Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Visions Come to Life

Last night, a dozen people gathered in the church's fellowship hall. The individuals gathered around tables, enjoying a baked potato dinner before being trained on a new ministry starting at the church. The ministry is a shower ministry - a ministry created in response to the wondrous gift Mount Vernon Place has been given through this new building and in response to the many needs of the poor living around us. Next week, the showers that were installed in the historic building as part of the renovation will start being used. Next week, volunteers will arrive at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning to give of their time in order that our unhoused neighbors might be able to enjoy a warm shower.

As I sat there last night, a myriad of things went through my mind. I pondered how much I have learned about the homeless since arriving in Washington - how there are no easy answers no matter what the question might be. I thought about the gift of the people in the room, individuals filled with so much passion for social justice. And, I gave thanks that this ministry has been created by individuals who have poured their heart and soul into researching other programs, creating the best policy to govern our ministry, and then train people to do the ministry. I gave thanks because I got to come to the training as a bystander - as a pastor who was able to watch the laity take hold of the gospel and do something wondrous with it - live it out in beautiful, life-giving ways.

And then I came home and went back to a document that I wrote more than five years ago. The document was drafted in response to an invitation posed to me. After someone told me about the future dream for what could happen at Mount Vernon Place, I was invited to pray and after praying, if I heard God's voice, I was invited to put together my vision for what could happen here.

This is what I wrote more than five years ago:

My vision for Mt. Vernon Place UMC

Love the people who are there. Be present to them and care for their needs.

Think critically and creatively about how all the pews can be full of worshipping, dedicated Christians who are eager to be transformed. My vision would be for every seat to be taken with a second service added.

Evangelize the people in the neighborhood. Invite them to worship and church activities. Be intent upon developing relationships with them.

Use the multi-purpose space of the church to meet the needs of the city and community. This could include child care, an after school program, a health clinic and a food pantry. Provide ministries of justice.

Teach the people about the gospel’s mandate to care for and serve the poor. What does it mean to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?

Provide exceptional teaching and an environment conducive to learning and development for the Wesley students. Make sure that these students see worship and ministry that transcends mediocrity.

Provide a variety of Bible studies and small group opportunities including Disciple, Christian Believer, and others. Enable participants to feel a strong sense of belonging and connection through these groups.

Provide a place of stability and belonging in the transient atmosphere of Washington. This could be established through dinner groups, a Women’s Retreat and Men’s Retreat, coffees and other events.

Create a singles ministry. Many of my friends in Washington are spending hundreds of dollars trying to meet someone. Why can’t the church be a place where people with similar values and beliefs gather? How can the church attract a large number of young professionals? How can the church reach out to Capitol Hill staffers and interns?

Get involved with the students at Wesley. How can the church provide spiritual formation and friendship to them?

Make worship exceptional and exciting. Give members and visitors a reason to return week after week. Proclaim prophetic messages from the pulpit. Incorporate diverse worship styles and music. Celebrate the Eucharist. Enable all to claim the responsibilities of baptism. Make the church a place of glorious expectation and transformation.

Struggle with what it means to be diverse. What does it mean to be intentionally multi-ethnic and multi-racial? Where is God calling us?

What role can the businesses in the building play in the congregation? How can the congregation develop a relationship with the people who work in the building?

Make sure discipleship is taken seriously. Enable people to see that church membership is a commitment that demands the best of us.

Study what other churches are doing. Go and observe “best practices” at places like the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. Enable the people to see all they can become.

Create and host a “Faith and Politics Forum.” Give people an opportunity to study issues such as war, homosexuality, housing needs, health care, abortion, U.S. foreign policy, and issues of God and country. Where is God in the midst of these issues? What does the Bible really say? Stimulate the minds and the hearts of members and visitors.

Make sure the church is a place of hospitality. Can showers be put in the multi-purpose space of the new building? These showers would enable the congregation to host youth or college groups doing mission work in Washington. Showers could also enable the congregation to host large groups visiting the seminary as prospective students. In addition, showers could enable the congregation to give dignity to the homeless living in the area.

Help people discover their gifts and find a place for these gifts to be put to use – especially for new ministries. Musicians can start a praise band that incorporates different music in worship. Those with compassion can take soup and bread to the sick and the homebound. How can the retirees be tutors in the after-school program?

Make sure the church is welcome to all of God’s people.

I have learned a lot since this document was formed. I have grown in ways I could have never imagined. I have also had the privilege of watching some of this vision come to life - some of these things start to take place. Last night was one of those moments.

I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of being a pastor, here at Mount Vernon Place.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What the Church Can Learn from Massachusetts

Like many of you, I watched with anticipation as the results of yesterday's special election made their way to the television tuned to CNN. I listened as the polls started to close and observed the numbers all pointing in Scott Brown's favor. I watched Martha Coakley go down and a state senator that was barely known just ten days ago rise to the top. I keep looking at the numbers of the race, reviewing how Brown came in with 51.9 percent of the vote and Coakley ended with 47.1 percent. I am aware of how history has been made as a Republican has been elected in Massachusetts. Scott Brown has become the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Massachusetts since 1972 and joins what is now an entirely Democratic delegation.

Change has come.

History has been made.

This is not your grandfather's Massachusetts.

The Kennedy era is over.

The people have voted.

And, I'm hopeful that people in the church are taking note. I am hopeful that we in the church can learn a few things from this election.

Political commentators are talking about how Coakley took much for granted. She, along with many people in the Democratic party, assumed she would win. She assumed that she would win just because she was a Democrat running in Massachusetts. President Obama did not come to her aid until the weekend. Money from the Democratic Party did not pour in until this past week. Much was taken for granted.

And, we in the church often repeat the same mistakes.

I serve a church where some 50 years ago, all we had to do was open the doors and people would come. We were a church that was 4,500 members strong. We had bowling leagues and weekly dances on Saturday nights. We had dozens of Sunday school classes and owned our own camp for underprivileged children. We had different departments ranging from the Drama Department to the Social Concerns Department. When people came to Washington, the people back home told them to come to Mount Vernon Place. When the doors were unlocked, people came in - thousands of them on any given week.

We kept opening our doors. We kept doing the same thing over and over again. We kept spending money on programs that worked in the 1960s but had not brought anyone new into the doors in recent history. We kept relying upon the same tactics, the same kind of worship, the same bulletin covers, the same programs. We kept repeating what we had done in the past, failing to take note of all the changes arriving with the future.

So often, our churches operate as though everyone around us is a Christian. We presuppose that if a new family moves to town that they will eventually find their way to church, and we pray they will choose our church. We don't pay much attention to how our buildings appear from the outside or how the bathrooms appear on the inside. We place announcements in the bulletin about what is happening in the life of the congregation, telling people to "contact Susan to RSVP" but we do not put any contact information in the bulletin, assuming that everyone knows who Susan is. We rely upon the lectionary to tell us what to preach on Sunday mornings. We tend to forget about how much everything around us has changed and cannot understand why the church needs to change, too.

I visited a church on Sunday morning. When I walked in the doors, I clearly looked like a newcomer. I stood there with a puzzled look on my face wondering how to get to the sanctuary. There were greeters there, but no one said anything to me until I asked how to get to the sanctuary. With that question, they simply said, "It's that way," instead of going out of their way to welcome me and let me know how glad they were to have me at their church. I could have easily walked out and gone to one of the five other churches on the same street. But, I sat down and journeyed through the service. When it came time for communion, I knew I was not welcome at the table. But, no one offered any instruction. No one invited me to come forward for a blessing. I sat there as a newcomer, as one who wanted and needed so much more.

How about we take a lesson from Massachusetts? How about we take nothing for granted? What changes would we need to make at Mount Vernon Place to demonstrate how we are doing everything we can to not only welcome the newcomer but to get people in our doors in the first place? What changes would need to be made at your church to convey the same message?

Congratulations, Senator-elect Brown.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lessons from Haiti

I watched at a distance when the news from Haiti started to come in. I was in Frederick, interviewing candidates for ministry with the Board of Ordained Ministry. I saw the pictures on the copy of USA Today that was slipped under my door. I watched a few minutes of coverage on television in the breakfast room of the Hampton Inn. But, I did allow it to come to me. I did not allow it to really break through a barrier.

I then learned on Wednesday that a colleague from Duke Divinity School was in Haiti. She had left on early Monday morning with a team from two United Methodist Churches in Indiana. She posted an update on Facebook asking for prayers on Monday morning. I saw the posting, but I did not do much about it. But, I started to pray fervently on Wednesday when I learned that no one had heard from Jamalyn or anyone on her team. No one knew if they were alive. No one knew if they were safe. No one had heard from them. And with this initial message, the situation in Haiti started to come home. Once I knew someone, I realized the pain of the situation. Once I knew someone being impacted, the situation started to break my heart, keep me up at night, and cause me to pray more than I have prayed in a long time.

And all I can think about now is, "Shame on you, Donna." Shame on you for not seeing the people in Haiti as your brothers and sisters. Shame on you for not weeping earlier for the living conditions of people living in the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere. Shame on you for not asking questions about why half of the people in Haiti do not have clean drinking water or why only one-third of the people have access to sanitary conditions. Shame on you.

And, I keep thinking about God's reaction. I keep thinking about how God has been weeping all along - weeping over the fact that many people live with so much while many others live with so little, weeping over how many people like me have chosen to not pay much attention to the pain of people living less than 300 miles from the edge of Florida, weeping at how we selfishly go through our lives, choosing to see only what we want to see.

Imagine. Imagine how different things might be if we responded to the needs in Haiti and so many other people in the way we respond when we know someone? Imagine what could happen when people who have been given so much respond accordingly. Imagine what could happen if the businesses who have been bailed out on Wall Street last year and are now reporting the best year ever discerned a call to be just as generous with efforts to bail out individuals living in poverty. Can you imagine?

I have also learned another lesson this week as I have reflected on the comments made by Pat Robertson on the 700 Club as Pat concluded that the devastation in Haiti was a result of Haiti making a pact with the devil. I have realized that Pat also sent a fault line through the minds of so many people who want nothing to do with the church, how destruction has happened as a result of his words, destruction that is not easy to repair. And, I have thought about conversations held earlier this week about effectiveness in ministry, about what we need or expect from our pastors. A question was raised about whether someone's effectiveness in ministry could compensate for their lack of theological understanding or a statement made about how God works that is not in line with our Wesleyan theology. As I think about Pat's statement on the 700 Club, I have been convinced that the thing we need to be looking for more than any other thing as a Board of Ordained Ministry is effectiveness in being able to articulate a sound theology - a theology that builds up the Body of Christ and tells of God's all-encompassing love for all people and God's heart that weeps over broken places like Haiti - Haiti as it was a week ago and Haiti as it is today. Many people would say Pat is effective. He has a television show, is making millions, and has quite a following. But, I would say his ministry is destructive instead of effective. I hope and pray we will make the same decisions as we seek to cultivate and prepare people to serve our churches in the years to come.

It's been quite a week. I hope and pray that the words of the cartoon featured in today's Washington Post are not true, "A desperately poor neighbor is now the epicenter of media attention. Following a strong series of aftershocks, it will soon become invisible again."

God, help me. God, help us. God, help the people of Haiti - all who live, all who have died, and all who mourn.