Thursday, November 27, 2008

For All This, I Give Thanks

I give thanks for

1) My husband, Craig, and our first five months of marriage.  Craig continues to embody for me the Indigo Girls song "Closer to Fine" with the line, "The best thing you ever did for me was to help me take my life less seriously, it's only life after all."  Craig recognizes my strengths and my weaknesses.  He respects my call to ministry and supports my role in the church.  He makes me laugh.  He makes me enjoy life a little bit more.  He is my partner and my best friend.

2) My family.  I am ever more aware of the gift of family as I spend this week with my mom, sister and niece in Colorado.  They are a constant reminder of the gift of God's tangible love here on this earth.  As we watched the wedding video again today, I am reminded of how blessed I am to have two parents who love me dearly and an extended family in many different places.

3) My friends.  I am so thankful for old friends and new friends - friends from college, seminary, church, Capitol Hill, Duke, and so many other places.

4) My call to ministry.  As I reflected last week, I cannot think of any better job than being a pastor.  I am so thankful for the gift of being "Pastor Donna" and the remarkable privileges this entails.

5) The Church.  I give thanks for the first place where I served as a pastor, First United Methodist Church of Hendersonville, NC.  I give thanks for the churches where I served as an intern in seminary.  I give thanks for Duke Chapel and the preachers who constantly encouraged me there.  And, I give thanks for Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church - the church where I currently pastor.  In this place I see God at work in so many ways.  I am so thankful for the people who are part of this incredible congregation - those who have been here since 1940 and those who joined our church family just four weeks ago. 

6) My education.  I give thanks for my time at William Woods as an undergraduate and my time at Duke Divinity School as a seminary student.  Without a doubt, I have been shaped and molded to be the best I can be, and I am thankful.  I also recognize that this is one thing that I so often take for granted.

7) Our home.  While we would love to have more than one bedroom, I realize each time I leave the church and see many of our unhoused neighbors that we are blessed.

8) Life.  From Duke Basketball to the Sunday paper, pumpkin pie to the Metro, Aveda shampoo to a rainbow in the sky, coupon shopping to Yankee candles, the final markdown sale at Talbot's to running into old friends on the street - life is good - very, very good.

9) My faith in Jesus Christ.  I realize that when we leave Colorado this week, that I might very well be saying good-bye to my stepfather, Red, for the final time.  Still, my faith says something more.  My faith tells me that one day we will all be reunited.  One day, we will all meet again in my Father's House with many, many rooms.  I am grateful for the gift of forgiveness, the tangible presence of God in my life, the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus, and the promise of eternal life.  What a mighty God we serve.

10) All of you who regularly read this blog.  Thanks for reading my attempt to process and share my thoughts on life, faith, the church, and a variety of other things - both helpful and unhelpful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Visit to Home

His cowboy hats and baseball caps still hang on a rack when you walk in the door.  A bedroom downstairs is filled with trophies of all shapes and sizes - signs of his success as a livestock judge - a legend in his own right.  His Wrangler jeans are in the washer right now.  His shirts are hanging to dry.  But he is not here, and I was not completely prepared to see him last night for the first time since last Christmas.

Craig and I are in Colorado visiting my mother.  While getting to Lamar, Colorado is no easy feat, this place is a place of rest and renewal for me.  It is a place where we stay in our pajamas until noon, go to happy hour at the Sonic drive in every afternoon, eat a lot of great food, and laugh.  The entire house fills with laughter often.  I love coming to this place.  I love visiting my mother and stepfather, Red.  But things are definitely not the same this year.

Red is sick.  Red is very, very sick.  

The pictures all over the house show a healthy man who weighs around 200 pounds.  The man I saw in the nursing home last night was skin and bones when I hugged him - I have never felt his bones before.  He weighs under 130 pounds.  He breathes heavy and deliberately.  He is, for the first time, showing his age - the 15 years he has on my mother  And I am showing a lot of emotion.

As a pastor, I go to the nursing home often to see different people.  There are some places that are hard to visit, I'll be the first to admit.  But I go.  I go.  I visit.  I pray.  I leave.

Last night I went to the nursing home to visit Red.  I then cried.  Craig and I went out the doors first.  My mother and niece followed.  We all then stood in a huddle at the door crying - realizing that we never know when the last visit will be - that at any time a call can come.

It is so much easier being a pastor in times like this than it is the one in need of a pastor.  Life is a journey - a journey in which the only guarantee that we all have is that we will one day all die.  I am so much better proclaiming this message than I am at living it, however.

We're trying hard to savor this visit - to savor being around the Thanksgiving table as a family tomorrow.  Tears fill my eyes just thinking about our joining hands as a family and giving thanks.

One thing is for sure - I am so thankful for Red - for his life, his love, his laughter, his joy and for his amazing ability to love my mother.

God, grant us all your peace and your strength.  Amen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I know well the call of God upon my life.  I can remember vividly my call to ministry - my weekend in NYC with young people in 1996 and how God used this time away to completely touch and transform me.

I also remember well when God called me out of the local church and back to the Divinity School at Duke to be director of admissions.  And, I remember how God used a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope to South Africa to call me away from seminary admissions and to Mount Vernon Place.

God's movement in my life is real.  God speaks volumes to me when I am willing to listen.  And lately, God seems to be speaking a lot.

A few months ago, a clergy colleague was visiting me at Mount Vernon Place.  Arriving a little early, he had a long conversation with a police officer outside.  Engaging him in a conversation, my colleague asked the officer what the number one issue was facing our church's community.  The police officer immediately answered my colleague's question with "prostitution."  The number one issue for the police officers who cover our church's neighborhood is not robbery or shootings or gangs but prostitution.

I did not think much about the comments when I first heard them.  I had not seen the prostitutes, and I seemed more focused on what my eyes could see.  But my eyes have now seen what my colleague told me about.

Two weeks ago, I arrived at the church early on a Sunday morning to police lights flashing.  A woman on the street and a man in a car were being arrested.  The woman's dress gave her occupation away - tight leather jacket, short skirt, high heals, a lot of makeup at 7:00 on Sunday morning.  I watched her get arrested.  I watched her walk down the street, putting her citation in her little black bag.  I watched her - a woman a few years younger than me - a woman who looked as though she could be my friend.  I watched her but I never went out to befriend her - I did not go out and invite her in or ask if I could buy her a cup of coffee, and I have regretted it ever since.

Last Sunday, I turned the corner at 11th and K Streets and saw one woman dressed in similar attire.  She was shouting across the street.  I looked and realized she was talking to another woman - one of her colleagues.  This woman had lost her clothes during the night.  She had no pants on and no skirt.  She had a tight leather jacket, high heals and black underwear - that's it.  My heart continued to sink as I turned the corner.  I then saw two more women with similar attire.  Not one prostitute - but four young women engaged in this vocation were all right there to greet my arrival in downtown Washington.

And, I cannot stop thinking about them.  I cannot help but to wonder what our role is in their lives?  How is God using these sightings to push me and our congregation?  I have watched our congregation welcome people and completely change their life as a result of the embrace.  I have watched lives being transformed through the power of these people at Mount Vernon Place who have the capacity to welcome all kinds of individuals into our midst.  

Am I naive to believe that we could change the lives of these women?  

Am I stupid to think that I might have some role in creating a community where these women can feel safe - where they can step inside and share their fears and their dreams?  

Am I silly to believe that these women want a better life - a different life?

The faces of these women are well embedded in my mind.  I cannot get them out of my mind.

God, how are you calling me to respond?  I know you are working.  Please continue to break my heart and show me how best to be your hands, your heart, your eyes and your ears in downtown Washington.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Best Job in the Whole World

This past week, I traveled with a colleague to Duke Divinity School to talk with individuals there who might be interested in serving in the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference of our United Methodist Church upon graduation. It was a joy to spend a day in a place I love (particularly since I was given Duke basketball tickets for that night in the middle of the day). I love talking with people about their call and the ways in which God is at work in their lives. In my mind, there is no vocation more rewarding than being a pastor. I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.

When I gathered with a group of young adult clergy last month in preparation for our Conference's recruiting efforts, we talked about why we love doing what we do. Here are some of the responses:

I have a sense of purpose.
People are coming with heavy hearts.
I get to see people as they grow.
The hours are flexible; I can get my hair cut in the middle of the week.
The day to day stuff of our lives is where we do effective ministry.
There is a sense of assurance.
I am not just looking for the next best thing.
Nothing is missing. I am where God has called me to be.
We get to point out the hope in people's lives.
We are privileged to be part of one's life journey.
We get to be part of so many sacred moments.
Ministry helps me to see just how precious life is.
I cannot believe I get paid to do this.

And then, my friend, Alisa, sent me this story:

The late Frederick Speakman, noted Presbyterian minister, told the story of shaking hands at the door one Sunday when the service was over. As he came back down the aisle the lights were already turned out. He sensed that strange aliveness of an empty church just after worship. Some things were left behind. A bulletin with a shopping list in the margins ~ hopefully, not during the sermon. In this pew, a pair of gloves; in the next, a pencil on the floor and a candy wrapper on the seat. As he reached the chancel he stared once more at the empty sanctuary and thought to himself, "I wonder what else has been left behind." Wouldn't it be every pastor's dream to come down the aisle after worship and find other items there. You know, in this pew a lady's deep grief; there, a man's bitter disappointment or sense of failure. In another section some secret sin, whether real or imagined, not all that ultimate as long as it was discarded. Further on, the more bulky trash of a badly bruised ego, the remains of a heated argument on the way to church. Anger, guilt, hurt ~ all the stuff that can beat us up and burn us out ~ swept up and thrown out with the rest of the leftover trash. Realized forgiveness ~ God's grace as a renewable resource ~ he whispered to himself.
"That's the only thing that keeps some of us going."

What a blessing it is to be a pastor. This is the best job in the world.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A prayer from my colleague, Ken

My colleague, Ken Carter, posted this prayer on this blog recently.  I post it here for us on this election day:

Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,
the judge of every nation
and the hope of earth and heaven.

We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.

We call to mind the best that is within us:

That we live under God, 
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.
We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation:

The displacement of native peoples, racial injustice,
desecration of your creation, economic inequality, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have passionately loved and cared for the earth and its fruits,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
strengthening its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ
be a peaceable people in the midst of division.

Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship,
and make us one.

Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence.


Monday, November 03, 2008

Words from my friend, Peter

As many of you know, Peter Storey has had a more profound impact on my life than any other disciple I know. He is my teacher, my mentor and my friend. Today, it is his email message that has caused me to think most deeply about tomorrow. I share his words with you here....

Dear Friends in the United States,

Warmest greetings to you on this momentous evening. You have been much in our minds and on our hearts over these past few months as we have avidly followed the progress of your Presidential election campaign. As we've said before, what happens in your election profoundly affects us all.

And what a campaign! I recall a dinner table conversation in Atlanta way back in May, 2007, in the home of good friends Jim and Fentress Waits. Those around the table were talking with a deep sense of interest and hope about an exciting young Senator named Barack Obama. Back then, the possibility of Obama's even gaining the nomination of his own party appeared so remote that it seemed more the stuff of dreams than reality.

Yet here you are, on the eve of an even more 'impossible' breakthrough tomorrow! Think of it: the nation whose original sin was to to buy and sell Africans like chattels, that legislated them less than human, could well elect an African-American tomorrow to be its First Citizen! I wonder if the people of the USA have fully realized what a liberating moment this could be? For African Americans, who hold their breath, not yet quite believing what might be possible tomorrow, this may be a step beyond even what Martin Luther King Jr saw from the mountain-top, but it is also more than that: it will be a day of liberation for all Americans: whether deeply conscious, as so many thoughtful people are, of this great burden of historic guilt, or defiantly denialist as too many on the shrill right wing remain. All - the good, the bad and the ugly - will take a giant step toward liberation from one of US history's most burdensome shackles.

I say this because that is the experience we discovered the day Nelson Mandela took the oath of office as the first black President of South Africa. Millions of his exploited compatriots danced with obvious joy at their new freedom, but less expected and perhaps more amazing was the sense of liberation that came upon their erstwhile oppressors. White South Africans testified in large numbers to a new lightness of being, as if some invisible, dragging weight, was gone, and something new could be born.

Now I know that the USA is not South Africa, and your story is not identical with ours, but there are enough echoes for me to assure you that if the voters of America break this barrier tomorrow, you will experience what I'm talking about!

Of course, like so many of you, we are anxious as well as excited. Having seen how deep are the currents of fear and prejudice that still run across the length and breadth of the United States, we too hold our breath. Be assured that the hopes of the vast majority of the people of the wider world go with Senator Barack Obama. There is no question about this. I doubt that even 5 percent of South Africans of any race group have any desire to see anyone of George W Bush's party near the White House. However, we have seen how easily US elections can be stolen and we are praying, as so many of you are, that tomorrow, the American people will march to the polls in greater numbers than ever before, determined to expunge eight of the most shameful years in US history. President Bush has brought America's reputation so low, that from our point of view, another such blow from the US electorate would be almost impossible to understand. Eight years of arrogance and ignorance have been done deep harm in the rest of the world and to the image of a great nation. Surely they will be declared as enough by the people of the US?

But let us be hopeful! Just as tomorrow offers the opportunity for a great sense of historic liberation in the US, so it also offers a chance to radically alter the world's current perception of America, and to open the door to new possibilities of healing and transformation for US foreign relations. If Obama is announced as your President-elect, there will be great rejoicing all around the globe. We will see new hope of the might of the United States being bent to works of justice and compassion and cooperation. We will see new possibilities for the poor of the earth: for the first time, Americans will have elected someone who knows what it is like to be on the outside as well as in the circle, who has actually worked among the poor, who has lived , however briefly, outside the American bubble, and who has the blood of the world's most oppressed continent in his veins. Everyone of these factors speak of change.

You will recall that the day following September 11, 2001, France's most famous newspaper ran the headline: 'Today, we are all Americans!' Well, please know that around the world there are so many people whose hopes ride on what you will do tomorrow, that I guess we wish we were all Americans! What a privilege it will be to vote in this election!

Our prayers are with you.

Warm regards,

Peter Storey


One of the things I love most about the United Methodist Church is how the table is open to all people. There are no restrictions placed on who can receive the Lord's Supper. In fact, our founder, John Wesley, believed that one could actually experience God for the first time in the bread and the wine. This openness at the table has led to a more open church, I like to believe. I like to believe that the church is open to all people - that the doors of the church are open for all people to come in and receive love and hospitality. But....

I'm really struggling today.

For the last three years, I have had the extraordinary privilege of serving as the pastor of someone who has taught me more about the Kingdom of God than anyone else. Through this person, I have shared a love of older adults and Popeye's Chicken, a love of taking care of the church building and artwork, a love of music and a love of prayer. Through this person, I have seen the power of a church community. It is our church family who has given this individual more medicine than anything else as people have accepted this person almost unconditionally. There have been some Sundays when we did not know what to expect from this person - how this person might respond or react. There have been some Sundays when we were not sure what this precious child of God would say during the sharing of joys and concerns - the concern expressed once was "how the pastor was having to pick up too much poop from the homeless outside." Yet, this person has brought joy and life to our community. This person is integral - central - to who we are as a community of faith. I adore this person.

But I'm really struggling today.

When does the church give up on someone? When does the church reach the place where it is more dangerous to let someone in the doors than it is to keep them out? Is there anyone who is beyond redemption? What are we to do in situations like this one?

Damn it. Why is ministry so messy?