Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The race for mayor in the District of Columbia is heating up. When I got off the Metro today and made my way to the church, I passed some eight different individuals holding a sign, campaigning for a particular candidate. They were all along the intersection of Massachusetts and Ninth Streets. I passed five different people holding a sign before one of them spoke to me.
"Good morning," he said. "Are you a registered voter in the District?" I explained to him that I am not a resident of the District but still own a home here. He then told me to have a nice day. I decided not to leave it at that, however. Instead, I shared a few thoughts.
"You know, you are the first person holding a sign to speak to me today? I have passed several people holding the same sign but no one else even said, 'Good morning.'" I then told him that him saying "Good morning" to me meant more to me than the sign he was carrying. I then said something that I should not have said. "None of your volunteers seem to really care about the people who are passing them. Are they like the candidate you are representing?"
Again, what I said might have been too much. But, I was so struck by so many people who did not even speak to me - so many people representing someone but relying only upon a sign without even offering a word of greeting.
The church has many signs. We have two crosses in our front yard - crosses that stand some seven feet high. We also have a sign that lights up at night - one that announces how all are welcome in this place. We put out additional signs on Sunday mornings, inviting others to come in. There are signs all around us. Still, these signs mean nothing if the people who put them up are not willing to go the extra mile to welcome someone. If our signs say that all are welcome but our actions speak otherwise, then the signs should have never been ordered. It does not matter how many crosses we have hanging around our necks. If we are not willing to act like Jesus, then the sign around our neck means nothing.
So often, particularly as United Methodists, the marks of a successful pastor are how many people are coming into worship. The fruits to which we are held accountable are how many people worship with us each Sunday and how many new members join each year. Yet, we could have a church filled with people - all 499 places in the pews filled - and if no one goes out into the world to be like Jesus, then it does not matter. What we do on Sunday is not nearly as important as what we do Monday through Saturday. And, the messages printed on our signs in the church yard are not nearly as effective as the messages conveyed through our lives.
I had my mind made up about the mayor's race before walking downtown today. I cannot vote in two weeks but I know who I would vote for in two weeks if I were still a resident of this city. Still, the people who I passed today could have swayed me. The way they interacted with me could have easily propelled me to tell others why they should vote for a particular person. Their lack of engagement spoke volumes instead. Their preoccupation with carrying a sign while failing to say anything convinced me as to why I would vote for the other candidate.
We are the body of Christ and individually members of it. What do our actions say about the one whom we represent? Can others see more than a cross around our necks? Can people see Christ living and breathing in us?
I pray so.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Happy Hour

We had a plan when we set out yesterday. After saying good-bye to Craig's mom and step-dad, we took the bus into Hamilton with the full intention of making it to Somerset Village. We boarded the ferry to the Dockyard, took the 30 minute journey across the waters, got off and took note of when the next bus would come. With 25 minutes to spare, we decided to walk to the local craft market.

We walked through the bustling market, taking note of Bermuda made goods of all kinds. When we stopped to look at some different jellies, a woman encouraged us to step outside. "You can taste it for free today," she said with delight.

We walked outside where we were greeted by many Bermudians eager for us to sample their goods. One person offered us Rum Cake with a huge smile. Another offered us a taste of Bermuda's main drink, the Dark and Stormy before giving us a shot of the oldest rum made by this particular company. We never made it to the jelly table as we were soon summoned inside a pub where the Dark and Stormy drinks were on special and a delightful person, Wayne, was entertaining with his keyboard. We got a table, ordered a drink and started to communicate with Wayne.

Everyone was in a good mood. Everyone was being offered an opportunity to taste something new. Everyone was being welcomed to come inside. Everyone was offered a true taste of Bermuda. It was happy hour, a time that started at 2:00 in the afternoon and ended at 4:00.

And, it did not take long to understand the timing of Happy Hour. The Dockyard is the place where large cruise ships are anchored. The ship right outside the location of the craft market was scheduled to leave at 4:30. Happy Hour was planned at a time when the visitors to the island would be most likely to enjoy one more final taste of Bermuda, buy one more bottle of Rum, take home one more Rum cake for an office mate, or buy one more Christmas ornament made from Bermuda glass. The samples were not for the locals - they were for visitors. The pub specials were not created around the schedules of the locals - they were designed specifically for the people who would be visiting. The atmosphere was carefully choreographed with the visitor in mind.

When Happy Hour ended, Wayne, the musician, came over to talk with us. He shared a part of his story and then asked why we were on the island. I shared how I was here to preach for two Sundays, and he immediately said, "I'm an Atheist." When we continued to talk, he shared how he had been all over the world and observed each religion of the world. He told us how he had read the Koran and read the Bible, how he had worshipped with Buddhists and with Catholics. "When I examine the way people live, however, I realize that the people who are Buddhists live a lot more like Jesus than the people who claim to be Christians," he shared. He continued to talk about the hypocrisy of the church and how he does not see many Christians being kind and loving, generous and hospitable, caring and gentle. When our conversation had ended, we all concluded that Wayne really has not given up on God - but on the church. As a result of the church, he wants nothing to do with God.

What if our churches spent time doing whatever we could to prepare for Wayne's arrival? What if each action and time of worship was prepared not for the people who always come but for the person who has never come? What if we created an atmosphere for the visitor like the one we encountered in the pub yesterday - where the very best was offered without price, where the locals were all eager to welcome and greet the newcomer, where excitement and anticipation filled the air, where everything was perfectly planned and executed for the visitor?

We gather around a table in our sanctuaries where all are welcome and no one is turned away. Wine is shared - wine that represents the very best poured out so that all might have eternal life. We break bread that is the bread of life. We pass peace as we celebrate our reconciliation made possible through Christ. We hear the story of how we are to care for the people around us - especially the individuals who are too often forgotten. We are welcomed - no matter who we are, where we have been, or what we have done.

I wish Wayne lived in Washington. I'm pretty sure I could get him to visit Mount Vernon Place sometime. And yet, I am quite sure that there are people like Wayne all around us - all around each of our churches. What will we do to prepare for his arrival?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the Eye of the Storm

I've never been in the eye of a storm. When I lived in North Carolina, there were times when powerful winds blew. I have survived snow storms. I have been caught in a thunderstorm without an umbrella. But, I have never before been in a place before that is the target for a hurricane.

Yesterday, all that changed. Throughout the day, I kept looking at the Weather Channel, wondering what would happen if Hurricane Danielle were to hit the island of Bermuda. I called US Airways to inquire about the status of our flights. I talked with the lay leader of the congregation where I am serving for two weeks, asking if they ever cancel church. I have done everything I can to increase my sense of anxiety and anticipation.

All the while, no one around me is really worrying. None of the Bermudans seem worried about the storm. Everyone assures me that the houses have been built to withstand any storm. "Church will go on as planned," I have been told.

The above map lightens my load. The island is no longer in the center of the storm. The Hurricane is moving to the East at a pace I much prefer. I am thankful.

But why is it that we worry so much? Why is it that we allow one little thing to cause us so much anxiety?

As I continue to reflect on the last couple of weeks, I see the places where I have automatically assumed the worst instead of trusting in the best. When a staff member accepted a new position in another city, I immediately thought of everything that could go wrong instead of looking at the window of opportunity being given to the church. When doctors told me two weekends ago that I am not allowed to drive for a while, I immediately started to think about all the ways this limitation will impact my job instead of thinking about the wonderful ways in which I can share parts of pastoral ministry with more members of the church. When a Hurricane started to get stronger in the middle of the ocean, I called my airline instead of praying that all would be okay.

Why do we worry so much? Where is our faith?

In the 14th Chapter of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has sent the disciples to the other side of the water. While they are in the boat, Jesus goes away to pray. We're told that when evening arrives, Jesus is still away praying when a storm comes. The boat in which the disciples are traveling is far away from the land and becomes battered by waves with a wind blowing against them. The disciples, who surely know that Jesus is close by, fail to recognize Jesus when he starts to walk towards them. They become terrified and conclude it is a ghost. Jesus then quickly responds, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

With these words, Peter, preposterous Peter!, pushes his luck a bit and dares Jesus to command him out of the boat. Jesus invites him to come, Peter steps outside, discovers that he is walking on water, gets afraid and then starts to sink. He is then immediately admonished for his lack of faith.

I have been frightened so many times in the last two weeks. I have been frightened by health issues that I have never experienced before. I have been frightened by needles stuck inside my veins. I have been frightened by medical bills even though I have insurance. I have been frightened by a hole in my heart. I have been frightened by being put on a medication that could have major side effects. I have been frightened by being told that I am not allowed to drive. I have been frightened by a storm - by a real storm in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and by the storms of life.

Yet, I have also seen Jesus inviting me to step out and trust him. I have heard his voice telling me to not be afraid. I have been assured that he is with me no matter what. He has allowed me to come to this place of beauty in order to discover rest, renewal and extraordinary hospitality. He has surrounded me with church members who have assured me that no matter what, it is going to be okay. He has allowed me to spend this week with family - with some of the people I love the most. He has held my hand, invited me to get out of the boat and trust him. He is with me.

"Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Hole in my Heart

One of the things the physicians discovered last weekend is that I have a small hole in my heart. I have something that is rather common in individuals, a Patent Forament Ovale (PFO). Typically, individuals are born with these small holes that typically close after a year or two. However, some individuals discover later that the flap never closed, allowing small amounts of blood and other particles to travel from one part of the heart to the other. This passing through can actually lead to heart attack and stroke.

While hospitalized last week, I watched on a screen as one health professional created bubbles with my IV, forcing fluid through the veins so we could see if there was an opening. Sure enough, a tiny opening was found - the same opening already discovered and fixed in the hearts of my mother and a cousin - and I watched as the bubbles filled the other side of my heart. The doctors are not convinced that my PFO is large enough to be the culprit for my dizziness and fainting. Yet, I cannot stop thinking about this hole and its implications. A really small hole in the heart can wreck havoc. A really small hole in the heart can be the reason for major health issues.

In the 51st Psalm, David writes powerful words about the heart. He begins the Psalm by praying to the Lord, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." He then continues later, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me... Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit."

Create in me a clean heart. These words are the prayer of David. A contemporary song invites us to sing, "Change my heart O God." The heart is a powerful vessel, and all it takes is one small hole to make the heart unclean. All it takes is one little ounce of impurity or hatred to cause the heart to be unhealthy.

Think about all the impurities we allow into our hearts - hatred of others, an unwillingness to forgive, being anti- this or that, our tendency to be judgmental, our preconceived notion of the other, an unwillingness to hear another's story, and the list goes on and on. All it takes is one little thing to get into our heart and cause it to not beat the way God designed it to beat - and the impact is the same whether we are speaking of our physical hearts or our spiritual hearts or perhaps even the heart of our churches.

What about your heart? What's the condition of your heart?

I'm praying for a clean heart. If the PFO is what is causing my health issues, then I want it fixed quickly. But, I'm also praying for any other ounce of hatred in my heart that is pushing through to be cleansed, to be withdrawn, to be healed.

Gracious and loving God, touch my heart once more. Cleanse it from any impurities. Block any holes that allow hatred or other impurities to pass through. Give me a heart that beats like yours. Make my heart large enough to love like you. Give me a beating, understanding, overflowing heart. Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Touched by the Church

I spend most of my days trying to figure out how God can use me to be a blessing. My vocation as pastor is one in which I seek to be poured out for others - visiting people who are sick, comforting the lonely, offering a word of hope to those who mourn and being present when people need me. Providing pastoral care is a large part of my assignment. But last weekend, I was not providing pastoral care. Instead, I was the one receiving it.

The weekend started rather normal. I had a relaxing Friday morning and was getting ready for the rest of the weekend. I was starting to dry my hair when I noticed myself becoming dizzy. A few moments later, I was getting up from the floor with a huge knot on my head that happened sometime on the way down from fainting. I got up, placed some ice on my head for a few minutes and then went about my day. It was unusual but not that unusual. I have passed out several times so did not think much about it... until Saturday when it happened again with my husband watching the entire thing.

We called the cardiologist and drove to the Emergency Room. The ER doctor performed a few routine checks and an hour later I was being informed that my "room upstairs was ready."

"Excuse me?" I asked. "I cannot stay here. It's Saturday. I'm a pastor. I have to be at church tomorrow." The doctor looked at me with patient eyes, shared how I could spend the next week going in and out of physician offices or I could stay in the hospital and get whatever was happening to me treated as aggressively as possible with a series of tests. I obliged very reluctantly. And the church started to act.

I placed a call to a member engaged to one of our newest members who is a seminarian. I invited the two people to lead worship the next day. At the same time, my husband called one of our longtime and active members. When we hung up the phone, this person started calling people. He worked hard to make sure that every aspect of worship would be cared for. He must have made close to 20 calls. He invited a variety of different people to help with worship. He did whatever he could to make sure that worship would be faithful and inspiring.

When Sunday morning arrived, three different people showed up ready to preach. Three people came prepared to be used by God. The sermon was given by an 88-year-old saint of the church. Mary Elizabeth told the story of the Prodigal Son in such a way that blessed many hearers.

Following church, I was visited by three people. The church came to me. Jerry, Mary Lou and Christine came to provide care to me. I cried in their midst. I expressed anxiety about my current reality and some of the changes coming my way. They held my hand, comforted me, and cared for me. They were the church to me.

Calls continued through the week. One of our members left a message and then called back to leave a prayer on our voice mail. Cards have come with scriptures that I would normally read to others. Rides have been provided. My 102-year-old friend, Howard, had a rose ready for me when I showed up to Bible study. Hugs have been extended. Prayers have been lifted - countless prayers.

I have experienced the church - I have been touched by the church.

Mount Vernon Place is filled with so many remarkable people. Many of them have been coming to church for eight, nine or even ten decades. They know how to be the church. They know the words of James - that if one member suffers we are all called to suffer together and we are called to pray for one another. They care for each other. And, they are teaching our younger, newer members how to care for each other. They embody the Body of Christ with their actions, and their actions are teaching others how to be the Body of Christ. It is really quite beautiful.

My church carried me through last weekend. My church touched me with the hands of Christ. My church anointed my head with oil. They reminded me that no matter what happens, my cup overflows. It was a pure gift to receive the blessing of the church.

I desperately needed the church last weekend, and the church showed up in ways more powerful than I could have ever imagined.

How do people live without the church?

Friday, August 06, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

I received a frantic call from my husband last evening. Craig called on his drive home to tell me how much damage had been done in our neighborhood. He shared how traffic was at a standstill and trees were everywhere. I looked out my office window as we spoke and saw a lot of rain but nothing that looked too severe.

When I got home last night, approaching our neighborhood, I saw trees everywhere. In every lawn in our tree-filled neighborhood lied large trees and huge branches. There were trees everywhere - blocking sidewalks, stairs and streets. I have never seen anything like it. Seeing was believing. I fully understood what Craig was concerned about the moment I saw it with my own eyes.

How many times do we take time to see things with our own eyes? How many times do we place aside our own thoughts and opinions on the situation or concerns expressed by another person in order to see the weight of the matter?

We have started a journey to racial reconciliation with a neighboring United Methodist Church in downtown Washington. We have had three sessions and are now anticipating a fall Bible study and conversation composed of people from Asbury and Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Churches in addition to our partners at Wesley Theological Seminary. We are just getting started, but I have already had my eyes refocused. My eyes, mind and heart are already seeing a perspective they did not see before.

I learned a few weeks ago the pain that one of my colleagues experienced when she lived across the street from a hospital in Washington - a hospital that she was not allowed to enter even when a relative was choking. I have learned about the pain of passing certain department stores in downtown Washington - stores that sold beautiful things that only a certain shade of person could purchase. I have learned the perceptions of our church - the lure of a chapel whose doors were open all the time but nonetheless seemed accessible to individuals at a church of the same denomination less than two blocks away. And, I learned this week the pain associated with newer developments at Mount Vernon Place.

I now see things differently. I see how my words or actions could be misinterpreted. I see how important it is for me to listen more fully. I see how important and hard the work of reconciliation can be.

What does it take for us to see things through the eyes of another? To seek to understand what it is like to be in the minority? To seek to understand the loneliness in the life of a recent widow or a new resident of the city? To pursue an appreciation for someone else's job responsibilities - to seek to understand the weight of a change in office dynamics or the team? To want to hear what is happening or has happened in the life of another that causes them to react the way the do today? How is it that we gain an understanding heart - one that does not look out the window and say, "I have no idea what he's worried about. It's barely raining here!" How is it that we get to the place where we do not say, "Get over it! Racism is a thing of the past and not prevalent today" and instead say, "Help me to better see what your life is like."

I had no idea that yesterday's storm was so bad. It did not look bad from my office window. But when I switched locations and moved to a different place, I understood. The storm - yesterday's storm - was really, really bad.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stereotypical Librarians

There are many things I love about the location of the church I serve. From my office window, I can observe water play time at the child care center across the street. I know when traffic is stopped because of a suspicious package. I can see when the weather is beautiful just by looking at size of the lunch crowd at the restaurant across the street. And, when I walk out the doors of the church, I can almost always tell which group is meeting at the Convention Center.

Without fail, the attendees usually have a name badge that tells me their name and where they are from. They also regularly have an identical bag on their shoulders identifying which convention they are attending.

I love our location.

A few weeks ago, there was a librarian convention in town. Many of these individuals were identifiable not because of the bag they carried but because of the way they dressed, the shoes they wore, or the way the styled their hair. On that Sunday morning, we were blessed to have about 8 librarians worship with us. When the worship service ended, someone remarked, "You could tell they were librarians just by the way they looked."

It's been several weeks since this happened, but I still keep thinking about the statement. I keep thinking about it because I am also in a field where people are often known for how they look. Almost half of my colleagues (myself included) could stand to lose more than a few pounds. Some of us wear clergy collars that immediately give us away. Few of us dare to wear skirts more than an inch or two above the knee. Most of us struggle with what to wear - especially if we are a woman.

When I experienced a call to ministry, one of the first things I thought about was how I did not want to be like most of the women preachers I knew. Few of them wore lipstick or toenail polish. I had a hard time finding one that had been able to successfully balance the church, a husband and children. Not many of them seemed to live the life I wanted or appeared the way I wanted to appear. A few years later, I realize how I pray others are not stereotyping me for being a "typical preacher."

But, I keep thinking about the power of stereotypes.

Sadly, the church is now stereotyped by many adjectives that are not so positive. People outside the church see us as anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and many other not so nice adjectives. We have been placed in a hole of irrelevancy. We have been cast aside as part of an organization that is no longer needed. And, I'm learning that it can take a lot to break this stereotype. It can take a lot to show someone a different side of Christianity.

But, I'm trying. And, all the while I am trying, I realize how easy it is to put on a facade. If a church member were to follow me thru Washington traffic, they would quickly see that I am not always Christlike. If someone were to peek inside my closet or see the purses I carry, they would see that I struggle with possessions. If someone were to look inside my heart, they would see that I often struggle just as much as the next person - there are some people that I, too, have a hard time liking.

But, I'm trying. By the grace of God, I'm trying to not live up to the stereotypical Christian but to be the kind of person I see Jesus calling to follow him throughout the Gospels. I'm trying to share more of what I have been given with people in need. I'm trying to watch my mouth - even when an --- cuts me off on I-395. I'm trying to be one who loves God with all I have and my neighbor as myself. I'm trying to be a really good pastor and an even better Christian.

What would happen if we as the church worked hard to break the stereotypes bestowed upon us today? What would it take for us to live our faith with all that we are? How could we better embody our faith in such a way that someone would say, "Wow. That person is really trying to be like Jesus?"

I'm trying.