Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade in Review

The last day of 2009.

The last day of a decade that began with so much promise - so much anticipation - so much wonder - so much delight.

As I review all that has happened since the new millennium marched to fruition, I realize that nothing has fallen short of expectation. There has been an abundance of wonder and delight.

I've held three jobs since 2000. I've had the joy of being the associate pastor for a large United Methodist Church in the mountains of Western North Carolina. It was this church that taught me the joy of being a pastor. It was this church that kept me wanting to be a pastor in the early days of my current appointment where joy in ministry was hard to find. It was this church that taught me the wonder and delight of birth and death, sacrament and testimony, rebirth and new life. I'll always be grateful for the people of First United Methodist Church.

I've also had the joy of being the Director of Admissions for Duke Divinity School. For four years, I had the privilege of hearing about how God works in wondrous and exciting ways to call people to ministry. I was able to sit with students as they discerned their calls to ministry or their calls to another vocation. I was able to cheer the Duke Blue Devils Basketball team several times. I was able to preside over worship in Duke Chapel and preach there once on the Sunday following my ordination. I was able to grow and change, and in the midst of it all I discovered a more profound love for the local church.

And, for the last part of this decade, I've been completely transformed through my appointment to Mount Vernon Place UMC. It is here that I have seen resurrection with my own eyes. I have discovered how you are never too old to study the Bible, even at the age of 101. I have realized that it takes an entire congregation to go from decline to growth. I have watched miracles happen through a real estate development that still makes me pause in disbelief when I look at the numbers. I have learned that it does not matter what you wear to church - your being present is what matters. I have discovered that the more diverse a congregation is, the more it will look like God's kingdom on earth. I have realized that church growth is not reflected in the numbers but what happens when people are really willing to allow the gospel to take claim of their lives. I have learned time and again that the place I find the most joy in ministry is in the center of the city. And, there is no where else I would rather be than here.

I have had five different addresses in this decade, starting with an apartment in a complex called Strawberry Hill where I lived with another seminary student for three years. My parsonage in Hendersonville was a large house where three bedrooms sat empty and unused (imagine!). My favorite house of the decade was a great townhouse in Durham with vaulted ceilings, wonderful windows and a quaint breakfast nook where I learned about the downsides of polybutylene pipes. My condo in Washington exposed me to the competitive nature of the real estate market in 2005 and also to the joy of living in a diverse neighborhood where I learned to take nothing for granted. I continue to be grateful for my four years in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington. And, my current home is wondrous because of the one I get to share it with! I hate to admit how much I love suburban living - but there is something to be said about getting away from it all at the end of the day, crossing the river to a different way of life where parking is always available.

I have experienced the gift of relationship and love this decade. While I am grateful for the relationships that preceded my move to Washington, I am also grateful for the ways in which some relationships end so that one can come that will last forever. Just this morning, I was reviewing emails from the early weeks of my relationship with Craig. I remembered how it was an instant connection we shared, how we were able to be vulnerable with one another almost immediately, and how much joy he brought then and continues to bring to me today. Marriage is a gift. I am still in awe that anyone would want to spend their entire life with me, accepting my sometimes cranky moods, my tendency to spend more time at the church than I probably should, my self-centeredness that comes out at times, and my mind that wonders all over the place, traveling a thousand miles a minute at times. I praise God for marriage and for Craig.

And, I've experienced God. I have watched God show up in expected and unexpected places. I have seen God in nursing homes and funeral homes. I have experienced God around the bed of someone who just took his last breath and around an infant who had just taken her first breath. I have felt the joy of God in becoming the Godmother of three children who are the birth children of three wonderful and unique friends for whom I would do most anything. I have watched God heal broken relationships and broken spirits. I have experienced God in mourning and in laughing. I have seen God at the altar on my wedding day and on the wedding days of so many friends and others. I have seen God in so many beautiful places and people. I have learned that there really is a season for everything, for every purpose under heaven.

It's been a good ten years. Thank you, God, for all the blessings of this decade.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009

The wonder of it all is that God would come to us. God came on this day! And, God has shown up often throughout this year. I am grateful!

The year started with the passing of my precious step-father, Red. Red died on Epiphany day, January 6. He had been sick for some time, and as we reflected on his final weeks before his death, we realize the wondrous gift he offered to all who he loved. Red was given the opportunity to say 'good-bye' in powerful ways. He made space to be with so many people who came to see him in his final days, and he used these moments to call out and name the gifts of those around him. It was a thin place when we were in his presence and he told us all good-bye. We'll celebrate his life again at the National Western Stock Show in Denver in January where he will be memorialized at a service there.

Mom's life has changed in many ways this year - not just because of Red's death but because of so many other changes. She closed her store, The Berry Patch. Her second term of being mayor of the city of Lamar ended, too. She is wondering what the next chapter will hold, and I simply keep telling her that she has too many gifts to stay idle.

Craig and I were able to spend Thanksgiving with my dad and grandparents. It was Craig's first trip to Missouri, and I am so glad we were able to go. We were able to drive through the campus of my college, visit my favorite Missouri winery, and spend quality time on the farm. We laughed a ton with Dad, and it was wonderful. Grandma and Grandpa still actively farm in their 80s, and they are a picture of what it means to work hard. I am so grateful for them.

Dana and Kayla are doing well in Denver. Dana has just resigned her current job and starts a new position as the director of a new childcare center in January. Kayla is a busy high-school freshman, and we pray she continues to find the right community of individuals who will nurture her remarkable gifts. High school is such a hard time!

We celebrated Craig's 40th birthday in September with a trip to Italy. I was playing on the Internet in the spring and discovered round trip flights to Rome for $470. It was a deal too good to pass up, so we booked it! We enjoyed three nights in Florence and three nights in Rome. The trip was spiritual, relaxing, insightful and fun. I am so glad we were able to go. And, the trip was paid for by weddings that I worked this year - seven total - including that of Craig's brother in San Diego and another dear friend from Mount Vernon Place who was married in May in California.

The church continues to be a place of joy and delight, a place where I am able to see and discover God at work in so many ways. I realize time and again what a precious gift God gave to me when God called me to be a pastor. I truly cannot imagine doing anything else.

After four years of negotiations, meetings, and tears, the property redevelopment at Mount Vernon Place finally ended in October when we dedicated the new ministry space. It is wondrous space - space that is connected to the historic church building by a four-story glass atrium. We have great classrooms, an incredible kitchen, and a sun-drenched fellowship hall. I love my new office - truly a pastor's study - and the fifth office space I have occupied in less than five years at Mount Vernon Place. I sure hope I get to stay a while!

Our congregation continues to grow in beautiful and diverse ways. In October, we voted to become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, adding our name to the list of United Methodist Churches who believe that all people, particularly GLBT people, are welcome within our churches. As I look at the congregation I serve, I cannot imagine any church telling so many of our people that they are not welcome. As I examine our Book of Discipline, I also realize we have a long way to go in terms of being a denomination that embodies justice and equality for all people. I'll continue to work passionately for change in our church. I yearn for the day when my gay brothers and lesbian sisters are afforded all of the opportunities I have been afforded as a heterosexual woman including the gifts of ordination and marriage.

God captured my attention in a powerful way this year. Upon moving to Virginia, my ride into the church started much earlier in the day and took me on a different route. When I lived in DC I did not have to see the victims of prostitution standing the street a few minutes before 7:00 in the morning. I have counted as many as 22 people ending their working night, and my heart has been ripped in two more than once. Through the passion and commitment of our church members, Mount Vernon Place was led to partner with an organization called Courtney's House. The mission of Courtney's House is to get girls who are 11 to 18 off the streets, out of pimp control and into a safe environment. My eyes and my mind have been awakened and stunned time and again, and I am so grateful that Courtney's House is both a ministry partner and a building partner occupying space in the church. There is so much work to do around this issue, and I have learned that many of the women I see are not women but girls, and not people who have chosen their vocation but people who have been victimized into it. There is so much justice to be done.

Craig and I continue to enjoy the gift of marriage. He is the right balance for my life - as I live to work and he works to live. I know that when he starts asking about my need to be at the church so often that it is time to step back and assess just how much time I am spending there. He makes me laugh - even giggle at times. He holds me accountable, and he makes me a better person constantly as he asks why I am often in such a big hurry.

Emmanuel has come. God is with us. Imagine - imagine a God who took on flesh to be with us - a God who relentlessly pursues us, a God who desires so much to be in relationship with us, walking alongside of us. This God has come. As we finish one year and begin a new year, I pray that this God will enter your life in a powerful way - in a way that makes you and me realize that nothing will ever be the same again.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Letter for the People of Mount Vernon Place UMC

Dear Church Family:

There are twelve days of Christmas. I rejoice in this fact since some of you will not receive this greeting until after Christmas Day. It is my hope and prayer that the tardiness will allow you to savor Christmas even more – to see it as a twelve-day experience with wonder and awe continuing throughout the celebration.

It has been a year of transition and change, blessing and delight for Mount Vernon Place. It is a joy to think about the ways in which we have seen God at work. I regularly tell people that there is no other faith community of which I would rather be a part, and this year has reaffirmed my commitment to this statement and my excitement for being in ministry with you.

We are ending 2009 with a 20% increase in worship attendance over 2008. We have welcomed many new people into the life of our congregation – neighbors who walk to worship each Sunday, individuals who read something about Mount Vernon Place that provoked them to come once and who have been here every Sunday since, people who are new to the community, and people who are traveling several miles to be here. It is a joy to see the growth that is happening in the congregation – not just numerically but also as people grow spiritually, demonstrating a willingness to allow the gospel to change and transform them and us.

In September, we welcomed a new Director of Music and the Arts. Kevin Durkin moved from Buffalo, NY, where he served as a teacher and chair of the fine arts department for a high school in addition to serving as the organist and choir director at a large church. Under his leadership, the choir has quadrupled in size and new ideas for how to expand our reach through music and the arts are emerging each week.

In October, we dedicated 22,000 square feet of new ministry space, welcomed the arrival of Wesley Theological Seminary students who are living above the church offices, and greeted several new building partners. Seminary courses have been meeting at the church since August, and the seminary has two offices in the lower level of the new space. In addition to the church staff members who work in the office suite, we have the joy of several other organizations working alongside us including Prison Outreach Ministries and Generations of Hope Development Corporation. And, Courtney’s House moved into my old office in the historic church, continuing their efforts to get victims of sex-trafficking who are 11 to 18 years old off the streets and into a safe environment. Besides these partners, we have a baker using the kitchen two days a week, a jazz group that practices here on Monday nights, a theatre group who is here on Thursday nights, and the Undercroft Theatre has been used widely by a variety of different groups including the Capital Fringe Festival. These groups are just as sampling of the ways in which the vision of a building that is open and used as much as possible is really coming to life.

Our Charge Conference, held on October 31, was quite significant. At this annual meeting, we had the opportunity to vote on approving two of our members as candidates for ordained ministry. Beth Ludlum and Adam Briddell will now continue the journey of going before the District Committee on Ordained Ministry and then the Conference Board upon their graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary. In addition to Beth and Adam, we have two other members who are in this process. It is a joy to think about the gifts these individuals are bringing and will continue to bring to the United Methodist Church. Following the approval of these two candidates, the individuals attending the Charge Conference voted to become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, adding our church’s name to the list of congregations and campus ministries across the nation that are working to make sure that all people are fully welcome within the life of our congregations and ministries. The diversity of the congregation at Mount Vernon Place is one of the things I love most. This place truly is a place where one can come as they are, and I am thankful for being able to proclaim that all are welcome here.

As we look to 2010, I am excited to see the ways in which God will lead us and guide us, empowering us to be an ever present sign of God’s reign among us. Thank you for the privilege of being your pastor. It is one of the greatest gifts God has given to me.

Merry Christmas, Pastor Donna

Monday, December 21, 2009

Seeing the Signs

I saw the sign. I sat at the stoplight and watched it for a few minutes, becoming more frustrated with myself for getting off on the wrong exit. I needed to make a U-Turn. My GPS had taken me through a small neighborhood - turn left, turn left, and now turn right. My GPS was telling me to turn right. The sign in front of me attached to the stoplight clearly said that I could not make a right turn between 3:00 and 7:00 p.m. It was 3:20. I was not too far into the hours of prevention. I needed to get to the church member's home I was visiting. "Shoot, I am just going to turn."

I turned.

I ignored the sign.

I turned, and the moment I turned, a police officer greeted me, motioning me to pull over to my right. Another officer did the exact same thing to the car behind me. Within moments, I had been given a summons - a ticket for $91.00 for failing to pay attention to a sign. Almost 100 dollars were tossed out the window! A failure to pay attention to the sign cost more than most of the Christmas gifts I have purchased this year. What a stupid decision on my part.

I ignored the sign, and I am paying for it.

We are in the final stretch of Advent - of this season of waiting and watching, pondering and preparing for the one who has come and the one who will come again. During the last four Sundays, our scripture lessons have been filled with warnings to prepare.

We started with Luke 21, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves...Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap."

On the second Sunday of Advent, our scriptures offered us an encounter with Malachi, "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me..." while Luke told us about the voice crying out from the wilderness, "'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight...'"

We then encountered John the Baptist on the third Sunday of Advent, hearing him call us "a brood of vipers," before listening to his request to "bear fruits worthy of repentance."

The signs are all around us. God has posted signs all over the place, signs asking us to repent, to prepare, to live a changed life. We have been invited to rejoice, to believe, to ponder in our hearts, to give and to seek renewal. The invitations have been extended time and again. The prophets have warned us. The messages have been posted in places where we have seen them. And yet, as I sit here typing four days before Christmas, I realize that another Advent has come and gone in which I have focused on everything that must be done instead of focusing on the signs. I have so often failed to pay attention to the warnings posted around me. I have been caught up in what is important to me, forgetting sometimes what is important to the Christ child whose birth we will celebrate again on Friday.

In many ways, being pulled over last week was a spiritual experience. I was caught. I had to face the fact that I had ignored the sign. Being given a ticket made me confront the fact that there are many other signs I am ignoring. My warning had arrived.

It is not too late to get ready. We still have a few days left. I intend to begin these days listening to the signs - repenting of my sins, asking God what parts of my life need to be renewed, seeking to bear fruits worthy of repentance - generosity, selfless giving of time and talents, kindness, mercy, and the list goes on and on. I desperately want these days to be focused on what is really important. I want to prepare for his birth once more and for the day on which he will come again.

I have seen the signs. God, help me to obey them.

Monday, December 07, 2009


I have worn many hats in recent days.

I have been a janitor who unloaded each trash bin in the fellowship hall following coffee hour yesterday, pulled trash piling high in an office that someone had vacated, and also took away the cakes left in the refrigerator from a late October dedication celebration.

I have been a preacher - an individual who wrestled with texts and tried hard to create a collection of words that would somehow seep into the souls of those who heard it.

I have been a parking attendant - someone who arrived early to place parking cones on the street so that our older members could have a place to park right out front and then place the validating machine where it needs to be on Sunday mornings, double checking the tickets of people to make sure they would not have to pay for their Sunday parking.

I have been a pastoral counselor - someone who has listened to the frustrations, the anxiety and the loss of others around me.

I have been a coffee maker and cook - someone who arrived early on Saturday morning to make sure that coffee pots would have plenty of coffee brewing in them for our guests arriving for the Alternative Gift Fair and then someone who got up early this morning to make taco fixings for dinner with the Finance Committee meeting tonight.

I have been a business executive - someone who has carefully reviewed budget requests from different ministry teams and answered questions of our District Superintendent about how our finances are going.

I have been a decorator - someone who carefully clipped coupons and watched the ads so that the church could get the best deals on greenery and wreaths, someone who unwrapped poinsettias and carefully placed them in the sanctuary.

I have been a pastor. I have been the wearer of many hats. I have been one who never knows what a day might hold and one who has journeyed through many days doing tasks that no one trained me to do - tasks that could never be found in a job description.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a young candidate for ordained ministry who shared with me how they were not sure they could lead a study on Sunday mornings before worship because "Sundays are already long days." I keep thinking about this person's comments and other comments like them that I have heard from individuals who are in seminary, preparing for ministry.

I know of no other job that demands more than being a pastor. I also know of no other job where many people have accepted the mundane as what is faithful - where many people go with the flow and forget the call for excellence and faithfulness. I know of no other job where someone works so hard and gets so much criticism. And, I know of no other job that I would rather have. I cannot imagine any job that I would enjoy more than that of being a pastor.

When I was talking on the phone this morning with my coach, mercifully complaining about the Board of Ordained Ministry and my responsibilities as a member, my coach asked me what keeps me on the Board. I shared my love of the church - my desire to see the church at its best - my hope for pastors who will do everything that is required of them and more whether it is taking out the trash, hosing down the steps, staying up late to wrestle with scripture, meeting yet another person for coffee, setting aside additional time for visioning, and showing up with their A-game as much as possible. I shared how I want the church to thrive - to be a place where lives are transformed, sins are left, lepers are cleansed, and the lame walk. I shared how I want to see something wondrous happen with our churches - how I want to see the kingdom - on earth as it is in heaven.

My friends who are studying for ministry, Sundays are long days. The Sunday school class, the worship service, and the meeting that follows are only half of the real picture. You're in for very long days and a demanding schedule. But, you're also in for a life that none of us really deserve but for whatever reason, we have been allowed to experience.

Thank you, God, for my call to ministry. Thank you for affording me the privilege of being a pastor.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I had a troubling experience with a doctor recently. I had a routine exam on December 13 at which time my primary care physician performed a variety of tests, taking a sample of many different fluids from my body. On Monday, 17 days after the exam, the same doctor left a voice mail message on my phone. She explained how I was fine but that I had an infection and needed to be treated immediately. She was calling in a prescription and instructed me to pick it up and start taking the antibiotic to treat the infection.

The doctor called 17 days after my exam to tell me that I was sick! She allowed me to continue with an infection that was untreated for over two weeks. And, I was a bit troubled. How is it that a doctor could wait this long to call her patient, I asked the nurse. The response I got was not satisfactory enough to make me want to return anytime soon.

At the same time, I am troubled by how she did not ask me anything about how I am caring or not caring for my body. The numbers on my chart were proof of my post-marital bliss that has added many, many pounds to my body. I have gained enough weight this year that a doctor should have noticed and asked me about it. But, she never said a word.

I wanted to be held accountable. I wanted to be pushed to live a healthier life. I wanted to be reminded of how important it is for me to eat a well-balanced diet and exercise regularly. But, she never said anything to me. She allowed me to get by without a word.

I was sick, and I never even knew it. I have gained weight, pushing my BMI to an unhealthy number. But, my doctor never said a word.

And, while I am completely annoyed, I also realize that we, as pastors, do the same thing all of the time.

We know what a blessing it is to worship regularly, how the practice of worshipping together on Sunday mornings brings us into a closer relationship with God and one another. We know the power of seeking God's forgiveness while also seeking to be reconciled to one another. We understand how the only way to ever see how much God has given to us is to also generously give back to the church and others. We have been reminded time and again of the blessing of serving others - how we understand our true call in life when we regularly serve the needs of others. We have experienced the blessing of being in a small group. And yet, so often, we forget to tell others what it means to be spiritually healthy. We fail to hold the members of our churches accountable. We neglect to encourage people to fully swim in the waters of baptism, to soar with the winds of the Spirit, and to taste the goodness of the Lord.

I was reflecting recently after reading the blog of a friend who started a discussion about whether or not pastors should know what people in their churches give. As I read the comments, I reflected on the time when I was working in seminary admissions but still ordained. I was fully ordained - a person set apart. But, if you looked at my record of giving it was anything but satisfactory. I was selfish. I was hoarding my resources. It would be an embarrassment to think about how little I was giving to the church. I shared with my colleague how I would give anything if a pastor or the church would have held me accountable at the time. I wish that someone would have told me just how much joy I was missing by not sharing abundantly. I wish someone would have told me that I was on spiritual life-support and far from being a spiritual leader.

I want excellence. I want to be the best I can be. I want my doctor to tell me the same thing - how she expects this of me. I want her to tell me immediately when I am not healthy. I want others to do the same when it comes to my spiritual health. And, I wonder. I wonder if others want the same from me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Money on the Table

I had the joy of spending three and one-half days in Atlanta last week at a training for a program being piloted by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE). I have had the the privilege of working with the FTE on different conferences and grant proposals for several years now, but this event was the first training session I have participated in with them. As expected, I returned home with pages of notes and a mind that keeps thinking in anticipation about the journey our congregation will be taking together in Lent of 2010.

Teams of three people from five congregations gathered last week to hear about a new program of Vocation Care - a program in which congregations create a culture of noticing individuals and their gifts, naming these gifts, and then nurturing these gifts to full fruition. A significant part of this program is the art of storytelling - of making space where stories can be told and teaching individuals how to listen and respond. By modeling this practice often last week, we were able to hear and to share many stories. Several of the stories are still haunting the corners of my mind.

I first met David, an incredibly gifted and remarkable individual who was trained as an attorney and peacemaker before responding to a call and entering seminary. He has traveled the world, met with diverse groups of people in hopes of bringing opposition together, is a competent and effective preacher, and radiates wisdom from his entire being. David was a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. Upon graduation from seminary, he had a distinct call. He and another colleague felt called to create a new kind of faith community in Georgia - a community where people of all colors could come together in worship. It would be a new church start in the United Methodist Church - a church that would be created to be intentionally multi-racial and multi-ethnic. In excitement and anticipation, David shared his dream with his bishop, hoping that doors would be opened so that kingdom building could commence. The bishop listened and then responded, "Not in my Georgia."

David is no longer a United Methodist. He's thriving instead in another denomination. Throughout last week, I was reminded each time he opened his mouth of how much the United Methodist Church is missing through this gifted servant. He was ready to serve, armed with a vision of biblical proportions, and the bishop shut him down immediately.

One of the members of our team from Mount Vernon Place was Bill. Bill has already shared a portion of his story with you on my blog through a testimony that I posted on the day he joined the church. Bill is extraordinary - a hymn writer, a talented musician, a gifted speaker, a gentle soul, a patient listener, a laughing partner, a lover of people and the world, and the list goes on and on.

As we told our stories last week, a part of Bill's story that had to be told was about how his call to ordained ministry was shut down. He shared with many people how he had experienced a call on his life, enrolled and completed seminary, was appointed to the local church, and then found himself unable to serve because of his sexual orientation. He's now an extraordinary layperson - an incredible gift that overflows to many pockets of our congregation - but I still cannot help to think about how much our church is missing out on by not allowing Bill and others like him to serve as pastors of our churches.

Businesses talk all of the time about the money being left on the table. Businesses do whatever they can to make sure that all profits are maximized, that no area of revenue is left unturned. They maximize every gift in their team and every possible area that is revenue producing. This notion of money being left on the table was mentioned once last week, but it is one of the key learnings that is sticking with me.

In both of these cases, there is money that was left on the table. Two individuals were presenting themselves as candidates for ordination with significant gifts and a heart committed to spreading scriptural holiness across the land. Two individuals were ready to go and proclaim the good news of the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, and the oppressed being set free. One person was told 'no' by a bishop. The other person was told 'no' by a Discipline. And, there are countless others just like these two.

Why? Why is our church leaving so many gifts on the table, turning our backs on what we could be out of fear of what our eyes cannot see? Why is it that we have such a hard time embracing something new when Jesus was always doing something new? Why do we prefer the stone embrace of institutions instead of the Spirit-filled winds of a movement? Why do we prefer to stand in centers of power and stability when Jesus was always dancing in the margins?

How long, O Lord, must we wait before so many gifts are taken from the table and set free - set free to set your world on fire?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Whole Lot of Tears

I have hanging in my home a small picture created by Brian Andreas, the artist behind Storey People that says, "She said she usually cried at least once each day not because she was sad, but because the world was so beautiful & life was so short."

I have found myself crying often each day this week - not because I am sad, but because life is, indeed, so incredibly beautiful.

The last week or so has been overwhelming in many ways. We have raced to the finish line in order to close on the church's new property just in time for the building dedication last Sunday and then a large Urban Ministry Symposium on Tuesday. Each time I behold the new ministry space, I realize just how much God has given the small congregation that meets on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts - and more importantly, just how much God has given to the people of Washington, the United Methodist Church, and the church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Four years ago, I was told often by people at Mount Vernon Place how there was nothing more to do. The congregation had tried everything to make their church grow again. They had held on tight to one another, and taken care of one another, but few new people were coming in the doors. It would be easier to spend the money doing what they had always done, and when the money was gone, the doors would close.

Last Friday morning, I came to the church early in the morning to see furniture being delivered and set up in a wonderful, light-filled fellowship hall. I watched as our furniture angel worked with the delivery people from her company. I remembered how generous this angel has been with her time, her knowledge and her company. I watched them work, and I could hardly hold back tears as I expressed my gratitude to her once more for what she has done for us.

On Sunday, I watched this same fellowship hall become filled with people enjoying lunch after worship in the sanctuary. We had 190 individuals in worship on Sunday - some of our partners from Wesley Theological Seminary, our bishop, our district superintendent, our architects, our new building partners, former members, and countless other people. In worship that morning, I watched as about twelve of the individuals who were with us in July of 2005 stood as we expressed gratitude to them for their courage to trade the known for the unknown, voting to sell a portion of the church's property more than four years ago. I then watched as the individuals stood who have come to Mount Vernon Place since this time - the fifty plus individuals who have discovered Christ again through the ministries of our congregation.

On Tuesday, I watched as people came into the church to learn about Urban Ministry. That night, I stood at the lectern and looked out to see individuals from two very different churches coming together for worship - distinguished ushers from Asbury United Methodist Church were shepherding people into the sanctuary. Mount Vernon Place people were greeting and handing out bulletins. Individuals from Wesley Seminary were sprinkled around the building. Three institutions - three very different institutions - one seminary, one church founded by African Americans who got tired of sitting in the balcony of another nearby church and who faithfully and prophetically left to build their own church less than two blocks away from Mount Vernon Place, and one church founded by Southerners who believed in the institution of slavery and built a grand monumental church calling itself Mount Vernon Place - all coming together - planting seeds for what might be accomplished together in the future and opening doors for a much needed process of healing to happen that I pray will happen.

Mount Vernon Place is now two days away from our annual charge conference, an annual meeting of the congregation where we vote on certain things. At this charge conference, we will vote on my compensation for 2010 and our list of lay leaders for the new year. We'll also have the joy of voting to approve two incredibly gifted individuals to continue on the path towards ordination in the United Methodist Church. And, we'll have the opportunity to vote on becoming a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network in the United Methodist Church - adding our church's name to the list of faithful, risk-taking churches who proudly proclaim that our congregations are going to openly welcome, love and extend Christ's welcome and love to all people - regardless of their physical ability, their economic income, the color of their skin, their educational ability, their ethnic background, or their gender or sexual identity. We are voting to open wide our doors - to be the people who not only say with our lips that the United Methodist Church is a church with Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors but to be these people - these people who desire so much to see what God can do when all people are welcome and beheld just as we are - encouraged to do all of the things that we in the majority get to do.

I cry often these days. Not because life is sad - but because the church is beautiful - especially on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts. You should come see what God is doing - come look at the extraordinary generosity of God that is so apparent in the new ministry space and then see the stunningly beautiful makeup of the body of Christ who worships here.

Bring a tissue - you might find yourself crying, too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dedication Day

I am far behind on my blogging, gathering a list of things to write about instead of actually writing about them. I promise to write soon. In the meantime, I want to offer you a glimpse of what has been happening at Mount Vernon Place. We closed on our new ministry space on Friday and dedicated it yesterday. Here are some shots from our wonderful celebration.
The view inside the four-story glass atrium that connects the historic church building with the new space:

Our new fellowship hall:
Waiting to get inside:

Cutting the ribbon:

Friday, October 09, 2009

Changing Perspectives

I saw them again on Wednesday morning. They were walking rather briskly, three girls dressed differently from the rest of the early morning crowd. One had on the doll-like outfit that I have seen her in many time before. Another had on a dress that was designed to cover her front but leave nothing to the imagination in the back. Still another had on a short leather skirt and tall leather boots to match. I saw them. But this time I saw them with different eyes.

I used to see them as women who had made this choice for their lives. I saw them as individuals who had chosen to spend the nights walking the streets, waiting for their next client to pull over and shepherd them into the car.

I now see them so differently.

I see them as victims. I see them as girls, some as young as 12 or 13. I finally notice how young they are. I see them as individuals who have been taken captive and have a hard time getting out. I see them - not as prostitutes but as people who are being prostituted. I see them as individuals who are being trafficked. I see them as people who need help.

After searching for different options for how our congregation can be more involved with all of our neighbors, including these individuals, two of our members found an organization called Courtney's House ( Founded and led by a survivor herself, Tina is an extraordinary leader, speaker and visionary. She knows the life these girls are living, and she knows that it is not easy to get out. She is pouring all of her time and energy into providing a way where there is seemingly no way.

Tina estimates that there are 1000 pimps working in Washington, DC alone. These pimps have control over boys and girls, some as young as 11 years old. Tina has opened our eyes to just how painful their world is and to the realities of the business. Pregnant girls are more valuable than non-pregnant. Breast milk sells. The younger the girl, the higher the amount can be earned. A typical one-night quota offered by the pimp to the girl is $1000 to $2000. Beatings happen regularly when this money does not come in. 95% of the girls have been sexually abused. The average age of someone coming under pimp control is 12 to 14 years old. An average night includes sleeping with 12 to 15 men.

And, we're trying to help. Last Saturday, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church was able to host a group of 26 women who are willing to help - willing to be trained in how to work with these boys and girls. Soon, our church will become the office location for Tina and her assistant. We're trying to play a part in providing ministries of mercy and justice.

I keep thinking about how much my perspective has changed. My entire vision has changed since I have learned more about this issue and the stories behind what I see. My outlook has changed to one of disgust to one of compassion. My heart has been taken captive in a whole new way.

I wonder.

I wonder what might happen if we all took time to listen to the stories of others - to not be so quick to conclude who a person is or why a person lives a certain way, loves a certain way, talks a certain way. What if we were to first take time to hear the person - to hear their heart, their mind, their background, their hopes, their dreams, their fears.

I wonder then if we might all have a change of perspective - towards the people who work the streets at night, towards our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters, towards the homeless man who sleeps on the church's porch at night, towards the person in line before us at Safeway who is using electronic benefits.

I wonder.

God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Help us to see the people around us as you see them. Forgive us for being quick to judge and slow to listen. Help us, Lord, to be more like you. Amen.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Draw the Circle Wide

We welcomed five new members at Mount Vernon Place yesterday and had the privilege of baptizing two of these individuals. It was a beautiful day - one of my all-time favorite worship experiences in this place. As part of worship, I asked two of our new members if they would be willing to testify - to share a glimpse of why they were excited about joining Mount Vernon Place and what brought them here. Both of the witnesses were extraordinary - offered with love, grace, passion, and excitement. It was a blessing to hear their words.

I asked one of the individuals if I could have a copy of his words to share on my blog. As I read them, my only prayer is that God will continue to keep us on this path, and that God will show us how best to further open the circle that has powerfully been opened to so many people already. What a blessing it is to serve in this place!

Here they are for you to read:

I remember an afternoon when I was 16 years old. I was sitting in a meadow in front of the chapel at Camp Aldersgate – our United Methodist Church camp in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. A pastor speaking to a group of us shared this simple poem:

They drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in.

As a Christian who also happens to be gay, I have known the hurt and despair of having circles drawn that shut me and those like me out in ways that keep us from experiencing the fullness of life and faith in the very communities of faith in which we were raised and once nurtured. My guess is, there are others here today who perhaps for the same or for different reasons have shared similar experiences.
But after a few short months here, in this place, I stand to give witness to what I sense is happening at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church; and why, today, I seek to be a part of this community of faith. Something is happening here that captures my imagination and convinces my heart: the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Deborah, of Paul and Priscilla is a living God who is walking among us today – speaking new words of hope to those both inside and outside these walls, and leading us all to new places of promise that encourage greater strength of community, healing and depth of faith. Something is happening here!

Today the five of us seeking membership in this congregation are linking hearts and minds with a community of believers who have taken an incredible leap of faith as you seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ – reaching out into our city and our nation in bold and creative ways to meet neighbors in need. Drawing circles around them that included – that incorporate them into a shared life that provides for a greater hope and promise of well-being.
I sense this congregation to be a community of seekers: people who know that living a life of faith is like being on a journey. As God moves among us, so must we seek and be prepared to be led to new and different places in our ministries. I’ve said to others that one dynamic of this community that makes me want to be a part is the sense that “we are always becoming!” There are other places we all could be where the sense is “This is who we are! This is what we do! And this is how we do it!!” It’s a good thing to know who you are, but each day is a new day that presents new situations, and new challenges with opportunities to share our faith with those around us. I want to be a part of a community of faith that has this sense of adventure – a sense of “always having to figure it out,” always discerning where we are, and what God is calling us to do in this new day, this new moment.

In 1980, as a young gay man who had just spent four years in seminary preparing for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, I attended our General Conference in Indianapolis, IN. I was there as part of a group of gay and lesbian United Methodists with a new name: Affirmation. Needless to say, in those early days we were very much on the outside of “the circle,” well into the margins. At the opening of the Conference I stood in an outer hallway of the Convention Center holding a tall banner we had just made a few days earlier that read, “Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian and Gay Concerns.” The hallway where I stood was the path that all of our Bishops took as they processed onto the main floor of the convention center. They all passed by me and ‘my’ banner. One bishop stopped and said, “Get out of here. You must leave this place! ” I looked him in the eye and said “Bishop, I’m not going to leave!” At that moment my heart was more resolved than ever to speak honestly and openly about who I was as a person of faith, and to always search for that growing community of believers in Jesus Christ who understand that their faith compels them to welcome – to include rather exclude people.

So Bishop, here I am! I’m still here! And I give thanks for my sisters and brothers in this place – for the way you welcome me; for being the people of God that you are; for being the people of God that you hold promise to become; and for being a people of God who have a passion for drawing circles that include people rather than keep them out. Thank you for embracing the five of us this morning and bringing us into this community. We want to draw circles with you.

William J. Matson
Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
Washington, DC
September 27, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Breaking of Bread

I purchased a book yesterday in one of the museum shops. The book is filled with pictures of paintings that portray the Lord's Supper. I am fascinated by different artists' interpretations of this sacred meal. I am awed by the paintings that tell the story - of how Jesus appeared, of who was at the table with him, of how Jesus broke bread. We know that this meal is what led the disciples to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread following his resurrection.

I saw Jesus last night. Jesus came to me in the breaking of the bread.

Craig and I were dining in one of Florence's oldest restaurants, celebrating Craig's 40th birthday. We knew ahead of time that we would arrive at the restaurant, get in line, and then be seated with strangers. We followed the wisdom of the hotel staff, and did exactly what they suggested we do. We were seated at a table, and within a matter of moments, another couple was seated with us. A man named John sat down next to me. John's wife, Rosemary, sat down next to Craig. We sat down as perfect strangers.

Soon food started to arrive on the table. Italian meats came first. Then came some tripe (which I said, "no thanks" to). We then had a lovely salad. Pasta arrived next. The pasta was followed by a plate of meat - four different kinds of meat. When the meat was enjoyed, a plate filled with different desserts arrived. All of this food was washed down with a huge jug of red wine that sat in the center of the table. We all shared the meal together. We all enjoyed one another's company. We laughed. We told stories. We contemplated life. We dreamed about the future. And, all I could think about was the Eucharistic feast - the Great Thanksgiving.

There is something extraordinary that happens at the table. People sit down as strangers. But they leave as friends. When bread is broken, community is formed. When a table is shared, barriers are broken. When individuals come and offer what they have, others are blessed. Craig and I experienced this kind of fellowship last night. It was amazing.

At the end of the meal, the check arrived. We were prepared to share the cost - to split the cost of the 180 euro meal. John, however, immediately got out his wallet. John treated us - telling us that he wanted us to enjoy marriage as they had enjoyed marriage - all 30 years. He wanted Craig to have a special birthday. He wanted us to experience generosity. Meanwhile, his wife, Rosemary, sat back and said, "This is just the way he is."

It was grace. Extraordinary grace.

And, that's just the way the one is who hosts us at his banquet feast each time we come to his table to participate in the Eucharistic Feast.

It's just the way he is, and we encounter him often in the breaking of the bread.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Climbing to the Cross

I have spent the day looking at incredible art. While in Florence, we have visited the Uffizi Gallery and the Academia. I have marveled at David. I have seen so many pictures and statues. But, I have been amazed even more at the theology behind some of the works of lesser known artists.

Luke 23:50-53 reads, "Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectandly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid."

I have never before thought about who took the body of Jesus down from the cross or how these people got the body down. I have never thought about it until I saw so many pictures with ladders. So many of the Italian artists have created the crucifixion with ladders - with ladders that extend to the top of the cross - ladders that people can climb in order to get the body of Jesus and the other two people down from the crosses.

Ladders. I have never thought about people actually climbing to the top of the cross in order to remove the body of Jesus - to carefully untack the hands and the feet of Jesus. But, I saw the ladders today as portrayed by Italian Rennassiance artists. I cannot stop thinking about these ladders. And, I cannot stop thinking about Joseph of Arimathea.

We are told that Joseph, though a member of the council, did not agree with the plan and action of the council. Joseph, an insider, chose to be an outsider. Joseph chose to stay close to the cross. He chose to put a ladder against the cross - a ladder that would extend to the top of the cross.

I can imagine the pain and ridicule that came Joseph's way. I can imagine that his colleagues questioned why on earth he would be carrying a ladder to Golgatha - why on earth he would be placing that ladder up against a cross - why on earth he would be removing the body of one who was crucified. Still, Joseph went. He went, he carried a ladder, he climbed the cross, and he removed the body.

When I am rediculed, questioned, or criticised, it is so much easy for me to back down the ladder than it is to climb the ladder. When people question what I do in the name of my faith or my prodding of the Holy Spirit, it is so much easier to give into their criticism, and to stop what I am doing, than it is to continue on my way.

Joseph, however, did not stop. Instead, he carried a ladder to Golgatha. He placed the ladder up against the cross. He removed the nails in Jesus' hands and feet. He brought the body down and laid it in a tomb. He brought the body down that would rise again in three days.

I wonder.

I wonder even more now that I have seen these ladders in so many paintings today, what might happen if we did not back down in the face of criticism. What might happen if we continued to climb the ladder. What might happen if we continued to climb the ladder and talk with those with whom we disagree? What might happen if we tried to always stand for Christ - for Christ's ways, Christ's love, Christ's grace - even if we are going against what others are telling us we should do or think or say or feel.

Joseph climbed the ladder. I saw him climb it in so many paintings today. He climbed the ladder - even though he was a member of the council who fought for the cross - he climbed a ladder when the council's actions were over. And, in the paintings, he is not the only one who climbed the ladder.

Many others were there with him.

God, help me to climb the ladders you have placed in front of me. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cussing in Church

I got cussed out today, and it happened in a very unlikely place. I was not driving on I-395 into the city. I was not in the Costco parking lot, competing with 25 cars for the two remaining spaces. And, I was not in a grocery store that is always crowded on Sunday evenings in Washington. I was, in fact, at church.

At Mount Vernon Place, we have a regular practice of sharing our joys and concerns. It is a central part of who we are as a congregation. We seek to be real and authentic with one another, truly sharing the things that are giving us joy and the burdens we are carrying - the things that are causing us hurt and pain. Several people shared joys that are happening in their lives today. It then came time for concerns. After a few people shared, I got up, stood at the microphone, and asked for prayers.

I shared with the congregation how we need to pray for our country. I talked about how I was in downtown Washington yesterday and happened to get caught in the traffic as mobs - thousands upon thousands 0f people - were gathering in Freedom Plaza for an anti-tax, anti-Obama, anti-health care demonstration. I shared how as I sat in traffic, so many of the signs broke my heart because many people held a sign of hatred in one hand and a sign with scripture printed on it in the other hand. I then shared how my heart broke yesterday morning when I read an editorial in the Washington Post. The editorial is written by Colbert I. King and is titled, "A Dangerous Kind of Hate." In his editorial, King writes about pastor Steven Anderson's sermon of August 16 - a sermon preached in a Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona in which Anderson focused an entire message on "Why I Hate Barack Obama." In this sermon - a sermon preached in a Christian Church, Anderson preached, "'I'm not going to pray for his (Obama's) good, I'm going to pray he dies and goes to hell."

King goes on to write, "There's something loose in the land, an ugliness and hatred directed toward Barack Obama , the nation's first African American president, that takes the breath away" (Colbert I. King, "A Dangerous Kind of Hate," in the Washington Post, September 12, 2009, page A17).

My breath was taken away yesterday morning, and while I did not quote this specific line of King's, I did talk about Anderson - how I did not understand how anyone could be filled with so much hatred and still call himself a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I then invited the congregation to pray - specifically saying that whether we sit on the right or on the left, we are to pray. I said that no matter what our views are, we need to pray for the unrest that is so real, so apparent, so rampant in our nation. I asked that we pray for our leaders - all of our leaders.

During the closing of the final hymn, I noticed that two women who I had never seen before were no longer singing. In fact, they were standing with their arms folded in front of them.

When the benediction was over, I stepped out to the front portico as I always do to greet first time guests who come filing out first. One of the two women came marching up to me, looked me in the face, and shouted, "You are a God-damned liar." She then went on to shout something about tax dollars and abortion. Her friend soon walked up behind her with tears in her eyes and handed me a note written on the inside of an offering envelope. It read,

Pastor Donna -

As we sat through the first hour of the service today, I was touched by the kindness, love and compassion that was all around us - thus, the shock and dismay that I felt as you referred to me as divisive and full of hatred was akin to a kick in the gut. You see, my friend and I took part in Saturday's march. We did not have signs of hatred - we walked in prayer - praying for the future of our country - praying to be understood and not stereotyped. Thus - I leave the church this morning weak with anger and cannot understand why you hurt me so - Yet, I love you in Christ's name.

Lis from Naples Florida

I've never been called a God-damned liar in one breath and told that someone loves me in Christ's name in another breath. It just does not add up to me. I did not know what to do - I stood there in dismay as they walked away.

I did not stereo-type anyone. Rather, I invited people to pray for the hatred that was evident in the sermon quoted by King and in the signs I saw people carrying. I questioned how people who follow a peace-filled Jesus could be filled with such hatred - could wear the t-shirts that some were wearing, could carry the signs that some were carrying, could pray death upon anyone. This is not the Jesus I know and follow.

King's right, there's an ugliness loose in the land - an ugliness I have never seen before. I'm praying - for the safety of our leaders, especially our president who has people wishing his death. I'm praying - that one day people who follow Jesus will also fight for the things Jesus taught us to be concerned about. I'm praying - that this unrest ends soon.

God, help us.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Lost Language of Vocation

The Lost Language of Vocation
1 Samuel 3:1-19 and Ephesians 4:1-16
September 6, 2009
Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

It is that age-old, timeless question that keeps being asked over and over again. Elementary school students ask the question. Individuals keep asking the question once they get to junior high school. While in high school, guidance counselors are trained to help students explore the answer to the question. We continue to ask the question while in college. At the mid-point of our lives, we resume asking the question. It is an important question – perhaps one of the most important questions we ask. And, countless individuals and voices around us seek to answer the question for us.
What should I do with my life?
We take tests that inform us of our key strengths. We ask individuals to tell us what they think we should do. We go to graduate school with a plan in mind at times and uncertainty at other times. We long to have the answer brought to us on a silver platter – for God to somehow show us the direct path we are to take. But finding the answer to the question is not always easy. And even when the answer comes, we often work hard to place the answer aside, doing other things instead.
Howard Thurman, the man who was once dean of Howard’s Rankin Chapel before going on to the same position at Boston University, presented a baccalaureate address called, “The Sound of the Genuine.” Like many baccalaureate addresses, Thurman had plenty to say about one’s life work. Thurman said on this occasion, “There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again - you are the only one. And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be a cripple all the rest of your life.”[1]
The sound of the genuine is that which gives us joy. It is that perfect mix of our gifts – the gifts God has given to us – the unique qualities and characteristics that make us who we are. And, Thurman points out the danger of what can happen when we are unable to hear this sound, when we somehow find ourselves crippled because we are doing something that we are not called to do.
He writes, “There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself—and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”[2]
There are sounds all around us. Already today, we have heard hundreds of sounds if we have been careful enough to listen. There are also voices all around us, and many of these voices tell us what we should be doing. Many of us were taught as children that if we wanted to be really successful in life then we should consider two vocations, being a doctor or being a lawyer. Others of us were told to follow the family footsteps and do the same thing our fathers and grandfathers do. The Army told us that enlisting was the way we could be all we could be. Most voices told us to try to make as much money as possible. Other voices taught us what it means to be successful. Today, many of these voices sound promising. Many of these voices tell us that the only thing that matters is money and status. We are taught that fun is for the weekends, and joy is reserved for Saturdays and Sundays but not Mondays thru Fridays. And we are tempted to give into these voices, to heed their call, to sign on to being puppets on a string. We are tempted to give in to the voices around us instead of listening to the sound of the genuine. In fact, we often cannot even hear the sound of the genuine because there are so many competing voices and sounds speaking to us.
We are trained early in life to ask the question, “What do you do for a living?” But what exactly is “living?” What if we were to ask instead, “What do you to for life?” and believe that life – real, abundant life – could be found in what we do for a living – that the two are not mutually exclusive?
We spend so much time in our jobs. And some of us do things that we love on any given day while others of us do things we hate. Some of us rise up singing, ready to go to work while others would do anything to stay in bed and avoid work. Some of us have a job. Others of us have discovered our calling. We have found our vocation.
Frederick Buechner writes this about vocation, “Like ‘duty,’ ‘law,’ and ‘religion,’ the word ‘vocation’ has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all.” He continues to write that vocation “is the work that we are called to in this world, the thing that we are summoned to spend our lives doing. We can speak of ourselves as choosing our vocations, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of our vocations choosing us, of a call’s being given and lives hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing.”[3]
We turn, then, to our Old Testament lesson for the day. Samuel is the son of a woman who was barren for a good part of her life. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was a barren woman who desperately wanted a child. She made a deal with the Lord that if she were to conceive, she would set apart her child as a nazarite until the day of his death. She promised to set him apart as one who would not shave his head or drink wine or other strong beverages. The Lord eventually hears the cries of Hannah and grants her request. Hannah conceives a child and gives birth to Samuel.
And, Hannah keeps her promise. She keeps Samuel close to the temple. When Samuel is still a child, we see him dressed in a linen garment, ministering to the Lord under Eli the priest in the temple.
The story read today begins by telling us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread. There might be many other voices speaking, but God’s voice is hard to hear.
We are also told that it is nighttime. Eli is lying down in his room with the lamp of God burning nearby. Samuel is lying down in the temple. And here, in the temple, Samuel hears the word of the Lord. The Lord calls Samuel by name but Samuel supposes the voice calling him is that of Eli. Samuel runs to Eli saying, “Here I am,” but Eli explains that he has not called him. Samuel returns to the temple and lies down again only to hear his name being called once more. Again, Samuel runs to Eli, and Eli again tells Samuel that he is not calling Samuel by name. When the call comes a third time and Samuel presents himself to Eli, Eli realizes what is happening. Samuel is being called by God. It is God who is speaking to Samuel, calling Samuel by name. Eli then instructs Samuel how to respond. Samuel is to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
The Lord calls again. With Eli’s help, with Eli naming the voice of God for Samuel, Samuel hears the voice of God, and Samuel finally responds. Samuel is able to hear the voice of the Lord because Eli tells him God is calling him. Eli is central to Samuel being able to hear, to Samuel being able to discern God calling him.
Let’s review the story again. Samuel has been set apart for the Lord’s service since birth. Samuel is in ministry regularly at the temple. He even sleeps at the temple. But, for whatever reason, no one has told Samuel that God might call him. No one has prepared Samuel for the voice that might call him into ministry, summoning him to play a key role in fulfilling God’s plan. When the Lord calls Samuel, Samuel believes it is a familiar voice – the voice of Eli. And Samuel is unable to hear the voice of the Lord until finally Eli realizes it is God who is calling Samuel and then encourages Samuel to both listen and respond.
No one was expecting to hear God’s voice. No one was expecting the voice of the Lord to come. Again, we are told in the first verse of this chapter that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Even the people lying in the temple were unable to hear the voice of God. Even the evidence of a miracle, the son of a barren woman who poured her heart out to God only to have God answer could not hear the voice of the Lord.
And while we might also believe that the voice of the Lord is rare today, God is still speaking. I spent four years working in seminary admissions, reading and hearing thousands upon thousands of stories about the ways in which God had spoken to someone – calling them away from politics and into ministry, away from a successful business and into ministry, away from teaching and into ministry, away from nursing and into ministry, away from law and into ministry, away from their original plans for life and into ministry. God’s call showed up in all kinds of places. God is still speaking, but we, too, have a hard time hearing the voice of God. And, we, too, often fail to enable others to hear the voice of God in their lives. God is calling all of us – some of us to heed God’s call and be set apart for ministry and others to help people respond to this call – to be Eli’s – individuals called to help others to be able to hear and respond to the ways in which God is speaking to them.
A few weeks ago, I had the joy of reconnecting with my childhood pastor. Charles Buck is the pastor who confirmed me when I was in the sixth grade. When he was here, he reminded me of a fascination I had with a bishop while attending the Bishop’s Confirmation Retreat as a twelve-year-old. I was so captivated that day by the Bishop’s leadership and abundant joy that I asked the bishop how much money he made. You see, I had been taught all my life that money was important, and I wanted to see if his salary fit in with the expectations that had been placed before me. While my call to ministry might have been started at that moment, no one really said anything to me.
While in college, I rarely went to church but I would occasionally visit the chapel from time to time on Sunday evenings. On two occasions, the college chaplain invited me to preach. I accepted her invitation both times and enjoyed it, but the chaplain never asked me if God was calling me to ministry. Everyone at college knew I was bound for a life in law and politics – that I had been set apart for something “great” – something that was certainly not ministry. No one ever asked me about considering seminary. No one ever asked me if God was speaking to me. I had gifts for ministry. Others saw these gifts. They invited me to use these. But no one ever said to me, “I think God is calling you to ministry.” No one was willing to get in the way of my plans in order to awaken me to God’s plans.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul says in the passage read earlier that Christ gave gifts to people so that they might be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Paul then says that these people were given gifts for a specific purpose. Paul writes that these individuals were given gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Certain individuals were given certain gifts for one reason – to equip others for ministry and to build up the body. Part of the reason Paul is begging the church at Ephesus to live the life worthy of the calling to which they have been called, “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is for the building up of the body – for the strengthening of the body. The body requires that all parts work together. And the body must continuously be strengthened. And our body, the church of Jesus Christ, is in need of individuals who can be equipped for the work of ministry and also equip others for this important task.
For some time, the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary has been conducting research on the age of United Methodist clergy. In an extensive report, the Lewis Center shares that out of the 18,000 fully ordained individuals in our church, individuals we call elders, only 5% are under the age of 35. At the same time, 45% of our elders are over the age of 55. The church is facing a potential crisis of leadership. Half of our ministers will retire in the next 10 years and very few individuals are entering ministry at an age where they can give their life to the church – at an age where they can creatively and energetically and passionately devote their fresh eyes to the needs of the church, equipping saints for ministry. The church is in great need of gifted young people who are willing to offer their lives to the church – to building up the body.
Paul calls the church at Ephesus to work together to build up the body of Christ. Samuel is able to hear the voice of God but only through Eli who enables him to hear it. And so I have a few questions for us as a congregation.
Could God be calling us to point out the giftedness of others? Could God be asking us to not conclude that the voice of the Lord is rare but that the voice of the Lord is speaking to many people? Could God be inviting us to help others discover their vocation – their lives’ call – that place where they discover real and deep gladness intersecting with the world’s need? Perhaps we are called to look around our congregation – to examine the lives of people sitting in the pews with us – and to ask the question, “Who is God calling?” and “How can I help this person to see the ways in which God has gifted them, to see how God might be speaking to them?” I do not know of a single person who has been able to hear a call from God on their own. It takes a community of people to form a pastor.
Buechner asks, “What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses the spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.”[4]
What is your thing?
What does the voice of the genuine say to you?
What is your vocation?
And who is God calling here in this place?
God is still speaking! The voice of the Lord can be heard often in these days.
[1] Howard Thurman, “The Sound of the Genuine,”
[2] Howard Thurman.
[3] Frederick Buechner, “The Calling of Voices,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, 36-37.
[4] Buechner, 40.

Monday, September 07, 2009

For the Love of the Church

My mother is the mayor of a small town in Southeastern Colorado where I spent a week last month. During my time with her, much of my mother's heart was captivated by an explosive conversation occurring within the community. The town, like many small communities, is suffering from the economic downturn. There are several empty storefronts on Main Street. Many citizens in the town are struggling with their small businesses, loss of jobs, and the changing economic landscape.

A couple of years ago, the town did a nationwide search to find the right administrator for the city. They found their ideal candidate - someone who shared creative ideas for what could happen in their community, someone with a proven track record of making a big impact on a similar community in Florida, someone with tremendous passion to bring about much-needed change.

The administrator was hired. He moved his family across the country. He unveiled a plan for urban renewal, an extensive plan for how to bring more commerce to the community by making simple changes in the community that others would find more attractive. The man has poured his heart and soul into the position, yearning to bring his experience, his dreams, his visions, and his ideas in order to bring about the change he was hired to bring. My mother has been filled with excitement, along with many members of the city council. But, two years later, the administrator has announced an early retirement. He has been accused of having self-serving ambitions. He has been called a liar. People have worked hard to push him out, to stop the change from going any further. Vicious, vicious things have been said about him in an online forum attached to the town's newspaper website.

And now, every morning, my mother sends this person an email that says, "Do not let anyone steal your joy."

My mother has been repeating the same thing to me this week. "Donna, do not let anyone steal your joy."

In response to my last entry, I received an incredibly helpful email from a dear colleague who is in ministry several states away. My colleague wrote and shared how she was filled with the pain of labor, how she was working so hard for something new to come about in the congregation she serves, and how the labor pains are excruciating. She then offered helpful advice to me on what mothers do after they give birth, suggesting that I do some of the same - that I hold the church tight right now, that I sit back and admire this precious gift, and that I take delight in the gift that has come. Her email was a blessing to me.

But, I keep thinking of her labor pains, my labor pains, and the growth pains that I am currently experiencing. I spent a week with this colleague back in May at a conference in Atlanta. There were three of us sharing a hotel that week - three women clergy who love the church, three women clergy who are in churches that have the capacity to explode, three women clergy working far more hours than is probably healthy, three women clergy having to explain often to our spouses and partners as to why we are not going to be home until after 9:00 yet again, three woman clergy sharing our hopes and our dreams and our love of the church. And, this week, all three of us have expressed the enormous pains associated with being a pastor - the criticism, the lack of trust, the second guessing of our every move, the desires of our congregations to be comfortable with the present and uncomfortable with the not-yet.

We all love the church. We responded to a call to ministry because we saw the church as this dynamic agent of change. We know the church as an organization that has the capacity to transform lives from the inside out and to make a huge impact on the community. We have seen the joys of ministry - the incredible gift of spending time with people who confess their darkest sins, who are encouraged to live new lives, and who make changes in their lives in the name of the gospel - who let go of some things in order to journey into the unknown future of discipleship. We love our positions. We love Jesus and his call to serve the least of these. We know the power of amazing grace and long to open others to the grace at work in their lives. We are aware of what unhealthy churches look like and what healthy churches look like. We have been exposed to growing churches and declining churches. We have been mentored by all kinds of remarkable people who have shared with us how to be the most faithful pastors that God can enable us to be.

We have also been exposed to all kinds of people who work to steal our joy. We have all been accused and criticized for similar things. We have been questioned about things we have said and things we have written. We have been criticized for messages God has given us to preach and for showing too much enthusiasm for things God is doing. We have been chastised for doing some things and questioned for not doing other things. We have all experienced our share of pain, and frustration, and heartaches.

But, again, we all love the church. We all have the same hopes and dreams for what this body can become and be and do and serve. None of us came into this occupation with self-serving ambitions. We all know that it's too painful of a place and that we could do a million other things with our lives if we really wanted to be self-serving. Again, we are here because we love, love, love the church!!!

For four years, I had the precious privilege of working in seminary admissions, listening to the hopes and dreams of individuals who had heard God calling their name. In almost every conversation, I also heard about the dreams people had for Christ's church - the ways in which people were eagerly anticipating the ability to bring about change and transformation in the name of Jesus Christ. Individuals had been exposed to the power of the Gospel and the gift of this Gospel being embodied in the life of the church, and individuals wanted to be part of a healthy, dynamic community of faith where others could experience this same gift.

Our seminaries do the very best that they can to train these individuals to serve Christ's church as faithfully as they can. They are then sent out where they quickly discover that it is not easy to be a pastor. As Greg Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, often says, "We too often see our most gifted graduates appointed to pastor in churches where they are least likely to succeed." What he means is that people who are just graduating are often sent to smaller churches, many of which are in decline instead of experiencing growth. They are sent to places that are not eager for change, places where people are quite comfortable and do not always cling to the passionate new pastor who comes with countless ideas for what the church is called to be - the Body of Christ working for transformation in the community.

Again, I do not know of a single pastor who responds to their call in order to be self-serving, in order to change things for the sake of change, in order to upset the status quo just for the heck of it.

So, why do so many congregations accuse us of this nonsense? Why is it that the church has so much trouble with change when the basis of our faith is found in a book that tells us of the story of Jesus who came and never allowed anyone or any person to be the same - Jesus who called his church to be his body on this earth - Jesus who preached good news to the poor more than anything else - Jesus who invited all people to his table - Jesus who confronted the way things were in the temple so that something new could emerge - Jesus who was radical and brought about radical ideas.

My brothers and sisters in ministry, please do not let anyone - ANYONE - steal your joy. Stay close to the one who called you and journey with the voices found in the Psalms and other places in scripture.

My brothers and sisters who sit in the pews, please, I beg you to think long and hard before you stand in the corner of the narthex whispering about what your pastor has done to upset you, please think twice before you question her motives or her moves, please pray for your pastor each day, please talk to her if you do not understand something or are concerned about something instead of gathering around a lunch table talking about her, and please, whatever you do, please do not offer her heavy criticism just before she enters the sanctuary for worship on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Changing Lanes

My role is changing. Mount Vernon Place UMC has made the transition. We have gone from a church that was very close to closure. Just four years ago, we had an average age of 82. We took in one new member in a good year and none in many other years. There were times when six weeks would pass without a first-time visitor. Our chair of staff parish relations was 97. The lay leader was 90. The finance committee chair was 93.

Today, our worshipping congregation has doubled. Our average age is around 35. Some 50 new individuals have joined the church. Not a Sunday passes without a few first-time visitors being in worship. And, most of the time they return a second week and a third week and a fourth week. We have an amazing mix of lay leaders - old and young. We have an incredible congregation of babies to 101-year-olds. I love these people! I adore them.

For four years, I have been the engine behind most of the new things, many of the emerging ministries, several of the different ways of doing things. I have been in the birthing room time and again, waiting to see what might come out. It has been incredibly hard at times (actually, downright painful) but amazingly rewarding now that I look back upon it.

We have made the transition. We are no longer declining but growing - becoming more and more alive each day. The place has changed - in beautiful ways.

But, in the last week or so, I have been struggling to identify my place. I seem to have lost the chair that is most comfortable for me. I have been the recipient of emails telling me about new ministries that are starting instead of part of the process of helping the congregation to birth new ministries in healthy ways. I have let go of things that were once really important for me to do, waiting for someone else to do it and if no one steps up, being okay with letting it go.

I do not know how to faithfully make the transition from being in the birthing room to standing at the door, waiting for my high school student to come home.

And so, I am wondering. Those of you who have made this transition, those of you who have shepherded a congregation from decline to growth, how do you do it - how do you keep finding the reason that brought you there? Are there books you found helpful? Are there things you can teach me during this time? What is my role? How do I adjust to these changes?

If you have nothing to offer, I covet your prayers. I am struggling with how to change lanes - the road on which we are traveling has definitely changed.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An Unlikely Disciple

A member of our church handed the book to me recently and suggested that I read it. I opened it on my flight home from Colorado last week and continued to read it through the next day until I was finished. The book is "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University." The author, Kevin Roose, is a Brown University student who takes a leave of absence from Brown in order to attend Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

Roose goes to Liberty thinking that he's collecting data for his book, seeking to gain a rich experience in a foreign land. Roose travels to Lynchburg with the idea that he'll be turned off completely by what happens at Liberty, that Jerry Falwell has few good qualities about him, and that the students in his classes will have little in common with him. After a semester at Liberty, however, he leaves a changed person. When he returns to Brown University, he finds himself praying on his knees. His mind often reverts back to the ways of life he encountered at Liberty.

He writes, "A few days after I left Liberty for the last time, I tried to peel the silver Jesus fish emblem off the bumper sticker of my Honda. The metal part came off easily, but a brown fish-shaped residue remained on the bumper, and no amount of scrubbing or scraping could get it off. I appreciated this on two levels. First, it meant that when I gave the car back to my dad - I had borrowed it from him for the semester - he was forced to drive around our ultra-liberal college town with the outline of a Jesus fish on his car, drawing worried stares from our friends and neighbors.

Second, the indelible Jesus fish provided me with the world's easiest metaphor to describe my transition from Liberty back to the secular world. Namely, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't quite scrape it away. Even when I was back at Brown full-time, caught up once again in the flood of papers and seminars and parties on the weekend, something about Liberty kept nagging at me. I kept having flashbacks of my time there..." (page 310).

There is something about the power of community. Roose discovered that the people at Liberty started to rub off on him. Their way of life became seeped into his mind and his spirit. While he wanted to be conducting an experiment only, he found himself caught up in the middle of it all - living a life like the Liberty students.

I've been thinking a lot about the indelible marks left on us. I learned again last week that when I am with someone who orders a salad for lunch, choosing a healthier option, I am more likely to make the same choice. Weight Watchers has tons of data that show you how their members lose more weight when they come to weekly meetings because they need to be held accountable and encourage one another together. Part of the power of Alcoholics Anonymous is that one is never alone - the community of individuals who also struggle with addiction is part of the healing power that is discovered. And, as Christians, we cannot learn and grow as disciples alone.

At the beginning of the summer, I traveled to Atlanta for a conference with colleagues. I noticed how disciplined they were. They were regularly praying and reading scripture. I had my Bible with me; but it did not get opened nearly as much as my colleagues' Bibles. I got up early - but not always to pray. But, after spending four nights with these women, they rubbed off on me - they left an indelible mark on me.

At Mount Vernon Place, we fell upon the power of community groups almost by accident. A former intern and woman who used to worship here became part of a conversation about what could happen if we had a couple of small groups. We bought three individuals a commentary on 1 Corinthians and sent them out to gather with others. We did no training. We hardly had a foundation in place. But, we knew there was power in being together.

A couple of years later, about one-third of our worshipping congregation is involved in a small group that gathers weekly for prayer, Bible study, accountability, sharing, food, and at least one monthly service commitment in the community. Through these groups, individuals are growing as disciples. Indelible Jesus marks are being placed on them. They are being encouraged to pray more, study more, give more, and grow more. They are rubbing off on one another. Many people are joining our church long after they have been a member of one of these groups.

There is power in community.

We exercise more often when someone is waiting to walk with us. We lose more weight when a classroom erupts in joy over the .8 pound we lost last week. We eat more vegetables when the people with us are eating more vegetables. And, we grow into more faithful disciples when the people around us are practicing faithful discipleship.

There is power in community.

I, too, have become an unlikely disciple.