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.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Statement of Welcome

We have a new statement of welcome for Mount Vernon Place. The statement is the result of hours of work by our Reconciling Ministries Task Force and then many people from our congregation who spent an afternoon at the church brainstorming on how we can convey to individuals outside the church that all people are welcome here. It was passed unanimously by our Church Council last Sunday.

As part of the conversation, some people in our congregation have asked why we would need such a statement since "we are and have always been welcoming of all people." The people who have asked this question are right, in part. We have been very welcoming of all people for some time. However, not all churches are welcoming.

There are many places where one is not welcome unless they are dressed a certain way. There are many places where one is not welcome unless they believe a certain thing. There are countless churches where one is not welcome if they are gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. There are plenty of barriers created by the church - by people who follow Jesus whose arms were wide open to almost all people (he did have a few things to say to the rich).

We want to be truly welcoming of all people. We want people who are outside to know that they will not hear a message of hate or judgment here. We want all people to know that we are seeking to be a grace-filled people who truly want to embody the love of Christ which knows no boundaries.

So, here is our statement of welcome. What does it say to you? Would you feel welcomed here?

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
Statement of Welcome

Just as Jesus Christ invited everyone, so we seek to faithfully extend Christ’s life-giving welcome to all people.

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church recognizes that diversity is one of the greatest expressions of God’s creativity, presence and grace. As a congregation, we are grateful for the many differences apparent in our community and in our experiences of God.

We welcome all people into the life of this church, and celebrate and give thanks for our diversity of race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental ability, faith background, economic status, appearance, marital condition, political persuasion, education, and life experience. We hope you will join us as we continue to discover how we can most faithfully include, learn from, and grow with all people in our community.

Gracious God, help us to see what you are doing in your kingdom, and enable us to be part of it. Amen.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Dangling Carrot

I'm away from the office this week, spending time with my mother in Colorado. I labeled the time away "Sabbath rest." When I left the office on Sunday, I was exhausted. I have been working too many weeks without real Sabbath, and too many days where breakfast, lunch and dinner are all consumed at the church. I left with weariness that had invaded my body, mind and spirit. I left, needing desperately to sleep long nights, to put my feet up in my mother's recliner, to do much of nothing.

But, before I could start to rest, I had an assignment to finish. The invitation to write liturgies for a new worship book arrived in my inbox months ago. It came from an editor I have written for before - turning in several different sermons for $100 a sermon. I stopped writing the sermons because I found that I, myself, could not really preach them. It is hard to preach something that is not really personal, that is not written with a particular community in mind.

But, when he emailed with an invitation to participate in a book, I was immediately drawn to the invitation. It was a lot more money and more responsibility. When I looked at the list of people being invited to write, I was impressed. At least one of the names was a very well respected author, Wesleyan scholar, and seminary professor. This person has written so many books, so many articles, and his name would be next to mine (rather, my name next to his). "Oh, think of the possibilities!" I thought to myself.

The assignment came in blocks. We could accept as many blocks as we wanted to accept. One block consisted of 6 calls to worship, 6 invocations, 6 offertory prayers, 6 prayers of confession and words of assurance, 4 litanies, 6 pastoral prayers and 6 benedictions. It seemed rather straightforward. I could do this. I accepted 4 blocks.

Weeks passed without my touching the assignment. Then months started to pass. I started it here and there, I wrote a few pieces every now and again, but I never made much progress. I realized, again, that I have a hard enough time getting my job done in less than 55 hours each week, let alone adding other responsibilities.

But the carrot was still dangling. The money and the success were intriguing.

The assignment was due on August 1. I begged for a few days of extension and was granted them. I had to turn them in by yesterday morning.

And so, my vacation started with 12 hours at my mother's table. For 12 hours on Tuesday, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed. I got the assignment done, and I was exhausted.

We had a speaker last week at Mount Vernon Place who shared with us a presentation on "John Wesley and Money." Wesley taught that we should earn all we can, save all we can and share all we can. He was, however, very clear about how we should earn. We should not earn any money that causes us to hurt our family or our health.

I was completely seduced by this invitation. I saw the money involved and the impressive list of authors whose name I could stand alongside of. I was impressed, and I said, "yes." But, I am not sure that any of this really benefits me. Sure, the money will pay for our airfare to Italy and at least one night of lodging. But, I had to spend an entire day of vacation earning it. I had to ignore my family for one day in order to get the assignment done. Is this really worth it?

How many things do we do because a carrot is dangling? How seductive are the carrots in your life? How many pockets of change do we go chasing after at the expense of our own health and family? Is our desire to earn money hurting our health and impacting our family?

What are the carrots in your life?