Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Slippery Church

There is an article on the front page of today's Washington Post titled "In Major Poll, U.S. Religious Identity Appears Very Slippery." The article is about recent research done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. According to the Pew research, some 40 percent of the individuals polled have changed their religion. Only one in six individuals still belongs to the church or denomination of their childhood. Some 24 percent of individuals polled are individuals who were Catholic in the past but who are no longer. And, the percentage of individuals who claim to be Protestant is now 51 percent.

The church is slipping away. The Christian church is having a hard time holding on to its members. While my parent's generation rarely changed jobs or religious affiliation, there is something about other generations that yearn for or even demand change. And while many people my age fall into this category of wanting change, I believe that the church cannot simply say, "Oh, it's just this generation." It is time for the church to wake up and start being the church once again.

My father was raised in the United Methodist Church. He comes from a long line of United Methodists. Everyone in the family is buried next to a United Methodist Church. Most people have been married in a United Methodist Church. The only church my father ever knew was the United Methodist Church...until my parents went through a painful divorce after twenty-three years of marriage. When my dad was going through the divorce, he was in a new apartment in a new community. My sister and I were not speaking to him. He was alone in many ways. And, he went to church - to the United Methodist Church - in his new community hoping to find community and support. No one spoke to him on the day he visited, however. No one reached out to him or welcomed him. He went to another church the next week, and he is now a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination.

My mother was raised in the United Methodist Church. Her father was a United Methodist minister. Her mother was a lover of the United Methodist Church. My mother has faithfully supported the United Methodist Church all of her life...until about three years ago. A new pastor came to town with little passion or energy. Mother was no longer being fed in worship. She stopped going to the church for a while, and no one reached out to her. The pastor never called to ask why she stopped coming to worship. Mother found a new church home in a Pentecostal church down the street. The church is led by a dynamic pastor and the worship is filled with passion, especially when it comes to music. My mother has a faith now that is stronger than I have ever seen it.

The Methodist Church has lost both of my parents - lifelong Methodists.

Most of my friends no longer go to church. While it seems as though we were all raised in the church, many of my peers have discovered more meaningful things to do with their Sunday mornings even if it is just catching up with household chores. If you walk through many neighborhoods of this city on a Sunday morning, you wonder if anyone goes to church. And, still, I don't see many churches making the changes necessary to bring new people in.

My beloved United Methodist Church has spent millions on a marketing campaign called, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." Yet, all the while the church has argued over who can come inside. There are still numerous churches who remain closed to people who do not look or act right. There are still too many churches who have not opened the doors wide enough - especially to the poor, the outcast, the gay and lesbian community, and the list goes on and on.

The Catholic Church has lost the most members according to the Pew research. Many people have turned their back on the Catholic Church in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandals. Still, the Catholic Church has not made any changes on how to ensure that this abuse does not happen again. The Church continues to refuse to ordain women or allow men to marry.

The church I serve is surrounded by young people. We have people in their twentys and thirtys all around us. Still, there has been an unwillingness for a long time to try new things. As we prepare to move back into our historic building in July, there is more talk amongst our older members about bringing back what used to be - even though the programs were not reaching new people - than talk about what can be. This slope is the slippery slope on which many of our churches appear to be walking.

I love the church. I love Jesus. I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ still has the power to transform lives - that there is hope offered through this Gospel that gives us strength for today and promises for tomorrow. I believe that the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ is the very kingdom we hunger and thirst for today - it is the kind of kingdom being promised in the rhetoric being espoused by our political candidates - a kind of place where all people are being cared for. And, I love this church - Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

So, if you are one of the many people out there looking for a new church, a new denomination, or a new community, let me tell you why I believe in this particular church:

1) You are invited to come just as you are. In last week's worship service, we had people in their very best suits and people in jogging suits. We do not care what you wear. Come just as you are. You are welcome here.

2) I do not care what you believe or what you do not believe. I do not care who you love or who you have failed to love. I do not want to know what you have done or what you have failed to do. You are welcome here.

3) We are part of a denomination that has long joined faith with service. From its very beginning, the Methodist Church has sent people out into the world to serve. We are trying hard to not keep our faith confined to a Sunday morning. Instead, we are trying hard to serve this community - in small ways right now - but in ways that we hope are faithful.

4) We have this amazing group of individuals that range in age from 1 - 100. Many of our most active members are people who have been in Washington since "the war" - since 1940. They are amazing! They make me laugh often. They teach me about life all of the time. When you combine this uncanny group of people with the newcomers - a wonderful group of young adults - then you have a fantastic community of faith.

5) We have learned a lot about what it means to be the church when we do not have a church building right now. The church has nothing to do right now with a glorious sanctuary or stained glass windows. The church is the people. And, the church must be the church. We must exist for the transformation of the world.

The church is far from perfect. We have to remember that the rock on which Jesus built the church was a man named Peter who seemed to be filled with more doubt than faith. Still, the church has so much potential. The church has so much to offer.

Good God, come and give us the courage to make the changes necessary to stop this slipper slope!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Power of Study

When I was preparing to come to Mount Vernon Place UMC nearly three years ago, I was told that my job would be two-fold by someone who knew the church but whose life has been spent in the academy. This individual told me that basically all I had to do was to hold the hand of the members who had given their life to this church and who are now in their 80s and 90s while also working to start a new church at the same time. This individual said to me, "You are basically a Hospice chaplain on one hand and the pastor of a new church start on the other hand."

While I listened to this individual's words when they were spoken to me, recording them in my mind for future reference, it did not take long for me to realize that this person was completely wrong. This individual's advice was about as inaccurate as a doctor telling someone to put salt on a wound.

Yes, of course there are plenty of people in any church who have not opened a Bible in a long time. There are several people in every church who have forgotten the vows they made when they joined the church - vows to faithfully support the church with one's prayers, presence, gifts and service. And, of course, Mount Vernon Place is like every other church. Yet, one of the things that continues to awaken my spirit is the growing faith and spirituality of many of the people at Mount Vernon Place - especially a group of people who are in their 90s.

Each week I am privileged to gather around a table with a group of individuals who range in age from the mid-70s to 99. We gather for one hour each week to study the Bible. We have spent a lot of time in the Old Testament and in the New. The conversation has been rich as a week with Paul's words on homosexuality in Romans led to the question by a 95-year-old as to why we have to put labels on anyone. Last week, a 99-year-old said, "I want to read a passage to you." He then proceeded to read 1Corinthians 16:20 which states, "All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss." He added, "That sounds good to me!"

Last week, our study took us to Ephesians 4 where we talked about what it means to be the body of Christ and how damaging many of our actions can be. In this passage, we are instructed to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

This passage led to a beautiful discussion about how split our churches can be - how we can fail so often to be patient with one another, saying terrible things about others instead of doing whatever we can to build up the body of Christ. We then continued to talk about what it means to speak the truth in love and how we can best be the church. And, before we ended we committed to read this passage together each day, asking God for the wisdom and patience needed to live it out.

This group of individuals that I was instructed needed only a little hand holding is leading the church in becoming the church - the body of Christ. This group of individuals is struggling with me about how it is with our souls and how we can grow closer to Christ. This group of individuals reminds me each week of what a joy it is to be a disciple of Christ.

Following Bible study, I went to visit another 99-year-old member of Mount Vernon Place. This individual does not get to church often anymore. Yet, she tells me that she prays for us all of the time, and I know she is telling me the truth. Before I left last week, I asked her how I could pray for her. She then prayed for me. She reminded me of the awesome privilege I have and then she asked God to give me all that I need to share the hope we have with those around us. She prayed that Mount Vernon Place would continue to be a blessing, and that we would bring all kinds of people into the doors of our church in order that all might be spiritually enriched.

These people are amazing! There is no dust on their Bibles. What a gift it is to be their pastor.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Demand for Change

There is a great demand for change happening in our country. The pages of the Washington Post are covered with quotes from people seeking change. Our television programs are intercepted with candidates promising us this change. And, after every caucus or primary has ended, the results show that what people want more than anything else is change. This change is producing three very different frontrunners for the Oval Office: a wounded veteran, a woman, and an African American. I love the diversity of the race. For the first time, there is a very good chance that our next President is either going to be a woman or an African American.

People want change. People are demanding change. And, the political machines are listening. Every candidate is trying to promise a little change or a lot of change.

Change is the one constant in life. Our bodies change as we get older. Our eyesight changes. Our jobs change. Our children change. Our neighborhoods change. Our schools change. Our grocery stores change. Our diets change. Change happens. Yet, not everyone or every organization is willing to change.

The church seems to be the one institution where people fight against change instead of adapting a willingness to change when needed. And, I believe that many people have sought change within the church. They have asked for changes to be made that would make the church more accomodating, more passionate, more hospitable, more open, more joyful, more relevant. Few churches have been willing to listen. Many of the churches that have made some necessary changes are growing while the majority of the churches that have refused to change are declining or even about to close because people are holding on to the programs that mean something to them while failing to meet the needs of the new neighbors. Worship styles are held hostage by musicians who have been directing for decades. And, the people on the inside have forgotten that the reason they exist is for the people on the outside - that they are called to serve the people around them.

I have just finished a book, Why Christian, written by Douglas John Hall. Hall writes,

"So far as the church is concerned, what is lost in highly institutionalized Christianity is inevitably the movement-quality biblical church. As the word established itself suggests, in the established church it is precisely movement that has to be avoided. Most people do not want to belong to something that is moving, changing, in flux; they want to be part of something stable and staionary, steadfast, permanent. In fact, the establishment of religions is always partly the result of the human desire to have, in teh midst of life's changes, something that seems solid and constant. That is why so many Christians today (and not only Christians) are upset by changes occurring in the churches.

But life is change; and when the churches refuse to change they always tend to cut themselves off from life. More importantly, they are likely to cut themselves off from the living God, whose love toward the world requires constant attention to the here and now...So "movement" is not only a matter of the church's structure, it is bound up with its very message and mission. When the church opts for institutional forms that deny or impede movement, it is putting a stumbling block in the way of God's communication with the world."

Perhaps Hall's words resonate with me because I serve a church that failed to change for decades, losing 90% of its membership as a result. One would not have known that the membership had dropped so much by looking at the programs, staff or budget, however. The church hung on to the things that meant a lot to them, failing to see that no one was responding to the programs - that lives were not being transformed. Many of the programs had to go as a result of the building program, and the church has experienced more growth in recent months than it has in a long time - with the smallest staff and budget and absolutely no building.

Lives are being transformed.

Change is happening.

But, we had to let go. We had to make room for God. We had to take a cue from the Early Church's playbook - preach the Gospel as passionately as you can, enjoy fellowship with one another, make sure that everyone knows they are welcome, care for anyone around you who has a need, invite people to repent - to change their life, and watch as people are added to the congregation.

To borrow the words of my colleague, Paul Nixon, "I Refuse to Serve a Dying Church." The only way a church can stop dying is to change - to let go of what is making it sick and to embody the practices that lead to health and wholeness.

Our country is demanding change in the White House.

I believe many are also asking for changes in our churches. May we, as clergy and laity, have the wisdom to listen to their voices and to open wide the doors. There is way too much at stake for us to remain silent or continue to adopt the status quo.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday - A Day of New Beginnings

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  Today is one of those days that I yearn to arrive.  It seems as though the marking of ashes on this day and the beginning of Lent always bring so much hope within me.  

"Beginning Wednesday, I am definitely going to pray for an hour each day."
"Come Wednesday, I am going to no longer push snooze."
"Starting Wednesday, I am going to give up Diet Coke."
"This Lent, I am going to turn a new leaf.  I am going to become more like Christ each day."

Lent is a season of new beginnings.  T.S. Eliot once wrote, "What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning.  The end is where we start from."

We start from wherever we are - right now.  Whether we are filled with sin or having a hard time thinking of what sins are alive within us, we start here.  We examine ourselves, asking God to point out the places in our lives that need to be corrected.  We seek God's wisdom in our lives, praying that God will illuminate the places of darkness so that with God's help, there can be more light within us.  

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 51:  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.  Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.  You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.  Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

This is my prayer for this Lent.  What I desire more than anything else is a clean heart and a new and right spirit modeled after the teachings of Christ.

This is a day of new beginnings.  No matter where you are, what you have done, what you have left undone, who you have loved or who you have failed to love, the promises are for each one of us.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 04, 2008

"They," "Them," You Know, the "Other"

I spent a portion of Saturday afternoon in a glass shop. It was not part of the plan. In fact, there were four things on Saturday's agenda: drop off things at Goodwill, pick out bridesmaid dresses, make time to enjoy rest with Craig, and go to a birthday party on Saturday night. While three of these things were accomplished, the time for rest with Craig was replaced by Craig taking me to get my car window fixed after I discovered one of the windows had been busted sometime on Friday night.

It is the third time that someone has tried to break into my car in the two and one-half years that I have lived here. The first two times someone tried to break the locks, toying with the passenger side first before assaulting the driver side lock. The second time I went out to my car on a Sunday morning and found it running. Someone had again busted the locks, broken the key hole off and got my car started but was unable to drive it because of the Club lock. And, on Friday evening, someone broke the back window of my car, reached inside to unlock the door and then rummaged through my glove box. Nothing was taken. It appears that they were following the lead of a GPS cord in site and assumed that the GPS monitor was in the car; it was in my purse, however.

I spent much of Saturday talking about "them." "They did it again," I told my friends and family. "They have once again busted into my car, costing me a $100 insurance deductable." This conversation continued at the glass shop with a woman who was waiting for her car. "They" had gotten into her car, too. "They" had broken their glass.

By Saturday night, I had done a lot of thinking about "them." I began to realize how much I had allowed my mind to construct who "they" are. I concluded quickly that "they" were probably linked to the young man sitting in his car in front of me when I parked it on Friday night. He was sitting there in a hoodie sweatshirt with the hoodie pulled up. He seemed to be watching me, and my instincts told me to find another parking spot, but I was tired. So, I waited until the street was filled with cars, got out of my car, and rushed to my home. "They" were certainly not the people who live in my building. "They" were the other - the people who do not look like me. "They" were the people who banter the employees at 7-Eleven, crowd the corners of the neighborhood, and skip school to wreck havoc.

"They" were people for who I needed to seek forgiveness as I realized that my cultural context had once again told me that somehow I was not like "them" even though I am the minority in this neighborhood.

I then went to a viewing of film, "The Bible Tells Me So" yesterday afternoon at Calvary Baptist Church where my friend, Amy, is the pastor. I had heard a lot about this film, but it was my first time seeing it. For nearly two hours, I watched the stories of five families who have struggled with what it means to have someone in their family who is gay or lesbian. I watched as a former presidential candidate talked about his daughter. I heard things from the parents of Gene Robinson that have made me see the split occuring in the Episcopal Church in an entirely new light. My eyes filled with tears at times. My heart ached at other times. I wanted to weep. I wanted to clap. I wanted to go out and join some of these families in their quest to ensure that all people are considered equals - that the "they," "them" and "other" are no longer separated because of difference.

The viewing of the film was followed by a panel discussion of three area clergy: one Jewish rabbi and two Protestant pastors. These three individuals all lead congregations that are inclusive of everyone - actively inclusive. They all spoke passionately of their willingness to preside at same-sex unions and ensure that something like 'Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors' does not hang on a shingle outside the place of worship without being practiced inside the place of worship. And, their words touched me.

Any group that gives privilege to one group does so at the expense of another group.

If there is any oppression of any kind, it burdens everyone, it is a burden to oppress someone.

We need to always remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. We were once hated by everyone.

This is a civil rights issue.

If your congregation votes on whether or not you will be fully welcoming of gay. lesbian and transgender people then you are voting on the humanity of an entire community.

Any kind of exclusion is always contrary to the ways of our Lord.

We are so good at setting aside people who are different from us whether it is the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their age, their economic standing, their disability, and the list goes on and on and on.

And yet, the Bible tells us that we are all created in the image of God. We are all called to create a culture that reflects the character of God. We are all born into this world in the same way: with nothing. And, we all leave the world with nothing.

Why, then, are we so good at separating ourselves - at putting labels on people - "they," "them" and "other." And, why does the church seem to always be the leader in this separation? The hypocrisy that is detailed in this film is real and ugly.

I love my neighborhood. I love the rich diversity that I see everytime I walk out my door. One of my favorite images is to see the children go on a walk from the nearby daycare center. They all take a hold of the same rope and if you look at the hands holding on to this rope then you will see about a dozen different colors - but they are all holding on - they are all connected - to the same rope.

I also love my church. I love the congregation that I am privileged to see every Sunday when I stand up and say, "Welcome to Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church." This congregation is young and old, Anglo and African American, Asian and Hispanic, rich and poor, housed and homeless, gay and strait, believers and doubters, sinners and almost saints, fully committed and tipping toes in. This congregation is the body of Christ.

Dear Lord, please forgive me for too often labeling individuals as "they," "them" or "other." Forgive me for thinking that I am somehow better than anyone else because I am a privileged, young, white, heterosexual, educated woman. Forgive me for ever labeling someone as anything other than your child who is made in your image. Remind me often that we are all attached to the same rope; all holding on to life in your hands. And, grant me the wisdom and courage needed to do whatever I can to see that the church is always open to ALL people. Thank you for the privilege to serve and love you through being pastor to this amazing group of people. Amen.