Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I celebrated my birthday yesterday by treating myself to a massage and haircut. The combination consists of two of my favorite things, and a last minute special by my favorite day spa brought even more joy to the experience.

It has been a while since I have had a massage. The masseuse informed me that she had not worked on my back in six months, and I have had only one other massage in between while on vacation in Florida. It had been a while since anyone had really kneaded my back, and I had no idea how much I needed a massage.
A typical one-hour massage includes time for the back, the legs, the shoulders, the head, the arms and even the hands. My experience yesterday was all about my back, however. Within moments, the masseuse discovered knots all over the top of my back. There were so many knots to work out that my back is literally sore to the touch today. She spent almost an entire hour on my upper back, working diligently to break up small knots - knots that I had no idea were there.
My job is stressful at times. But I had no idea how much stress I was carrying in my back. I needed someone else to reveal the weight of the stress being carried. I could not see it alone. I needed someone else to help discover it. And the discovery is making all the difference today. I needed help to see what I could not see on my own.
We need help in a lot of places.
We need people in our lives to help us see what we cannot see.
I am reminded often of how much I need what my former boss refers to as "holy friendships." Greg Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, says we all need friends who can point out for us the sins we have grown to love while also naming the gifts we have been afraid to claim. We need people to hold us accountable. We need people to be truth tellers in our lives. We cannot follow Jesus alone.
As I finish my fifth year at Mount Vernon Place this week, I realize how some members of my congregation now provoke me to a greater level of discipleship. They push me to do things that I might not be ready to do on my own. They help me to see things that I might not be able to see on my own.
I also have clergy colleagues who do the same - who point out for me my gifts and ask why I am not using them or who tell me when I am doing something that I probably should not be doing. My colleagues tell me when I am being narcissistic and in need of humility. They also tell me when I should be shining more. We cannot follow Jesus alone.

Sunday worship - our time of coming together in order to celebrate God's presence in our lives, confess our sins, hear God's word read and proclaimed, and receive the sacrament - is the beginning of a life together. I believe worship is central in terms of our being able to acknowledge God's presence in our lives while also embodying practices that demonstrate our reliance on God. But I am not sure worship is enough.
For years I chose to worship in a university chapel. I went because of the amazing preaching and incredible music. But I also went because I could worship there without any sense of accountability. No one knew when I was there and no one really knew when I was missing. No one asked me to pledge a portion of what God had given to me. No one pushed me to think about how I was sharing my God-given gifts with the community. I could go to worship and receive an encounter of God but I was never led to a deeper level of discipleship.
We need accountability, and we need community. It's one of the many reasons I believe in the power of small groups sometimes called covenant discipleship groups. I need to be asked, "How is it with your soul" by people who are not going to accept "fine, thank you" as a response. I need people to ask me if I am giving at least 10% of what God has given to me away. I need people to inquire about whether I have been practicing the means of grace - reading my Bible daily, setting aside time for prayer each day, spending time with the poor, and experiencing holy conversation. I need people to help me confess and turn away from sins I have grown to love while also fully using the gifts God has given to me.
We cannot be disciples on our own.
What about you? What are you getting away with that you would not get away with if you had someone regularly seeking to hold you accountable?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Encouraging the Church

I love the church. For as long as I can remember, the church has been the place where I have discovered community - a circle of people who provide friendship, laughter, accountability, growth, support and companionship through life. The church has been a place I have run from once or twice in life but more than anything it has been the place that I have run to when a few things in life seemed to be shaky or falling apart.

I now have the privilege of providing leadership for a church. I have the precious responsibility of ordering the life of a congregation and helping to guide people towards a fuller relationship with Christ. I have the daunting task of discerning how best individuals can be formed, shaped and transformed and then equipped as saints carrying out the ministry of Christ in the world. There are times when I feel like I have a strong handle on how to do these tasks, fulfilling the responsibilities bestowed upon me at ordination. There are other times when I am absolutely terrified - when it feels like I have made too many mistakes in laying the foundation or when I am overcome with feelings of doubt about how I could possibly get us moving forward again. There are times when I feel like I know exactly what I am doing and there are other times when I wonder how I could possibly be the one God is asking to move a people forward.

When people ask about the transformation that has happened at Mount Vernon Place, how we have gone from a congregation that had been in decline for fifty years to a growing church that is reaching out to its community, I often tell them that the one thing that has made all the difference is a sense of authenticity that pervades all we do.

Five years ago, we had a glorious sanctuary that was engulfing us. We had a hard time finding each other in the sanctuary, let alone in the day to day struggles of life. When we started to redevelop the property, we had to vacate this sanctuary, moving into much smaller and less than glorious space. It was in this more intimate, plain space that we rediscovered the precious gift of community.

The theatre seats on which we sat forced us to come closer together, and we then started to share specific practices that cultivated our sense of togetherness. We started to break bread together at the end of each service, sharing coffee, cookies and other goodies. And, we started to share the joys of life and the burdens of our hearts. We began to make space in each service to share with one another what was making our heart to sing and what was causing our heart to be heavy. It did not take long to begin to see the Spirit at work in these ancient practices.

"What is it that has turned your church around?" people ask. My most common response is, "Seeking to be a place of real authenticity in a city where authenticity can be hard to find." I then go on to explain how the first question we ask at Mount Vernon Place is never, "What do you do?" but rather, "Who are you? What makes your heart sing? What causes your heart to hurt?" This authenticity has made all the difference in the world.

This week, I have been struggling a lot with what I perceive to be hints of brokenness in the body. There are several people who have not been to worship in a while, and it makes me sad while also causing me to wonder what we might have done to disappoint them. There has not been enough communication on some things, and a few folks have felt let down when their desire to do something new has not come to fruition. And it feels at times that we have lost our focus, including sometimes my own focus. It's in times like this when I feel hesitant - uneasy - doubtful - and sometimes even afraid. I wonder what kind of criticism is pointed towards me. I wonder how best to bring individuals back into the fold. I wonder what God is asking me to do now.

This morning during my quiet time, two passages of scripture appeared on the same page of the devotional book I am using. The first passage is 1 Corinthians 12:26-27 which reads, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

This important work of rejoicing and suffering together is central to who we are. We have celebrated the arrival of new jobs and the loss of jobs. We have rejoiced at the birth of new babies and become saddened when another life ended in miscarriage. We have given thanks for new homes and grieved together when homes were hard or impossible to find. We have sought to be the church together - to share the fullness of life with one another - and it has been powerful and life-giving. And I wonder how anyone can get through life without the assurance of having a community of people to journey through life with. I wonder if this message is powerful enough to bring all kinds of people back to the church or into the doors for the first time.

The other passage of scripture I read is Hebrews 10:24-25, "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another."

The verses appeared as a gift from God. It was almost as if God wrote directly to me in response to what has been on my heart. Our call is to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. We are called to encourage one another. We are called to be together. We are called to do what we can to propel one another to continue being together - when we are getting a lot from the experience and when we are getting little from the experience - when we are seeing God show up often and when God's face is hard to find - in good times and in bad times - in sickness and in health - when the pastor and the lay people are leading in ways we love and when the pastor and the lay people are leading in ways that we would not choose to lead if we were in charge - when the church is singing songs we love and when the church is singing songs that we despise. It is a covenant, after all.

Laurence Hull Stookey adds this prayer to the devotional book, "This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer."

O God of hosts: You are never alone.
Even when you seem to us to be solitary in your splendor,
you yourself live within the community
of your triune being.
As you are never alone,
so you provide that we shall not be alone.
Increase our appreciation for your gift of the church,
imperfect though it is because of our many faults.
By the unifying power of the Holy Spirit,
visit us and bind us together as those
who know themselves to be your people;
through Jesus Christ, whose promises we trust.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Church with Showers

A church with showers is a wonderful thing - especially in the heart of the city. Having showers at Mount Vernon Place was something I thought about before I arrived - part of the vision God gave to me when I was given a few select details about the church I might be appointed to serve.

A few years later, the showers are here. There are two showers in the men's room and two showers in the women's room. There are lockers and space to change, too. The showers are here - available for the church to host overnight guests and also for others to come in and receive a simple necessity of life - something most of us take for granted when we stumble into our bathrooms eyes half-closed, mumbling how we would rather still be in bed.

A year or so ago, several people in the church started to investigate what we could do with these showers. They visited shelters, churches and other facilities blessed with spaces where others could come inside and shower, having their dignity restored in the process. A policy was created and past by the Trustees. The showers opened four months ago. Each Tuesday morning, the showers at the church are available from 6:00 to 8:00. Anyone can come inside and shower.

The ministry has been going for four months. I have read about it and heard about it. However, I had never seen the ministry in action until this week. I have plenty of reasons - at first it was a standing commitment each Tuesday morning from 7:15 to 8:00, I then got excited about something happening at the church that I did not have to be at (it's powerful to be a pastor and see the laity embracing their call to be the priesthood of all believers), and I then allowed long days at the church to dictate why I could not be here at 6:00 towards the start of the week. I realize now that while these are valid excuses, perhaps I allowed some of my insecurities and fears to really keep me away. It's messy business, after all, when you start to take the gospel seriously. It's easier to stand at a distance than to get involved. It's easier to see people than it is to take time and listen to a person's story. And, it's certainly easier to separate ourselves into "us" and "them" than it is to seek to bridge the divide - something our lay leader spoke more eloquently about on Sunday than I am writing about here.

Thankfully, however, I finally arrived at the church a few minutes after 6:00 on Tuesday morning. I placed all of my belongings in my office upstairs and then came downstairs to the lobby near the doors to the showers. And, I saw grace the moment I walked through the door.
My eyes were captivated by a table filled with many things - men's boxers and briefs of all sizes, women's underwear in several sizes, socks, shampoos, conditioners, towels, clean shirts, tooth brushes and paste, and several kinds of deodorant. Everything was there on the table - everything was available to be taken. Opposite of this table was a table where hot coffee was being brewed and granola bars and fruit were being set out. Everything was being carefully prepared, readied for our guests.

Soon our guests started to arrive, and I am not sure I have been the same since. I wrote these words to the coordinators of the ministry yesterday afternoon:

You are both good at sharing your reflections with others after being here on Tuesday mornings. I want to share my reflections with you – and mainly express my deepest sense of gratitude and respect.

I experienced grace the moment I walked in. Perhaps it was good to be a few minutes late as I walked in and saw a table filled with necessities – with things I take for granted all the time – but morsels that people carefully selected and took into the shower room this morning. I was reminded of the Syrophoenician woman who responds to Jesus about how even the crumbs that fall from the table are blessings. It was a powerful display for my eyes to see.

I think I was particularly touched and transformed by one of our visitors, Sipea (sp?) this morning. She will be heavy on my heart this day, causing me to reflect and think often. I was touched by her saying how a shower was just what she needed. I was struck by how she bowed before so many of us expressing thanksgiving. I was struck by how she wanted to give us $5. And, her appearing to be so incredibly alone will haunt me with the questions of what more we can do. She’s entered my heart, for sure.

Gregory was typical Gregory. He drives me crazy, and yet, I enjoy hearing him say, “You know, Miss Donna?”

And, there is something powerful about watching people select a pair of clean underwear – something I’ll think about when I open my dresser drawer and see a collection of dozens of pairs to select from – and the power of being grateful for one clean, new pair – one pair – not dozens of pairs.

All of this is to say, thank you. Thank you for providing me with an experience of grace this morning. Thank you for allowing me to see God’s goodness in my life and in the lives of those around me. Thank you for your commitment and organization and passion that continue to propel this ministry.

I am sincerely grateful, and I look forward to continuing to work with you as we discern our next faithful steps together.

Have a blessed day.

Glad to be your pastor,


This afternoon I was walking down the street when I heard someone calling my name, "Miss Donna, Miss Donna, Miss Donna!" I looked over and saw Gregory sitting on a bench in a park. I said, "Hello" to Gregory, and Gregory shouted again, "Miss Donna, I got to go to the dentist today!" I smiled and shared, "That's great." I then chuckled as I watched the people around me gaze at this man yelling to me on the sidewalk. As I continued to walk, I realized again how much I love this community.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


I was shocked to see today that Tipper and Al Gore are separating. A couple who seemed so happy throughout their days of being in the public eye, a couple who seemed so together when the marriage of President Clinton seemed so shaky, a couple who kissed for what seemed to be several minutes on stage at the Democratic National Convention, is splitting up, calling it quits after 40 years of marriage.

How is it that people can stay married for 40 years and then give up?

This question is the one I asked earlier today when I posted my frustration and sadness on Facebook. My friend, Cynthia, answered with a comment that is making me think.

She wrote, "...But it also made me think of a group I was involved with that stopped getting together and meeting because "it had run its course of usefulness for us." And I wonder how we have turned our relationships into commodities whose only requirement for existence is their "usefulness" to our personal lives--within marriage, within our churches, *with* our churches, with any other group where relationships get difficult and require more work than we think we can give."

I've given up on such relationships before. There have been many times when I let go of something because it no longer seemed useful. I used to meet with two nearby clergy every single week. These two individuals are the people who got me through the really hard first year at Mount Vernon Place when I wanted to quit more often than I wanted to stay and be a pastor. However, when our time together turned from a time of sharing about life and the church to a time of studying the lectionary together, I decided it was no longer useful. It was no longer useful for me to spend an hour or so of my time with these two clergy friends. A few years later, one of them has moved away and the other one is only three blocks away, but I never see her. I miss her friendship deeply. There are many times when I wish I would not have given up on that sacred small group. My deeming something unuseful resulted in a near loss of relationship with someone who is responsible for getting me through the toughest year of ministry.

Certainly we all have an experience of determining that something is no longer useful. I am guessing that we also all know what it feels like when someone has determined that spending time with us is no longer useful.

What would it mean for us to take every single covenant we have made and see it as something we have to work hard to keep no matter what? What would it mean to see the commitment we made as the reason we stick with everything instead of whether or not something is still useful in our lives? Would we then see the church that was useful when we were lonely and needed friendship as the place that might be able to use our gifts today to provide fellowship to others? Would we then see the church that nurtured our children when they were little as a place where we are called to serve today - to ensure that other children have the same experiences as our children? Would we see the Bible study group that was useful to us when we were going through a horrific divorce as a place where our gifts can be utilized because someone else might be going through a difficult time? What would it mean for us to approach our relationship with God as not something we use only when needed - when we're on our knees and crying out to God in the midst of a major disappointment, or one door having closed after another, or an illness or loss - but something that we enjoy because we are a covenant people bound to God who promises to always be with us? What if we always remembered the promises made at our marriage - to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, until we are parted by death - as promises made for life and not just when being with our spouse seems useful?

What about you? What have you let go of because it no longer seemed useful? What might you be called to take up again whether useful or not?