Monday, May 24, 2010

Strangely Warmed

It's Aldersgate Day. It was May 24, 1738 when a reluctant John Wesley entered a meeting room on Aldersgate Street in London. He did not want to go. He went unwillingly. And yet, something extraordinary happened when he arrived.

Someone was reading Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. John Wesley listened and felt the story taking hold of his life. He felt his heart strangely warmed. He wrote in his journal, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Wesley did not want to go but he went. He did not want to be there but the message still caught up with him. The reluctant Wesley experienced something that enabled him to believe that salvation was by grace and grace alone and that Christ really had died for him. This belief continues to penetrate the hearts of Methodists who have followed him for the last two centuries. This message has continued to set hearts on fire. And it started with someone not wanting to be there.

I was recently having a conversation with someone in our church who shared with me how it sometimes takes everything within a person to get to worship. She went on to explain how our members live busy lives and that another commitment on Sunday can be just too much. She sought to justify some of our members not being in worship for weeks because of the busy demands of life in Washington.

This morning, I started my work week by having breakfast with another church member who is eighty-eight years old. Mary Elizabeth missed church yesterday. She started her journey from Arlington to downtown Washington and then encountered roadblock after roadblock of people bicycling in an event in downtown DC. After running into several roadblocks, Mary Elizabeth and the two members with her discerned they were not going to make it to church, and they turned around to go home. Mary Elizabeth then continued to tell me how much she missed church. She shared how she can hardly make it through a week without worship. Worship is the place where she is renewed and receives what she needs for the six days ahead.

I have been thinking a lot about the two perspectives shared with me. There are times when we are convinced that our lives are our own - that everything we have - our time, our talents and our resources are because of us - what we have done or what we have earned. There are other times when we are able to be won over, when our hearts and minds begin to comprehend that we are nothing on our own - that all that we have is because of the goodness of God. We live and move and have our being because of God. It is from this understanding that we arrive at the place where we cannot get through another week without worship.

I yearn for the faith life of Mary Elizabeth. I want people to knock on my door and find me reading the Psalms. I want to read scripture by heart and not always by sight. I want to offer at least 10% of every dollar I have back to God. I want to invest in the lives of others, providing scholarships and other forms of assistance. I want to live and breathe God - God's goodness - all the time.

I had my heart strangely warmed today. It would have been much easier to go directly into the office and face the dozen things on my "to-do" list. It would have felt more productive to tackle the tasks at hand than to sit and sip coffee for an extended time. But, my morning started with an experience of having my heart warmed - of knowing without a shadow of a doubt that God is with me and that God is blessing me. I was reminded again today of what is important and that a life in which God is first and not me, my goals, my priorities, my checkbook, my schedule - is the best life possible. I lingered for a moment, and I was able to see how worship and God always have to come first.

I wonder what would happen if we simply committed to putting ourselves in a place where God can touch us. What would happen if we committed to being in worship unless we are physically unable to be there - to showing up no matter what? What if we pushed ourselves and said that being in worship is more important than sleeping in, or enjoying a hobby, or getting to the office, or going on a run, or meeting friends for brunch, or anything else? What if we put ourselves in a place where we always demonstrate to God how God is first in our lives - beginning on the first day of the week, bringing to God the first fruits of what we have?

A very reluctant John Wesley went to a meeting room in Aldersgate. He did not want to be there. But God met him there. And those of us who are United Methodists still follow his teachings and form our beliefs on his faith today.

When have you last experienced your heart being strangely warmed?

When have you been willing to give yourself over to God - showing up even when you don't want to be there?

How can we better show God that we understand how God is the source of all that we have?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Getting it Right

During the season of Lent, Mount Vernon Place was privileged to be one of five congregations to pilot a new program for the Fund for Theological Education. Based in Atlanta, the FTE works to ignite a sense of excitement and provide opportunities to exceptional young people who might be interested in pursuing a call to ministry, individuals who are already in seminary, and African American doctoral candidates.

The work on this particular program of empowering congregations to notice, name and nurture people in our congregations through creating space for storytelling began last summer. At that time, a wide range of pastors and church leaders were invited to Atlanta to share thoughts on the ideas being presented and to talk about how to broaden the reach of the FTE on this and other programs. In November, each of the five congregations was invited to travel to Atlanta for an extensive training on the program and an opportunity to experience the power of storytelling. We then returned home, started to publicize the program in our congregations, and carefully followed the training manuals given to us for five weeks during Lent.

The program worked on some levels and failed on other levels. There are some things about the program that we loved and other things that continue to puzzle us. Some of the congregations attracted a large number of people to the program and other congregations, like the one I serve, could not keep people interested. I learned about how the program worked in other places this past week when representatives from our five congregations again gathered in Atlanta to talk about what had been done.

For 30 hours this week, we went through a deliberate time of reviewing the process. Using post-it notes of all shapes, sizes and colors, we were all given an opportunity to comment on what worked and what failed - on the things we loved and the things we would leave behind - on the pieces that were effective and the pieces that were ineffective - all in an effort to assist the people at the FTE with developing a program that will be user-friendly, accessible and really assist congregations and campus ministries in this important work of providing space to discuss vocation - to notice, name and nurture the gifts of each person so we can all discover that place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep needs. The FTE will now take our learnings and continue to tweak the program until it is right.

As I think about this process - each step of planning, training, creating, offering, and evaluating, I realize how often we settle on the way things are instead of the way things could be. So often in the church we discern that it is better not to rock the boat and so we keep on doing things whether we like them or not. A ministry starts and even if it is attracting only a couple of faithful participants, we don't want to offend anyone by suggesting that we let it go. A new worship experience is offered and no one new really comes but we sometimes determine to keep doing it instead of moving a different direction. A system of committees and ministry teams that once worked starts to become ineffective but instead of doing something different, we determine that it's easier to continue to do what we have always done.

What if our churches worked hard to intentionally get the thoughts of a wide range of people inside our churches and outside our churches on how the church can better serve the needs of the community? What if we searched high and low to discover what people really need to enable them to experience more of God's presence and use the unique gifts God has given to them while serving the needs of our community at the same time? What if we then took all of these thoughts and carefully proceeded - not duplicating things that are already done, not starting things for which there is limited passion or people to assist, not doing things that we want to do over things that we need to do - but doing things that lead to life - abundant life for all involved? What if we focused our efforts on really getting it right and then asked people to evaluate what we are doing regularly - inviting people to offer their thoughts and then not being afraid or offended to step back and see that we might be missing a mark or two? What if we kept on working - long and hard - until we got it right?

I look at how much the FTE has invested in time and money in an effort to get something right that they have determined is important. Doing something once was not enough. They had to do it again and again. They had to let go of some things and embrace other things - all in an effort to further awaken God's call. They had to put their own feelings aside in order to listen to others. They had to let go in order to embrace something new.

I'm ready to order to sticky notes - post-it notes of all shapes and sizes.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Seeing Church

I saw the church at its best this week. I saw the church - not the big, fancy building in which millions of dollars have been invested - but a rather small yet sacred group of people being the body I envision Jesus called us to be.

Throughout this week, I have been privileged to share time with people who are willing to struggle in order to discern our call in the city. Almost every day this week I have been able to dialogue with people in an effort to discern what our role is with individuals who sleep on the front porch of the church. We have talked about what mercy is and what justice is. We have discussed what it means to offer money and what it means to offer life abundant. We have pondered what it means to offer people a few dollars here and there and what it would mean to literally accompany someone through the immigration process. The conversations have been real, and they have been hard. But, there have been people willing to dialogue and I have seen the church through this dialogue.
As the sun was rising yesterday morning I gathered with two church members for a 7:00 a.m. Bible study. We have been meeting together for several months now, studying the gospel of Mark and using a book by Ched Myers which pushes us to think prophetically - to really engage the text. We spent most of our time together yesterday talking about the changes happening at the church and then opened the pages of scripture. We read less than twenty verses - the verses which tell the story of Blind Bartimaeus being healed. As we read the passage together, I realized that one person was touched in a tangible way. The scripture passage had busted open any false pretenses and what followed was an honest assessment of life - of how hard it is when Jesus does not answer prayer immediately, of how hard it is to lose a loved one, of how hard it is to journey through life. In those moments of vulnerability, I saw the church.
As the day came to a close, my final appointment was with a group of three other women who were eager to plan a four-week Bible study on service during the month of June. We talked about the needs of the congregation. We discerned which biblical texts should be studied. We even had a closing prayer. And then when "amen" was spoken, another prayer request was spoken. One young woman shared a difficult situation happening in the life of a dear friend. It was a sad story filled with tears. I then watched as an older woman in the congregation tangibly consoled this young woman - with words and then with a hand that held on to her in such a way that both knew they could count on each other. In those moments of sharing and holding, I saw the church.
Earlier today, I shared Bible study with the normal Thursday group. Howard is almost 102. Lois is 96. Ruth is around 95. Another participant is in their 90s and the others are a bit younger by a decade or two. The 10:00 hour on Thursday mornings is one of my favorites because I get to spend it with these precious people as we read and ponder the Psalms together. This morning, it was one of our ministry interns' last time to be with the group. Following Bible study, the group took Jessica and me to lunch. There were 8 of us gathered around the table of a restaurant where the owner really does know everyone by name. Towards the end of the lunch, I listened as the group affirmed Jessica. They shared their excitement for her as she prepares to be married in June and then become a pastor of a church in July. They told her how grateful they are for her being with us. They offered the sweetest prayer for her before we ate. They built her up. They named her gifts. They nurtured her from the chapter of seminary to the place of being a pastor. In those moments of hearing one being noticed, named and nurtured, I saw the church.
I have seen the church this week - not in the beautiful building where I am privileged to work - but amongst the incredible people with whom I am privileged to serve, and grow and believe. I cannot imagine going through life without the church. Thank you, God, for allowing me to see the church you have called us to be throughout this week.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Horse or the Rider?

Like many of you, I made sure I was in front of a television on Saturday evening. I was out with friends but made it a point to perch myself near a screen so I could see horses race at the Kentucky Derby. At the end of the two minute race, I stood in awe and wonder as Calvin Borel won his third Derby in four years at Churchhill Downs. Once again, Borel came from behind on a horse that was not the most favored to win in order to prove that anything can happen.

When the race was over and Borel had kissed what seemed to be everyone with whom he came in contact, I sat and wondered. Is it the horse or is it the rider? Is it the horse that enables one to win the Kentucky Derby or is it that rider that enables one to win the Kentucky Derby? Who is most responsible for the win?

Last year I was talking with a friend of mine whose son had recently been appointed to a different church. When I inquired about his son's appointment I was told, "He's serving a church that is in great need of resurrection and it is going to take a lot longer than three days for it to happen." I laughed. But, I cannot help but to think about these words.

When it comes to the church, there are all kinds of communities that are in need of resurrection. It is more common for a church to be in decline than it is for a church to be growing. Churches receiving new members are an exception and not the norm. And I wonder. Is it the horse or the rider?

I have often heard statements that lead me to believe that it is the horse. Many of my colleagues make statements about how there is no way a certain church is ever going to grow.
The people are too set in their ways. No one is moving in around our church. The neighborhood has changed. People just don't go to church like they used to. How can the bishop expect this church to grow? Seriously, this church is believed to be able to grow? I don't know why anyone would want to join this church.

Calvin Borel has demonstrated to the world of horse racing that anything is possible. Not once and not twice but three times Borel has brought a horse through the finish line earlier than the horse was believed to be capable of crossing. Borel has demonstrated great skill when it comes to communicating and motivating a horse. Borel has done what was thought to be impossible. It did not appear that he would win on Saturday...until the very end.

Can we as pastors learn anything from Borel?