Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Michelle Obama Arms

A few weeks ago, I arrived early for a 6:30 p.m. exercise class. The class that began at 5:30, Sports Circuit, was still in session. Each member of the class, covered in sweat, was lying on their blue mats, curling their bodies as their abs grew stronger by the minute. I watched several members of the class, each appearing to have a different level of physical fitness, and then I watched the instructor. The vocation of the instructor was written all over her body. Her body was one of the most defined I have ever seen. You could tell just by looking at her that she was a physical fitness buff. Her arms had lines in them. Her legs showed each muscle. Her body was lean and fit. I kept watching her, coveting that body as I watched.
I do the same thing with Michelle Obama. I cannot see the First Lady on television without admiring her arms. You can tell by looking at the First Lady that she lifts weights - that she cares for the body she has been given.
And I keep asking myself a question. What does my body say about me?
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
If you look at my body, it does not look much like a temple of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it appears as though I have done a lot of what I want to do. I have consumed more sweets than vegetables. I have sat on the sofa with my husband more than I have gone to the gym. I have worked longer hours than really necessary. I have allowed the busyness of the church and life to take over. I have failed to exercise discipline. While my arms were on their way to looking like Michelle Obama's arms in the weeks leading to our wedding, those days have past. Eighteen months have gone by and some 30 pounds have been added since I walked down the aisle.
But my body, this body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And, I would like to think that this body can keep going for a long time. I would like to think that people can see my vocation - not just when wearing a white alb on Sundays but through the life that I live. And, it's time to start treating this body a bit differently. It's time to treat it as a temple - giving it my very best instead of what is left over at the end of the day.
And so, my Lenten Discipline is to do just this. My Lenten journey will be focused on cultivating the practices that lead to embodying the Holy Spirit. During these 40 days of journeying in the wilderness, I intend to let go of what I have grown to love in order to become more like the person Christ is calling me to be.
My goals for this Lent are: t0 spend at least 30 minutes in scripture reading and praying each day, to go to the gym at least 4 times a week for one hour and exercise a minimum of 30 minutes at home on the other days, to reduce my sugar intake and stay within my allotted points for any given day, to not work on Fridays - but to save them for the purpose of Sabbath, and to reserve Saturdays for Craig.
The 40 days have begun. I am excited about my journey. My arms might not look like Michelle Obama's by the end of it all, but I hope to be more fit - more fit for the calling placed upon my life, more ready to provide a place for the Holy Spirit to dwell.
What about you? Where are you journeying during this season of Lent?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winning Me Over

The Wednesday newspaper is my second favorite newspaper of the week. While Sunday's edition leads the way because of all the advertising inserts, the Wednesday Washington Post comes in a close second because of the grocery store advertisements. I love grocery shopping. I love pouring through the weekly sale ads, looking to see what is on sale, and then going to my coupon file to see how much money our family can save on groceries each week.

While there are three grocery stores within a mile radius of our home, I almost always chose the local Harris Teeter. It is within walking distance to our home. If I drive, they have underground parking. The store is always well-stocked. The people who work there are almost always helpful. And, the lines are often rather short. I love Harris Teeter. It is my favorite grocery store chain. However, Safeway has been winning me over in recent weeks.

For some time now, Safeway has been doing whatever it can to lure me into their store. For several weeks, I have received a postcard with coupons for Safeway. Many of the coupons offer me free things if I purchase $25 worth of groceries. Through these coupons, we have received free taco shells, free ground meat, free salsa, free pasta sauce, free lettuce, free pasta, and the list goes on and on. In addition to the free stuff, they have offered me $10 off any purchase of $50. The deal has seemed just too good to pass up. And, they lured me in again last night with a $15 coupon in the Washington Post, offered to anyone who would come in and spend $100. Craig and I carefully created last night's list, trying our best to hit the $100 mark - which we did just fine.

But, I have also noticed how Safeway is not only doing what they can to get me into the door, they are also doing what they can to get me to come back. Their shelves have been well-stocked - even with the loss-leader sale items. The clerks have been extra friendly - the man working the seafood counter last night even told me to "have a blessed day!" And, the store has been clean with super fresh produce. I realize each time I go that I am becoming a Safeway shopper.

And I wonder. I wonder what it would take for the church to learn a few things from Safeway. What is it that the church can do to invite people into its doors? How can the church extend warm welcomes, enticing people to come in? Are our buildings welcoming? Are their markers that enable people to see what doors should be used? Is there someone there pointing the way? Is there ample parking? What is it that we would need to say in order to grab someone's attention and get them to finally come inside? What kind of 'deals' are we offering?

We do, indeed, offer all kinds of free stuff each week. God's grace is a free gift - abundantly infused within all people. The fellowship found on the inside is free. The weekly message is free. The transformation offered by our Savior is offered without price - all you have to do is repent and seek change in your life. We offer all kinds of things, never charging admission, only inviting people to return a portion of what God has given to them. How is it that we get this message across to the people on the outside?

And, once people come in, how do we get them to see that they cannot live without what we are offering? What do we need to do to make sure they come back? I have found that if someone goes out of their way to welcome me, I'll be more likely to come back. If the pastor follows up with me via email or mail, I'll be more likely to come back. If I had children and the nursery was clean with an ample supply of toys or books and friendly people ready to care for my children for an hour or two, then I will be more likely to come back. If the message is relevant, and I can take at least one thing away from it, then I will be more likely to come back. If the order of worship is clear and the bulletin free from typos, then I'll be more likely to come back. If restrooms are easy to find and clean once I get there, then I'll be more likely to come back. If the entire thing feels genuine instead of production-like, then I'll be more likely to come back. If I sense real community and diversity, then I'll be more likely to come back.

What about you? What got you into the doors of a church? Or, what would get you to come inside the doors for the first time? And, what would it take to get you to come back?

Safeway executives, thanks for all the lessons you're teaching me. And the free food, well, we love it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Prophetic Words from Peter Storey

My mentor and friend, Rev. Dr. Peter Storey, sent me a statement over the weekend. Knowing my own struggle to do whatever I can to make our church more inclusive and welcoming of all people, providing people who are LBGT the same privileges and rights that I have, Dr. Storey sent these reflections. It is a statement he made on behalf of a fellow clergyperson serving the South African Methodist Church who has been put on trial because of her sexual orientation. They are powerful words, and they are words that need to be prayerfully pondered over and over again.

My hope and my prayer is that people of faith on both sides of this issue will continue to come together, to pray, to dialogue, to hear one another's stories. I hope and pray for the day when we will all respect each other. I also hope and pray for the day that all people can be afforded the same opportunities that I have been given as a straight woman - the opportunity to proclaim God's word as an ordained clergyperson and the opportunity to stand at an altar and be married with the church as witness and support.

Address at a Service of Solidarity to mark the Trial of Rev. Ecclesia de Lange
Rev Prof Peter Storey DD.LLD.DHL
Rosebank Methodist Church, Cape Town, 8 February, 2010

There comes a time. It’s as simple as that.
There comes a time when a new mind settles over the human family, when almost imperceptibly, people begin to think a new and different thought, making the old thought no longer thinkable and the world a kinder place to live in. One of our hymns - used often in the apartheid days - reminds us that to every person and nation- to all of us -there comes a ‘moment to decide.’ One of its lines is particularly apposite today:

‘New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.’

Jesus brought a new mind to our world. It included a radical hospitality of the heart that threatened a host of ancient shibboleths. Broken and needy people heard him gladly but his wide open love was resented by the religious of his day; for them it was more important to be right than to be good. They didn’t understand that being good becomes the ultimate right. His love was too big for them - too big for any of us. Even the way he was killed nailed his arms forever in wide embrace. After his Resurrection, his first Jewish followers struggled with the breadth of his welcome; his Holy Spirit had a relentless hospitality that left them punch-drunk. He seemed to want to include everyone. The Acts of the Apostles became the story of one barrier after another tumbling before this relentless hospitality.

The Holy Spirit is God’s promise to haunt us, to confront every prejudice of the devout, no matter how respectable or how carefully wrapped in dogma. Time and again since, the Spirit has taken the Church, sometimes gently, more often by the scruff of the neck, and shown us that what was once revered as an ancient good has become uncouth and untenable. The Spirit still has lessons to teach and we have lessons to learn. When we have listened, the Spirit has used the Church to be the conscience of the world – as some churches were used in the dark apartheid years – but when we have been obdurate and blind, then God has used the world to be the conscience of the Church. Right now is one of those times because, when it comes to how we treat people of different sexual orientations, the Constitution of South Africa seems to be more in tune with the mind of Christ than the attitudes of the Methodist Church.

So, let me say now that there will come a time when the Methodist Church of Southern Africa will declare its ministry open to persons in faithful same-sex relationship. It will honour and bless their love with the same blessing given to all marriages everywhere. That is as certain as day follows night. When this will happen, we do not know, but when it does, it will not be primarily because of Constitutions or grand declarations; it will be because of the courage and faithfulness of people like Rev.Ecclesia de Lange and her spouse Amanda. Alan Walker says, ‘Always advance comes by a man here, a woman there, being faithful in a particular situation to a great truth.’ Ecclesia, your simple words of witness have moved us deeply. You have said:

‘I desire to serve Jesus. I desire to be true to myself. I desire to minister within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa with integrity and to be faithful to God’s call on my life …’

What could be more simple, or more honourable? But we know strong forces resist this simple answer to God’s call. You have also said:

‘I have reached the point where I can no longer be silent. I have come to see that it is better to be rejected for who I am than to be accepted for who I am not …’

I wonder if you know how close those words are to the words of Anne Hutchinson, put on trial by the 17th Century Puritans of New England for being a Quaker. As she exited the church where the trial was held, she said: ‘Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ’

Which is why … there comes a time …

The Holy Spirit has waited long enough. It is time for the Church to recognize, repudiate and reject what William Sloane Coffin calls its ‘last respectable prejudice’
[2] - homophobia. If that is too much to digest all at once, then the time has come for at least a full place at the table for people with a new and different mind. As a well-wisher wrote to Ecclesia, ‘Gay ministers are not going to go away and more of us will want to be married[3].’ So today we are here to say to those who differ from us, ‘Hold your views if you must, but we are not prepared to see one more person – this person - sacrificed on the altar of wrongful exclusion.’

Before going further, because this gathering is not just about opinions, but about real people who have been - are being - sacrificed, we must make confession:

Some years back I was speaking at a conference on inclusiveness in a church in Lancing, Michigan. The day was enriched by a magnificent choir – the Lancing Gay Men’s Choir. As he introduced their first item, the Choir Director said that he had had to work very hard to persuade most of his singers to agree to perform in a church. Too many of them had been hurt by the churches they had grown up in. He then apologized for being late. At the last minute, he said, when it came to actually passing through the church doors, two or three of his choir had simply frozen. They couldn’t take that step. The trauma of what they had suffered at the hands of the church was just too much. ‘So, we’re short of a few voices today,’ he said. ‘We apologise.’

But it is we, the church, who must apologise. This apology must be a wide one, embracing every person who has been hurt, rejected, excluded and wounded by the Christian Church because of his or her sexual orientation. It must be deep, reaching down into centuries of wrong. The church’s long compromise with slavery, our blind acceptance of racism, our stubborn exclusion of women from leadership and ordination - these are sins from which we have had to be delivered, but John Cobb would remind us that in this particular, we may have done worse: whereas in most forms of suppression the church has given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexual persons, the church has been the leader in the oppression
[4]. I confess this sin on behalf of my church - the Methodist Church of Southern Africa today. We stand in need of forgiveness – from our God and from those we have hurt.
Ecclesia and Amanda, I see your action, which has brought us together today, as a gift: it is an opportunity for the Church I love and serve to right a great wrong.

Sadly … though I pray it will do so, I fear it may not. There are many reasons for this, but I want to lift up just one. It takes clear vision and great courage to recognize and reverse a centuries-old, deeply rooted prejudice. It takes an even greater leap of bravery and conviction to repudiate what has been given to us as sacred teaching and to declare that, ‘time has made that teaching uncouth. We need to move on from it.’

I recall the electric moment at the Rustenburg Conference of 1990 when Prof. Jonker of Stellenbosch Kweekskool, made his historic apology on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Churches for their collaboration with the wrongs of apartheid. We knew that his courageous turn-around would bring difficulties for his church, but we had no idea how great. The backlash was ferocious, and one of the most common protests was from devout Dutch Reformed members who accused their leaders of betrayal : ‘You are the ones who taught us that apartheid was Biblical, moral and Christian. How dare you suddenly change your minds, making sinners of us all?’ You will recall that Prof. Johann Heyns, who shared with us in the writing of the Rustenburg Declaration, was assassinated soon after. If some of us are tempted to denigrate those who cannot agree with us, we need to pause and remember how hard it is to abandon a life-long prejudice, especially when you’ve been told that God shares that prejudice too. And lest any of us ‘straight’ supporters here be tempted to self-rightousness in our critique of more conservative Christians, perhaps we ought to recall that most of us held similar views once, and our journey to greater openness doesn’t makes theirs any easier.

I hope that we will stay in conversation with those who differ from us. Past experience tells us that a way forward may be found – together. Remember those words from another time and another struggle, written by black and white Methodists after Obedience ’81?

‘We have experienced how hard it is to abandon long-held prejudice and long-felt bitterness. But we have seen God work this miracle in us. It happened because we continued to search for each other even at our time of deepest division and despair.’

So, there is hope, but hope is not enough: there is also urgency, because … there comes a time.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has acknowledged that we are divided between two opinions. That is true. The difference can’t be papered over:
· Those who defend the closed door cannot open it without believing they betray Scripture.
· Those who have opened the door cannot close it without believing we betray Jesus, the Lord of Scripture.
Our minds are unlikely to meet soon and the Methodist Conference has therefore invited us to ‘journey together’ in a way that ‘both respects and holds in tension differing views among our ministers and people.’
[6] Well and good, but if this journey is to have integrity there is one important condition: the same rules must apply to both travellers on the road. Our Church cannot claim to respect our views, and then punish those who, like Ecclesia, live out those views in practice. Holding the conversation open must not be another way to keep the doors of Christian marriage and Ordination for married gay people slammed shut.

Because there comes a time …

Let me say this very directly to our friends who differ from us: we will be patient in debate but no longer in suffering. You must understand that your opinion has real-life consequences for colleagues who we have come to love and honour. The pain and rejection they suffer is inflicted by the opinion you defend. Hold onto it if you will, but we cannot let you hurt people anymore. ‘‘There comes a time,’ said Martin Luther King Jr., when the cup of endurance runs over.’

To our bishops and spiritual leaders, let me say this: Your task is not easy: in this matter you preside over a divided church. In the days of apartheid our leaders faced similar divisions, but while they wrestled with difficult debates, they were crystal clear about what was right and what was wrong - that the most damnable thing about apartheid was that it hurt people for something they could never change – the color of their skins – and for that alone it stood condemned in the councils of God. That was the bottom line. The rest was detail.
Today, we long for you to lead. You do not have to wait for any Conference to say what is right and what is wrong. We long to hear you declare lovingly and firmly that our beloved church cannot and will not any longer reject gay people for something they have no power to change. Please lead us. Let no more Ecclesia’s suffer. It would be a glorious day if at this time, because of your lead, God’s Ecclesia, God’s called people, were able to spread wide our arms and our hearts - before the Holy Spirit had to prize them open.
There comes a time … and the time is now.

Simon’s Town, February 2010.
[1] ‘Once to every man and nation,’ James Russell Lowell, MHB 1933, No 898.
[2] William Sloane Coffin, Homophobia, the Last Respectable Prejudice, the 1997 Schooler Institute Lecture, Methodist Theological School in Ohio (unpublished).
[3] E-mail from Rev.Suzanna Bates, British Methodist Church, 14 December, 2009
[4] Ibid. Quoted by Coffin
[5] The Charter of Obedience ’81, adopted by the most representative gathering of Methodists ever held in SA – Auckland Park, 1981
[6] MCSA Yearbook 2008, p81, para 2.5.1
[7] Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can’t Wait, Signet Books, 1963/4, p.82

Friday, February 12, 2010

Church Mail

With a snowstorm last Saturday and another one on Wednesday, the church has not received any mail from the U.S. Postal Service this week. No catalogues or bills or offering checks have arrived. Only one piece of mail has come. It was not stamped or carried by a postal service employee. Rather, it was hand delivered. And, my colleague, Chris, brought it to me yesterday.

The outside of the envelope reads, "To: The Owner of the Church, Mt. Vernon Square."

Inside the envelope, written on a small piece of paper, were these words,

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dear Sir:

Is is O.K. if I sleep on your porch at night?

I have nowhere to sleep. I am homeless.

Mr. Brown

P.S. The reason I came to sleep was, I saw some fellows sleeping on the porch and I thought no one cared. Mr. Brown

It's quite a letter, isn't it?

I have never met Mr. Brown. I am not sure who he is, but I hope to meet him sometime soon. I'd welcome a conversation or a cup of coffee with him.

The envelope is addressed to the owner of the church. While we might think we own the church, no one here owns this church. It is God's church - God's building and God's resources. We are merely stewards of what God has given to us. We know how God feels about the poor. If you have read the gospels, then you know that Jesus has more concern for the poor than anyone else. Time and again, Jesus has a word to say about the poor being blessed and how those who are rich are to share with the poor. We know how the owner of the church feels.

But what about we who are stewards of the church building and its resources? Is it okay for anyone to be sleeping on the porch of the church at night? Does no one care?

What are we doing to make sure that no one is sleeping on the porch at night because everyone has a place to call home? What is your church doing to end homelessness? What is the body of Christ doing to make sure that people Mr. Brown know we care?

How would you respond to his letter?

Mount Vernon Place, what will our response be?

Monday, February 08, 2010

And on the Seventh Day...

Today is my fourth day of being home. The last time I moved my car was Friday morning. The last time I had makeup on or hair that was curled was Thursday night. The last time I spent any money was last Wednesday. And, I cannot remember the last time I had so much quality time to rest, to laugh with my husband, to read, to exercise, and to reflect. I have had a Sabbath.

Last Tuesday, I was reflecting with a colleague about life. Alisa asked the very Wesleyan question that often makes me eyes well up with tears, "How is it with your soul?" As a pastor, not many people ask me this question. It is a question that we clergy are good at asking and not necessarily good at answering. Alisa's question hit me in the gut - right where I needed to be hit. I responded with tears welling up inside, "Not well." I then continued, "I have been running from one place to the next. My prayer-life has been suffering. My devotional life has been inactive. It has been a long time since I have really had Sabbath." I then shared how I have a retreat at a nearby abbey coming up in March, but how I am not sure it is possible to get a year's worth of devotional time and Sabbath keeping done in one week.

Alisa responded as we departed, "I'll be praying for rest and renewal for you."

Rest and renewal have come.

In the last four days, I have had ample time to sit at the kitchen table and look out the window at the beauty of creation. I have seized the opportunity to catch up with former parishioners who are dear friends who have nourished my soul for almost ten years. I have read about ten issues of the Christian Century. I have savored my morning devotional time, even sharing a part of it with Craig. I have cuddled on the couch with Craig, laughed heartily through four different movies, and exercised until our muscles were soar as we took walks and shoveled snow. I have prepared balanced meals and sat down to dinner with him each evening. I have slept nine hours each night and have allowed my body to wake when it wants to and not when a buzzer tells me to wake up. I have experienced balance. I have experienced rest. I have been reminded again why the Lord has commanded us to rest on the seventh day of every week.

And, I have, once again, been reminded of the incredible gift of being a pastor at Mount Vernon Place. With the snow piled high and the above ground Metro not running, I did not make it to worship yesterday. Twenty-five people did, however. One member served as the security concierge since our employee who fills this role could not make it. Another member organized a time of sharing around the two scripture passages that had been selected for the day. Our Director of Music and the Arts made sure everything was ready and filled in on the instruments since our organist could not make it. Everyone made sure the other details were taken care of. And, I heard it was a powerful time of worship and sharing. I have been told by a few people how great the day was.

Many of my conversations with young adults who are working hard in the city have to deal with finding rest and renewal. The most common thing I hear from people who were not in church on any given Sunday is, "I'm sorry. I had to work again." Or, "Work is really getting to me. I just could not make it to worship today."

I know how often I tell my husband the same thing. "I'm sorry. I won't be home again until 9:00 tonight because I have a meeting." Or "I'm sorry. I cannot go to that function with you because I'll be at the church." Or "I'm sorry. I do not want to go to that party that you have been looking forward to attending because I am just so exhausted from the work of the church."

I am convinced that God does not smile upon these times. I'll never forget one Annual Conference when I sat next to a mother who shared with me how she and her husband were missing their child's sixth grade graduation because of the annual meeting of the church. What meeting of the church could possibly be more important than being present for a milestone marker of a child?

God created us to work hard for six days. God then invited us to rest and to worship on the seventh day. We have been called to work heartily for six days and to then set aside one day for God, for our families, for rest, and for renewal. Even God rested one day. Is our work more important than God's? How often our work becomes a false idol - I know I am guilty of this.

I need to remember this week. I need to remember how I am not always needed. I need to remember how the church does just fine when I am not there. I need to remember how one of the best things I can do is to take care of myself and my family. I need to recall how important it is to rest in God's arms, enjoying the gift of a Sabbath. It's a commandment, after all.

Thank you, God, for this precious time. Help me to take a snow day even when the grass is green!