at Christ's table on the night in which he gave himself up for us.

On that Thursday night, Christ gathered twelve men around a table. They were ordinary men. They had seen Christ perform significant miracles but they still doubted their faith. They were people who promised to stay awake for the night only to fall asleep. They were individuals who Jesus knew would deny him. Still, Jesus gathered with them around the table. Jesus invited them to eat with him, and he gave thanks for them. He then offered them everything that he had.

Ordinary people.

People filled with doubt.


People who would deny Jesus.

People like you and like me....were all invited to the table.

I love the Lord's Supper. I yearn to both celebrate and partake of the feast. The Sundays on which we celebrate Holy Communion are my favorite Sundays because I have the awesome task of taking a little bread and a little juice and asking God to bless them, making them become the body and the blood of Christ. I then get to see all kinds of people coming forward - those who believe and those who doubt, sinners and saints, children and elderly individuals - all coming forward to the table - receiving signs of the greatest gift ever given.

Each Sunday, I tell individuals how the table does not belong to me. It does not belong to Mount Vernon Place. Rather, it is the table of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Look who he matter who we are, what we have done, who we have loved, or who we have failed to love....we would surely be invited. Again, look who he invited - the ones who would betray him!

The body of Christ broken for you.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Thanks be to God. The access will never be denied.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Change is the one constant in life.

I speak this phrase often at Mount Vernon Place. A lot is changing at Mount Vernon Place. There have been significant changes in the last year. We are no longer worshipping in a magnificent sanctuary. We are not even in our own building. And, buildings that meant a lot to people - buildings where people were married or learned the stories of Jesus or fellowshiped with friends - are no longer standing. Instead, a hole is getting deeper and deeper in order for a new building to come up.

The congregation is also changing at Mount Vernon Place. Several newcomers now make up a significant portion of the congregation. New people are filling leadership roles on important committees and ministry teams. New liturgies are being introduced. New ideas are constantly emerging. Change - significant change - is happening.

My neighborhood of Columbia Heights is also changing. The city's largest shopping complex, a huge place located a block from where I live, will open in the spring. New condominiums and apartment buildings are almost ready for occupancy. Nice restaurants and a fancy spa have already opened. New people are moving in all of the time, making the neighborhood more and more diverse. And, while some of the change is welcome, there are many people in the neighborhood, people who have lived here for a long time - sometimes all of their lives - who do not like the change. The Washington Post wrote a great article that captures some of the feelings earlier this week. The change is causing tension.

I love the change that is happening at Mount Vernon Place. I get excited about what is happening when I look out on Sunday mornings and see new people smiling back at me or when I go and serve in the community with people who were not at the church one year ago. I am also excited about the new building that is on the horizon.

And, I like the change happening in my neighborhood. It is one of the reasons I purchased a place in this neighborhood in 2005. While the traffic is increasing each day and more people get off at the Metro stop each evening, I see the change as something that is good.

But I learned of a change this past week that I do not like at all. Last week, I learned that one of my favorite people at Duke Divinity School is leaving the administration.

If any of you know me, then you know that I love Duke Divinity School. I believe that Duke is one of, if not the best, theological schools in the country. Duke has some of the strongest theologians and Biblical scholars on their faculty. The seminary boasts one of the youngest student bodies in the nation. The institution prides itself on being one of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the United States. It has an amazing field education program that is funded by an endowment that makes an education affordable. The seminary is located in the heart of a leading university - a university that is consistently ranked in the top ten year after year - allowing us to learn not only about the divinity of Christ but also the coaching skills and techniques of Coach K while learning cheers like "Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell."

Yes, I love Duke. My passion and love of the school are the reasons why I accepted an invitation to return to the school and serve as the Director of Admissions from 2001 -2005. And, one of the reasons why I love the school so much is because of a man named Greg.
Greg was the Director of Admissions when I was discerning a call to ministry and applying to seminary in 1997. He hosted me on my prospective visit day. He sent letters telling me of my acceptance and of my being selected for a Dean's Scholarship. He greeted me in the parking lot when I brought my family to campus for the first time - calling me by name even though he had only met me once before. He led orientation when I was a first year student. Greg was then promoted to Associate Dean of Student Services. In this role, Greg was directly responsible for recruiting me to return to the Divinity School. He cornered me one fall asking if I could pray about coming back to the school. He called one morning saying, "I am sorry to be bothering you but the search committee has just met and we really want you to apply for this position." He took me out to dinner, along with the Dean, on the eve of my interview. And, he was the first person to celebrate with me when I had been offered the position.

For four years, Greg was my boss. He was with me when I was missing the parish tremendously, asking questions like, "Why on earth did you pull me out of the local church?" He was there to say, "great job" when we set new records in the admissions office for the number of inquiries and applications received in a year. And, he was there when I discerned it was time to go - time to go back into the parish. All the while, Greg was demonstrating to me what it looks like to live a balanced life - what it looks like to put your family first. Greg came into the office after taking his children to school. He worked hard during the day, but he never allowed work to impact his time with his children and his wife. He always showed what it looked like to love God, neighbor, family and then work. I will never forget his example - particularly since balance is something I struggle to find.

Greg is leaving the Divinity School. The student services staff is being reorganized. New people have been temporarily appointed to take his place, along with the places of two other key leaders who are leaving. And, I don't like the change. I find the change very hard to accept. I cannot imagine the Divinity School without Greg!

But, I am trying to repeat the words I repeat to the people in our church. Change is the one constant in life.

Thank you, Greg, for being my mentor, my example, and my friend.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Cross Endures

I had lunch last week with a friend of mine. I met Tracy at the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation, an intensive two-week academy for rising juniors and seniors in high school. The Academy is one of the most amazing programs I have experienced. It is based upon our baptism - about what it means to live out our calling as baptised individuals who have been bathed and claimed by Christ. And, it is transformational in every sense of the word.

The extended community of DYA was heartbroken this year, consumed with grief, when a DYA alumnus was struck by lightening while playing soccer and killed. The young man was on the soccer field, practicing a game he loved with his high school classmates when his life came to an end all too soon.

Tracy told me a story that was relayed to her by the young man's pastor. The young man's body was prepared for viewing. Just before his family said goodbye to him, his father slipped a metal cross on a colorful ribbon around his neck. It was a cross given to him at another formative youth event. The cross was made of metal and it meant a lot to the young man. The young man's body was then cremated. Yet, something unusual happened.

The parents went to get their child's ashes and opened the box. Inside of the box were the usual ashes but the metal cross rested on top of it all.

The cross should have melted.

The heat of the crematorium should have consumed it.

But it did not.

The cross endured.

The cross endured!

I have thought a lot about Tracy's story in the last several days.

It seems as though this time of year can remind us about everything that we do not have instead of all that we do have. We are reminded often of the loved one who is no longer with us because of death or divorce. We think about the people who were once part of our lives but who are no longer. We see families knit together perfectly, enjoying the holidays, and we wonder why we do not have the same bliss. We worry about our finances and our health. We experience the pain of loneliness. Yet, the cross endures.

It does not matter what we are going through during this time of year. No matter how dark things may appear, the light shines. The light shines and the darkness has never overcome the light. Life begins. Life ends. But the cross endures - promising us all that even death itself cannot extinguish the light.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Christmas Giving

Last year, I had the privilege of hearing Michael Slaughter speak. Rev. Slaughter is the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio. Each year, Rev. Slaughter challenges his church to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas.

"Why do you act like Christmas is your birthday," he asks.

His question is on target. We do celebrate Christmas as if it were our birthday. We put together lists of the things we want, starting at a very early age in life. We tell others exactly what we want for Christmas, forgetting that Christmas is not our birthday but Christ's birthday.

Christmas is the birthday of the one who came proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of site to the blind.

Christmas is the birthday of the one who turned this world upside down, inaugurating a new kind of kingdom - a kingdom radically different from the ways of this world.

Christmas is about Christ - not us!

We did something a little different at Mount Vernon Place yesterday. We asked people to do their Christmas shopping at church. We invited people to give gifts that matter- gifts that keep on giving. People were invited to buy dinner for women at Calvary Women's Shelter, glucose testing strips for Christ House, a sheep for Heifer International, a net for a child in Africa, yarn for a prayer shawl, or free trade coffee and chocolate. One of our new members made beautiful cards that explain the gift - a card that enables the recipient to understand the meaning and the significance of the gift.

People gave. They gave generously. Our small congregation raised over $2500, and as a result of their giving, other people will receive a gift.

Homeless men will receive the gift of medical care.

People around the world will receive eggs and milk and meat from animals that were purchased.

Individuals in our congregation will receive a prayer shawl - tangible evidence of God's love and grace in their life.

Women - our neighbors - will receive a home-cooked meal delivered to their home at Calvary.

The gifts will keep on giving.

What are you giving for Christmas?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas...

Craig and I had the privilege of going to the White House last night with people from our church. The house is exquisite in every possible way. The beauty radiates from everything - the flowers, the decorated Christmas tree balls from each of the national parks, the lights and the gingerbread house covered in white chocolate. There is something magical about this time of year. Enjoy it.