Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Glimpse of the Weight Watchers!

I caught a glimpse of the church yesterday. I was not at the church. In fact, I was several blocks away from any church. I caught a glimpse of the church while attending a weekly meeting at the local Weight Watchers office on K Street.

I have a love/hate relationship with Weight Watchers. I love how I lost nearly 40 pounds in 1997, just before going to seminary. I hate how I have gained the weight back and now pay Weight Watchers again, struggling to figure out how to lose it once more.
I love the meetings when I have lost weight and have something to celebrate. I hate the meetings when the person weighing me says, "Are you sure you are tracking everything you are eating?"
And yet, there is something powerful about these meetings - about people coming together because they want to lose weight. Yesterday, I watched in awe as one success after another was celebrated. Hands kept on clapping as one woman shared how she was moving more, another person shared how she lost 1.6 pounds, yet another woman said she was on vacation but only gained .5 pounds. People clapped loudly, cheering each other on. And every time there was a celebration, the leader said, "Let's share the love," getting the crowd to clap louder.
We then got to the place in the meeting where the leader asked people to share different struggles. The first person to open her mouth shared how her husband had lost his job on Friday. The whole room let out an audible, "oh no." She continued to share how when she got home, she first wanted a cigarette, but instead of returning to this bad habit she ate all of the chocolate she could find. No one scolded her for eating chocolate. Instead, one person said, "I'm a recruiter. Please give me your husband's resume." Another person said, "I completely understand." Still another said, "I would have probably ordered an entire pizza." One expression of empathy was shared after another. It was powerful.
I like to think that the church, at its best, offers this kind of community. I like to think that our churches are places where we can share every good thing happening in our lives and be cheered on by others in the congregation. I like to think that our churches are places where we can express our struggles and our disappointments and our failures and have people be with us - helping us to rise above it and move forward.
I love what I experienced at Weight Watchers yesterday. But I love the church even more - the time on Sundays when we ask, "How is it that we can pray for you this week? Where is it that you need to experience God? And what are you thankful for?" This is the church at its best.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Love this Church!

We are working on a job description for a "Director of Music and the Arts" at Mount Vernon Place. As part of the process, I wrote a description of who we are for the opening of the job description that interested candidates can read. I love this church, and I love what this statement says about us. Here it is for you to enjoy and perhaps even be compelled to come journey with us:

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, located in the heart of downtown Washington, directly across the street from the Washington Convention Center, is seeking a creative, motivated, faithful individual to lead our ministries in music and the arts. We are a growing congregation that has doubled in size in the last four years. Our worshipping community is old and young, black and white, gay and straight, people filled with faith and people struggling to believe, people in ties and suits and people in jeans and shorts, housed and unhoused, Democrat and Republican, lifelong church members and individuals coming to church for the first time, people who love to sing hymns with the organ and people yearning to clap their hands to the beat sounded from a drummer’s stick – we are a beautiful assortment of God’s creation! Our 1917, historic building has just undergone a complete restoration from top to bottom, and we are waiting for the completion of additional new space in a Class A, LEED Certified Gold building to be finished in mid-fall in which the church will own and occupy 22,000 square feet. The possibilities for ministry and growth in this community are endless, and we are excited to see where God will take us in the future!

I love this church!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Leaving the Church

I had conversations this week with another friend who has left the church. Jason grew up in the United Methodist Church. He spent years in youth ministry at a large United Methodist Church in Alabama, building a program that attracted countless kids every weekend - young people growing as disciples because of his leadership. He went to seminary with me at Duke Divinity School. He spent time as a hospital chaplain in Durham and in New England. He faithfully followed his call, responding to the affirmation of others in the church who named his gifts, giving him the courage to claim his gifts, and now he wants nothing to do with the church. He has left the church.

It's not the first time this has happened to one of my friends.

I was talking this week with a colleague from seminary about another incredible person pushed out by the church. I talked about this person in May of 2007 when I preached a sermon on "Marriage, Divorce and Homosexuality." "Mark" is one of the most gifted young men I have ever met. "Mark" has so many incredible gifts for ministry, and when I first met him, he was on his way to becoming a bishop, at least in the eyes of most of his friends.

But he is no longer a United Methodist. He left our church. He left our church because he is gay, and our church does not believe that people who are gay - no matter how gifted they might be - can be pastors. Our church has locked the door on these individuals - even when they are incredibly faithful and possess remarkable gifts for ministry.

When I talked with my colleague last week about our friend who was on his way to becoming a bishop but is no longer a United Methodist, my friend said something that really struck me, "When did the church get into such a good position that a person like 'Mark' is expendable? Think about his gifts. A whole trajectory of people could have been impacted by him because of his incredible discipleship."

My colleague went on to talk about "Mark's" commitment to our church when he was in seminary - how he kept going to a United Methodist Church at that time even though he could never be ordained in the United Methodist Church. My colleague told him once, "'Mark' you love your church more than your church loves you!"

I remember well what happened in the Baltimore Washington Conference when one of my transgendered colleagues told his story on the floor of Conference. It was the holiest conference I have ever been to. It is one of the more limited times in which I have truly felt the presence of God at Annual Conference. When Rev. Drew Phoenix stood and told his story, I knew God was at work. When he stood and told us how he had struggled with his sexual identity his entire life and finally felt free to be who he is, now that his body is that of a man and not a woman, I saw and heard liberation. It was not easy to hear everything, and I still don't understand it all. It is all quite complex and perplexing to me. But, I listened to how Drew told us about his church in downtown Baltimore - how families with children are coming back for the first time, how the giving has doubled, how the church is growing in significant ways - I celebrated the diversity of our church. I celebrated the ways in which God uses all kinds of people to build the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ. I was taught in real ways how God needs a diversity of pastors to reach a diversity of people. Lives have been changed by Rev. Phoenix's ministry. Rev. Phoenix was an incredible pastor. But, sadly, Rev. Phoenix has also left the church.

Three incredible people - just in my own circle - have left the church. Three incredible people with remarkable gifts given to them by God - have been pushed out - told that their gifts, their commitment, their discipleship, their willingness to serve, and their willingness to be part of changing lives in the name of Jesus are not welcome.

When did the church - this body that is losing far more members than it is gaining each year in most places around our country - get into such a good position that people like this are expendable?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Just Because Our Doors Were Open!

Earlier this month, I gathered with a group of my clergy colleagues as I do on the first Tuesday of every month. The topic of conversation selected for this particular day was evangelism - how we share the good news of Jesus Christ with others and build the Body of Christ.

Sitting around a table, we were asked to share what was working well at our churches - what, specifically was helping our churches to attract newcomers. Many of my colleagues have churches that are growing abundantly, and I am always inspired by their creativity and their passion. But the answer to "what is working in your churches" boiled down to something rather simple.

"It's so simple to throw open the doors of the church," my friend said. She then went on to share how the church she serves had participated in our Conference's efforts to provide radical hospitality during inauguration weekend. Many of the United Methodist Churches near the White House and the Capitol hosted people throughout the weekend who needed a place to stay overnight and many other churches opened their doors wide on the day of the inauguration, providing a place for people to come in from the cold, enjoy a hot beverage, and receive rest for their weary bodies.

Alisa continued to share how some $1,000 had been sent to the church by people who had experienced their hospitality. She talked about the notes and the cards they had received. She said how one parent did not think she was going to be able to walk any further and then saw a member of the church open the door and say, "Please, come on in. Find some rest and enjoy a cup of coffee with me." This invitation changed everything for this woman and her son. This gesture became the highlight of their inauguration day.

It's so simple to throw open the doors of the church. People came just because the doors of our church were open!

I spend a lot of time thinking about church doors. There was a time when the church I serve had great big bars placed upon the doors of the church. Gates were installed in an effort to keep people from sleeping on the porch of the church at night. Thanks be to God these gates were removed as part of our restoration in the last couple of years. The symbolism of the doors was so jarring - borderline offensive. But I also think about the non-physical gates that our churches have installed - either intentionally or by association.

On Sunday, we had our first Church Council meeting of the year at Mount Vernon Place. During this meeting, one of our members got up and talked about his experience as a traveler in many different cities looking for a place to worship. He shared how not every United Methodist Church is the same. He talked about how he does not always know what message he might hear - how in one church he might hear a message of hate and condemnation while in another church he might hear a message of love. He shared how his gay friend, a lifelong United Methodist, had been to United Methodist Churches where he was told straightforward that he was going to hell and in United Methodist Churches where he was embraced and loved.

Adam went on to share the tool that he and his wife now use when looking for a church to visit. He goes onto a website associated with our denomination and looks for a church that is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church. He seeks a church where he knows that he is welcome and where he knows that his gay friends are welcome. Adam wants to be sure that the message he hears is one of grace and love and compassion.

Adam shared his journey with us on Sunday. As a result of his faithful leadership and courageous vision, our Church Council agreed to appoint a Task Force to consider what it means to be a Reconciling Congregation and to truly struggle, wrestle and be educated on what it means to be gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual and more importantly, what it means to be a place of radical hospitality - a place with doors wide open to all people - to all of God's children no matter what - especially those living in the margins.

We will start this conversation on Sunday, March 29 with a viewing of the film, "For the Bible Tells Me So" in our church's undercroft theatre at 1:30 p.m. The film viewing will be followed by a panel discussion of clergy and laypeople who are willing to share their story. I am looking forward to this conversation and to our congregation's willingness to struggle - to really struggle - with what it means to be followers of Jesus, disciples of Christ.

It's so simple to throw open the doors of the church!

And yet, we sometimes have a hard time just opening the door. Sometimes, the keys are hard to find.

The door is open. Please, come join us. Please come be part of this holy conferencing. Please come be part of our journey. And if you cannot be here, then please keep us in your prayers.

Monday, March 09, 2009


I wore a clergy collar today.  Tucked underneath a black suit jacket with a long black skirt, I looked very smart, if I do say so myself.  I wore the collar because I wanted to hide behind it - I wanted people to see it and immediately know that I was the pastor who was reporting to duty for the memorial service.  The service was at a church that I had never been to before, and only one person in the family knew who I was.  I was doing the service as a favor - the family needed a pastor, and I said I would come.

It's the second time this has happened to me.  The first time was at Arlington National Cemetery where I found it really important for a clergy person who is both a female and a stranger to show up in a collar.  The collar - the small piece of plastic tucked carefully into the clergy blouse - made me easy to recognize and hard to miss.

But today - at the start of this day - I wanted to hide not behind the collar but I wanted to hide the collar - the entire marking of my identity.  I wanted desperately for people not to see it.

I parked my car in the garage where I normally park - a few blocks from Mount Vernon Place.  I got out of the car, gathered my belongings, and walked towards the elevators.  I made my way upstairs, all the while being reminded that my vocation was no longer secret - everyone who looked at my neck noticed a collar - a collar that marked me as a pastor, or a priest, or a servant of some sorts.

I made my way through the building lobby and outside to the street where I noticed a group of teenagers standing outside of a nearby Hostel with eyes wide open.  They were clearly gawking, and I quickly realized what had captured their attention.  Three women stood opposite of them.  Three women were across the street, and the three women were not dressed like everyone else walking the streets at 7:30 this morning.  Everyone else had on enough clothes.  These women had on tiny skirts that barely covered their bottoms.  The women were clearly women of the streets - prostitutes gathering after a night's work.

I saw the women, and my heart felt like it was tearing again.  My heart breaks every Sunday morning when I see these women gathering on a nearby corner.  But, I have never seen them during the week - when so many other people are around.  I watched them walk towards a hot dog stand and buy bottled drinks, and I crossed the street.  My heart was breaking and yet I could not muster up any strength to go and approach them - to hand them my card and invite them in for a conversation - for a cup of tea - for an encouraging and supportive ear. 

I then thought again about the collar I was wearing.  As a pastor, my reaction should have been to walk up to them - to go out of my way to speak to them.  But, I instead pulled my arm up around my neck, hoping no one would see me as most eyes gazed at this threesome.  I wanted to hide the collar instead of hiding behind it.  I had what I needed to be clearly marked to these women, and I choose instead to be marked like everyone else - to join the gawking crowds instead of being the one to stop and offer help.

I did it again later today - I covered my neck - at a stoplight when someone was asking for money while holding a cardboard sign that said, "hungry."  If they see my collar, then I'll have to give money, I thought to myself.

I blew it.  I missed two opportunities to be the kind of disciple, let alone the kind of pastor, I want to be. 

I preached a sermon on being a risk taker yesterday - on being one who is filled with so much faith that they can do anything because God is leading them.  Somehow this sermon escaped my memory today.  Somehow my ability to take risks shrunk just as I tried to shrink in my seat or behind my arm instead of behind a collar that tells others how I have been set apart to do faithful work with and through the Holy Spirit.

I invite you to please pray for your pastor.  Pray that I'll be a more faithful risk-taker.  Pray that God will continue to break my heart every time I see these women until I am finally so overwhelmed that I know nothing other than to approach them and offer my card - an introduction.  Pray for these women.  And please pray for our church - that we can somehow find a way to be in relationship with them.

God, forgive me.  God, help me.  Help me be the one who heard what I preached yesterday - and then has the courage to follow.  Amen.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Practicing Our Faith

It's Lent.  For me, Lent is always a time to try to re-program my life.  Similar to the start of a New Year, I try to spend the days before Ash Wednesday thinking about what in my life needs to be fixed - restarted - reformatted.  Most of the time, I begin Lent very aware of how out of balance my life is.  It seems as though this season of intentionally moving closer to God has a way of uncovering just how many layers in my life there are - layers that need to be pulled away, one after another, until I find myself in perfect balance with God once again.

In an effort to move closer to this balance, I dug out a book that I first purchased in seminary, "Practicing our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People."  In this book, Dorothy Bass edits a powerful collection of chapters on different spiritual practices: honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping Sabbath, testimony, discernment, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well and singing our lives.  At times, my mouth starts to water just thinking about these practices - about a life in which these practices intentionally shape and form every waking hour.

Bass starts the book by sharing an account of perfect balance.  She tells the story of a retreat center high in the mountains where her family journeys each year.  At this center, each family member gets to do what they love most from fishing to hiking to reading.  More importantly, the family discovers the balance for which they were intended.  Bass writes, "When we are there, we slip into a way of life that comes pretty close to our vision of how things are supposed to be.  As staff members, we work; we consume appropriately, eating lower on the food chain and doing without the goods and gadgets that usually clutter our lives; we worship daily.  In other words, we enter a community shaped by shared practices that make sense, and as we adjust to them, we feel ourselves becoming a little different, a little better" (Practicing our Faith, ed. Dorothy Bass, ix).

Journeying with a small group at Mount Vernon Place, we are trying to discover this way of life once more - this community "shaped by shared practices that make sense."  Many of us are gathering for a 40 minute time of worship on Wednesday mornings at 7:00.   We are working to put God and God's ways first in our lives once again.  It is a journey - one that I long to stay on - one with a clear end goal in mind.

What are the practices that shape you?  What is it that you need to shed in your life and what is it that you need to take on?