Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Homily for Tonight - Into this Mess

Earlier this week, I received an email from the religion writer for the Washington Post. Normally, Michelle is busy writing December articles about church’s hosting live nativity scenes or a congregation’s annual Christmas coat drive. This year’s angle is different, however. This year, Michelle wanted to know about people in our congregation who are doing things differently this Christmas. She wanted to know about traditions coming to an end, money not being spent, or people celebrating Christmas differently due to the current state of affairs. The article dancing through her mind was more about darkness instead of light. It was more about what we don’t have instead of what we do have. This Christmas is different.

Normally at this time of year, my phone calls with my mother are some of the happiest calls all year. My mother loves Christmas. There are some years when she has had a Christmas tree in every room of the house. She carefully budgets for Christmas each year, making sure that she has money to buy everyone a gift. She goes out of her way to share Christmas cheer. But the phone call this morning ended with tears instead of joy. The store she owns on Main Street has sold 25% of what it had sold at this time last December. Instead of neighbors stopping in to say “Hello,” Hospice workers are coming in the house to check on her husband, making sure he is comfortable as he nears the end of his life. And, not all of the family is home this Christmas – it is the first Christmas in my entire life in which I have not seen my mother. This Christmas is different.

Some of us who gather here tonight are hurting. We, too, have experienced loss this year. We have lost a love one. We have lost a job. We have lost a portion of our salary or investments. We have lost some of our physical mobility or quality of life.

Others of us know people around us who are hurting. Christmas cards have been printed with messages of factories closing, the help fund at the church being depleted, people losing their jobs, and others losing their houses. It seems as though the pain is tangible – you can almost see it in the faces of some of the individuals. This Christmas is different.

But is it really all that different?

The more I examine the Christmas story found in scripture, the promises of a Messiah given to us in Isaiah, and the conditions into which this one was born, the more I realize how this Christmas, our Christmas in 2008, is a lot like the first Christmas.

The words given to us by the prophet Isaiah during the month of December are some of my favorite words in all of scripture. Isaiah has an uncanny ability of offering hope when everything seems hopeless. The community to whom Isaiah preaches is dominated by fear. Things are changing. The nation of Assyria has become a stronghold, clamping down on Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel. In a matter of no time, the kingdom will come tumbling down, making its occupants captives of a new king and very different kingdom. War is being waged. Families are being torn apart. Homes are being burnt to the ground. Lives of a few and the livelihood of many are coming to an end. Things are dark, dreary, messy.

But into this mess comes a word from the wilderness. Isaiah comes to the people walking in the darkness of change, anxiety, fear and uncertainty, telling them that all who are in darkness have seen a great light. A light is shining upon the land of deep darkness. Their burden is being eased as the bar across their shoulders is being broken. The soldiers trampling over the land are being stopped in their tracks as their clothing and boots are burned. The darkness is giving way to the light – the light that comes with a child promised long before the child was ever born.

Isaiah tells all who will listen that a child has been born for us. A son has been given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This one is bringing about a new kind of kingdom. This one is coming into the mess and is turning the mess upside down. This one will rule with justice and righteousness.

But what about us?

What about we who gather here, acquainted with pain of our own or the pain of those we love?
We gather in the shadow of a window that for me tells it all. There was a baby born in the most humble of ways. All of the hotels were booked long ago. No friends or relatives were nearby. The only shelter to be found was a barn – a borrowed barn. The place on which to lay the baby once he was born was not a sterile bassinette covered with clean, white sheets. The only thing that could be found was a manger – a mechanism made for cattle; not a baby. But it was into this mess that Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace was born. He came into a mess – a literal mess – on the night he was born. And, he never forgot his humble beginnings.

He spent his entire life breaking into the messes of the world – into the messes created by people who had done everything wrong and little right. He cleaned up that mess. As Titus tells us, he gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify a people who will be like him. He went into the mess of broken relationships, teaching people to go out of their way in order for reconciliation to happen – in order to bring back together that which had been separated. He told us to not forgive just one time but 70 times 7 times – making sure that the mess really was cleaned up. He went into messy homes and messy neighborhoods. In fact, he much preferred to be with those who had little – little clothing, food, shelter, health care, friends, family, respect. He touched the mess, he redeemed it, he made people whole once more, and he taught his followers to do the same – to spend time with people at the bottom, in the mess. And when the mess had really gotten out of hand, he borrowed a messy animal and rode through the streets of Jerusalem, ending the week on a cross where he died a very messy death. And it was this death that turned the mess of the world upside down once and for all – promising that while we all will die – we all will live.

We have made Christmas into a holiday that was seemingly designed for us. We light up the city and neighborhood with bright lights, spending more on energy this month than we normally spend. We rush around the shopping malls and stores, seeking out the perfect gift for our friends and loved ones. We send cards to people – some of whom we only communicate with at Christmas. And, we tell others what we want for Christmas – thinking that Christmas is our birthday and not the birthday of our Savior. But maybe, just maybe, the things we have been forced to let go of this year have gotten us closer to the original, messy story. Maybe our letting go of some of the traditions has enabled us to see how much we really have and how what we have is enough. Maybe our not walking in without a gift has pushed us to give more of ourselves – sitting, listening, waiting, and watching. Maybe our not being where we normally are this Christmas enables us to see and sense more of what really happened at Christmas – a baby being born far from home with nothing that the mother anticipated having at the moment of birth – nothing clean, no friends, no family, only a few strangers looking in. Maybe the spot where the person we love always sits but who is no longer with us will be filled – filled with the presence of one who longs to bring comfort. Christmas, the true meaning of Christmas, is messy.

And, I would give anything to be able to stand up here tonight and tell you that the mess is ending. I would love to be able to say that the stores on Main Street will stop closing, that your job is safe and secure, that you will find employment in the New Year, that your friend or family member will be cured of cancer, that your mourning, broken heart will stop hurting, that your home will be refinanced before you lose it, that you will be reconciled with the one from whom you are separated, or that you will have love in your life at this time next year. I wish I could offer you a pie in the sky – telling you that your wishes, your dreams, and your desires will all come to fruition. But this is not the promise of Christmas.

The promise of Christmas is that one has come who knows about mess. One has come who knows about pain and sorrow. One has come who knows about betrayal and disappointment. One has come who knows whatever it is that we or our loved ones are experiencing. One has come. And this one promises that no matter how dark the mess might be, the light has never been overcome by the darkness. This one knows our mess. This one longs to sit alongside of us in our mess. This one longs to be present – to be Emmanuel, God with us…in the mess.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Invitation to Christmas Eve...

I am working on worship planning this morning and came across this beautiful liturgy from the Iona Community. It embodies for me what Christmas is about and gives words to my prayers for what might happen when we gather tomorrow evening for worship. You are welcome here on Christmas Eve. Our sanctuary will be open for prayer and meditation from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. with worship beginning at 7:00. Looking for a place to be in Washington on Christmas Eve? Come join us.

This, tonight,
is the meeting place
of heaven and earth.

For this, tonight,
is the stable
in which God keeps his appointment
to meet his people.

Not many high are here,
not many holy,
not many innocent children,
not many worldly wise,
not all familiar faces,
not all frequent visitors.

But, if tonight
only strangers met,
that would be enough.

For Bethlehem was not the hub of the universe,
nor was the stable a platform for famous people.

In an out-of-the-way place
which people never thought to visit -
there God kept and keeps his promise;
there God sends his Son.

Copyright: Cloth for the Cradle: Worship Resources and Readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, 1997, Iona Community, Wild Goose Worship Group.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What Were You Thinking, Mary?

I've been thinking a lot about Mary lately.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been on my mind a lot as I have spent time with different women who have recently given birth to a child or who have conceived a child to be born in the new year.

Two conversations have especially made me think about Mary.  One of the conversations was with a woman who wanted badly to have a vaginal birth but who instead had to give birth by C-Section after a long time in labor.  The other conversation was with a woman who had not imagined getting pregnant so early in her marriage.  "We thought we would enjoy each other for a couple of years and then get pregnant," she said.  But, God's timing was different.  God's timing was much, much earlier.

An angel named Gabriel came to Mary, telling her that she was a favored one and that God was with her.  Gabriel then said, "'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Luke 1:30-31).'"

Mary heard the news and then went to her relative, Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.  And, instead of complaining, Mary shared with Elizabeth, "'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name."

She then continues to tell others about this one being born through her saying, "'His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors...'"

They are beautiful words.  They are extraordinary words of a woman with great faith - a woman who was not prepared to give birth to the Savior of the world but one who knew that God was at work in her life and so she was willing to be the God-bearer.

My friends, we are all God-bearers.  While thankfully none of us have been named the recipients of a message like the one Gabriel brought to Mary, we have all been called to bear God.  We have all been called to allow God to be born through us.  God continues to select ordinary people like you and me as the people who will bear God to others - bringing God's grace to those who are filled with mistakes of the past, bringing God's love to those who are feeling alone, bringing God's peace to those filled with anxiety, bringing God's light to this world where too much darkness looms, bringing God's welcome to those who have only seen closed doors.

Without us, God can have a hard time breaking through.  God continues to take ordinary things and uses them to do extraordinary measures.  You have been chosen.  We have been chosen. 

How is it that we will be God-bearers on this day?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Preparing the Way

I have been thinking a lot lately about how best to prepare a way for the Lord.  In this season of Advent - this season of expectant waiting - how do we best make space in the business of our lives for the Advent of Christ amongst us once more.  I have been trying to spend more time in prayer and contemplation.  I have been practicing my Sabbath more - intentionally not making plans to be at a Saturday church event so that Craig and I can take delight in one another and spend time doing things we love to do - doing things that give us rest and renewal as individuals and as a couple.

On Wednesday, our church provided beautiful space for people to step away from their over-scheduled lives.  Our chapel floor was turned into a prayer labyrinth.  The only light was from candles.  The music was played by two guitars and a violin with the accompanying voices chanting songs from Taize.  It was a powerful experience.

But yesterday, I got an email that opened the door even more for the Spirit of God to burst through.  

Facebook has  enabled me to reconnect with all kinds of people - people I have not talked with in nearly two decades, in fact.  It is amazing to me how all kinds of people pop up around me through this mechanism and how I can miss people who I literally have not thought about in more than ten years.

Yesterday, I received an email from a childhood friend.  Jen and I went to the same church and same elementary school.  We sang in the choir together.  We then went to separate high schools and I am not sure that I have spoken with her in 20 years.  The message came through Facebook.  She told me she had something important to talk with me about.  I wrote back and said I could hardly wait to find out what is on her mind.  She then wrote:

Sooooo, what I REALLY wanted to talk to you about it this!

Our pastor always encourages us to give and receive forgiveness as a top priority, as any of those two left undone interferes with our worship.  Of course, you know all of this...but, after a sermon, a while back, I searched my heart....seeking to determine if there was any forgiveness that I needed to seek or offer.  And, I found some.

That's were you come in.
I feel as though I need to ask for your forgiveness.
I am hoping and fairly certain that you may not even know WHY.  But, I'd like to clear my conscience.  When I searched my heart, I found you.

In elementary school, when we still used the lower playground, you were hanging upside down on the dome-shaped jungle gym.  Some kids were teasing you as you were hanging there.  I'm afraid I was one of them.  I don't remember the details, and I hope you don't either.  But, no matter what really happened, I realized that I didn't help you.  I didn't stick up for you.  And, for ALL of these years, I really regret it.  We went to church together.  We were in choir together.  And when we were at school, I didn't defend you or help you to stop them.  I wasn't the instigator, but, I certainly didn't act appropriately.

So, please, Donna, forgive me for not being a better 'sister.'  I always felt so much guilt about that incident, that I never got closer to you, because I KNEW in the back of your mind you would remember that day on the playground.

Quite an email to receive, huh?  After twenty years, I received this email.  And, while I remember elementary school as a very painful experience of finding my way through life as the heaviest kid in the class, I do not remember this specific incident.  I remember so many days of literally hating to go on the playground, but I do not remember Jen's specific role in this.

But, Jen's email has prompted me to search my heart.  Who is it that I need to seek forgiveness from?  How is it that I need to make more space in my heart for others?  What, from the past, is taking up too much space because it is too heavy?

What about you, who do you need to forgive or seek forgiveness from?

Prepare the way of the Lord.  Prepare the way of the Lord.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For All This, I Give Thanks

I give thanks for

1) My husband, Craig, and our first five months of marriage.  Craig continues to embody for me the Indigo Girls song "Closer to Fine" with the line, "The best thing you ever did for me was to help me take my life less seriously, it's only life after all."  Craig recognizes my strengths and my weaknesses.  He respects my call to ministry and supports my role in the church.  He makes me laugh.  He makes me enjoy life a little bit more.  He is my partner and my best friend.

2) My family.  I am ever more aware of the gift of family as I spend this week with my mom, sister and niece in Colorado.  They are a constant reminder of the gift of God's tangible love here on this earth.  As we watched the wedding video again today, I am reminded of how blessed I am to have two parents who love me dearly and an extended family in many different places.

3) My friends.  I am so thankful for old friends and new friends - friends from college, seminary, church, Capitol Hill, Duke, and so many other places.

4) My call to ministry.  As I reflected last week, I cannot think of any better job than being a pastor.  I am so thankful for the gift of being "Pastor Donna" and the remarkable privileges this entails.

5) The Church.  I give thanks for the first place where I served as a pastor, First United Methodist Church of Hendersonville, NC.  I give thanks for the churches where I served as an intern in seminary.  I give thanks for Duke Chapel and the preachers who constantly encouraged me there.  And, I give thanks for Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church - the church where I currently pastor.  In this place I see God at work in so many ways.  I am so thankful for the people who are part of this incredible congregation - those who have been here since 1940 and those who joined our church family just four weeks ago. 

6) My education.  I give thanks for my time at William Woods as an undergraduate and my time at Duke Divinity School as a seminary student.  Without a doubt, I have been shaped and molded to be the best I can be, and I am thankful.  I also recognize that this is one thing that I so often take for granted.

7) Our home.  While we would love to have more than one bedroom, I realize each time I leave the church and see many of our unhoused neighbors that we are blessed.

8) Life.  From Duke Basketball to the Sunday paper, pumpkin pie to the Metro, Aveda shampoo to a rainbow in the sky, coupon shopping to Yankee candles, the final markdown sale at Talbot's to running into old friends on the street - life is good - very, very good.

9) My faith in Jesus Christ.  I realize that when we leave Colorado this week, that I might very well be saying good-bye to my stepfather, Red, for the final time.  Still, my faith says something more.  My faith tells me that one day we will all be reunited.  One day, we will all meet again in my Father's House with many, many rooms.  I am grateful for the gift of forgiveness, the tangible presence of God in my life, the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus, and the promise of eternal life.  What a mighty God we serve.

10) All of you who regularly read this blog.  Thanks for reading my attempt to process and share my thoughts on life, faith, the church, and a variety of other things - both helpful and unhelpful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Visit to Home

His cowboy hats and baseball caps still hang on a rack when you walk in the door.  A bedroom downstairs is filled with trophies of all shapes and sizes - signs of his success as a livestock judge - a legend in his own right.  His Wrangler jeans are in the washer right now.  His shirts are hanging to dry.  But he is not here, and I was not completely prepared to see him last night for the first time since last Christmas.

Craig and I are in Colorado visiting my mother.  While getting to Lamar, Colorado is no easy feat, this place is a place of rest and renewal for me.  It is a place where we stay in our pajamas until noon, go to happy hour at the Sonic drive in every afternoon, eat a lot of great food, and laugh.  The entire house fills with laughter often.  I love coming to this place.  I love visiting my mother and stepfather, Red.  But things are definitely not the same this year.

Red is sick.  Red is very, very sick.  

The pictures all over the house show a healthy man who weighs around 200 pounds.  The man I saw in the nursing home last night was skin and bones when I hugged him - I have never felt his bones before.  He weighs under 130 pounds.  He breathes heavy and deliberately.  He is, for the first time, showing his age - the 15 years he has on my mother  And I am showing a lot of emotion.

As a pastor, I go to the nursing home often to see different people.  There are some places that are hard to visit, I'll be the first to admit.  But I go.  I go.  I visit.  I pray.  I leave.

Last night I went to the nursing home to visit Red.  I then cried.  Craig and I went out the doors first.  My mother and niece followed.  We all then stood in a huddle at the door crying - realizing that we never know when the last visit will be - that at any time a call can come.

It is so much easier being a pastor in times like this than it is the one in need of a pastor.  Life is a journey - a journey in which the only guarantee that we all have is that we will one day all die.  I am so much better proclaiming this message than I am at living it, however.

We're trying hard to savor this visit - to savor being around the Thanksgiving table as a family tomorrow.  Tears fill my eyes just thinking about our joining hands as a family and giving thanks.

One thing is for sure - I am so thankful for Red - for his life, his love, his laughter, his joy and for his amazing ability to love my mother.

God, grant us all your peace and your strength.  Amen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I know well the call of God upon my life.  I can remember vividly my call to ministry - my weekend in NYC with young people in 1996 and how God used this time away to completely touch and transform me.

I also remember well when God called me out of the local church and back to the Divinity School at Duke to be director of admissions.  And, I remember how God used a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope to South Africa to call me away from seminary admissions and to Mount Vernon Place.

God's movement in my life is real.  God speaks volumes to me when I am willing to listen.  And lately, God seems to be speaking a lot.

A few months ago, a clergy colleague was visiting me at Mount Vernon Place.  Arriving a little early, he had a long conversation with a police officer outside.  Engaging him in a conversation, my colleague asked the officer what the number one issue was facing our church's community.  The police officer immediately answered my colleague's question with "prostitution."  The number one issue for the police officers who cover our church's neighborhood is not robbery or shootings or gangs but prostitution.

I did not think much about the comments when I first heard them.  I had not seen the prostitutes, and I seemed more focused on what my eyes could see.  But my eyes have now seen what my colleague told me about.

Two weeks ago, I arrived at the church early on a Sunday morning to police lights flashing.  A woman on the street and a man in a car were being arrested.  The woman's dress gave her occupation away - tight leather jacket, short skirt, high heals, a lot of makeup at 7:00 on Sunday morning.  I watched her get arrested.  I watched her walk down the street, putting her citation in her little black bag.  I watched her - a woman a few years younger than me - a woman who looked as though she could be my friend.  I watched her but I never went out to befriend her - I did not go out and invite her in or ask if I could buy her a cup of coffee, and I have regretted it ever since.

Last Sunday, I turned the corner at 11th and K Streets and saw one woman dressed in similar attire.  She was shouting across the street.  I looked and realized she was talking to another woman - one of her colleagues.  This woman had lost her clothes during the night.  She had no pants on and no skirt.  She had a tight leather jacket, high heals and black underwear - that's it.  My heart continued to sink as I turned the corner.  I then saw two more women with similar attire.  Not one prostitute - but four young women engaged in this vocation were all right there to greet my arrival in downtown Washington.

And, I cannot stop thinking about them.  I cannot help but to wonder what our role is in their lives?  How is God using these sightings to push me and our congregation?  I have watched our congregation welcome people and completely change their life as a result of the embrace.  I have watched lives being transformed through the power of these people at Mount Vernon Place who have the capacity to welcome all kinds of individuals into our midst.  

Am I naive to believe that we could change the lives of these women?  

Am I stupid to think that I might have some role in creating a community where these women can feel safe - where they can step inside and share their fears and their dreams?  

Am I silly to believe that these women want a better life - a different life?

The faces of these women are well embedded in my mind.  I cannot get them out of my mind.

God, how are you calling me to respond?  I know you are working.  Please continue to break my heart and show me how best to be your hands, your heart, your eyes and your ears in downtown Washington.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Best Job in the Whole World

This past week, I traveled with a colleague to Duke Divinity School to talk with individuals there who might be interested in serving in the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference of our United Methodist Church upon graduation. It was a joy to spend a day in a place I love (particularly since I was given Duke basketball tickets for that night in the middle of the day). I love talking with people about their call and the ways in which God is at work in their lives. In my mind, there is no vocation more rewarding than being a pastor. I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.

When I gathered with a group of young adult clergy last month in preparation for our Conference's recruiting efforts, we talked about why we love doing what we do. Here are some of the responses:

I have a sense of purpose.
People are coming with heavy hearts.
I get to see people as they grow.
The hours are flexible; I can get my hair cut in the middle of the week.
The day to day stuff of our lives is where we do effective ministry.
There is a sense of assurance.
I am not just looking for the next best thing.
Nothing is missing. I am where God has called me to be.
We get to point out the hope in people's lives.
We are privileged to be part of one's life journey.
We get to be part of so many sacred moments.
Ministry helps me to see just how precious life is.
I cannot believe I get paid to do this.

And then, my friend, Alisa, sent me this story:

The late Frederick Speakman, noted Presbyterian minister, told the story of shaking hands at the door one Sunday when the service was over. As he came back down the aisle the lights were already turned out. He sensed that strange aliveness of an empty church just after worship. Some things were left behind. A bulletin with a shopping list in the margins ~ hopefully, not during the sermon. In this pew, a pair of gloves; in the next, a pencil on the floor and a candy wrapper on the seat. As he reached the chancel he stared once more at the empty sanctuary and thought to himself, "I wonder what else has been left behind." Wouldn't it be every pastor's dream to come down the aisle after worship and find other items there. You know, in this pew a lady's deep grief; there, a man's bitter disappointment or sense of failure. In another section some secret sin, whether real or imagined, not all that ultimate as long as it was discarded. Further on, the more bulky trash of a badly bruised ego, the remains of a heated argument on the way to church. Anger, guilt, hurt ~ all the stuff that can beat us up and burn us out ~ swept up and thrown out with the rest of the leftover trash. Realized forgiveness ~ God's grace as a renewable resource ~ he whispered to himself.
"That's the only thing that keeps some of us going."

What a blessing it is to be a pastor. This is the best job in the world.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A prayer from my colleague, Ken

My colleague, Ken Carter, posted this prayer on this blog recently.  I post it here for us on this election day:

Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,
the judge of every nation
and the hope of earth and heaven.

We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.

We call to mind the best that is within us:

That we live under God, 
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.
We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation:

The displacement of native peoples, racial injustice,
desecration of your creation, economic inequality, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have passionately loved and cared for the earth and its fruits,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
strengthening its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ
be a peaceable people in the midst of division.

Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship,
and make us one.

Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence.


Monday, November 03, 2008

Words from my friend, Peter

As many of you know, Peter Storey has had a more profound impact on my life than any other disciple I know. He is my teacher, my mentor and my friend. Today, it is his email message that has caused me to think most deeply about tomorrow. I share his words with you here....

Dear Friends in the United States,

Warmest greetings to you on this momentous evening. You have been much in our minds and on our hearts over these past few months as we have avidly followed the progress of your Presidential election campaign. As we've said before, what happens in your election profoundly affects us all.

And what a campaign! I recall a dinner table conversation in Atlanta way back in May, 2007, in the home of good friends Jim and Fentress Waits. Those around the table were talking with a deep sense of interest and hope about an exciting young Senator named Barack Obama. Back then, the possibility of Obama's even gaining the nomination of his own party appeared so remote that it seemed more the stuff of dreams than reality.

Yet here you are, on the eve of an even more 'impossible' breakthrough tomorrow! Think of it: the nation whose original sin was to to buy and sell Africans like chattels, that legislated them less than human, could well elect an African-American tomorrow to be its First Citizen! I wonder if the people of the USA have fully realized what a liberating moment this could be? For African Americans, who hold their breath, not yet quite believing what might be possible tomorrow, this may be a step beyond even what Martin Luther King Jr saw from the mountain-top, but it is also more than that: it will be a day of liberation for all Americans: whether deeply conscious, as so many thoughtful people are, of this great burden of historic guilt, or defiantly denialist as too many on the shrill right wing remain. All - the good, the bad and the ugly - will take a giant step toward liberation from one of US history's most burdensome shackles.

I say this because that is the experience we discovered the day Nelson Mandela took the oath of office as the first black President of South Africa. Millions of his exploited compatriots danced with obvious joy at their new freedom, but less expected and perhaps more amazing was the sense of liberation that came upon their erstwhile oppressors. White South Africans testified in large numbers to a new lightness of being, as if some invisible, dragging weight, was gone, and something new could be born.

Now I know that the USA is not South Africa, and your story is not identical with ours, but there are enough echoes for me to assure you that if the voters of America break this barrier tomorrow, you will experience what I'm talking about!

Of course, like so many of you, we are anxious as well as excited. Having seen how deep are the currents of fear and prejudice that still run across the length and breadth of the United States, we too hold our breath. Be assured that the hopes of the vast majority of the people of the wider world go with Senator Barack Obama. There is no question about this. I doubt that even 5 percent of South Africans of any race group have any desire to see anyone of George W Bush's party near the White House. However, we have seen how easily US elections can be stolen and we are praying, as so many of you are, that tomorrow, the American people will march to the polls in greater numbers than ever before, determined to expunge eight of the most shameful years in US history. President Bush has brought America's reputation so low, that from our point of view, another such blow from the US electorate would be almost impossible to understand. Eight years of arrogance and ignorance have been done deep harm in the rest of the world and to the image of a great nation. Surely they will be declared as enough by the people of the US?

But let us be hopeful! Just as tomorrow offers the opportunity for a great sense of historic liberation in the US, so it also offers a chance to radically alter the world's current perception of America, and to open the door to new possibilities of healing and transformation for US foreign relations. If Obama is announced as your President-elect, there will be great rejoicing all around the globe. We will see new hope of the might of the United States being bent to works of justice and compassion and cooperation. We will see new possibilities for the poor of the earth: for the first time, Americans will have elected someone who knows what it is like to be on the outside as well as in the circle, who has actually worked among the poor, who has lived , however briefly, outside the American bubble, and who has the blood of the world's most oppressed continent in his veins. Everyone of these factors speak of change.

You will recall that the day following September 11, 2001, France's most famous newspaper ran the headline: 'Today, we are all Americans!' Well, please know that around the world there are so many people whose hopes ride on what you will do tomorrow, that I guess we wish we were all Americans! What a privilege it will be to vote in this election!

Our prayers are with you.

Warm regards,

Peter Storey


One of the things I love most about the United Methodist Church is how the table is open to all people. There are no restrictions placed on who can receive the Lord's Supper. In fact, our founder, John Wesley, believed that one could actually experience God for the first time in the bread and the wine. This openness at the table has led to a more open church, I like to believe. I like to believe that the church is open to all people - that the doors of the church are open for all people to come in and receive love and hospitality. But....

I'm really struggling today.

For the last three years, I have had the extraordinary privilege of serving as the pastor of someone who has taught me more about the Kingdom of God than anyone else. Through this person, I have shared a love of older adults and Popeye's Chicken, a love of taking care of the church building and artwork, a love of music and a love of prayer. Through this person, I have seen the power of a church community. It is our church family who has given this individual more medicine than anything else as people have accepted this person almost unconditionally. There have been some Sundays when we did not know what to expect from this person - how this person might respond or react. There have been some Sundays when we were not sure what this precious child of God would say during the sharing of joys and concerns - the concern expressed once was "how the pastor was having to pick up too much poop from the homeless outside." Yet, this person has brought joy and life to our community. This person is integral - central - to who we are as a community of faith. I adore this person.

But I'm really struggling today.

When does the church give up on someone? When does the church reach the place where it is more dangerous to let someone in the doors than it is to keep them out? Is there anyone who is beyond redemption? What are we to do in situations like this one?

Damn it. Why is ministry so messy?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


A few weeks ago, I joined the wonderful word of Facebook. I have heard about Facebook for more than a year now. I have seen the wedding pictures of friends on Facebook when another person on Facebook was willing to show them to me. I have been intrigued by Facebook, and I finally joined after one of my clergy sisters shared with me how many people she had reconnected with over Facebook. Like my friend, Ginger, I have now reconnected with high school friends and college sorority sisters, clergy colleagues and seminary classmates. It has been a joy - an absolute hoot - to be in communication with all of these people once again.

One of the features Facebook provides is photograph tags. A Facebook friend can post a picture on their page and then tag you in the process, linking it to your page. This past week, a Facebook friend posted a picture of me from her wedding weekend. The picture was anything but flattering. In the picture, I am about 20 pounds heavier than I am now. I am wearing an awful polka-dotted shirt, and I have a beer can in my hand. The picture was anything but the image I seek to project. I rather hated the picture and so I denied it. I untagged the photograph, blocking it from my Facebook page.

There was too much truth in the photograph.

The photograph exposed too much.

The photograph showed me - too much of me.

I did not like it, so I blocked it. And, I keep thinking about how much we block in our lives.

There is so much of us that we seek to pretend is not there - so much of us that we think is not good enough - not smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, holy enough, hot enough, big enough, small enough - that we seek to hide. There is too much truth to and in us that we are afraid to exposed - fearful that if people know the real truth that they will not be able to bear it or us in the process. We wear so many facades - so many faces - so many masks. We hide so much.

But what happens when we remove the mask? What happens when we allow people to see inside?

At Mount Vernon Place, we seek to create this place where people can be real - exposed - raw. We seek to be an authentic community where people can come as they are, share what's on their hearts or in their minds, talk about their fears and their frustrations, and be loved through it all. We seek to not be the place where everyone only wants to know what one does for a living - but to be the place where people share why they love living - what is giving them joy in life - as well as what is hurting them in life, causing pain in life. And something miraculous is happening in the process. As we are being real, lives are being healed. As we tell the truth, the truth makes us free.

Maybe next time I'll let the photograph be posted - the one that exposes me - shining a light on me that isn't exactly flattering - but telling the truth.

I love authenticity. I love the authentic community that I see each week at this place. Lord, please help us all to be authentic with one another - real - raw - exposed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Holy Friendships

As many of you know, I spent seven years at Duke Divinity School - three as a student and four years as the Director of Admissions. For seven years, I was taught and shaped by the people who teach and lead Duke Divinity School. One of the voices that continues to instruct me is Greg Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School.

Greg talks a lot about the need for holy friendships. He says that everyone needs a holy friend - someone who is willing to point out the sins we have grown to love while naming the gifts we are afraid to claim.

I have many friends who have been willing to do the latter. No doubt, I would have never made it through the rough first couple of years at Mount Vernon Place had I not had the voices from the first church I served still speaking in my heart and mind. The people from First UMC in Hendersonville, NC are the people who continued to affirm my gifts for ministry when I felt anything but affirmed in my early years at Mount Vernon Place (change is hard at every church - but it is particularly hard to change a church that was near death but filled with potential).

Rarely, however, do I find someone who is willing to point out the sins I have grown to love. I have found such a friend, however. We do not see each other often. She is in Ohio and I am in DC. We communicate more on email than we do in person. Still, Laurie has challenged me on my need to succeed - on my willingness to say "yes" to too many things, pushing aside my ability to rest - to take Sabbath - to practice one of the Ten Commandments - and to make my marriage grow.

A few weeks ago, Laurie wrote me an email in response to my blog. I had written on my blog how I was exhausted and stretched but how I had just accepted another responsibility with the Annual Conference. Laurie wrote:

"So what has been so crazy about the last 3 weeks?
And why did you say yes to the Par 213 team? Important work, but another night away from home, away from Craig, away from the congregation ... I'm just asking b/c it's the same thing I ask myself."

She then proceeded to remind me of how the most important covenants I have made are the covenant I made to follow Christ which means practicing the Sabbath and the covenant I made with Craig which requires that I make space for Craig - plenty of space for our relationship to grow and flourish.

As a result of Laurie's words and witness, I have now said "no" a few different times. I have even told the Bishop's Office "no" this week when asked to serve on another committee. I am trying to prioritize my life - to not let the clutter of ministry creep in on what is really important. I am grateful for Laurie's friendship.

Who are your holy friends? How do they hold you accountable?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Sermon on the Economy / Current Economic Crisis

I preached on the economy on Sunday morning. Many people have commented on the sermon. It is posted here for all to see:

Luke 12:13-34
Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol
October 5, 2008
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

I have heard about “the Hoovers” since arriving at Mount Vernon Place over three years ago. Every year around budget time, I am told how we need to include “the Hoovers” in our annual operating budget. “The Hoovers” were mentioned often at Social Concerns Meetings. The Hoovers were a household or a “churchold” name around Mount Vernon Place. This congregation has been supporting “the Hoovers” for nearly twenty years. We have been part of the 10% of all congregations supporting missionaries for a long, long time.

But I never knew the first names, Jeff and Ellen, of the Hoovers until recently. I did not know exactly where they were serving in Africa until we started to prepare for their visit at Mount Vernon Place. I did not understand what the Hoovers did or what they now do until I met them on Wednesday night.

And I now cannot get their witness out of my mind.

Jeff and Ellen Hoover spoke to twenty-something of us who gathered in the chapel for pizza and conversation on Wednesday night. They arrived, and I recognized Ellen immediately as she walked into the door. She appeared exactly as she appears in the pictures of her newsletters – even the newsletters that are more than a decade old.

Jeff and Ellen opened their presentation with a slide show, pointing out the places where they are privileged to serve. They shared pictures of them going on a journey, telling us how a successful journey in the Congo is arriving – since the infrastructure is not exactly in place. They talked about how some places have electricity and some do not. They told us of the schools where they teach – how the students cram together and the computers are hard to rely on since the electricity is not always available. They told us stories of the Congo, and then they shared a bit of their background.

Jeff and Ellen both have PhDs from Yale University. They could have taught anywhere – taking their newly minted degrees to another Ivy League school where they could be tenured faculty with a job and a steady income for life. But they did not.

Instead, they took their degrees from Yale – their prestigious piece of paperwork that many people would yearn to have – to the Congo. They went to the Congo for an initial three years, believing that they had skills to teach and gifts to share. They would go and share themselves with the Congolese, training others to do what they know how to do, with the intention of returning home. But, 30 years later, Jeff and Ellen are still teaching and administering in the Congo. Thirty years later, they have no real plans to return to the United States anytime soon.

On Wednesday night, Jeff and Ellen shared how the role of a missionary is one of empowerment. A missionary never keeps what she has to herself but instead shares it with others. A missionary takes his skill to another place where the skill is needed. The person transfers his or her knowledge, teaching the people a skill they are lacking. The people are then empowered with the knowledge and the missionary returns home. The missionary receives little – the basic necessities of life – while the people receive what they need to sustain life. Missionaries give all that they have in order to see a community strengthened and sustained. In the economy of a missionary, it is all about the people – all about the community. A missionary frees him or herself of everything that he or she has in order to give all he or she has to others. And it is this freedom – this visible freedom – that is still with me following the Hoover’s presentation. I have not seen anyone so free – so able to take risks and enjoy life to the fullest – as I saw the Hoovers on Wednesday night.

It has been quite a week. Tuesday’s headline was “House Rejects Financial Rescue, Sending Stocks Plummeting.” Wednesday’s top of the fold read, “Most Voters Worry About Economy: Majority Consider Situation a Crisis.” Yesterday’s paper shares how a rescue bill was signed into law but the headline is not much brighter, “House Passes Plan By Wide Margin, but Stocks Keep Falling.” Things are not good on Main Street or Wall Street.

I have been tempted to change the sermon topic throughout the week. This sermon topic on the economy was chosen last summer. More than one year ago – I put down my thoughts on sermon series for 2008 in a paper that was due for my doctoral work in July of 2007. It was in June of last year that I was led to pencil in the economy as the sermon topic for this Sunday. And, I have been haunted by this action all week long. Are there any such coincidences? Who would have known that the situation would be this bleak? And in times like this, would it not make more sense to stick with the lectionary – to avoid the bleakness of our life situation and pretend that Jesus has nothing to say about the economy?

Most people – liberal and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans – believe that the United States is experiencing a meltdown of the economy because some people have taken too much. This week’s Newsweek magazine has an article titled “The Monster that Ate Wall Street.” Matthew Philips explains how the monster has been self-created – created by high-finance executives who believed that it was possible to loan billions upon billions of dollars to governments and corporations – dollars that could be protected even if there was a default. The credit defaults would keep being swapped, one after another. Bankers would continue to get richer while others would grow poorer. Nothing could stop them. Invisible money would keep things afloat.

The mortgage meltdown started because of invisible money, too. Individuals were given loans that were affordable when the loan documents were signed. People were told they had plenty of money – that they could afford homes with a large price tag even when the salary and bank account was not so large. The loans were affordable at first – but soon the rates adjusted. Buyers started to default. Bankers realized they had made bad decisions. The invisible money was now appearing to be quite visible when the payments stopped coming in. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have been taken over by the government – something many people thought would never happen.

People at the top wanted more. Those with power and influence demanded more power and influence – more loans, more investments, more money, more this and more that. And no matter how much there was it was never enough. And now that it really is not enough, people have demanded an intervention. Those who have much and those who have little have sought a bailout. Those with power and influence have been asked to come to the rescue – to come and set things straight with a $700 billion bailout.

A similar request is made in today’s scripture passage.

A man comes to Jesus with a request. A man comes to Jesus because Jesus has more power than anyone, and this man wants Jesus to intervene into his financial situation. The man wants Jesus to demand his brother to share the family inheritance – to divide it between the two of them. The brother who comes to Jesus wants an intervention. He wants Jesus to bail him out. Jesus does not exert his power over such trivial matters, however. Instead, Jesus teaches about what is really important.

Jesus responds with a parable about a man who is blessed with an amazing harvest. The man is blessed with a tremendous return on his planting. When the man sees all that he has, he concludes that life is all about him. He starts to think about everything that he should do.

I have no place to store my crops.
I will do this.
I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.
I will store my grain and my goods.
I will say to my soul – soul: you have enough. Relax, eat, drink, be merry.
It is all about me! It is all about me! Look at what I have done!

An executive gets one promotion after another until she finds her way at the top – in the corner, executive office. Her salary has increased and so have the stock options. She has more than she could possibly need or use. She did not ask for any of it – she worked hard but others have worked just as hard.

Look at all I have.
I will take my money and buy a bigger house.
I will increase my power with as many stock options as possible.
I will buy a vacation home and a Mercedes sports sedan.
I will shop until I drop.
It’s all about me! It’s all about me! Look at what I have done!

But with the blink of an eye it can all be gone. The barn can be blown down and the crops can rot. The stock market can drop 700 points in one day and the government can buy out the company, deflating the golden parachute that was to float in the air for a lifetime. Worse yet, life can end and one’s efforts to store up everything for another day can slip away with the night.

Life is never about what one person can acquire. Those who believe that the goal of life is to acquire more and more are downright fools according to today’s scripture passage. God calls the man with the barn full of stuff a fool!

Imagine what God might be calling people today – who have a lot more than a barn full of stuff…
Jesus wants those who follow him to put their trust in him – to trust that God, not our investments, is the source of our security. God – not our homes – is our comfort. God – not our stuff – is our livelihood. Our future is in the hands of God who never fails – not investors on Wall Street who may have made us rich last month only to take it all away this month.

I would venture to guess that I am in good company if I were to ask how many of you have worried recently about the housing market or the state of our economy. I would like very much for someone to bail my husband and I out of the home purchases we made in 2005. I would like very much for someone to tell us that we will be able to sell both of our one-bedroom condominiums soon so that we can have a home that is big enough to start a family. We all want some part of our finances to be fixed or some part of life to be repaired. But Jesus does not care about how big or how little our homes or our investments are. As long as we have enough for this day – then Jesus does not get involved. Jesus does not offer a financial bailout in today’s passage. What Jesus offers is a promise of peace and security for life. And, we all need to hear the words spoken by Jesus who told his disciples to not worry about life – about how life is more than food and clothing, about how we are to strive not for stuff but for the kingdom of God to come down and be embodied in our midst. Read Luke 12:32 – 24 again, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaving, where no thief or moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In the economy of Jesus, all are taken care of as long as all share what they have with others.

In the economy of God, there is just enough for every single person. There is always enough as long as people take their share – and not their share along with the share of ten or 100 more people.

In the economy of Jesus, God rains bread from heaven. If we try to store up any extra it will spoil, just as the manna in the wilderness was good only for one day.

In the economy of Jesus, the disciples take their possessions and sell them, distributing the proceeds to any who have needs, making sure that all are taken care of.

In the economy of Jesus, followers of him pray a prayer with the words, “Give us this day our daily bread” not our yearly bread or enough bread for a lifetime – but enough for today.

In the economy of Jesus, our treasure has nothing to do with Main Street or Wall Street but instead has everything to do with the Kingdom – the place where Jesus dwells and the poor have good news preached to them, the captives are released, the blind are given sight, and the oppressed go free.

If we have enough for this day, we are okay, Jesus says. We are not to look at how little we might have but instead we are to search our hearts to see if there might be too much for if we are rich in things and not rich towards God, then we are in trouble.

And so what does this mean for us and for this church? It is clear that if our possessions have a hold on us then we are in trouble. Throughout the scriptures, we are asked to give a tenth of all we have – to give back to God one dollar for every ten dollars we receive. And while this 10% can be a stretch – an act of faith – even it looks small in light of today’s passage as I think about my savings account or my 401K – how this money could provide the basic necessities of life – food and shelter – for others on this day. If we have too much, we not only can share but we must share what we have with those in need.

But what does this mean for this church? There are still many rooms that have never been used in this building. There are four showers downstairs where the water has never been turned on with the exception of the plumber who installed the pipes. We have more than enough space for the congregation that currently calls this place home. We have built a building for tomorrow – trusting that God is going to grow this congregation and that we will need all that we are building. We have made an investment in property that we might not need for ten or even twenty years. But what about today? If we read this passage faithfully, then God might be calling us to do more with this space – to stop protecting it for today, to stop worrying about the place getting too dirty or the carpet not lasting at least a decade.

The portion of today’s passage that tells me not to worry – I love this part. I want to read over and over again about how God will take care of us. But there is more to the passage and there is more to life. The rest of this passage haunts me – scares me – makes me want to run because Jesus is meddling with my business and the church’s business. Jesus is stopping me straight in my tracks and not allowing me to go any further.

It’s not about me. It’s about God.

It’s not about you. It’s about God.

It’s not about us. It’s about God.

Monday, October 06, 2008


What is the purpose of my life?

What is my purpose?

How can I find more purpose in my life?

We all ask these questions many times throughout life.  While in high school, we begin to ponder the meaning and purpose of our life as we start preparing for college, hoping that the place where we are educated will prepare us well for what we want to do in life. 

Once we get to college, we start thinking about majors and minors, trying to find that perfect fit for our particular skill set and interests.

When we graduate and finally have our degrees, we realize that a long job search can probe us to ask the question even more.  What am I to do with my life?  What is my purpose?

As baptized Christians, we are called to ask this question often as we seek to discover our calling, trusting that God has given us specific gifts that can be used in this world.  We hope to find that place where our gifts meet the world's great needs and hungers.  We hope to find that place where we can apply our gifts in an effort to make a difference in the church, the community, the nation and the world.  Our purpose is to share these gifts with others.

We all have a purpose - even though the purpose can be hard to find.  

But what happens when we feel like we can no longer fulfill our purpose?

As many of you know, my step-father, Red, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease earlier this year.  When he was first diagnosed, we were all devastated.  Red is one of the most remarkable and gifted people I know.  Red never forgot a name of any of the hundreds of students he taught - he could even tell you what year he taught them.  Red was so gifted - he could do just about anything including winning over my mom, sister and me.

Red was in a nursing facility for a while and then moved home.  While he is no longer as strong as he used to be, he was doing well, and Mother was adjusting to a different kind of life as she became the supporter and the caregiver.  Things were going okay.  But, everything went downhill on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Red called his children and told them "good-bye."  He was ready to die because he no longer had purpose.  His purpose was gone.  He was no longer useful around the house.  He could no longer remember the things he could once articulate in a blink of an eye.  He had no purpose, and he had no desire to live a life without purpose.

Fortunately, a team of people immediately rallied behind Red.  He was given instant care and is now in an exceptional care facility for treatment.  Still, his statements are ringing in my head.

How do we help all people to discover their purpose - whether they are 16 or 96?  How do we help people to find their new purpose when they are no longer able to fulfill their old purpose? How do we help people to discover their call - their purpose in life - throughout all stages of life? 

I do not know the answers to these questions.  What I do know is that my heart has been broken by Red and the dark place he reached last week.  I also know that this darkness is pushing me forward to help others find the light - the light of their purpose when the darkness has evaded it.

We're starting a new Bible study this week at Mount Vernon Place.  Led by one of our gifted interns, we are going to gather around a table and study scripture - the scriptures about spiritual gifts - about the ways in which God gifts all of us.  There is power in such a study.  If we know our gifts and if we have a place to use them, then we can all know our purpose.  I hope you'll make plans to be with us; all are welcome.

What is your purpose?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Saturday Shopping

I went shopping on Saturday morning. Along with a group of individuals from church, I stuffed clothing into several different shopping bags. We found some things we were looking for and there were other things on our list that we could not find on any of the racks. There seemed to be a shortage of things, fact. There was not enough.
You see, we were "shopping" at Rachael's Women's Center, a day shelter for homeless women located a few blocks from Mount Vernon Place. As part of our building rededication week, we felt it was important for us to spend time in the community, giving back to others as we have received so much. We were assigned to go to Rachael's to help sort through their donations, folding clothing, sorting it by size and then placing it on new racks that we bought for the purpose. When we were done sorting through the clothing, we were given a wish list - a list of individual names along with the items of clothing they needed most:
Connie: shoes size 9, coat extra large, t-shirt
Julie: Size 11 Keds Sneakers
Beverly: Size 18 pants
Carol: Size 12 pants, scarf and hat
The list went on and on but the supplies did not. There were a lot of things - but not the right things. And, I keep thinking about the experience.
I typically wear a size 12, but not all size 12s are the same. I cannot imagine anyone selecting a pair of jeans for me that would actually fit. I cannot imagine anyone picking out the one shirt that would be my own. I cannot imagine anyone - no one - doing my clothes shopping for me. I prefer a large selection. I like choices. I like to try things on.
And this is why it is important for me to spend time in places like Rachael's. Rachael's reminds me of what I have. Experiences like this tell me again how blessed I am and how little gratitude I express. Mornings like the one I spent at Rachael's have a way of pushing me to see all that I have as gift.
So, I am going shopping. I am going shopping for some larger size pants and some t-shirts - not for me - but for the women at Rachael's. To whom much has been given - much is owed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lonely in Washington

There is an article on the front page of today's Washington Post that caught my attention.  The article, titled, "Matchmakers, Matchmakers, Making a Mint: Dating Services Give Way to Coaches, Wingmen and Profile Writers," is a story of the new industry emerging to help people connect.  Ellen McCarthy writes how hard it is for people in Washington to meet people - particularly prospective romantic partners. She writes:

People work more, know their neighbors less.  They leave home towns full of family and friends in exchange for cities rife with interesting opportunities but few connections.  They are tied to, and reliant on, technology - which has indelibly altered the way humans interact.

I cannot read statements like this without thinking of the church... How is the church helping to connect people - not romantically, necessarily - but people who are longing for connections - real, authentic connections?  How is it that the church can become that neighborhood of front porches - that community where people long to say "good morning" or "good night" or ask about your day?

We're seeking to be this kind of place - a place of real connections - authentic connections.  You don't need a coach to come - just come - just as you are.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


We rededicated our building on Sunday morning.  After being out of the sanctuary for nearly two years, we returned at the end of July and then planned a great celebration on Sunday morning.  Our bishop, Bishop John Schol, was with us to proclaim the sermon.  We had many longtime members in worship again, including many people who grew up at Mount Vernon Place.  We dedicated the baptismal font, the altar, the pulpit and the lectern.  We encouraged people to walk through the building, looking at the complete top to bottom restoration of the building. It was wonderful.

But my favorite part was when one of our new members got up and shared what brought him to the church.  He shared how the building is lovely and the stained glass windows are magnificent, yet these things are not what brought him to the church.  He talked about how the church had filled a 10-year hole in his life and what a wonderful journey he and his wife were experiencing.  He then led us in a litany of consecration, talking about how our lives and not just our building needed to be consecrated.

We responded with the litany of consecration, inspired by the congregation of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa when they consecrated their building in 2003.  There are a few lines of this liturgy that stand out to me:

For a church that shall be a renewing, cleansing, and empowering partner in the community, seeking to serve and befriend the hurting, the lost, and the broken.

For a church with an open door for all people: rich and poor, housed and homeless, old and young, red and yellow, black and white, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, those filled with faith and those who have not yet been gifted with faith.

For a church that shall gather the children in its arms and hold them close to Christ, that they may grow up in Christ and never be lost from the fold.

After each of these lines, we repeated the words, "We consecrate ourselves today."

What powerful words!  Can you imagine a congregation that is truly a partner with and in the community, seeking to serve all who are hurting, lost or broken?  Can you imagine a church where all people are welcome?  Can you imagine a church that holds children - all children - those who are wanted and those who are neglected, those who were conceived in love and those who were conceived and surprised the parents - where all children are gathered and held, empowered with the ways of Christ?

I get a glimpse of this kind of place every time I enter the doors of Mount Vernon Place.  While we still have a long ways to go, I gain a glimpse of the Kingdom at hand almost every time I gather with the people who call Mount Vernon Place home.  There is a rich history of prophetic proclamation in this place.  The journey now continues, and I cannot wait to see what God has in store for this congregation.  

Come and use us, Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, September 22, 2008

September 2

I am behind in getting pictures posted to the blog. I let go of my computer when I moved in with my husband, Craig, and I have not quite gotten everything hooked up at home yet. You are therefore going to see some pictures from the past being brought to the future...

September 2 was an extraordinary day. My friend and parishioner, Mabel, turned 100 on this day. Mabel was the chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee when I was first appointed as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place. She has been a member of this church since 1940 and she is an eternal optimist. I love visiting Mabel because without fail, Mabel will tell me how blessed I am to be serving in this place. Without fail, Mabel will tell me how much great ministry there is to be done in the heart of Washington. She tells me how she would give anything to be in my shoes. And, she tells me that I am capable of doing anything. She often has more confidence in me than I have in myself. She never complains. She is a jewel. What a joy it is to see her reach her 100th birthday.

I'd give anything if she was turning 70 or 80 instead. I'd love to have her around for a few more decades so that we could make an impact on this city together. Yet, I am convinced that Mabel's words will impact me throughout the rest of my life. I am convinced that through Mabel, an impact has already been made. She is amazing.

On the same day, my best friend, Jenni, gave birth to her first child. Alexa was born on Tuesday night, September 2. And while I did not get to meet her until the following day, I was amazed at God's hand so clearly evident in both Mabel's life and Alexa's life. One of them is 100 and the other is brand new to this world. One of them has seen the world change in big ways and the other has the entire world in front of her. One of them has a body that is aging and the other has a brand new body. Both of them are extraordinary children of God - created in God's image - reflecting God's love and grace in very unique and beautiful ways.

Praise God for life - for all of life!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Adam Hamilton

Adam Hamilton is scheduled to speak at Mount Vernon Place UMC on next Thursday evening, September 25. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to welcome Adam to our church as part of an evening sponsored by MVPUMC, Wesley Theological Seminary and Asbury United Methodist Church.

I first met Adam when I was a student at Duke Divinity School. I do not remember why, but I was given the opportunity to host him while he was speaking at Duke. We went out for true North Carolina Barbecue at Bullock's, one of Durham's finest. While chowing away on hush puppies and pulled park, Adam inspired me, empowering me throughout the conversation on how to be the most faithful pastor possible. His encouragement and inspiration remain with me to this day, and I have since seen him lecture many times while also sitting in a class with him at the Church of the Resurrection.

Adam is the senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. He started the church in a funeral home chapel in 1990 (thus the need for the church to be named "resurrection"). The congregation quickly grew, and there are now over 12,000 people who make COR their home church. Adam has a remarkable ability to make the message relevant. He is a visionary who has intentionally built a church with the aim of reaching non-religious and nominally religious people. He is a gifted preacher, writer and speaker. But, one of the things I love most about Adam is his passion for building not just COR but for building every single Body of Christ. He has a passion for revitalizing the mainline church, and his knowledge is making a difference.

Wherever Adam goes, he tells others the secrets of COR's success. He tells others how to make an impact for Christ. He tells others how to build a church. He wants desperately for the church to grow - every church - not just his church.

His ways are so different. I am surrounded by churches - there is another United Methodist Church less than two blocks away and dozens of churches within walking distance- but we do not do much together. We have not had regular conversations about how to bring together our best in order to see what might happen in downtown Washington. There are pastors all around me, but we do not get together often for mutual support and accountability. Too often we are silos, trying to build our own churches, trying to be our best, instead of thinking about how we all might have something to offer another. Adam could hoard his success. He could keep what works well at COR. But, Adam is intentional about sharing it. And, I love how Adam is constantly trying to build every church. His witness is a powerful one.

Adam will be at MVPUMC for a 7:00 p.m. lecture on his new book, "Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics." You're welcome to come early and see our new, old building that has just been completely restored. Our open house will begin at 6:00 p.m. We'd love to see you, and I hope you will make plans to be with us next Thursday night.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Farewell Sermon to Remember

As we prepare for our building rededication this weekend (thanks be to God!), I have had the extraordinary privilege of preparing a historical sketch of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. The church, founded in 1850, has done an amazing job of keeping pieces of history locked upstairs in the archives. The archives committee was really on top of things, especially at the turn of the 20th Century. Along with my occasional visit to the archives, one of our new members has been spending hours each day sorting through the things in the cabinets. He came downstairs yesterday, explaining how he could hardly wait to show me what he had found.

In someone's scrapbook left to the church was an article clipped from the September 17, 1950 Washington Post. The article was written the day after a beloved former pastor of MVPUMC, Dr. John Rustin, preached his final sermon at the church.

Dr. Rustin served MVPUMC from 1936 - 1950. He was here when many of our longtime members joined the church - during the war years of the 1940s. I am told that he never forgot a name. He went out of his way to welcome young people who were new to the city. He was a visionary leader who built the church to more than 4,000 members. And, I now know why. The Washington Post article tells how Dr. Rustin told the "misty-eyed gathering of more than 1500 persons" how the church is not liberal enough. The article, written by Thomas Schlesinger, a Post Reporter, reads:

"Doctor Rustin told the congregation, 'the trouble with the church is that it is not liberal enough,' and then spelled out what he thought the church of the future should be like. 'When the church becomes a real factor in the life of the people,' he said, 'first of all, it has vision and is not expending all its energy in defending creeds or standing on ancient dogmas. 'It should challenge the people to move beyond its warped emotions and deep-seated prejudices,' he continued, 'and it should always move into action."

The trouble with the church is that it is not liberal enough!
The church needs to be a real factor in the life of the people!
The church must have vision; it cannot expend all its energy on defending creeds or standing on ancient dogmas!
The church must challenge the people to move beyond its warped emotions and deep-seated prejudices!
The church should always move into action!

Is it any wonder that Mount Vernon Place grew during Dr. Rustin's tenure? Is it any wonder that people - especially young people - wanted to be a part of this church -a church that was moving - a church that was making a difference in the lives of people? Is it any wonder that people will come to a church that is focused on what is important - being the kingdom of God here on earth?

These words were spoken 58 years ago. People heard them, and people wanted to be a part of it!

Thank you, Dr. Rustin, for your legacy. May we continue to embrace your message. What an amazing place this is!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I Remember

I remember exactly where I was seven  years ago.  It was my first year as Director of Admissions, and I was sitting in a student services meeting at Duke Divinity School.  The dean walked in, shared how a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers, and asked us what to do.  We proceeded with canceling different things, unsure of exactly what was happening.  I continued to plan a recruiting trip to Florida and made final arrangements for the welcoming of prospective students the next day.  I remember.  I remember well.

I also remember Kim, a prospective student who arrived two years after 9/11.  Kim lost her husband in the Twin Towers.  She had a toddler at home and was pregnant with their second son. She had been hit by a tragic loss, and yet God was somehow using this loss to call her - calling her to ministry.  I remember Kim on this day, along with her children.  My heart still aches for them.

I also remember my friend David who lost his best friend.  David's friend was on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania.  David has not been the same since.  I remember David on this day. My heart still aches for him.

It took me longer to get to work today than it has taken since I moved to Northern Virginia. My drive past the Pentagon started and stopped, started and stopped.  The traffic was horrendous.  I wanted to complain as I waited for the traffic to move again.  But, I instead thought of how long Kim waited for a sign of her husband - for confirmation that her husband had died - and how she had to wait months until a police officer arrived at her door one day with a small bone that had been identified as that of her husband's.

I wanted the traffic to move - but God instead called me to prayer.  And then, I watched as the sun broke through the clouds.  

My heart aches with all who were touched by this tragic day, and perhaps all of us in this nation have been touched by it - but I could not help but to see once more how the light shines - the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome the light.

I remember.  I remember you in my prayers.  I remember you on this day.  And, I remember God's faithfulness of how we will, indeed, all be reunited again one day.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Sound Advice

I have recently been taught sound advice that can keep me and others out of trouble.  A ministry colleague told me the criteria that should be used before saying anything out loud.  Before speaking, one needs to ask oneself three questions:

1) Is what I am about to say truthful?
2) Is it helpful?
3) Is it kind?

Before saying anything, one needs to make sure that what is said meets at least two of the three criteria.

It's good wisdom and if practiced, I'll be saying a whole lot less.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Paragraph 213

I had never before heard of paragraph 213 in our United Methodist Book of Discipline.  The Book of Discipline is a book we study in seminary as we make our way through Methodist polity.  It is a book we study when we are preparing for ordination exams.  And, it is a book we pull out often when we are preparing for Charge Conference or putting together the new budget.  But, I had never before noticed paragraph 213.  I never noticed it until my District Superintendent called me recently, asking if I would serve on a paragraph 213 task force.

Paragraph 213 addresses churches that are in decline - churches that are facing an uncertain future - churches that need to be redeveloped, refocused, merged or closed.  The paragraph outlines a process of calling together clergy and laity who can go through the church's budget, membership, ministries, and programs - looking to see what might have caused the decline and what might be put in place in order to have the congregation grow again.

For the last three weeks, I have spent each Thursday night at another church in Washington.  Gathering with two other clergy and three laity, two from the congregation facing redevelopment, merger or closure, we have sifted through old budgets, old reports, a variety of data, and a myriad of other documents.  We have heard a lot about the church - its building, its congregation, its lay leadership and its clergy.  And we are nearing the place where we need to make a recommendation on the future of the church.  And, it sucks.  Forgive me for being so blunt, but I cannot think of a better word to describe this work.  It sucks.

How is it that so many of our congregations are in decline?  Why is it that so many church's are filled with potential but have not been able to welcome more than one or two or no new members in the last year?  How is it that a church started with incredible vision - formed with a secure foundation and a community of people around it really believing in the potential - can ever face the possibility of being out of potential - of needing to close?

I have spent many restless nights in the last three weeks thinking through these questions.  I have become the bad guy in the eyes of some as I have questioned different things, wondering how we got to the place we are.

And then I think about a video we watched this week as part of the Baltimore Washington Conference's small groups for clergy called "Discipler Groups."  Our video asked about the last time we had a "wet your pants and lose your breath" experience in church.  The words are rather blunt.  When have you last had a wet your pants and lose your breath kind of experience at church?  When is the last time that you got so excited that you could not contain yourself?

I would venture to say that it has been a long time for many of us.  Or, perhaps we have never experienced a shortness of breath or a lose control type of experience within the walls of a church.  What would it take for us to get to this place again?  How is it that church has become so irrelevant, so boring, so out of touch that new people are not coming?

I lost my breath last Sunday.  I lost my breath when our time of sharing joys and concerns extended well past the fifteen minute mark.  During our time together, we had one young woman ask for prayers because she has just moved to Washington from California, and she is having a hard time adjusting.  We had another person ask for prayers because of how often we take the gift of education for granted and yet her sister, a survivor of the civil war in Liberia, is starting college this week.  We had yet another person ask for prayers in his job search.  And we continued to pray.  We continued to be this place where no concern was irrelevant and where no person - new or old - had a voice that could not be heard.  And, it was breathtaking.  It was breathtaking because the Spirit was so alive and so clearly at work.

Now, what would it take for me or you to have a wet your pants kind of experience in worship?  Have you lost your breath lately?  Wet your pants?

Come, Holy Spirit.  Come and rekindle the fire in all of our churches.  Come guide and direct the task force who will make a recommendation for one church and come fill and use every church.  May we be short of breath this Sunday and filled only with your breath.  Amen!

NOTE: If I ever go another two weeks without writing something on the blog, please send me an email.  Ask if I am taking care of myself.  Encourage me to let go of some things and embrace again the things that feed me - like reflecting here.  It has been a crazy few weeks, and I am in need of rest, renewal and refocus.  Thankfully, I'm back!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Another Opening

For many years now, the United Methodist Church has used as its slogan, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church." For many years now, I have been criticizing this advertising campaign, sharing how the millions of dollars that have been pumped into the campaign, including advertisements in Times Square, have not really added up to the doors of the church being opened any wider. I also have a problem with pastors who print this message on their business cards and then vote to support legislation that gives pastors a right to exclude people from church membership because of who or how the person loves. Some people have appreciated my criticizm - I won a sermon contest that included my critique of the slogan. I have also been criticized for being too critical of the church and its slogan. In any event, I learned last week that the church I serve has been campaigning for open doors long before this advertising campaign was created.

We are now back in our renovated and restored facility at 900 Massachusetts Avenue (you should come see it - it is amazing!). The church's belongings were returned from storage several weeks ago. One of our members has been working daily to put the archives back together.

The archives of this church are amazing. People have kept things from the very beginning of the church - from 1850. There are old photographs, old documents, old sermons, old bulletins, old everything. I have been going up to the archives often because I find the history of this church so fascinating. It is really quite remarkable.

Last week, I pulled out an envelope of bulletins from 1933. The church was still part of the Southern denomination during this time. The congregation was about 15 years into living in this grand, stately church. Still, every bulletin from 1933 had a quote printed on the cover. Every bulletin cover from 1933 reads:

God make the door of this house we have raised to Thee
wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship and a Father’s care;
and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and hate.
Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children,
weakness or straying feet;
but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.
God, make the doorway of this house the gateway to Thy Eternal Kingdom.

What a prophetic witness! Can you imagine such a prayer - in the heart of Washington in 1933? And, the amazing thing is that the prayer was answered and continues to be answered. This church became a prophetic witness to the community, providing one of the first places for integrated audiences to come together to watch community theatre. This church served all people in the community, especially the people who had little or nothing. This church has been and continues to be the body of Christ - a place with a door wide enough to welcome all who need human love - and, well, I have yet to meet anyone who does not need human love.

Thanks be to God for the 158 faithful years of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church! And, thanks be to God for this new chapter - for this day when we get to open the doors even further, welcoming all into this grand, historic building so that all might receive the gift of human love.