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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I love being a pastor. Today is one of those days when I realize just how precious this job really is. My work day started at 8 when I met a young woman for coffee - for conversation around what it means to risk it all for the sake of the Gospel. I then traveled to Virginia to attend the memorial service of a remarkable 89 year old woman who has regularly attended our Tuesday Bible study for the past year and a half. I met another young woman from Mount Vernon Place for lunch, and we talked about her job and where she might go when she finishes her two year stint with Teach for America.

I love this job - I love being in conversation with others about life, where God is, who God is, and how God is at work. I cannot imagine myself being anything else or doing anything else other than being a pastor. And, my love of being a pastor is exactly why my job is driving me a little nuts lately.

We moved back home three weeks ago at Mount Vernon Place. We are finally back home - in a glorious, completely renovated, 1917 building. It is fantastic space. And, it is space that creates another huge responsibility.

We are no longer renting space on Sunday mornings - easily paying someone else to provide security, turn the lights on and clean the bathrooms. Instead, we are responsible for the space. And, the space is stealing my time.

In the last three weeks, I have had conversations about how often the grass should be mowed, how often and how much the building should be cleaned, when the doors should be alarmed and when they should be unlocked, who will sit at the front door on Sundays, who will turn the handicap lift on, where the new pew pads go - especially the ones that arrived without a size tag, how to take care of the rodent problem that shows signs of rats the size of cats (not in the building - thank God - but outside), how to fill the space with people, how much it will cost to get married here, and the list goes on and on and on. And, all of these things are important - but these things are not my vocation - these things are not part of my calling. I have been spending more than half of my workweek on building related matters - instead of Biblical, spiritual, connectional or theological matters. And, my energy is depleted. My mind is boggled. My creativity is zapped. I want to simply be a pastor again!

Frederick Buechner defines vocation as that place where one's deep gladness meets the world's deep hunger. I know that as much as I could think about finances and building partners and rodent control, that this is not my call. As much as I could go out and create new partnerships and relationships with people in the community who might need a fantastic theatre space or want to plan a rock concert for 500 that this is not my call. My calling is to be a pastor - to be a person who wants more than nothing else to tell people about the all encompassing love of Christ and to invite them to experience this transforming love.

I am so grateful to have found my call - my vocation. I now hope we find someone whose vocation is to be an administrator - an administrator for this wonderful, one-of-a-kind, dynamic, growing, visionary place called Mount Vernon Place. Interested? Please apply!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Same Old, Same Old

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get unchurched people into church. I spend time thinking about this - but rarely do I ask unchurched people about what it would take to get them into the church. Perhaps I don't ask because I am afraid of the answer - I am afraid that their answer will make so much sense and yet seem impossible to accommodate.

Following is an email I received yesterday from someone who does not believe in God but who visits Mount Vernon Place often. I asked for permission to share these thoughts because I think they have a lot to teach us.

Rev. Donna,

The problem with church is that it is boring and out of touch. This is partly the reason why I don't like to show up on time and certainly not every Sunday. Here is the procedure at every church that I go to:

1. Assemble
2. Stand for some singing
3. Sit down
4. Listen to the "verse of the week"
5. Stand up
6. More singing
7. Sit down
8. Listen to the weekly interpretation of the verse. Reminds me of Andy Rooney in 60 minutes
9. Stand up
10. Sing some more
11. Sit down
12. Prayer for people in need
13. Stand up.
14. More singing and verse reading.
15. Sit down.
16. Communion (depending on what Sunday it is)
17. Stand up
18. More singing
19. Adjournment

As long as I have been in church, there has never been any discussion of the tenants of faith. You must already be a believer to be in church. Also, never anything to be excited about. I show up every so often because of the people and even then I really don't like to be a part of the entire service.

Why should I be on time or even show up?

I am in agreement that you need some of the above but if you want more involvement in the church break down the above structure. Have open discussion or an activity during actual service instead of the above. Instead of just pure volunteerism there should be a goal (such as picking one school to fully transform or building one person's house, etc, etc.) That way I am not only working on something greater than myself but I am also achieving something beyond just doing my civic duty for the week.

Since you have a lot of old blood, this does not have a good chance of happening. The people that come regularly like procedure so it is hard to get them to try something new. We are told to start side committees that prove meaningless and otherwise pushed to the side.

Most of the time the committees do not amount to anything truly significant.

You want a significant portion of my time, energy, and various other resources? Change the above.

Just my two cents.

My questions after reading this email are:

When are we going to start listening to statements like this one?

How far are we willing to go - what are we willing to let go of - in order to get people like this into our worship services and ministries?

Do we have the passion that we see in the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul, who asks us to do whatever we can to get people who are on the outside to the inside of our faith?

And, you who are reading this blog - is your church like the one described below or what have you done to make changes?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Come on Down!

Craig and I went to see Coldplay last night at the Verizon Center. The concert was a special event for us since our first date was at a Coldplay concert on March 2, 2006. The concert was fantastic. The energy of the band is electric. The dancing, the singing, and the playing are all amazing. I highly recommend seeing the group play if you ever have a chance. I think it was one of the best concerts I have ever seen, and it is filled with surprises - from balls in the sky to paper butterflies that shower from the ceiling. Yes, we loved it! But we also loved what happened before the concert started.

Craig and I were sitting in the seventh row. We arrived at about 7:00 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. concert. At about 7:20, we watched as many very excited teenagers started to fill the rows in front of us. Some of them looked as though they had won the lottery. Slowly, more and more excited young people started to arrive in the first and second rows. We soon learned that these people had come from the very top of the Verizon Center. Some of them were sitting on the back row and others were sitting on the next to last row when someone came, tapped them on the shoulder, and offered them a better seat. The performance organizers were filling up the front rows with people in the very back rows. Those with some of the worst seats in the house were being given the best seats in the house.
It was such a blessing to watch the reaction on these individuals' faces when they saw their new seats. Many of them looked so surprised. They looked as though they could hardly believe what was happening to them. The last were becoming first. Those who had been placed in the very back were coming to the very front.
Is this not what can happen in the church every time we gather?
The church is called to bring to the inside anyone who has been pushed aside - anyone who has been told they are not good enough or they are not smart enough or they do not love the right way or act the right way. The church is called to bring to the front anyone who has been cast off. The church is called to radically reach out and say, "You belong here. You are precious in the eyes of God. You are our honored guest. Come on down to the front."
One of the things I love about Mount Vernon Place is that there are people here who stand at the center of our community who receive little value everywhere else. There are people in our congregation who are at the core of who we are as a community who have been tossed aside in so many other places by so many other people - but here they are valued.
We still have a long ways to go when it comes to flinging our doors open as wide as they can go. Still, we are working on it. And, I hope and pray I get to see more reactions in church like I saw at the Coldplay concert last night - people saying to others, "What, you want me to sit here?"
"Excuse me, you are allowing ME to be in the front row?"
"Are you sure about this?"
Yes, I am sure about this!