Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Adapting to Change

I have had a Hotmail email account for over a decade. I love my Hotmail account. It is where all my personal email arrives. It is an account I use and check regularly. Hotmail changed the look of my account yesterday, however, and I don't like it. They tell me that they are working hard to clean up my account regularly and that I should love the new features. Yet, I miss the old look. I knew where to find each feature so well, and it's all changed now. I like the previous version no matter how good or helpful the new version might be.

A week or so ago I noticed a comment posted by one of my Facebook friends. She had been to a Dave Matthews concert at Nationals Park and was complaining about the music. She expressed how much the band had changed and then stated how she wished he had played more of the old stuff. It was clear that she does not like the new music but much prefers the sounds of the past - the music that came from Dave in the good old days.

The comment about music is one that every church hears often. "Why don't they sing more of the good ol' hymns?" "What's wrong with the Cokesbury hymnal?" These are the comments that come from some of our older members. At the same time, our new members exclaim, "I just don't like the music." "Can we please sing something that was composed in this decade?"

It does not matter how much the new might help us or benefit us, we don't like change. We are not quick to adapt to change but find it easier to resist change.

I am blessed to serve a church that is changing. Five years ago, our congregation had an average age of 82. Our chair of staff parish relations was 97, our finance committee chair was 93, and our lay leader was 90. We had one person in their 20s and I was the only person in my 30s. Our young people were the ones in their 60s and 70s, and there was only a handful of them. Today, we interviewed several candidates for our nursery worker position. We have 10 children under the age of two with at least one more on the way and a few that are older. We have many young adults, several families, and many new people. The landscape of our church has changed.

Our building has also changed. Five years ago, our historic building was in gross need of repair. About 1/3 of the building had become unusable due to water damage, mold and decay. Asbestos covered each floor. The stained glass windows were attached with lead that was becoming brittle to the point that the windows were literally bulging and cracking. The toilets worked on some Sundays and other Sundays I would walk in and see water all over the floor. The roof was the original 1917 roof. I could literally poke my fingers through some walls that were crumbling. It was a "leak a week" building that was consuming a ton of time, energy and resources.

Today, this very building has been completely restored and is ready to serve whoever walks in for the next 100 years. At the same time, we have multi-use space in a new building that is being used for all kinds of stuff. Tomorrow, we'll host our current mayor and the city council chairperson for a debate. We have hosted countless weddings, many conferences, several seminary classes, training sessions for local groups, and other meetings. We are the home for several nonprofits who tell me each week how grateful they are for their office space. We have a growing relationship with a seminary that houses students upstairs and faculty downstairs. We have two bakers who are making their small business dreams come true through the use of our kitchen. At the same time, we have a great fellowship hall for potlucks and large meetings and really wonderful offices and meeting rooms. The space is a gift from God. There are so many things about it that should have gone wrong and started to go wrong. But, they didn't.

However, not everyone is content with the space. One person shared with me this week how he wishes so much that we were still the 50 member congregation worshipping across the street in a borrowed library. Others point out how much money was spent on the building - something I also struggle and wrestle with. Still others question certain decisions that were made - things that were completely out of our control that were dictated by a historic review board that told us what we could and could not do with the building.

God has blessed us with so much - so much - but we find it easier to complain sometimes than see the goodness in it. God is bringing new people into our midst each Sunday, and we are surrounded by thousands of other unchurched people but we sometimes wonder why we can't be the little community that we first fell in love with. God is leading us to new places and new possibilities - but we would sometimes rather go back to where we were. Lives have been changed but we sometimes would prefer to be the community that does not have any room for additional lives to be changed.

I learned in a church leadership class that every church has a "Let's Go Back to Egypt Committee." Each church family has some people who no matter how good the future might be, always want to go back to what it once was. The Israelites were being led by God who promised to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Still, they complained and wished out loud that they would have died while being enslaved in Egypt. God gave them bread from heaven and water from a rock and they still questioned God's motives and existence. They could only look back instead of looking forward.

I am tempted to look back often. I wonder all the time why my husband and I both bought one-bedroom condos at the height of the market before we met each other. I wonder all the time what decisions would have been made had the congregation that is here today been here five years ago to dream and make plans for a new building. I wonder all the time what would have happened had the property never been sold - or had we been delayed and stuck with a hole in the ground because of a changing landscape. I also wonder what would have happened had our longtime members not had the courage and the vision to sell the property, trusting that something new could happen. Had they not done this, I am pretty sure that I would not be here today. I am also pretty sure that the majority of our newer members would not be here today. Was an enormous amount of money spent on the building? Yes. But it was spent with the hope that countless new people would find their ways through doors that lead to a remarkable community called Mount Vernon Place. They were spent with the hope that this church could again be what it once was - a place faithfully seeking to serve the needs of the community, a place where all kinds of people could come and experience the gift of real community, a place where no one had to be alone in life, a place where the Gospel was being faithfully read, proclaimed and lived.

Things have changed. Things are continuing to change. We serve a God who is always on the move. We do not always keep up with God, and sometimes we go way too far ahead of God. My prayer, however, is that we can always sense God's presence - not in the past, but in the present and the future. May we look ahead - dreaming together for what tomorrow might hold. May we let go and trust God.

Oh, and if you are looking for a church family, please come by. We would love to have you. We have plenty of room for you. We have just done something crazy, something risky, something extravagant, all in anticipation for the day you would join us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Unexpected Hero

For the last several weeks, our congregation, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, has been working with nearby Asbury United Methodist Church and Wesley Theological Seminary on a journey towards reconciliation. The two congregations are located less than two blocks away from each other. I can see Asbury from my office window. We are so close when it comes to geography and so far apart when it comes to history.
One of the first things people notice about our monumental structure are words etched in stone, "Methodist Episcopal Church South." The large words are etched above both main entrances to the sanctuary building. The church building is monumental - it looks more like the Supreme Court building than it does a steepled church. It was designed to stand tall, to stand out, to stand above. And, it was paid for by people from other churches all over the south who were part of the same denomination, proudly stamping their building with the denomination name.
Our church was the "representative church" for the part of the Methodist Church that split in 1844 over the issue of slavery. When a bishop acquired slaves through marriage and would not let them go, the church split. The Methodist Episcopal Church would not tolerate slavery - a stance our church has held since its beginning. The Methodist Episcopal Church South, on the other hand, said slavery was fine.
We split. We built a monumental church. We remained a separate denomination until 1939. And, our churches have remained separate in so many different ways. But, through the gift of a partnership, our stories are being told in new ways - ways intended to bring together that which has been separated - to bring healing to hurt.
Our journey started with a film as we gathered to watch a movie and then talk. We then had a night devoted to hearing the history of Asbury UMC. The next Wednesday evening we learned about the history of race in the United Methodist Church. We then gathered last Wednesday night to learn the history of Mount Vernon Place.
I thought I knew what to expect. I tell the history in a short synopsis at each new member class. I have spent hours in the archives pouring through the files of history. However, I had never heard one of our members, Mary Lou, speak about our history. I had never heard her tell her role in seeking to change history nearly 50 years ago.
Mary Lou brought with her two documents. One of them was a copy of a local newspaper article from March 14, 1962. The article was titled, "Churches Declare Welcome to All Regardless of Race or Background" and told how 74 Protestant churches came together to sign a statement "welcoming into full membership all persons of any racial, economic or social background." Mary Lou brought the article and pointed out how Asbury had signed the document. She commended them for her taking a stand and then continued to tell her story.
She shared how she was responsible for the young adult group at church and invited a speaker to come and share on "How to Integrate an Unintegrated Church." Mary Lou was seeking to be faithful. She was seeking to follow her savior and expose the young adults to a different way. The conversation, however, did not go well. Mary Lou brought with her a letter dated June 14, 1962 from the pastor of Brightwood Park Methodist Church. Rev. Harry L. Bennett wrote to Mary Lou expressing thanksgiving and then shared, "I'm sorry about the embarrassment that the topic might have had for your Pastor and some of the church members. Perhaps some church members and pastors need to be embarrassed and shocked, especially when it comes to long overdue brotherhood and decent human relations."
Mary Lou did not elaborate on what had happened. She did not share why the pastor was embarrassed or what happened. She only made it clear that the conversation did not go well. In the meantime, I have been praising God for Mary Lou. I have been giving thanks for how her efforts nearly 50 years ago have played a part in getting us where we are today. I now see how Mary Lou's fingerprints are not only on the handles of doors that are opened as she brings people to church but on a congregation that has been transformed in more recent years. While we have a ways to go, I am so thankful for the steps taken long before many of us arrived at this place. I am also thankful for people at both churches who are willing to tell stories - to take steps towards wholeness and healing.
Thanks be to God for my new unexpected hero. Thank you, Mary Lou, for what you have done to make this church what it is today. Thank you for being you.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Fine Print

Wednesdays are my favorite day to open the Washington Post. I love Wednesdays because it is the day the Food Section arrives with the normal parts of the newspaper, and tucked inside the Food Section are advertisements that I always look forward to reading. Each Wednesday, my eyes cannot wait to see what my local grocers have on sale. Giant, Harris Teeter, Safeway and Shopper's all tell me what they are willing to take a loss on that week in order to get me through their door, and they usually succeed. With four grocery stores within a mile of our house, I am willing to travel to save money.
Saving money is an art for me, actually. Each week, I make a list of what is on sale at each place and then carefully go through my coupon file to see if I can save even more money. I even get things FREE sometime! It is a delightful thing to save money on groceries - especially on items that I use each week anyway.
A few weeks ago, Giant had a special. If I bought $20 of a certain brand of products, then they would take $10 off my final bill. I carefully selected the products I would purchase, adding the cost of each one until I reached $20. Part of the plan was to purchase 7 boxes of Nabisco Crackers (I eat them at home and also use them for coffee hour at the church).
Prior to going to Giant, however, I stopped at Safeway where I was delighted to find a stack of coupons free for the taking. I took 4 coupons for $1 off a box of Nabisco Crackers. Geesh, I am going to save even more money, I thought to myself.
I got to Giant, put all my things on the belt, watched the $10 be taken off on the screen when all of my Kraft products had been scanned, and got in the car. I was so pleased at my savings. But, when I got home and looked at my receipt, I realized that I had not saved the $10. Somehow the $10 was not taken off at the very end - when the checkout person scanned my $1 coupons. My $1 coupons did not total to spending $20 worth of products. I was so frustrated! I then got out the advertisement and read the fine print. I read the small words that said something like "Purchase must total more than $20 after coupons are subtracted."
If I would have only read the small print!!
How often we as Christians fail to read the small print. We have gotten good at finding the words in scripture that we want to find. We can justify many a hate by picking and choosing what we want to read in the Bible. People can point to verses that state why I as a female should be silent in church. They can point to the teaching of Paul when it comes to homosexuality and cast one word of judgment upon another. There are places in the Bible that even justify the sin of slavery. Passages of scripture are used to justify our hatred all the time, in fact.
But what about the small print?
The central message of the Old and New Testaments is that we are to love God with all that we have while loving our neighbor as ourselves. While we are quick to judge others, Jesus says time and again that we are not to judge. He even says that the one who can throw the first stone is the one who is without sin which means none of us.
What might happen if all of us who are seeking to follow Jesus sought to read the entire book instead of the ones that enable us to be anything but Christlike?
I love the pin I was given at the Capital Pride Festival - the little one that reads, "Don't use religion to justify your hatred."
Try reading the small print. There's a lot more love there than we normally allow ourselves to see.