Monday, March 31, 2008

The Contemplative Life

Two weeks later, I am still thinking a lot about my time at the monastery. A trip to the Washington National Cathedral this weekend brought forth this deep thirst for the holy again as I perused the bookshelves in the store, looking through books about this holy longing. I then visited the Botanical gardens where the orchids - all kinds of orchids - brought forth reminders of the gift of new life that is emerging all around us.

I could not help but to praise God.

I long for the contemplative life.

I long for more time with God.

In my quest for the holy, I opened a book this morning that I purchased at the abbey's bookstore, "Bridges to Contemplative Living: with Thomas Merton: Two: Becoming Who You Already Are." The book is designed to be used in a small group study, and I can imagine the power of its words in such a place. For now, I am journeying through it on my own.

The book includes words from a Psalmist, words from Merton, and words from another source. Today's "another voice" is Anthony DeMello who writes:

I imagine that today I am to die. I ask for time to be alone and write down for my friends a sort of testament for which the points that follow could serve as chapter titles.

DeMello then provides the following outline-

1. These things I have loved in life (things I tasted, looked at, smelled, heard, touched):
2. These experiences I have cherished:
3. These ideas have brought me liberation:
4. These beliefs I have outgrown:
5. These convictions I have lived by:
6. These are the things I have lived for:
7. These insights I have gained in the school of life:
8. These risks I took, there dangers I have courted:
9. These sufferings have seasoned me:
10. These lessons life has taught me:
11. These influences have shaped my life (persons, occupations, books, events):
12. These scripture texts have lit my path:
13. These things I regret about my life:
14. These are my life's achievements:
15. These persons are enshrined within my heart:
16. These are my unfulfilled desires:

I am going to start writing my responses. Perhaps I'll share a few.

What are your responses?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Holy, Holy Week

Last week was the most amazing Holy Week I have ever had. I continue to be awed and amazed by all of the ways in which God showed up - the resurrected Christ who stands in our midst, calling us by name. As I reflect back upon the week, I am reminded of many things that stand out, making it very distinct and special.

Last week, I prayerfully wrote three sermons. Starting with the task on Monday and finishing by Thursday afternoon, I wrote sermons for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. I diligently searched the texts, but I also prayed the texts. This work was focused work because I told people what was important to me. I did not do anything building related last week. I refused to meet with anyone on the property development or building detail. Instead, I focused fully and abundantly on being a pastor.

I now wonder how many other weeks during the year need to be spent without meetings on the building but only things that are necessary - only things that give life - visits to the shut-ins, prayers at bedsides, personal notes written for encouragement, lots of study, lots of prayer, lots of sermon preparation. Why is it that we pastors allow ourselves to get so distracted on things that were never mentioned when the Bishop laid her hands on us, ordaining us to a ministry of Word, service, sacrament and order?

On Thursday evening, I preached at Mount Olive Baptist Church, the church of one of my colleagues in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley. Mount Olive is a large, African American Baptist Church in Arlington, and this congregation provided me with the most amazing preaching experiencing I have ever had. I am so thankful.

On Friday, I gathered with individuals from the downtown community at nearby Asbury United Methodist Church for the Seven Last Words of Christ service. As always, it was a blessing to share in this sacred space on this most sacred of days.

On Sunday, we had a glorious Easter celebration at Mount Vernon Place with the largest crowd of people that I have seen in my nearly three years at Mount Vernon Place. Last year, we let go of some of the things we always do - like passing the peace and asking people to share their joys and their concerns - in order to save time on Easter. But this year, we did what we always do - we tried our best to faithfully be the Body of Christ - an authentic community of faith. I hope and pray that all who came were blessed.

As I look back upon last week, the time that stands out to me more than any other is Maundy Thursday. I keep thinking about the mandate Jesus gave to us on the night before he was crucified. On this night, Jesus got down on his feet and washed the feet of his disciples. On this night, Jesus wanted to teach the disciples what people in the church - what his followers should do - what kind of love they should embody - so Jesus washed feet - on his knees. The mandate given to us by Jesus is that we should love one another as Christ has loved us - serving one another as Christ has served us.

Can you imagine a church filled with people on their knees?
Can you imagine a church filled with individuals who want to serve like Christ?
Can you imagine a church filled with men and women who are willing to wash feet - to wash the dirtiest part of a person's body?
Can you imagine what it might look like if we really lived this mandate?

As I sit in the construction trailer where my office is now located, my desk vibrating because of the machinery that is working on our church building just outside, I keep thinking about everything that could happen in that building.

We will have showers. Who will we wash?
We will have a kitchen. Who will we feed?
We will have a nursery. Whose children will we welcome?
We will have a sanctuary with lots and lots of doors. How wide will we open them?

"This is my commandment," Jesus says, "that you love one another as I have loved you."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Come to the Easter Party!

I think on Easter morning we should throw confetti in church!
What about a little fanfare?
A deafening drum roll?
A three minute standing ovation?
Have we had the drums beaten out of us, that we in the celebrative community can’t really get excited about God’s aliveness
About God’s love given to us unconditionally?
Have we given Easter to the lily bearers, the bunny rabbits,the patent leather shoes?
Let’s face it: We live as though we don’t believe in Easter.
We’re the crowd- easily swayed, easily scared,easily calling for blood.
We’re the good church people who can’t believe Jesus meant love one another-
Not all the one anothers, not drug addicts and criminals.
We hate injustice when it’s injustice towards us.
We love mercy when it’s mercy for us.
We walk humbly with our God when it’s convenient.
We’re babe believers who resist the resurrection;
We’re Christmas Christians who are very good at celebrating Christ’s birth.
We can cling to the babe.
We’re even Crucifixion Christians, agonizing, sympathizing,relating to the hero on the cross.
We can rock a baby; we can weep for a Dead Man;
But what can we do with a 33-year old who won’t let the story end?
Easter scares us
because we’re the people who can’t believe that God gives us abundant life.
We think we have to earn it.
In our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps society
It’s hard to remember that God doesn’t buy the self-made person.
So we in the church spend our lives showing God
What good people we are,
What achievers we are,
How much we deserve God’s love.
We want to pay our own way but Easter says it’s already been paid!!
Easter says, no matter how prodigal, we can go home again!!
So come to the Easter party!!
Let’s celebrate the amazing grace that in Christ’s resurrection
We are still loved even at our most outrageous.
The Lord has given us the music, all we need to do is dance!
Come to the Easter party!!
© Ann Weems in “Reaching For Rainbows”

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More Wisdom from Brother Mark

This entry is the fourth entry about my time at Holy Cross Abbey last week. You may want to start at the first one if you are reading for the first time and then read up instead of reading down.

Brother Mark is 89 years old. He was a practicing physician prior to entering the monastery, and he still has an active medical license. He is funny. He smiles often. He laughs at his own jokes. And, his wisdom continues to inspire me as I think about my spiritual life and my vocation as a pastor.

After teaching me about the five kinds of prayer, Brother Mark proceeded to tell me what the three S's stand for that he had written on the piece of paper. "The first S is for 'spiritual reading.' You need to be reaching as much scripture and theology as possible," he explained.

"The next S is for 'sacraments.' I won't get into that with you, you're a pastor, after all," he said.

And then he said, "The final S is for self denial." It is here where a rich lesson took hold of me.

Brother Mark's words on self denial are life giving. He quoted a saint who said, "Every act of pure obedience is an act of pure adoration." He then said that we must deny ourselves for the sake of something greater than ourselves.

"Do you know what the definition is of a professional?" Brother Mark asked. "No," I responded.

"A professional is someone who does their work well regardless of the circumstances. Look at Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods plays golf well whether it is raining or the sun is shining. He plays golf well at all times because this is his profession." Brother Mark then continued, "Do I want to get up every morning at 3:00 in order to be in the chapel by 3:30? No, damn it. But I do it because this is my profession. I am a professional."

I wonder how many times I have complained about something that is part of my profession of pastor. I wonder how many times I have not done something to the best of my ability - creating the liturgy, visiting an older adult, praying, preaching, or teaching - because I did not feel like it that day.

I am a professional. I am a professional pastor. Whatever I am called to do this day - tend the sick, write the Easter sermon, respond to some emails, pray for people who are hurting, be interrupted countless times, look at the recent financial statement, think about next year's student intern, talk with our administrative assistant, proofread the bulletin one more time - I need to do it well. I need to do it with thanks. This is my profession.

And, if I deny myself of what I would really like to do or how I am really feeling - then something amazing might happen. If I deny myself of some extra sleep or extra time surfing the Internet, then more people might be blessed when I try to faithfully interpret a Biblical text on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Easter Morning. If I let go of a little of myself, then quite possibly, this entire church might be blessed in some way.

Let it be so for me and all who gather in this place on Easter morning!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Brother Mark

I went to Holy Cross to find God again. I went seeking an encounter with the Holy One. I wanted to feel God in a tangible way and to fall in love with God again.

The mountains provided my initial introduction to God's majesty and power. I could not help but to recite the words of the Psalmist over and over again, "I lift up my eyes to the hills." The glorious sunsets made me want to linger outside each evening as the heavens told the glory of the Lord. I could see God in this place, away from the hustle, bustle, traffic and crowded streets of Washington. Still, I knew that I needed to work harder to take part of it back with me. I knew that I wanted more spiritual depth - a depth that would continue to find a lot of time for God upon my return. It is for this reason that I placed my name on the appointment schedule for time with one of the brothers.

My appointment was scheduled for 11:00 on Thursday morning. I went to the place where I was to meet the brother. The door was still closed. I paced back and forth for a little while. I went back to my room. I picked up a book. I went back to the library. It was now 11:10, and the door was still shut. "Why is he keeping me waiting?" I asked myself. I then got up from my chair, walked over to the bulletin board and crossed my name off the schedule. My return to the room did not last long, however, as I found myself going back down the hall to the room where I was to meet the brother. Finally, the door opened at 11:15, and I went in.

"My name is M - A - R - K," the brother told me. "Now what can I do for you?" he asked. We set down, and I asked, "Will you please tell me about your call to this place?" I thought that if he told me about his call, I would hear about how his heart longeth after God - about how God is so alive in his life, and that I would then be able to capture some of this passion.

Brother Mark looked at me with a perplexed look on his face. "What are you, a reporter?" he asked. "No," I responded. "I am simply an exhausted pastor who is having a hard time making space for God in my everyday life. I desperately need to be refocused," I said.

"Oh," he said. "Now I understand what you are looking for." With these words, Brother Mark took a pad of paper from the bookshelf next to him and started to write four letters. He then handed it back to me. I glanced at the paper which read:





Brother Mark then said, "Now, start taking notes." With that, Brother Mark started to tell me how I could find more of God.

"P is for prayer. There are several different kinds of prayer," he said. He then said, "Please draw 5 lines. The first kind of prayer is thanksgiving. This one is rather easy, especially here. I see a glorious sunset, and I say thanks. I see the mountains, and I say thanks. I also say thanks when I see the ocean from time to time.

The next line is for reparation. This is a reactive kind of prayer. One of our brothers goes through the newspaper each day, looking for people to pray for. He seeks to make reparations for these people through our prayers.

The next line is for adoration. This one is rather simple.

The next one is for petition. We pray for people and situations here all of the time. We petition God on their behalf.

The final line is for meditation. I encourage you to set in your room for 20 minutes each morning and 20 minutes each night. I want you to sit on the floor and cross your legs. Close your eyes and say over and over again, 'I love you, Lord or 'Jesus I love you.'" Brother Mark then continued to tell me how his former Abbot, Thomas Keating, taught him this method. "You have to make room for God - to adore God. And, don't always expect God to show up, just keep praying," Brother Mark said. "You must spend 20 minutes doing this twice a day."

"All of these principles are like plowing the field. You never know when something might be successful - when something might sprout, but we keep plowing," brother Mark told me.

I have yet to set aside 20 minutes, two times a day for mediation. I can imagine such a life, of course. For now, I am trying hard to offer my thanks over and over again, to make reparations for myself and the world, to adore God, and to pray for others.

I can't wait to tell you what else Brother Mark taught me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Almost Empty

Each month, I gather with other clergy members from this annual conference for what is called "Discipler Group." We gather to talk about how best we can lead our churches to celebrate in worship, connect as one, serve like Christ, develop as Disciples and share our faith. There are times when the gatherings are very rich and beneficial. Like anything, there are other times when I would rather spend my Tuesday morning somewhere else. One of the best things about the gathering is the individuals who I get to see on the first Tuesday of each month.
When we met for the first time this fall, our group discerned how best we would covenant with one another for this journey. One of the things that became important for us was to create space where there was no room for B.S. - but where we needed to be ourselves - to name everything that was happening in our lives - to bring it all to the table. We talked about how if we are trying to create authentic community in our own congregations, then we, too, needed to be authentic with each other. This desire to be authentic pushes and probes us in different ways - typically with difficult questions.
At the end of our time together on the first Tuesday of this month, our guide (who is our District Superintendent) asked a question, "Now, what is it that you are not saying?"
We had been talking about where we found ourselves in the middle of Lent, what was happening in our lives, and how we were growing. The guide continued, "What is it that no one knows yet?" The question pierced me, and I found myself opening my mouth.
I am spiritually dry. I have not had a regular prayer time or devotional time in months. I am thrilled by what is happening at the church, but I am exhausted. I yearn for time with God.
I then continued, "You know, it is so easy to say that we are pastors. We tell others that we are pastors, and people automatically assume that we are close to God. We stand up and pray in the midst of the congregation each Sunday, and people assume that we pray all of the time. But, I am having a hard time balancing it all with the development and the time it takes, along with everything else I need to do."
I was exhausted. It had been months since I had experienced a real Sabbath. It had been weeks since a church member did not call me on my Sabbath - on a Friday to ask questions that could have waited until Sunday (Why is it that people cannot understand that pastors, more than anyone else, desperately need a day away from the church and the people of the church?). It had been months since I had taken a 24-hour break from checking my email. I could not remember the last time I spent a Friday resting, worshipping and seeking renewal.
And so, I went to the Abbey - the week before Easter. I went to the Abbey to find myself again - to discover a life of prayer. I went, telling my congregation to not call me but to call the person on call. I went, and God pulled me back one more time. The Good Shepherd lifted me up, put me around his shoulders, and carried me back into his fold.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

68.2 Miles

Early Monday morning I was with a group of clergy who had met to continue planning the opening worship service for the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. I explained to them how I could meet with them that day but how I could not attend the meeting on the following afternoon because I would be on retreat.

"You are going on retreat the week before Easter?" one of my colleagues asked.

"Yes, I am going away this week. Everything is going to be crazy after Easter," I explained. "Once Easter is over, everything needs to be calculated to prepare us for our move back into the historic church."

My rationalization made sense to me. There is so much to do after Easter. There is so much to discern, to pray about, to think about and to prepare for as we think about moving the congregation from rented space to our permanent home after a very expensive and extravagant renovation. Still, there was more to the story. The real truth would come out in the days ahead.

The idea came up at a recent meeting of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. With new members participating in their first meeting as a committee member, I was explaining to the group that their chief purpose was not to respond to problems that come up with the pastor or staff. Rather, their chief purpose as a committee is to support the pastor, the staff and their families. With this explanation, one of the new members on the committee asked a question, "What are we doing to take care of our pastor?"

What are we doing to take care of our pastor?

It was a refreshing question to hear. I had not heard anyone ask it before.

The committee members continued to talk, with the older members adding information about vacation and continuing education. This newcomer added something else, "But our pastor is getting married. Our pastor is working hard. What are we doing to make sure she is taken care of - that she is taking care of herself?" She then continued, "I think we should require that she find time for a spiritual retreat between now and her wedding. We need to make sure that she goes away and takes care of herself."

At this point, I started to pinch myself. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. After some discussion about how I already had time off for vacation and continuing education, followed by an explanation of what a spiritual retreat is, the committee agreed that I needed to go away.

On Tuesday morning, I drove 68.2 miles to Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. It took me just over one hour to arrive at a place described by one of the other retreatants as "just an inch or two below heaven."

And, I cannot wait to tell you more about what I discovered this week.

What a difference 68.2 miles can make.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Finding a Familiar Tune

We resurrected another ministry at Mount Vernon Place last week when women from our church gathered for lunch. The men in our congregation have an abundant, life-giving gathering every other Saturday morning when they gather for fellowship and a discussion on discipleship at a nearby Starbucks. The women gathered when we were in our old building. However, with the loss of parking, this ministry was also at a loss.

Thanks to the passion and energy of several new members at Mount Vernon Place, our women met again last Saturday. We gathered not in downtown Washington, but at the favorite restaurant of one of our members, the most amazing 95-year-old that I have ever met. There was plenty of parking. There was a lot of laughter. And, there was a great mix of longtime members and newcomers to the church. It was a blessing.

Finding a blend between what is old and what is new is not always easy to find. I am told that some of our longtime members sometimes feel left out. I have been criticized often for not asking the longtime members what they want or don't want at the church. Still, I recognize that the most life-giving moments we have as a congregation are the times when everyone is present - the twenty-somethings and the ninety-somethings, the people who can tell you what has happened in the last year at Mount Vernon Place and the people who can tell you what has happened in the last sixty years at Mount Vernon Place. One of the best things about our congregation is its beautiful mix - its diversity - of people.

I have been reading a lot about church transitions lately and how best to provide leadership in times like this. I was struck by something that Barbara Lundblad writes about in her book, Transforming the Stone. She writes:

At a recent Lutheran churchwide assembly, a bishop came to the microphone at the closing session. He hadn't come to make an amendment or call for a vote, but to ask for a point of personal privilege: "Could we all rise and join in singing 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?' His request didn't come after a particularly division session, but out of a deep personal longing. During that assembly, we had sung in Spanish and clapped the rhythms of South African freedom songs, and we had heard new images for God lifted up in prayers. The bishop hadn't heard his heritage lifted up in prayers. The bishop hadn't heard his heritage lifted up or celebrated in ten days of meetings. He wanted us to sing a song he knew before going home.

No doubt some will say, 'That's too bad! We've spent fifteen hundred years singing his songs!' Many at that assembly delighted in the Pentecost diversity of language and music while others, like the bishop, felt the church was moving on without them.

Lundblad continues to ask how we can make sure that we remember everyone in our preaching - those who are new and those who feel estranged in the church of their birth, the prodigal son and the older brother standing in anger, everyone.

We are trying hard to strike this balance at Mount Vernon Place. We are seeking to honor the past while embracing the future. Who knew this balance would be so hard to find! And still, it is happening, slowly but surely. And may I add one more thing - the beer bottle in the middle of the table and the martini glass at the end of the table do not belong to any of the "younger" women!