Thursday, July 31, 2008

One Year Ago Today

It has been one year since my friend, Tracy, died. It was one year ago today when we received the horrible news of her passing.
I remember where I was when I received the news.
I remember gathering with Tracy's friends that afternoon at the Irish Times.
I remember crying my eyes out, not understanding her choices or her death.
And, I remember Tracy.
I remember her joy.
I remember her sparkle.
I remember her zest for life.
I remember her crush on certain boys.
I remember her beauty.
I remember her great shoes.
I remember her ability to give gifts - one-of-a-kind gifts.
I remember her love of the song, "This Little Light of Mine."

Today, I remember Tracy's friends and family. My hearts and prayers are with you. The sting of the pain never seems to go away. I feel it with you this day. And, I give thanks and praise that Tracy was part of my life and the life of our congregation at Mount Vernon Place. May God's peace be with us all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Room for us?

We are coming home this weekend at Mount Vernon Place. We left our sanctuary in August 0f 2006 for an extensive renovation project. We first worshipped in our old theatre beneath the sanctuary and then moved over to the Carnegie Library in February of last year. Meanwhile, a top-to-bottom makeover has been taking place. The stained glass windows have been restored. A new roof has been installed. Leaks have been repaired. Air conditioning systems have been replaced. The chancel area of the sanctuary has been flattened. A new altar, pulpit and lectern have been crafted. The building is shining once again. We are excited about coming home!

Earlier this week, we had visitors from England who are excited to be coming home with us. This family stopped by the church to explain how they were here 40 years ago and stayed with a member of our church family. They visited the church back then. They saw it filled to capacity with thousands of people here on a Sunday morning. They shared how excited they are to be here on our first Sunday back in the sanctuary. They then asked a question, "Do you think there will be enough room for us?"

Do you think there will be enough room for us?

Their question made me laugh - out loud. Our sanctuary now seats 499 people, down from around 600 before the renovation. There was a time when the sanctuary was standing room only - when people would line up long before the organ prelude began. But that time is long ago.

When I arrived at Mount Vernon Place three years ago, the people told me over and over again that they had tried everything. Nothing worked. It was time to close. The people would spend the endowment until it was gone, close the doors, and return the keys to the United Methodist Church. At the time, we had about 40 or so people here on a Sunday with an average age of 82. Things had changed. The sanctuary was no longer full. Everyone could sit together, in the front rows of the middle section.

Things are now changing again. We are growing once again. New people are coming each Sunday. But we are still a small congregation, averaging about 58 on a Sunday morning.

Do you think there will be enough room for us?

I quickly explained to the woman visiting from England about how much the church had changed - how small the congregation had grown - telling them that there would be plenty of room for them. But I keep thinking about her question.

She asked the question as one who knew the church filled to capacity. She asked the question as one who came, and found herself snuggled between dozens of other people in the same pew. She came and found a church filled - filled to capacity. It was the people around here - these memories of the past - that propelled her to ask the question about whether there would be room for her this Sunday.

But I wonder how many other people do not think there is room for them at the church. How many other people do not feel they are dressed right or that they act right? How many other people feel they are too dirty or too filled with doubt to come inside? How many other people have been told that they are not welcome inside the church?

Do you think there will be room for us?

Yes, there will be room for you - on this Sunday and next Sunday and the Sunday after that. There is room for all of you at Mount Vernon Place. There is plenty of room. As I say to the congregation each Sunday morning, "It does not matter who you are or where you have been. It does not matter whether you are here every single Sunday morning or whether you just got up in the nick of time to be here this morning. It does not matter what you have done or what you have left undone. It does not matter what you have said or what you have failed to say. It does not matter who you have loved or who you have failed to love. You are welcome here. I believe with all of my heart that God is here and that God knows everything about us and loves us in spite of it all. I also believe that this God longs to encounter us here, in this space, as we come to worship our living Savior."

Do you think there will be room for us?

Yes. There is plenty of room for you and for you and for you and for you.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My friend, Howard

My friend, Howard, turned 100 on Tuesday. Howard is this incredible man who is a member of our congregation. For the last three years, I have had the amazing privilege of being his pastor. Two years ago, Howard brought me a book. He told me I could be the best preacher ever if I took time to read the book. The book, published in 1942, is titled, "Training the Speaking Voice." Howard swears that I have read the book - but what I have really done is to listen to his request to slow down when I am preaching.

We have new chairs in our new chapel at the church. Half of them have arms in them because of Howard. It was Howard who reminded me that "old people need arms" in order to stand.

Howard has also taught me about generosity. He loves supporting the least and the lost. He loves sharing what he has with others in order to make this world a brighter and better place.

Howard loves the church, and he loves God. He makes me laugh often. When I saw him in the hospital last month, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him. He responded, "You can feed me like a baby." I tried my best to feed him spaghetti without getting it all over the hospital bed.

When I asked Howard what his prayer request was on Tuesday he replied, "I am tired. I am worn. I need my underpinnings to work." His body is tired and he desperately wants to keep walking. But Howard is far from tired. He is really quite remarkable. He represents one of the many blessings at Mount Vernon Place and he is one of the many reasons why I love being the pastor at this place.

Thank you for your faithfulness, Howard. Happy 100th Birthday! May you live until you are 110 since you think that "turning 100 is no longer impressive since so many other people are doing it."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

First Impressions

Craig and I are in Quebec City for a few days, starting our honeymoon in this quaint, historic city. Throughout our time here, we have been overwhelmed by the sincerity and generosity of the people who call this city home.  

Gen, the concierge, has delighted us with her knowledge of the city and her pure passion of what she does for a living - telling others what to see and what to eat.  Patrick, our waiter night before last, made sure that we had a great meal.  He delighted us with a charming tray of chocolates complete with a "congratulations" chocolate in the middle and then two glasses of Quebec's own iced cider at the end of the meal.  The shopkeepers have gone out of their way to speak with us even with limited English.  The man at the table next to us during last night's dinner gave us a list of places to see on our next stop, Montreal.  The people have contributed so much to our time in this city.  They have made Quebec the lovely, charming, romantic and kind city that we have experienced.  Their words and their actions have made a lasting impression.

Throughout our time in Quebec, I have been very aware that Craig and I are also making an impression on these people.  Whether we like it or not, people are aware that we are not from this place.  We are Americans - we are visitors - and our actions, our words, our acts of gratitude - speak for more people than just the two of us.  In some people's eyes, we are speaking for an entire nation - a place called America.

There is so much power wrapped up in an impression, particularly a first impression.

I keep thinking about the impression of the church.  The church makes an impression all of the time - whether we like it or not.  We make an impression with our property - by how well it is maintained but also by how we use it.  We make an impression with our programs and ministries - by what we do for and with each other and especially by what we do for others.  We make an impression when we are inside the church but especially when we are outside of the church - by how we speak, by how we live, by the words and actions we embody.  And unfortunately, too much of the church's impression has been negative at times.   So often, I encounter people who want nothing to do with the church because the church, for them, has been a place of judgment, a place of hatred, a place of exclusion.  And, just as I do not want to be associated with some of the loud, always forgetting to say 'thank you' Americans who we have encountered in this city, I would rather not be associated with this part of the church.  

I love the church.  I love being a part of a people who look and act like Christ.   But what if we worked even harder to be like Jesus?  What if we went out of our way to embody the best of Christ?  One woman in this city walked all the way back into her building to get us directions.  She looked as though she was in a hurry, but she allowed us to slow her down by at least five minutes.  Are we willing to go out of our way to encounter the lost?  Are we willing to go out of the way to see that others are fed - the very best of what we have?  Are we willing to provide hospitality - extravagant hospitality to the stranger who might be an angel unaware?

Lord, help us to embody your love and your grace.  Enable us to show your light shining through all we say and do.  Use us to build your church!

Now it's off to Montreal!