Friday, December 24, 2010

My Christmas List

I have been reflecting a lot this week about Christmas in years past. I recall the year I finally got a Cabbage Patch Kid. Mine did not come in the box like everyone else for mine was carefully created in the home of a creative craftswoman, but I loved it just the same. I also remember the time when my sister and I came home from school to find water beds in our rooms, an early gift for Christmas. There was another year when we found a small bowling ally in the family room, waiting for us under the tree. Many of these gifts were the result of conversations with Mom and Dad or our making lists for Santa and hanging them on the refrigerator for all shoppers to see. Each year, it seemed as though we were granted many of our desires. We made a list of what we wanted, and many of these items magically appeared under our tree on Christmas morning with Santa tracks around the house in the snow.

I'm making a similar list for Christmas this year. While the list is not pegged to the refrigerator in our home, I suspect there is one who hears the cry of my heart, one who also longs to see some of these things come to fruition.

All I want for Christmas is...

Time with my family. It has been a rough week this week with my mom being in the hospital since Sunday morning. We have had several scares with her health and have been on our knees through much of the week, asking God to bring her healing. It appears she'll be home tomorrow for Christmas. I am grateful. As we get older, the preciousness of family seems to grow more intense. I am so incredibly thankful for family and yearn for more time to create priceless memories together.

Time for friends. As we have been praying this week, I have continuously been reminded of others who are praying with us. I am convinced that I have some of the most amazing friends in the world. I am so thankful for the calls and texts and Facebook comments that have been received. I pray in the New Year that I can become an even better friend - that I can remember each birthday or anniversary, that I'll be led to write a note for no reason other than to express thanksgiving for the gift of someones presence in my life, that I'll make more calls just to say 'hello' and that we'll make more time to be with people whose lives mean so much for us.

Craig and I have some control over the above two wishes. I need a lot of help with the remaining ones.

An end to homelessness. I'm tired of seeing people wrapped up in gray blankets distributed by the city, snuggled on top of cardboard boxes even when the temperature is below freezing. I don't understand why so many people are homeless in our city and in our nation. The more I get to know some of these individuals personally, the more confused I grow. How is it that more space can be made until all people have a place to call home? What role can our church and churches around the nation play in making this wish a reality?

An end to violence. I live in a city where violence erupts regularly. I do not understand why kids are carrying guns. I have no idea why anyone feels a need to own a military style defense weapon. Why are kids killing kids? Why does an argument become so fierce that someone feels a need to end another person's life? What is worth so much that someone will kill another person in order to get it? I long for the day when war will be no more because weapons will be beat into plowshares - into tools that are used for the building of community instead of the tearing down of community.

A denomination that truly embodies Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors. I'm grateful to be a United Methodist. The United Methodist Church is the only church I have ever known other than a few Sunday nights spent in praise at the local Assembly of God Church. I love our focus on grace and the ways in which these beliefs are made manifest by the ways in which we go out of our way to abundantly open all people to the table of the Lord whenever the sacrament is administered. I am so thankful for our emphasis on practical divinity - on our believing not only with our minds but with our hands and our feet by our putting our faith into practice. I love our church. Yet, I long for a church that practices what it preaches. I long for a church that truly is abundantly open to all people. I long for a church with people who realize constantly that there go any of us but by the grace of God. I'm tired of my denomination putting one group of people aside, pulling out one aspect of who a person is and allowing that aspect to hold them down. I think about what Peter Storey recently told me about something Desmond Tutu used to say in South Africa, "I'd love to be reconciled with you but it is hard to shake your hand when your foot is on my neck." Our church continues to place our feet on the necks of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We continue to say that all are welcome, that all people are of our sacred worth, and then we put our foot on the neck of a gay brother when we say that their life is incompatible with Christian teaching and that they cannot experience two of the most amazing gifts I have ever received - the gift of marriage and the gift of being a pastor. I want a more inclusive United Methodist Church. I want a transformed United Methodist Church.

More people who will come to know the incredible gift of Mount Vernon Place. Not a Sunday goes by when someone does not stop and say to me, "I love the authenticity of this place." As I write to each first-time visitor, we are young and old, lifelong churchgoers and people new to the church, individuals filled with faith and people struggling to believe, housed and unhoused, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, Methodists and Catholics, and countless things in between. What unites us is a sincere desire to figure out what it means to be faithful in our context of downtown Washington I have honestly never experienced a congregation like the one I am privileged to serve. I watch as individuals in my church family open their doors and their hearts and now even their homes to people in need whether that need is the gift of someone to listen, a place to shower and sometimes a place to stay at night. I watch as people are really wrestling with the gospel and the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. I watch as our community of faith is growing deeper and wider. There is something happening in this church, and I am so excited to see what the future holds for us. I pray that people who have been hurt by the church or told they are not welcome at the church will find their way to us. I pray that people who have only seen a hypocritical side to the church will be led to us. I pray that people who want nothing to do with the church will give us a second chance.

An End to Hunger. The local newspaper has educated me this year on how many children in our city are relying upon the public school system to feed them three meals a day. I wonder what these children are doing during the Christmas break - who is feeding their stomachs. I also wonder why I am not moved to do more each time I fill my grocery cart at the local Safeway, buying some things that will not even get eaten but rot in the refrigerator and then be placed in the trash. I long for a world where no one is dying of starvation, where no child is having a hard time focusing at school because their stomach is empty, where all people are fed.

My list could continue. There many other things I would love to have. And yet, as I write this list, I realize how much we have been given.

Thank you, God, for every gift you have so generously given to us. Thank you for a warm home and plenty of food, amazing friends and beautiful family members, prophetic colleagues and a remarkable church. Thank you for my health and for arms and legs that provide mobility. Help me, God, to know what part I can play in making my wishes a reality.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Becoming an Angel

I was touched by these words this morning from Ann Weems:

Wouldn't It Be Grand To Be An Angel

Wouldn't it be grand to be an angel
and have your address
"The Realms of the Glory of God"?
And swing on rainbows,
and gather stars in your pockets,
winging in and out of earth
in a flurry of moondust
with the messages of God?
Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous,
delivering the just, guarding little children?
Of course, we can comfort and warn
and deliver and guard.
Maybe, if we get that right,
we can swing on rainbows later.

Ann Weems, "Kneeling in Bethlehem," 1980.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I'm a Survivor

It was a typical holiday party. The food table held fresh-baked sugar cookies with different colors of frosting stacked on top, spicy chicken wings, and many different kinds of dips with chips and vegetables standing ready nearby. All kinds of sodas were stacked in the corner. A tree stood in another place with dozens of gifts nearby ready to be distributed.

I arrived with a family of four and took an empty seat at a table. The person sitting next to me immediately introduced himself and said, "I'm a survivor." He had a personality larger than life. He seemed to know everyone in the room. I could quickly see that I would be blessed by any conversation I shared with him. We talked about high school and future plans. We laughed. We commented on the cookies. And I listened a lot as he engaged in conversation with six people at the table. Four of the individuals had much in common. They were all high school students, teenagers. And, they were all survivors of sex-trafficking. They were so innocent and yet I knew before I walked into the room that their innocence had been robbed a long time ago. I knew that they had seen far more ugliness, far more misdirected passion, far more hours of the night and darkness in the day than any of us can begin to imagine.

When it came time to open their presents, I watched in delight. I knew that our church had purchased the gifts for two of the individuals. I sat and observed as the young people opened gifts like the ones my 15-year-old niece will open on Saturday - a digital camera and UGG boots, an iPod and a new shade of eye shadow, a pair of pants and a new coat, books and music, and many other things. And, I gave thanks that somehow my niece had been sheltered from the horror that has evaded these young lives.

I remember so well when I first started to see prostitutes on the street. It happened soon after I moved to Virginia and would drive into the city before 7:00 on Sunday morning or any other morning of the week. I can vividly picture the first time I watched someone being arrested in a very short skirt and very high-heeled boots. I know well the time my eyes were opened to the business of the night. But it took a lot of searching and being educated to have my heart and mind opened to what is really happening.

We are often led to believe that any woman working the street is a modern day Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." We somehow have concluded that women choose this life where they can make a thousand dollars a night and then be filled with hope of Richard Gere finally coming along, their Prince Charming whisking them away into an abundant life. Boy was I wrong.

The average age of a girl who enters sex-trafficking is 13. Individuals are found standing alone in shopping centers. Heavier girls with low self-esteem are befriended by men who tell them they are beautiful when no one else is paying them attention. Promises of beautiful clothing or the sneakers that every other kid seems to have are made, and the kids offer more trust to the giver of the gift. They are soon made to pay for the gifts - sent out on the streets with instructions for how to make money. The younger the girls, the more money can be made. Pregnant girls can also beg a higher price. And the trade is not only for girls. Boys are being trafficked, too. And, a really sad reality is that some of the boys who are being trafficked are on the streets because of their sexuality - because their parents kicked them out of the house when they learned their son was gay. Innocence is robbed in the blink of an eye - with many eyes watching. And it's not happening only in far off countries. It's happening here - in Washington and countless other cities in our nation.

It took us a long time to find an organization like Courtney's House. Founded and run by a survivor herself, their mission is to get boys and girls who are being trafficked off the street and into a better life. I got to see their work firsthand on Sunday as I sat with these young people. I could literally see how the chains had fallen off as a result of their passion and dedication. They are in the business of setting the captives free - captives that many of us will never see because we cannot believe that prostitution is alive and well in Washington or because we choose to believe it is a choice instead of forced labor.

Thank you, Courtney's House, for what you are doing. Thank you for the powerful ministry you are embodying in our community. Thank you for opening my eyes and showing me the truth of the matter.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Completely Covered

A group in our congregation has been journeying through Blair Meeks' book, "Expecting the Unexpected" during the season of Advent. Each participant is invited to use the book as a daily devotional guide before coming together on Wednesday night for dinner and discussion. The book offers a wonderful opportunity to not only read scripture passages but to imagine a different reality based on scripture.

Part of today's assignment is to read Isaiah 57:14-24. Meeks then invites the reader to imagine the dwelling places of God that are mentioned in verse 15:

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

As I took time to picture in my mind this morning the places where God dwells, my mind took me first to a high and lofty place in our city - the United States Capitol. It is in this place where 535 individuals have been entrusted with a significant amount of power. It is in this place where dreams can literally come to life, where captives can be released, where resources can be redistributed, and where justice can be done. As I thought about God hovering in this place, I said a prayer. I prayed that justice would be done this weekend as legislation is being discussed that allows all people to serve in our military, in particular. I then continued to pray but to also to praise God for dwelling in this high and lofty place.

My mind then went to the places where the contrite and humble dwell. I thought about all the places I pass in the early hours of the morning. I imagined the places where boxes are stacked and blankets are found in abundance - where unhoused people are sleeping even with snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s. I imagined God dwelling in these places - but not for long - because I cannot imagine God dwelling there without wanting to do something about it. I also imagined God dwelling in the homes of people whose hearts are broken during this holiday season. I thought of people like my mom who mourn the loss of a loved one during Christmas. I thought of families who are entering the season for the first time without someone precious to them. I thought of all who are suffering because of a medical diagnosis, or a disease, or a loss of a job, or a broken relationship, or a loss of a home. I continued to pray but I also gave thanks to God for dwelling in these places.

God's presence cannot be contained in one space. There is not a physical tent big enough in which to hold God. God's hands are far more outstretched than any of us can imagine - and certainly wider than most of our bodies who are seeking to be the body of Christ. God's goodness reigns over all people in all places. And for that, I give thanks!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom the captives wherever they are on this day. Make your presence known in lofty places and make your presence known in the dark corners of the city. Where individuals are held captive to their power, help them to see the ways in which their power can set other captives free. Where individuals are held captive to sadness and depression, set upon them the dawn of a new day made possible through your love and mercy. Make your presence known in churches and make your presence known in city halls. Make your presence known on every street and in every building of this city. Help all who want to follow you to do our part in following you not only to the high and lofty places but also to those who are contrite and humble in spirit. O come, O come Emmanuel. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Scarf No One Wanted

One of our members told a story last week during joys and concerns about something that happened recently during the shower ministry. Volunteers were distributing hats, gloves, coats and scarves to shower ministry guests. When almost everything was gone, the two volunteers looked at the remaining scarf and wondered if anyone would want it. I don't know what the scarf looked like but it was apparently rather loud and unique. While colorful scarves are often valued and appreciated, this particular scarf was a little too colorful. The volunteers wondered aloud if anyone would want it.

Our church member went on to share how a shower ministry guest looked at the scarf and exclaimed with great joy that it was just what she needed. The scarf that was seen as too loud or perhaps even unwanted by two volunteers was exactly what the guest needed. The thing that could have been easily discarded was welcomed as a great gift.

After hearing the story, I shared with the congregation how the church is in the business of finding scarves that no one else wants. Part of our role is to discover individuals who have been too easily tossed aside or seen as not as useful and then uncover their gifts. We take delight in putting someone who is normally on the sidelines in the front and center - allowing the spotlight to shine brightly.

When I think about the congregation I am privileged to serve, I am constantly awed and amazed by the ways in which different people shine the light of Christ to me. We have one member who cannot communicate in complete sentences. She can only say a few words. And still, not a Sunday goes by when this member does not touch me in a profound way. While we are stumbling through the liturgy with our words or trying to sing the right tune, this member embodies the worship of God with her whole being as she lifts her hands or sways to the music in praise, wonder and delight. I see God every time I am in this woman's presence - without any words being spoken.

There is another member of the church about whom I could write an entire book. He drives me crazy at times, leaving up to 14 voice mail messages on the same day. I never know what to fully expect when I am in his presence as his life is kept in balance by different medications. And still, this individual has demonstrated to me time and again what it means to be like Christ. He is constantly asking me about a woman whose daughter died tragically too soon a few years ago. When it comes time to wake up our unhoused neighbors who are sleeping on the porch, this member shows me how to gently awaken people in a way that shows me that they are indeed respected and valued. When it comes to the care of the church facility, this member always wants things to look perfect. When we visit the sick or shut-ins, this person has the capacity to sing in a way that brings delight to all who are listening. I would not trade the privilege of being this person's pastor for anything - even though he often takes all of the patience I can muster!

Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, one of our largest United Methodist Churches, often shares how the United Methodist Church is one of the few places where he has been given a spot on the team. He shares how it is in this forum that he has been noticed, named and nurtured - able to play as well as he can. I think often of these words and am so grateful for our church allowing Mike to play. His leadership is making a huge difference in our denomination. I am so thankful that someone took time to see his gifts.

I have just returned from a holiday market where there were numerous vendors selling scarves. There are some scarves I loved and some scarves that I would never choose to wear. Yet, someone will likely love the scarves I did not choose and someone will likely hate the scarves I love.

When it comes to the church, I am so incredibly thankful for the same diversity - for the ways in which we are so many different colors, ages, theologies, backgrounds, sexual orientations, gifts, appearances, and the list goes on and on. I am also thankful that this church is one that seeks to welcome everyone - never knowing how Christ might be revealed to us in all of these people.

God shows up in the least likely places - in the womb of a virgin, in a borrowed barn in Bethlehem, in the beggar asking for money, in your life, and in my life. Thanks be to God!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Avoiding the Conversation

It is Advent. I have not written anything on the blog for over two weeks. I spent the day at home because I nearly worked myself sick by working 8 straight days. I have eaten too many little chocolates. I have spent more money than I intended to spend. I have gotten caught up in the hustle and bustle of the society again instead of remembering the reason for the season.

It's Advent. The Sunday morning lectionary texts will not allow me to forget the mystery and wonder of this season. My preaching preparation has pushed me to reflect often on how we are called to be prepared. We have sung "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and I have dreamed of a white Christmas.

It's Advent and while I have already journeyed two weeks into the season in a way far more different than what I originally planned, I cannot help but to be filled with hope. I cannot help but to sense God's presence gently nudging me to expect something different with hopeful anticipation. I can feel a new reality on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues was sharing with me how we might need to spend more time talking to God about what we don't want to talk to God about - that if we are actually expecting God to do something different then we should address the issues with God that we have somehow concluded were too far out of control to be fixed or too far lost to be found. I've been thinking about this suggestion often during this season of hope - asking God to provide hope in situations that I have found to be hopeless. I have been thinking about what it would mean to pray for and work towards a completely differently reality. Rather than avoiding the conversation on big issues, I have been thinking about how to address them with God.

So often I get exhausted by the needs around me. I look at all the people sleeping in or on top of cardboard boxes in the city and I wonder if there will ever come a day when every person has a bed on which to sleep and a place to call home. I have grown cynical in the process, treating the issue of homelessness as if it is just a part of reality that we can always expect in the city. And then the congregation I serve shows me how if we help even one person it is making a difference. I watched as our congregation accepted a responsibility to provide a place to sleep for a week or two at a time to a couple of men who have been sleeping on our porch for almost two years. The family who first welcomed them to their
home is celebrating their first child's second birthday tomorrow and waiting for the birth of their second child to happen at any time. "Are you kidding me?" I ask as I learn about what is happening - about this family opening their hearts and their doors. Perhaps we can really work towards an end to homelessness. Perhaps we can have the audacity to pray for God to help us end homelessness, trusting that God will grant us wisdom and courage to play our part in the process.

When I drive downtown around the hour of 7:00 each morning, two things happen. 1) I want to cry when I see different girls and women who I know have been out all night, victims of sex-trafficking. 2) I want to literally run my car into the pimps that I see standing on the street corners or driving in their fancy cars with tinted windows. Prostitution is just something we have to accept in the city, many people say. It's just the way it is - the oldest job in the world. But I have watched as one of our building partners has done extraordinary work in seeking to get girls off the streets - out of the place of being a victim and into the place of being a survivor. I watched yesterday as many members of our church returned gifts for a victim of sex-trafficking and her sister. The generosity pouring through the doors was extraordinary. Perhaps we can work to end sex-trafficking. Perhaps we can have the audacity to pray for God to help us in this task.

God, there are so many things that seem too big for anyone to master. I have no idea how to end homelessness - how to get everyone on board to make the changes needed for all to have a place to call home. I lose hope when I hear of another person who has been diagnosed with cancer or when I see someone who is struggling with mental illness. I feel like I am facing an uphill battle when it comes to getting the discipline needed to live a healthier life and take better care of my body. I become so overwhelmed at times when I think about how far under water my husband and I are on our homes and how we may be living in a one-bedroom apartment the rest of our lives - how it may take a decade before we are finally able to sell these places. I lose heart when I think of world hunger or ending peace or getting people off our porch at night. God, there are so many needs around me. Help me, Lord. Help me to trust you. Help me to cast my worries upon you because you care for me. Show me what changes I can make. Teach me how to make a difference. Increase my faith! Help me, Lord. It's Advent, and I am waiting for you to come again but in the meantime, I long to do what I can to be a sign of your kingdom on earth. Let me not avoid the conversation or shy away from the work that needs to be done. Amen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Into the Night

I have a tendency to keep good company. I'm privileged to serve as the pastor of remarkable people who tend to often make more of me. I'm constantly amazed by the ways in which these individuals live out their faith - practicing radical hospitality, embodying forgiveness, and living lives of constant generosity and grace. While it might not be wise for me to admit it, there are many times when the people who belong to our church are more like Jesus than their pastor. I'm privileged to be the pastor of so many amazing disciples.

Craig and I chose not to go home this year for Thanksgiving. Influenced by high airfare and Craig's work schedule, we opted to stay home this year. We were tempted often by the idea of feasting on a turkey breast by ourselves - perhaps even coming to the meal in our pajamas. But, we instead were led to accept an invitation to share Thanksgiving with several church members.

We arrived at their home a few minutes after the appointed time to find eight people waiting for us. All but one are church members. They are all twenty and thirty somethings who have come to Mount Vernon Place in the last three years. They are individuals in whom I have seen the face and felt the hands of Christ often. They are people who live their discipleship in real and abundant ways. The other individual who had gathered at the house is someone I have met a couple of times. I met him first on a Tuesday morning when I decided to join the already mentioned saints of the church at our shower ministry. We shook hands that day. He then joined us for Wednesday night dinner last week, and he was at the house today. He had been at the church earlier today to take a shower and then enjoy a Thanksgiving breakfast prepared by other saints of the church. While waiting for a shower or enjoying breakfast he, along with several others who were waiting to take a shower, were invited to the same home where we feasted today. He is the only one to accept the invitation. I sat next to him at the dinner table. We talked about everything from scripture to purgatory to jobs to politics. We laughed. We filled our plates with second helpings of turkey and stuffing. We took delight in pecan pie and milk. When it came time for each person at the table to make a dish of leftovers, he asked for plastic silverware. When it came time to go, Craig and I offered him a ride home.

We dropped another member off first, leaving her on a sidewalk outside a quaint row house on Capitol Hill. I then inquired where this individual wanted to be dropped off. "At Mount Vernon" he said. We then drove towards the church and he asked that we leave him outside an old Carnegie Library - the same place where our congregation worshipped when our building was under construction. We pulled over to an empty building without a single light burning. We let him out onto the sidewalk and watched as he got out of our car and hoisted his backpack upon his shoulders. I then watched as he walked into the night and we returned to the warmth of our home.

If the truth were told, I suppose I should admit that there are many thoughts going through my mind. I realize that I have never taken the time to invite any of our unhoused neighbors to my home for a feast. I realize that I am often pissed at the homeless around the church who piss all over the church more than I am led to show the emotion of empathy. I realize that I cannot in a million years figure out why this person is unhoused - why this twenty-something person who could talk about anything under the sun today and then sit down and play the piano does not have a place to call home. And, I realize that I'm sad tonight. I don't like watching someone walk into the night.

I believe with all my heart that the table fellowship I shared today was a sign of God's inbreaking kingdom on earth. When I sat and ate with people who have so much and people who have so little, I realized that this is the way it is supposed to be - that Christ calls us to be one body - Christ calls us to get rid of our divisions or our 'us vs. them' mentality. But, I also believe that the ending of the day is a sign of why we desperately need God to come again. We need Christ to come again and make all things right.

We're on the cusp of Advent - this season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ. We think of him being born as a humble babe in a barn. And, this image is perhaps more comforting than us thinking of him coming again. We don't always want to think about him coming again because we don't want to think about being judged. But, I need him to come again. I need him to come again and push through the fullness of his kingdom - that place where all of God's children have a place to call home, that place where the poor have good news given to them, where the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the blind receive their sight, and all is made well. I need to know that a different reality will one day take over and cause my heart not to ache as it does tonight but to instead celebrate because all is finally right - all is finally aligned with God's ways.

I'm grateful for this day. I'm filled with deep and profound thanksgiving for so many things. I rejoice for my church family and the people who show me how to live a life centered upon Christ. But I am especially grateful for Christ - for his presence in our lives and for that day when he unrolled the scroll and said, "The kingdom is at hand."

Come, Lord Jesus. O come, O come Emmanuel. I need you, Lord. We need you, Lord. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Defined by Generosity

Our fall stewardship season concluded yesterday. For the last four weeks, we have journeyed together through Adam Hamilton's book titled "Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity." It has been a great experience to gather with all kinds of people from all walks of life to talk about what it means to live a life of simplicity and generosity. The conversation has pushed me to second guess many purchases while also forcing me to stand inside my closet, looking at the many things I have accumulated. I counted my purses for the first time, for example, but have not yet had the courage to see how many dollars I have invested in these bags of all shapes, sizes and colors! (Seriously, does anyone need more than a dozen bags including two pink ones and one green one?)

Our sermon series ended yesterday as I preached on being defined by generosity. Having been the presiding pastor at a graveside service for someone I did not know this past week, the thinking about the kind of legacy I want to leave behind was fresh on my mind. The thought of having a pastor stand and describe an empty or busy life when referring to me was a terrifying thought. I had been thinking all week about how I want to be described when my obituary is written one day. I concluded, along with many others, that I want to be defined by generosity. My mind is now creatively engaged in a process of discerning what this life looks like.

How can one be defined by generosity? The possibilities are rather endless.

One of the individuals in our study shared last Wednesday night how when he was 17-years-old and a rising high school senior, he learned that one of his classmates might not be able to finish high school in their private school. Her family did not have the money to pay for her tuition and she was being forced to finish at the public school instead of at the small Christian school she had attended for more than 10 years. My friend shared how at 17-years-old he came to the decision to use his savings and secretly pay for his friend's tuition. Generosity!

One of the defining practices that has shaped and transformed Mount Vernon Place UMC is the act of sharing coffee, snacks and conversation following each worship service. Every Sunday, more than half of our community gathers in the Narthex and lingers over a cup of coffee and something yummy to eat. For almost a year, the same person came early to prepare the large pots for coffee and hot water. She then patiently cleaned the pots following each time of fellowship. Not many people offered to help. I'm not sure how many people even acknowledged her gift. She simply did a job that needed to be done - a thankless job that made all the difference in the world when it came to our being formed as a community. Generosity!

I worked in seminary admissions for four years prior to returning to Washington. While at Duke, I got to know so many amazing people all around the nation. One of these individuals is a pastor in Florida. He has written many books. He is responsible for a large church with hundreds and hundreds of people. He is a busy person with a full life. Yet, in all the years I have known him, he has stopped often to name my gifts. He has the uncanny ability to make more of me by pointing out the gifts God has given to me. He makes time for me whenever he is in the area. He wants to read what I am writing. He has been a sign of God's abundant love cheering me on. Generosity!

From the place I sit in our church, I have a wonderful view of people coming in for worship. Two weeks ago, I watched as one of our greeters did not just say, "hello" and hand a first-time visitor a bulletin but instead actually led this individual into the sanctuary and sat her next to a church member who was also by herself. The greeter worked hard to establish an immediate connection for this person. When worship was over, I watched as another church member introduced himself to this visitor and then personally accompanied her to coffee hour where he introduced her to many other people. The greeter did not have to lead her into the worship space and find someone with whom the person could sit. The church member could have gone first to people he knew and catch up with them. But, both of these people went out of their way, going the extra mile. When I had coffee with this visitor last week, she told me how these two actions made all the difference in the world. Generosity!

We have countless opportunities to practice generosity. Imagine what it would be like if we all started to see what we could do to live a more generous life? I invite you to try a few things this week:
  • Pick out someone in a restaurant where you are eating - a couple who appears to be having a dispute or a woman eating by herself who appears to be lonely. Tell one of the servers that you want to secretly pay for their meal without them knowing who paid for it.
  • Call your pastor and ask who makes the coffee at the church each week. Ask if you can sign up to help. If there is a person who does this every week, tell your pastor that you'd like to give that person the month of December off so that you can make the coffee each week.
  • Write a note of gratitude. Think about someone who has made a difference in your life and then take time to write them a note - a handwritten, stamped note - letting them know how thankful you are for their presence in your life.
  • Rather than getting caught up in the consumerism of Christmas and the need to buy, buy, and buy, think about how you can give, give, and give. I know one pastor who tells his congregation that they can spend as much as they want on Christmas as long as they bring an equal gift to the church - a Christmas gift that is then invested in a clinic in Africa where lives are being saved through much needed medical treatment. This church has actually built an entire clinic with their Christmas gifts!
  • Rather than buying gifts only for your family, imagine a person in your life who makes all the difference. It might be the person who cleans your office at night. It might be the person at the gym who greets you in a way that makes you glad you came. It might be the person dressed in red who you see picking up trash in the streets of the city. What about surprising that person with a gesture that shows them how much you value their work.
  • When you go to church next week, work extra hard to find someone sitting alone. Sit with that person, introduce yourself, tell them how glad you are that they came. If you cannot find such a person on your way in, do whatever you can to find them on your way out. Your greeting them could make all the difference in that person's day and even their life.
  • Walk through the streets of the city with your head held high and say, "Good morning" to everyone you pass. Try it on the Metro, too. People will look at you with strange looks but it will be fun to see a few people smile, too.
What else comes to your mind? What are your thoughts on a life defined by generosity - on going out of your way to share with others what you have been given? I'd love to hear them! Comment away!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Evangelism 101

Craig and I were on vacation last weekend which afforded us a rare opportunity to worship together. While in Washington, Craig has his church and I have my church. But when we are on vacation we always try to go together. It is a gift to sit in the pew together from time to time. It is an even larger gift to sit next to my husband in the pew.

While in San Diego, I checked out a few church websites in Pacific Beach. I knew that Craig wanted me to go with him to the Catholic Church but I was tempted to go to a place where I, too, could be welcomed at the table. When the investigation was over, I discerned that worshipping with my husband was more important last Sunday than being in a Protestant church, and I gladly obliged.

We arrived at the church ten minutes before the start of Mass. We made our way to the restrooms, passing a few people along the way. We then returned and entered the sanctuary where we took a seat in a pew about halfway back from the pulpit. We were greeted by no one during the journey to the restroom or the sanctuary. Not one person spoke to us. No one said "Good morning." No one said, "Welcome to our church." No one said, "hello." We entered as strangers who were hungry for hospitality and left as strangers who were hungry for a different worship experience. And, I'm still reflecting on the priest's central message of the sermon. He said over and over again, "Actions speak louder than words."

Indeed they do!

I visited a church where no one seemed ready to welcome a new person. I visited a church where no one seemed prepared to offer information or assistance. I visited a church where I was eager to find the presence of Christ in people since I would not experience this presence at the table, and I left with a void. Sure, I loved singing the hymns and I thoroughly enjoyed holding my husband's hand during the homily. But, I expected so much more.

Why is it that our churches cannot get the basics right?

From church, Craig and I traveled to Vons Grocery Store where we picked up a few things. When we walked in the door, two employees immediately greeted us. When we were looking for the perfect bottle of wine to give as a gift, the person in charge of the wine section immediately greeted us, asking how he could help. When we were still in the aisle five minutes later, he asked again, "Are you sure I cannot help you with your selection." As we left the checkout, the cashier called us by name, getting the information from our Safeway Shopping Card. I was not in my ordinary grocery store. I was a first-time visitor in this store. Yet, everyone made me feel more than at home.

What if we were to take a few cues from the local Vons and always have someone standing at the doors of our churches on Sunday morning, eager to say, "Good morning" and "Welcome?" What if we were to take note of the names of people who have signed the pew pad and are sitting next to us so that we can call them by name as we leave? What if we were always looking for a visitor, never taking a first-time visitor for granted? What if we were always prepared to offer radical hospitality to whoever walked in our doors?

Our sign out front says, "All are welcome. Come as you are." But our actions speak so much louder than our words.

I know we do not always get it right. But I hope and pray that no one ever gets out of the doors of Mount Vernon Place without being warmly welcomed.

Our actions speak louder than our words.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Keeping Connected

I should start this post with a clever list of all the reasons I have not kept connected through my blog. There are many excuses and many items on the pages of past calendar days. But, I'm not feeling creative enough to come up with that list. Rather, I'm pondering what it means to be connected to something else.

For the past 30 days, I have been connected at all times to a heart monitor. Four electrodes have been attached to my body, all stemming from the same sensor. This sensor has been in constant contact with a cell phone that has been (at most times) within 10 feet of my body. I've carried the thing around with me for a month. I have scars to prove that the electrodes have been attached to me as my skin developed an allergic reaction to the sticky substance that attaches them. I have been connected at all times.

There are times, however, when it was impossible to stay connected. I had to un-attach all the wires at shower time. There were other times when I mistakenly failed to bring the battery charger with me and the hours of the day ticked past the hours allowed by the phone. There were other times when my body moved too much during the night, forcing the electrodes to become unattached. And, there was another day when try as I might, I could not get the sensor and the phone to communicate with each other.

I was to be connected at all times. When a connection failed, I was alerted. My phone beeped. My sensor beeped. The company who administers the test would call leaving messages on my voice mail. Every effort was made to keep me connected - to keep me in contact at all times.

And it was hard. It was downright difficult. I hated the monitor by day 10. I was counting down the remaining days by day 5. My skin was a mess at day 15. I wanted to do whatever I could to flee from the presence of the monitor - to un-attach everything and send the unit back to the company who mailed it to me. But Lifewatch would not let me get too far. The beeping captured my attention. The phone calls continued. I could not get away from the monitor and the instructions I had been given on how and when to wear it.

In the 139th Psalm, David speaks of an inescapable God. There is no place we can go that is outside the boundary of God's presence. "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast," state verses 7 to 12.

There is no place we can go to escape God's presence. God is with us at all times - whether we are running towards God or running away from God - whether we are embracing God's call or pretending as though we can no longer hear.

I tried to run last week. I put my hands in my air and sought to tell God that I was no longer going to do something God wanted me to do. I threw my fist in the air and shouted at God, asking why God would make me stay in something I deemed not worthy of my time and attention. But, God won. God sent people into my life to tell me what a difference I had made in the exact situation I was seeking to flee. God reminded me through powerful voices of who I am and what I have been called to do - even if I don't like it. God met me in the exact place I was trying to get away from. And, I now am praying for an opportunity to redeem myself - for a chance to do over again what I sought hard to escape last week.

The heart monitor was a pain - it was a nagging presence that I could not get away from. And yet, that little machine has the capacity to help me. It has the potential to show physicians what might be causing me pain and discomfort - what might be pushing me to pass out. The pain might actually be filled with a blessing. Only time will tell.

God's voice can also be a pain. I don't like everything God tells me to do. I cannot figure out why God does not seem to listen to everything I say - why God is seemingly absent at times. I have not yet figured out how to mold God into the God I want and think I need. Still, God keeps nagging. God keeps speaking. God keeps affirming. God keeps calling. And somehow, in the midst of it all, I have grown to love this voice - to see the blessing that comes from this still small voice.

Thank you, God, for searching me and knowing me. Thank you for being with me whether I sit down or rise up. Thank you for never allowing me to run too far. I am grateful for the ways in which you always lead me back. Amen.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Never Walk Alone

I sat a bad example for my congregation this week: I went to the hospital alone. I downplayed the weight of the tests with my husband, allowing him to go to his own doctor's appointment instead of with me. I turned down an offer from a church member who offered to take me to the hospital and/or sit with Craig while I was being tested. I walked alone, and it scared me.

I realized as I was signing the forms that I had no one to watch my belongings for me if I were to lose consciousness. I realized that my husband would be in Fairfax and my other point of contact, my mother, would be in Colorado - far away from where my test was being conducted. It would take them a long time to be near me if something were to go wrong. I realized that I resisted the very thing the church should be - a community that walks together on mountains and in valleys no matter what. And, I left the hospital praying for a different reality.

I left praying that no one in my congregation would ever have to go to the hospital alone. I left praying that no matter the weight of life that no on would be forced to carry it alone. I left praying that no matter how sad circumstances might be that someone else would always be allowed to the inside. I left praying that my example of being so stubbornly independent would not be followed by others in our church or community.

Last night, as we gathered for our Wednesdays @ MVP to start the study, "Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity," we talked about the role of savings and money. We shared around a table about how it is scary to think about
whether there will be enough for the rest of our lives. How much are we to save? How are we to invest for tomorrow? Where is God in the midst of this saving and investing? What is God's will for our money and resources?

As we talked around the table, one member of our church, the same member of the church who repeatedly offered to take me to the hospital and sit with me and my husband this week, shared what it is like to be a single person without children. He shared out loud his questions about who would care for him when he got older. The answer seemed clear to me as he shared. My mind was immediately filled with an answer, "The church will care for you. Of course we are called to care for you."

Can you imagine such a church? What if we really did pool some of our resources, welcome people into our homes who could no longer live alone, purchase a house where more people could live together, and take seriously the vision of the early church that is captured in Acts 4 where we read how the disciples brought all of their possessions together and ensured that there was not a needy person amongst them? What if we saw all that we have been given as not ours but as God's and really sought to be the community God calls us to be? What if we then extended this vision into the entire community, allowing our hearts to be awakened often each time we passed a homeless person, realizing with each passing how they are our brother and sister, too? What if we worked passionately until all people were cared for, until no one was walking alone?

Seriously. I never want you to walk alone. I never want you to be in any situation where you feel like you are all by yourself - no matter what the situation might be. I want to be with you, and I want our church to be with you.

I've been reading a friend's book. Enuma Okoro has just written incredible reflections on her life in a book titled, "Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community." I commend it to your reading, and she'll be in DC on Tuesday night to read from her book (email me for more information).

Listen to what Enuma writes, "I think that's what grace is, that God is sort of stalking us and preparing us in small yet significant ways for the shock of becoming church and trying to live into the absurdity of church. Really it's not normal. We do not naturally group ourselves with strangers who are different from us in so many visible and not so visible ways. We do not readily give up the things we want in order to provide for people we don't know or even necessarily like. We do not give our time, resources and privacy to just anyone. But that's what church calls us to do and that's why I have such a hard time with it..." (48).

I have a hard time with it, too. I am perhaps the most independent person I know. I am not naturally inclined to lean on others or to accept their offers for help. I am not naturally inclined to living community to its fullest. But, I'm letting you in on a secret today. I need you just as much as you need others.

Please promise me one thing.

Promise me that you will never walk alone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Warning Signs

I was admitted to the hospital yesterday, branded with a white bracelet that stated my name and birth date and another red bracelet that branded me as one with an allergy. Each step of the branding process brought about different words of warning, caution and comfort, letting me know that the tests I was about to undergo were serious tests. It was not a casual procedure conducted in a doctor's office. Rather, I was a patient - a patient who was admitted with rights and responsibilities and countless things to think about.

I arrived at 7:00 for the check-in procedures. I was ushered over to a kind woman's desk. She entered the information on my insurance card and then asked me a series of questions before inviting me to complete different forms. The first form asked for who to contact in the event that I became unresponsive during the procedure. I carefully printed my husband's contact information along with that of my mother. She then handed me a form that encouraged me to leave all of my belongings with a loved one. "Please do not take any valuables with you into the hospital. The hospital is not liable for any lost belongings." Right, I thought to myself as I looked at my large work bag packed with my calendar and sermon books and my purse sitting next to it. She then asked me what my religious preferences are. "I'm a pastor," I said. "I don't really need a chaplain," I shared before thinking about how ignorant the response was. Everyone needs a chaplain while in the hospital! Then she asked if I wanted to be added to the visitation list, allowing others to know where I was so that they could visit me if given a room. "Of course," I said, thinking of how much visitors meant to me when I was in the hospital this summer.

When the admitting process was over, I gathered my large bags and was given a pager like the ones assigned at the Cheesecake Factory when all the tables are taken. I went to the bathroom and had not even finished my business when the pager started to sound. I reported back to the main desk and was told to go to the 4th floor where I encountered a gentleman waiting for me. He led me into a room, made me as comfortable as possible, and then carefully applied all kinds of goop to my head for my EEG. He explained each step and when the EEG was over, I was escorted to the 3rd floor, sporting a head full of wires along the way.

Once on the 3rd floor I was ushered into the tilt table test room and given another form to complete. This form had much more serious consequences. It alerted me to the fact that some people (could have been only 1 or 2) had died because of the procedure I was having. She made sure I had not eaten anything that day and then asked me to sign.

I signed my life away.
I was told not to worry about anything.
I was encouraged to leave my possessions behind.
I was assured a community surrounding me.
I was told to let go and trust that everything would be okay.
I was informed of the importance of what I was doing even though there could be consequences.

Sounds a lot like discipleship to me - discipleship at its best.

Sounds a lot like church to me - church at its best.

I don't think our commitment to follow Jesus and to be part of a church community is a casual commitment. I believe it is a commitment that is designed to demand our very best - one that is designed to change us, transform us and lighten our load as we let go of some things in order to embrace a heavy cross. We are encouraged to sign our lives away - to offer them into the hands of the potter who will shape and reshape us until we molded into the people this potter intends us to be. We are encouraged to let go of our possessions - the disciples were told to take nothing for their journey. We are called to let go of anything that is not really necessary (don't worry, like you I am still working on this one). We are called to surround each other with a community that will be present no matter what - which means that we can count on this community despite the circumstances of life we are enduring but also means that we are called to be present and part of the community despite the circumstances of life we are enduring. And, we are informed often of how there may be consequences to following Jesus - we may lose friends, we may discover that we're surrounded by wolves when we feel like a lonely sheep, we may see just how heavy the cross is, and the road may not be an easy one to travel even with Jesus leading the way. But, we may also see the power that comes when we trust in God and gather as a community - something extraordinary might happen. Healing may be made manifest before our eyes. The lame may walk. The lepers may be cleansed. The blind may see. The poor may have good news brought to them. Something remarkable happens when we are branded and have the courage to actually live out our baptism.

Annie Dillard offers what continues to be one of my favorite words on the church and discipleship. She writes,
"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)

Give me a helmet. I'm ready to sign my life away. What about you?

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Powerful Essay and Letter

A friend of mine shared a blog with me today. The beginning words are powerful. The letter to her son made me laugh and cry. I commend it to you here. Seriously, take time to read this post, please.

Open for Change

My 20th high school reunion was last weekend. Several hundred people gathered in Columbia, Missouri to celebrate and remember their time at Rock Bridge and Hickman High High Schools. I received the invitation along with an email from a Facebook friend who encouraged me to go, but I never intended to go. I don't think much about high school. I keep in touch with high school friends only via Facebook. Rather than thinking about high school, I seek to keep those memories locked in a box that is rarely opened.

High school was a painful experience for me. It seemed as though there were two choices during high school - I could try hard to keep up with the Jones - the kids who had great clothes, drove fancy cars and gathered at the local swim club or country club for fun. I could try to keep up with a select group of people who were always invited to the parties even though I rarely made the list. I could put myself in a place of pain and disappointment. Or, I could coast on the sidelines and engage my time and energy in other places. I chose the later.

High school was a painful experience for me. I was surrounded by people who I grew up with from the second grade - the same people who picked on me while riding the yellow school bus while never picking me for their teams in gym class. I was in class with the same individuals who had teased me for most of my life for being the kid who weighed the most. I grew up with the people who always reminded me of how I was out while they were in.

I now have several Facebook friends from Columbia. I take delight in discovering where we are in life, becoming familiar with where our life journeys have led us. I have so enjoyed seeing pictures on Facebook this week from the reunion. I keep wondering how much people have changed. Had I traveled to Missouri last weekend, would I still feel like an outsider? Would anyone have worked any differently to make me feel included? Would I have arrived in a way reminiscent of my prom night - with only one friend and a date from the outside because no one on the inside really seemed to make a genuine connection?

What really changes in life? Are people and institutions open for change or are we all the same?

I was visiting one of our church members this week who resides in a retirement home where I have gotten to know the chief administrator. On my way to visit our member, I stopped to say 'hello' when I noticed the administrator's office door was open. We caught up on life and talked about the member I was going to see. She then asked me about the church, and I shared what was happening. I then asked her about her church.

"I don't go to church," she said. "I'm a relapsed Catholic who has not been to church in years." She then continued, "But I have heard that there are a few churches open to people like me. A lot of my friends tell me to go to the Unitarian church." I responded by telling her how she was welcome at our church. I shared how our church was different - how we had intentionally made a decision to welcome all people - especially LGBT people. She looked at me in disbelief and then said, "Well maybe I'll make it down there one day."

There are hundreds of people all around us just like this woman - "hurt-churched" people. There are countless individuals who have been told that they are outsiders from those who are inside the church. There are people who have been told that they are of sacred worth but not fully accepted unless they change. Our church buildings are less than half full while thousands of people walk by on their way to something else because the church has told them that they are not fully welcome - sometimes with words and oftentimes with actions. We have thrown a party each Sunday morning at 11:00 but have so often invited only the people who are like us - the people who live like us, dress like us, love like us. Oh how much the church has in common with painful high school days!

There are churches that are changing. There are communities of faith that are saying they are not going to continue with church life as we know it but instead make bold steps to change - to welcome people no matter what and to fill old wine skins with new wine. I have tasted some of this new wine. I love savoring its sweetness. But I am reminded all the time that we must go to great lengths in order to show people the change. Putting words on our sign might work for some people - but the best messages are the ones told by our lives.

I'm open for change. I'm part of a church that has changed and is changing in bold, daring, beautiful ways. I hope people believe me when I tell them of this change.

Perhaps I should have gone back to see what changes 20 years can bring.

There's always 2020.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Empty Church

I had the joy of worshipping this week in one of my favorite places. Duke Chapel is the place where I have experienced some of the most memorable preaching. It is a space where my heart has soared as I have listened to their choir. It is a space where I preached on the Sunday after my ordination. It is also the place where I was married. I love Duke Chapel.

On Monday evening, I gathered in Duke Chapel for worship along with some 500 or 600 other pastors attending Pastor's School and Fall Convocation. We gathered at the end of a day filled with wonderful lectures. We gathered to hear an inspired, renowned preacher. We gathered to worship. But, as hard as I tried, I had a hard time settling my mind and my spirit. I could not worship.

The space that is filled with so many memories did not speak to me. I was surrounded by hundreds of people, more people than I have worshipped with in a long time, but it seemed so empty. I stayed for the sermon and then quickly snuck out before the prayers. And, in full disclosure, I was checking status updates on Facebook during the sermon. I just could not make myself be present.

I've been thinking a lot about my reaction this week. How is it that the place that once spoke to me the moment I walked in the doors seemed so empty on Monday? Why is it that the preacher who has so much to say to millions of people could not get past the doors of my ears? Why is it that I could hardly wait to get out of the space instead of journey closer to the altar?

As I have wrestled with my emotions, I have realized that worship is so much more than the liturgy, the preaching and the music. These three things are vitally important - they are what mold us and shape us, drawing us into the presence of God and allowing us to see the beauty of God in different ways. However, I realized this week that I am unable to worship God without somehow being connected to a community of people who are worshipping with me and who will continue to keep me accountable during the week. I am not able to worship God on Sundays without knowing that our worshipful work will continue at different points during the week.

I had the opportunity to visit different churches this summer. One church sat on a beautiful spot in the middle of an incredible oasis. The worship was quaint and lovely. The congregation was diverse. However, there was nothing happening in the life of the church other than worship - the people were only coming together for an hour each Sunday before dispersing until the next Sunday. I kept hearing my mentor Peter Storey saying over and over again, "These people are just playing church."

Monday's service was designed to touch my soul, penetrate my heart and replenish me as a preacher. Yet, I could not get there. I wanted to escape - I wanted to run home fast to the community that is my church.

I might not ever see this community contain 600 people. It might be years before there are even 200 people in the pews of my church home. I have never had my spirit soar because of music in the way that my spirit has soared at other places of worship. Yet, there is something about this community that I would not trade for anything.

We worshipped together today for an hour and a half but I could have easily stayed another hour. I could have stayed until each person had an opportunity to share - until each person had spoken and been listened to. We gave thanks for a new baby today and prayed for a couple struggling with infertility. We gave thanks for a new job and prayed for someone who is grateful to go through another day without drinking. We gave thanks for for someone who is home from visiting family in the Sierra Leone and prayed for people whose temporary storage site went away when bulldozers tore down a fence across the street yesterday. We came together - this beautiful, diverse group of people - and when I witnessed our community again, I was able to worship.

I would not trade this community for anything.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Dear Mr. Phelps

Dear Mr. Phelps:

I took time to walk by the Supreme Court today. I went out of curiosity to see if your church was picketing your very own trial. But I also went to pray. I went to pray for you, the members of your church, and the Supreme Court justices who are now charged with discerning whether or not you are liable to pay the family of Matthew Snyder for the hurt you caused them. You are in my prayers often, Mr. Phelps. I pray that somehow God will change your heart - that somehow you will be led to love people instead of hate people.

It was actually a gay person who told me how I needed to love you. He brought me an amazing picture taken near a place where you had been holding your signs filled with hatred. The picture was of a woman who was draped in a rainbow flag. She was holding a sign that read, "God loves fags, trannies and even Fred Phelps." Yes, Mr. Phelps, while I despise your actions and the way in which you cause so much harm to the church of Jesus Christ, I believe God loves you. And, I believe I am called to figure out how to love you, too.

Mr. Phelps, your daughter argued before the court today that Matthew Snyder died at the age of 20 because of gay people in our country. She then continued to add how God punished Matthew Snyder and his family because his parents had divorced. Mr. Phelps, who exactly is your God? We both call ourselves followers of Christ but we seem to have met a different Jesus.

Jesus changed my life. The one who is my Lord and Savior taught me to love instead of hate. He told me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. He told me that all of the commandments boil down to two things - to love God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind and to love my neighbor as myself. I am reminded often that we do not get to pick our neighbors. Our neighbors are whoever come near us - like the man who was beaten by robbers and saved on the road by the Good Samaritan. Jesus told me that I cannot possibly judge another person because I have specks in my eye, too. Jesus taught me how to love all kinds of people - especially the people who seem to be lonely, lost or left-behind. Jesus calls me to love. Where, Mr. Phelps, do you get permission to espouse so much hatred in the name of Jesus?

Mr. Phelps, I do not believe God punishes people. I believe we sometimes have to lie in the beds we make for ourselves but I do not believe that God is a God of suffering and revenge. God does not test us. God does not kill our loved ones because of something we have done. We might see glimpses of this kind of a God in the Old Testament but I just don't see these actions or characteristics in Jesus.

You have come close enough to our church once. You stood outside, across the street at the Convention Center. Watching members of your church, especially children who are being taught to hate at such a young age, made my heart weep. I'm not eager for you to return, but I wish you could see the beauty I see each time I stand in our pulpit here. Every Sunday, I am blessed to see an extraordinary array of people, and I would not trade the diversity that is so apparent in this place for anything. My gay brothers and sisters have taught me how to love and how to offer so much grace. The fact that they are here in a denomination that often says something else humbles me to my knees regularly. They are Jesus to me - Jesus with arms wide open saying, "I'm willing to forgive and give you another chance."

Mr. Phelps, we lost another child of God way too early last week. Tyler Clementi died because he was bullied by people who took part of his life and exploited it. He was led to a bridge where he believed his only option was to jump because of people like you who choose to espouse judgment and hatred. Mr. Phelps, will you please stop? Will you please silently go into the hills of Kansas and be silent? Stop protesting. Stop espousing hatred. And if you cannot stop, then please do not call yourself a pastor of a church. Please, I beg you.

The justices have a hard case on their hands. Like many of them, I would be so cautious about limiting one's ability to speak. The First Amendment is what allows me to write this letter and to speak in many other places and formats. The freedom of speech is a precious gift. But, you are not only accountable to the court. You are accountable to a higher power - one who calls you by name, one who formed you in your mother's womb, one who loves you and calls you to do the same.

Mr. Phelps, I really cannot stand you. But, God loves you, and because God loves you, so do I. Will you please, please, please stop shouting, stop hating and try to love instead? Let go of the shackles and chains in which you have placed yourself and so many other people. Come to the other side and experience the goodness of Christ. Come and meet the Jesus I know and love.

Again, you are in my prayers,
Donna

P.S. If anyone else is reading this letter and wondering if all churches are like Westboro Baptist, let me assure you that they are not. I am grateful to serve a church where all people really are welcome - where we celebrate the diversity amongst us - where we are working hard to make sure that LGBT people are not only welcomed but affirmed and given access to every other blessing the church can offer. There are different churches that exist. Please do not think we are all like Westboro Baptist. Please!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Keys, Please!!

I filled up my car with gasoline for the first time today since the beginning of August. The price was rather high at $2.71 a gallon but I did not complain. Rather, I gave thanks for the ability to drive again.

It was on August 16 when I was told not to drive for a while. I left the hospital with a certain diagnosis that was anything but certain. In fact, three doctors have since told me that I was misdiagnosed at the hospital - that the doctors were too quick to draw a conclusion with no substantial evidence to back it up.

I grieved for several days at the thought of not being able to drive. I spent a lot of time pouring through train schedules and bus schedules trying to figure out how best to get around. I bought new shoes and a weatherproof coat. I purchased an iPhone, getting a smart phone for the first time. I woke my husband up early on Sunday mornings, eagerly accepting his offer for a ride downtown. I inquired of a couple of people if they would be willing to drive me somewhere. And, I cried. I cried a lot.

I saw a neurologist a few weeks ago who first told me how he thought I had been misdiagnosed. He referred me to a cardiologist affiliated with the same hospital, and I went to see this doctor last Wednesday. Prior to my appointment, I asked several people to please pray for me.

I had a specific prayer, "Please pray that the doctor will tell me I am okay to drive again." I did not ask people to pray that we would find a specific diagnosis. I did not ask people to pray that I would be healed. Rather, I asked people to pray that I would have control again. I asked people to pray that I could be in charge of my schedule again with me behind the wheel instead of on a bus, train or in the car of another. In all honesty, the hardest part of these last six weeks has not been knowing that something might be wrong with my heart but rather losing control. I like to be in charge. I prefer being independent instead of dependent. I don't like relying on others. I hesitate asking for help.

The doctor granted me my wish. When I inquired, "Can I drive again?" he immediately replied, "Of course you can. There is absolutely no reason why you cannot drive." I rejoiced. I literally went skipping out of his office. I got what I asked for - but we're not anywhere closer to discovering what exactly is wrong with me. I got what I prayed for. Yet, there still could be something wrong with my heart.

We're good at asking God for control. We are rather proficient at telling God exactly what we want. We tell God how God needs to provide us with a larger house, a new job, a baby in our womb, a new best friend, control over a certain situation, a way out of some relationship, a winning lottery ticket, a better working environment and the list goes on and on. We tell God exactly what we believe we need. We're good at treating our relationship with God as though we are the ones who are in control - as though we are the people who know what's best for our lives. We know what we need. It does not matter what God thinks. And even when God gives us what we ask for, we so often fail to express thanksgiving. Rather, we continue the illusion of control.

But I realized last week that I may have gotten it all wrong. I've thought a lot about how I may have missed the mark in my prayer request. Perhaps I fell short of asking for what I really need - a clean bill of health and not the keys to my Jeep.

In Jeremiah 29:11, God tells Jeremiah, "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future filled with hope." God continues, "Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord..." God is working with Jeremiah, trying to get Jeremiah to trust God again. God wants Jeremiah to know that God has a plan, that God is in charge, and that God will bless Jeremiah. Jeremiah simply has to trust. God does not tell Jeremiah that he will get exactly what he wants. Rather, God tells Jeremiah that God will be with him and that the gift of God's presence will be enough.

Proverbs 3:5-7 reads, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes..." The wisdom of the Proverb is found in trusting God's ways and not our ways. The blessing is discovered when we let go of trying to control things, trying to figure out things, trying to solve each puzzle placed before us.

God invites us to trust - to let go of the control. God beckons us to turn the keys over and see where we'll be taken. God invites us to offer our full lives into the hands of God.

I have so often believed that I knew what was best for me. I have told God regularly what I need. All the while, I have often failed to pray, "God show me what you believe is best for me. Help me to relinquish control and trust in you fully. Show me your way, your path, your plans."

I'm driving again - but I'm praying each day that I can continue to relinquish some of the need to be in control.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

My Friend, Mabel

I stood on holy ground today. It was not the ground I was expecting. I was expecting to be doing a regular pastoral visit, stopping into say 'hello' to my parishioner, Mabel, who has been growing weaker each day. I expected to sing a couple of hymns with her, laugh with her, and then pray with her after telling her how special she is. Instead, I was ushered into that thin space where heaven and earth collide.

I did sing, "Amazing Grace" to Mabel. I tried to make her smile by telling her how I had just come from Bible study and that Lois and Howard had asked about her. I told her how much I appreciated her and how much she meant to our church. I stroked her head, combing my fingers through her beautiful gray hair. I then invited her children - three of them were there - to come in and pray with us.

We gathered around the bed and praised God for Mabel. We thanked God for the things she had taught us and the joy she had brought into our lives. We thanked God for all 102 years of her life. We praised God for the ways she made us laugh by telling us that she is the one who had discovered President Obama. We also prayed for her children, that God would journey close to them in the days ahead. When we said, "amen," her son stayed in the room and assured her that the Lord was with her. Everyone then left, and I returned to say good-bye. It was then that Mabel entered the Church Triumphant, breathing her last breaths.

I stood on holy ground today. I stood in the presence of angels - a 102-year-old angel named Mabel and a great company of angels who came to welcome her to her eternal home. A colleague just reminded me that there are times when we do get to meet people who have been made perfect in this life. Mabel is one of these individuals.

I have written about her before in two different posts. I told her how special she was today and said "thank you," again. But, this is what I really wish I could have told her.

Dear Mabel:

Thank you for allowing me to be your pastor. You were chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee when I first arrived at Mount Vernon Place, and I remember the first time I met you. You were so striking - tall, thin, dressed in a beautiful suit, walking with a classy cane, hair styled just right. You told me on that day, "You are about to have the best job in Washington." I believed you on that day. I was so excited about coming to Washington to be the pastor at Mount Vernon Place.

A couple months later, I arrived. I arrived with so much anticipation and excitement. I had a list of ideas to be implemented and could see how God was about to transform this church. It did not take long, however, for my joy to be robbed. The moment that I started to make some changes is the very moment the criticism started. Perhaps it preceded my arrival as people talked about my age and my gender. But, it got louder after my arrival. So many people questioned why I was here. So many people wanted nothing to do with the changes I was suggesting so that our church could grow again. But you, you kept looking me straight in the eye saying, "You have the best job in Washington. Mount Vernon Place is in the center of the city. Our city needs Mount Vernon Place. I believe in you. You are just what is needed. Keep up the good work." Everyone else seemed to be criticizing me. Your voice was one of a handful of voices that were filled with affirmation and support.

Mabel, I am not sure I would have ever made it through those first couple of years without your voice. It was your voice that I heard when I was ready to throw my hands in the air and apply for a different job. It was your voice that I heard when I was questioning why I was here. Your voice is a precious voice.

Our church started to grow. I remember the first time a group of young adults came to your home to sing Christmas carols to you. It was such a gift to bring the new members into your home - for you to see what God has done in this place. It was priceless to watch you look at the people who were joining your church - the church you gave so much of yourself to for some six decades. You told them what you told me, "Mount Vernon Place is needed. Washington needs our church in the center of the city."

Mabel, I came to your house often. I came most often because I believed that you and Holland needed a visit. You needed prayers. But, I also came because I needed your prayers. I needed to hear you tell me that I really could do what needed to be done here. I needed to hear you say again, "You know, you have the best job in Washington." I always loved walking into your living room, reaching over and kissing you in your chair, and then sharing time with you. And, I always left more excited about Mount Vernon Place than I was before. I'll treasure those visits for a lifetime.

I also remember Wednesday Bible studies with you. You were almost 100 and still taking a cab downtown each week in order to study the Bible. You got after people who left church early in order to go to a football game. You told us how much God loves us. You shined God's light so brightly and abundantly.

When Barack Obama was elected President you wrote in your Christmas letter how you were grateful to be alive at a time when all God's children could make their dreams come true. You were always fighting for what was right - always looking out for everyone - especially the people who were not yet noticed. Mabel, do you have any idea how incredible you are?

I promise to do whatever I can to continue to work as though I have the best job in Washington. You asked often about Wednesday nights, and I think you'd be so excited to know that Wednesday night suppers and studies are starting again in just a few weeks. We're reclaiming a tradition that meant so much to you. Like you, I believe that these evenings can be transformative for people who will come. Like you, I believe that one's relationship with their church can be the most significant relationship one has. I promise to be faithful to my call to Mount Vernon Place. Your church is growing again. We're attracting new people each week, and we will continue to seek to bring new people into the warmth of God's love and this community of faith.

We'll celebrate your life next week. My heart will be aching but my soul will be rejoicing. Your life - all 102 years of your life - is a rather wondrous life to celebrate. I'm so thankful to have been a part of it.

Mabel, thanks for all you taught me.
You're right, I really do have the best job in Washington.

I love you dearly. Rest in peace, my friend.

Your Pastor and friend,

Donna

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Call to Prayer

My commute into Washington is now done on public transportation. I board a bus in front of our house, and the bus takes me directly to the Pentagon where I board a Metro train. Twice each day, I see dozens of people in military uniforms. I pass hundreds of people running to catch a train or bus. I sometimes see protestors hoping for peace. Today, however, I saw a call to prayer.

I took the escalator to the top where my eyes were immediately captured by the image of two military police carrying huge assault rifles. The two men stood there examining each person as they came up the escalator. I then went down another escalator where I saw a third policeman with the same weapon watching as two very well dressed men questioned a Middle Eastern man.

It's not the Monday morning I was expecting. I hate weapons. I despise guns. Seeing these huge guns on my way to work on a Monday is not my idea of peace. I would have rather avoided the sight as the images ring fresh in my head. But I soon found the images calling me to prayer. I could not see the guns, the people carrying them, or the man being questioned without being led to pray. I found my prayers being offered to God rising like incense as I waited to board the train into the city.

Let there be peace on earth, God.
Let the day come when war will no longer be an option.
Let weapons be beat into plowshares and war be no more.
Let there be peace on earth, God.

Each day we are surrounded by things that trouble us. We see people and places that cause our hearts to weap. We are exposed to situations that cause us to ask what went wrong. What if we saw each troubling situation as a call to pray? The homeless person sleeping on a grate and the girl being prostitued on the corner of 11th and K can be a call to prayer. The man with a sign asking for money can be a call to prayer. The Pentagon can be a call to prayer. The Capitol can be a call to prayer.

Who or what is calling you to pray?