Monday, January 28, 2008

Dying Well

While working at Duke Divinity School, I was exposed to the topic of dying well time and again through the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life. The Institute would regularly bring in different speakers to talk about how to die well. One person spoke of the role of music in dying and played a harp while she spoke. Other seminars dealt with children. Still others dealt with older adults.

I was intrigued by the offerings but never took advantage of them.

While our death is the one guarantee that we have in life, none of us like to think about our own mortality. We like to think that we will last forever, instead. Yet, I have been thinking a lot about dying well in the last few weeks due to a colleague's example.

I was only around John a handful of times. I met him first at a meeting of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Our paths crossed again a few times when he would come for a lectionary discussion group at Starbucks. Our churches are not too far apart, and both of our congregations are under development. We had plenty to talk about but I never made the time.

John retired not too many months ago and was setting out to make his retirement dreams a reality. He was traveling in India, preparing for the hiking adventure of a lifetime when he got very sick.

Following Christmas, I received an email from John sent from one listserv to another. It read:

Dear Friends,

From family and community networks you have heard about my six week captivity in hospitals and ICU’s in Nepal and India. Last Saturday I was Fed Ex’d back to Washington. After a week at George Washington University Medical Center, I finally made it all the way home. In addition to the care of family and friends, I am now in hospice care. My bed is centrally located in our living room, a setting conducive to good conversation.

We all come into the world in basically the same way, but the ways of leaving are innumerable. The fortunate get to have some influence over their dying. I am one of the fortunate. I look forward to having you join me in the conversation.

In the early couple of weeks, family and friends from out of town are visiting. Please call my cell phone to set a time to visit, preferably in the latter part of the afternoon. I do rather well with visits, less well by telephone.

Barbara joins me in sending love.


I did not accept the invitation to join the conversation. I wish I would have, however. I think John was walking on holy ground when he wrote this email. I believe John knew exactly where he was and whose he was when he wrote this email. I believe John was his own institute on how to care and be cared for at the end of life.

John died nearly two weeks ago. His service was on Saturday. You can read more about the extraordinary faith of both him and his family on his former church's website. It is a powerful witness for all to read of how to live and how to die.

I am thankful for John. I am thankful for his church's faithful ministry amongst the homeless in downtown Washington. I am thankful for his steadfast commitment to make sure that their development did not do anything to impact the people Christ had called them to serve. And, I am thankful for the lessons he has taught me through messages written by him and his family just before and immediately following his death.

May we all live and die in such a way.

Thank you for your witness, John.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pastoral Authority

I am in Durham this week, working with four other pastors and a professor from Duke Divinity School.  Dr. Jackson Carroll is in the process of revising his book, "As One With Authority."  As a result, we were given the opportunity to share cases from our settings on how we have exercised or failed to exercise an appropriate amount of authority.

Authority is an interesting gift.  When I was ordained in the United Methodist Church, the bishop said, "Donna Mardell Claycomb, take thou authority upon you as an elder to....preach, teach, administer and order."  There was authority that came down from Bishop Kammerer to me on that hot June night.  But there are other kinds of authority.  There is the authority that comes when people trust you, when the follow you, and when they are willing to allow you to take them to new places yet unknown.

My colleagues with me this week have taught me rich lessons in what pastoral authority is.  One of them shared an incident at his church when a pastor and members of a church in Kansas were protesting at his church.  This particular church is filled with people who hate gay and lesbian people.  They even named their website "God hates fags."  The hatred is real and rough.  When this particular pastor was notified of the visit of these people, he came up with the idea to set a table in the yard.  The table would be set with a table cloth, fresh flowers and dishes.  No explanation would be given.  However, the table would serve as a reminder of the 23rd Psalm, "though prepares a table before me in the midst of my enemies..."  Authority.  This is pastoral authority.

Another pastor shared with us how a broken playground at the church needed to be fixed.  The playground equipment was dangerous.  The pastor soon learned that there were layers upon layers of racism beneath the reasons for why the playground was still broken.  She set out to get funding for the new equipment.  She is leading her people into an understanding of what it means to be loving of all people.  She yearns for her congregation to see all colors as equal in the small, rural North Carolina community where she serves.  Authority.  This is pastoral authority.

Still another pastor shared how when he started a new church that he knew that anytime there were 100 more people at the church that it was time to hire a new pastor.  The church is named after the "Good Shepherd."  In this story from John, the sheep know their shepherd and the shepherd knows the name.  Each 100 people need a shepherd - someone who knows them by name.  Authority.  this is pastoral authority.

A table set up in the midst of a protest where people are shouting words of hatred.
A new playground is created where all children are welcome.
A community comes where the shepherd always knows his sheep.

Pastoral authority is a beautiful thing.

There was authority given to me at my baptism.  There was additional authority passed on when I experienced a call to ministry.  Still more authority came when I graduated from seminary and yet more authority came when I was ordained.  But there is another kind of authority.  It is the authority that comes from the people who we minister with and alongside.  It is the kind of authority that comes when one calls you "pastor," when one calls you in the middle of the night because a child is being born or someone is dying, when one wants to confess their sins to you, when one trusts you to do a new thing in the life of the congregation, when one says, "God might be calling me to ministry."  This authority does not come immediately, and it cannot be taken for granted.   This authority comes when one sets a table, when one calls her sheep by name, and when one does something for the entire community because she believes in it so much.

Good Lord, please help me to never take authority for granted.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Peak Inside

The property transformation continues at Mount Vernon Place UMC. The hole where the new building will go is getting bigger and bigger. They are almost to the bottom. Soon, something new will start emerging!
The inside of the sanctuary is filled with scaffolding. It is a huge web of metal with board on top where people can stand to work on the ceiling. It took several weeks to put the scaffolding in place. Amazing! You can also see the work being done on the stained glass windows in this picture as some of the damaged panels have been removed.
Another look at the scaffolding and a reminder of the ornate detail found within.
The church will have bathrooms with shower facilities just below the sanctuary, outside the Undercroft theatre on the ground floor of the building. We are excited about the different types of hospitality these facilities will be able to provide.
The completion of the historic building is still some six months away with the new building more than a year and a half from completion. Still, something is happening. Progress is being made. And, I cannot help but to realize how blessed we are each time I go into the building and see the work being done. It is a privilege to be part of a church that is doing something so spectacular. What a gift we have been given to be able to obtain the resources needed to do this work of restoration.
The question remains: How will we use the buildings to be a gift to others? The possibilities are endless.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hillary's Tears

If you have watched the news this week, then you know that Hillary Clinton had an emotional moment in New Hampshire on Monday. While meeting with a group of undecided women voters, Hillary was asked how she keeps it all together - how she keeps on going. Looking exhausted, she paused for a moment, got teary-eyed, and then talked about the passion she has for this country. She spoke of all this country has done for her and how she wants similar opportunities for her children. She shared passionately about how she does not want America to lose what it has given to so many people.

It was a remarkable moment.

It is a moment in which many ears heard Hillary's heart for the first time; a minute when we realized that the campaign is not about her but about a country she loves and appreciates.

News analysts and political pundits are scrutinizing Hillary's tears. Each day a different newscaster has spoken about them. Some people even say it was an act. I don't think so. I gained more respect for Hillary on Monday than I have had for her since I first introduced her at a campaign rally at my college in 1992.

Passion is a powerful thing.

The ability to see - really see - what motivates someone is a precious gift.

I respect and admire Hillary's passion, and I keep thinking about how this passion is needed in so many other places, especially in our churches.

I have been accused of many different things since arriving as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. Mount Vernon Place is the first place since I accepted my call to ministry where I was not immediately and warmly welcomed - where I was questioned more than I was accepted - at least by the people who vocalized their thoughts. Many people accused me of wanting to change them. Others called me an "insider" because I was an outsider who was brought in to this Conference. Still others said I was in it for myself - that it was all about me. And, at an evaluation meeting, I was told that I am too focused on growth. While the congregation has come a long way and I have long forgiven the people who said these things to me, I am not sure I will ever forget their accusations.

What continues to amaze me is why any pastor would want to come to a declining church with enormous potential for growth for any reason other than passion. When I accepted the invitation to leave North Carolina and come to Mount Vernon Place, I came for one main reason - because I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ still has the power to change and transform lives.

I remember well what I was like in 1994-1997, when I was working in the political arena of Washington. My entire identity was based upon who I worked for - as a scheduler for Congressman Eric Fingerhut or a letter writer for Senator Tom Harkin. I often forgot who I was at the core of my being - a beloved child of God, accepted just as I was. I did not need additional legislative issues or more money to become valuable. I was already valuable - just for being me - the person God had created me to be. I long to tell this message today - "It does not matter who you are, what you do, who you love, who you have failed to love, how much money you make, what you have or what you do not are loved. You are accepted. You are forgiven. You are cherished."

I also remember what it was like to long for community - real community - authentic community in Washington. I longed for a place where I could be me - where I could tell others what I felt like God was doing in my life when I was being called into ministry. I found this community in a church, and I long to continue to provide a place for all of us to discover this community.

My first year at Mount Vernon Place was the hardest year of my life. There is no way I would ever do this for myself. I do it because I believe Jesus lived, died and rose again. I believe we have this treasure in clay jars - this extraordinary power that does not belong to us. I believe that grace is amazing. I believe this place where people in their 80s and 90s laugh regularly with people in their 20s and 30s is a remarkable place.

I am passionate about it.


I am passionate about it - to the point that it has moved me to tears.

Thank you, Hillary, for your passion.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


I am visiting my mother this week in Lamar, Colorado. Lamar is a small town in Southeastern Colorado with a population of 9,500 people and 10,000+ cattle. My mother is the mayor of Lamar. She has lived here since 1994, owns a small business in town, and she loves it here. This place is her home. She has an incredible sense of community in this place.

On Sunday evening, my mother had an open house for Craig and me. She wanted to celebrate our engagement and introduce her future son-in-law to her friends. Several people came - some 40 or so individuals flowed in and out of the house. When they left, Mom commented on how any of these individuals would do anything for others in the community. She talked about how they are people who love each other and will do whatever it takes to support each other. She then said that no one can find this kind of community in a city. One can only find community in a small town.

I completely disagree.

While it is not as easy to get to know people in a place like Washington, community is possible. While we do not have front porches on which to sit at night, communicating with our neighbors, it is possible to have real conversations with neighbors. And, the church plays a crucial role in forming this kind of community.

There are people at Mount Vernon Place who know a lot about me and love me in spite of it all. At Mount Vernon Place, we are trying to be authentic. We are striving to be the kind of place where all can come and be welcomed - just as they are - despite what they do, what they wear, who they love, what side of the aisle they sit, what kind of home they have or don't have, and what they do or do not believe. At the church, I see people in their 90s developing significant relationships with people in their 20s and 30s. I watch as people cry when other individuals in the congregation are experiencing pain. I observe people getting excited and celebrating when people are experiencing joy. And, I see relationships being formed - real relationships - the kind of relationships that motivate people to assist others whenever help is needed.

In Lamar, people meet each other in the streets, in the grocery store and at the local coffee shop. It's not quite as easy to meet people this way in Washington. I do not know everyone who lives on my hallway in my building. I cannot call many of my neighbors by name. But, my church is different. When I am at Mount Vernon Place, I see people who are willing to love me just as I am, who feel pain when I experience pain, joy when I feel joyful, and who will journey with me through life. I see people who would do anything for others.

Community in the city is possible. It's not always easy to find - but it is here. We would love to have you be part of ours. Come join us sometime!