Thursday, November 25, 2010

Into the Night

I have a tendency to keep good company. I'm privileged to serve as the pastor of remarkable people who tend to often make more of me. I'm constantly amazed by the ways in which these individuals live out their faith - practicing radical hospitality, embodying forgiveness, and living lives of constant generosity and grace. While it might not be wise for me to admit it, there are many times when the people who belong to our church are more like Jesus than their pastor. I'm privileged to be the pastor of so many amazing disciples.

Craig and I chose not to go home this year for Thanksgiving. Influenced by high airfare and Craig's work schedule, we opted to stay home this year. We were tempted often by the idea of feasting on a turkey breast by ourselves - perhaps even coming to the meal in our pajamas. But, we instead were led to accept an invitation to share Thanksgiving with several church members.

We arrived at their home a few minutes after the appointed time to find eight people waiting for us. All but one are church members. They are all twenty and thirty somethings who have come to Mount Vernon Place in the last three years. They are individuals in whom I have seen the face and felt the hands of Christ often. They are people who live their discipleship in real and abundant ways. The other individual who had gathered at the house is someone I have met a couple of times. I met him first on a Tuesday morning when I decided to join the already mentioned saints of the church at our shower ministry. We shook hands that day. He then joined us for Wednesday night dinner last week, and he was at the house today. He had been at the church earlier today to take a shower and then enjoy a Thanksgiving breakfast prepared by other saints of the church. While waiting for a shower or enjoying breakfast he, along with several others who were waiting to take a shower, were invited to the same home where we feasted today. He is the only one to accept the invitation. I sat next to him at the dinner table. We talked about everything from scripture to purgatory to jobs to politics. We laughed. We filled our plates with second helpings of turkey and stuffing. We took delight in pecan pie and milk. When it came time for each person at the table to make a dish of leftovers, he asked for plastic silverware. When it came time to go, Craig and I offered him a ride home.

We dropped another member off first, leaving her on a sidewalk outside a quaint row house on Capitol Hill. I then inquired where this individual wanted to be dropped off. "At Mount Vernon" he said. We then drove towards the church and he asked that we leave him outside an old Carnegie Library - the same place where our congregation worshipped when our building was under construction. We pulled over to an empty building without a single light burning. We let him out onto the sidewalk and watched as he got out of our car and hoisted his backpack upon his shoulders. I then watched as he walked into the night and we returned to the warmth of our home.

If the truth were told, I suppose I should admit that there are many thoughts going through my mind. I realize that I have never taken the time to invite any of our unhoused neighbors to my home for a feast. I realize that I am often pissed at the homeless around the church who piss all over the church more than I am led to show the emotion of empathy. I realize that I cannot in a million years figure out why this person is unhoused - why this twenty-something person who could talk about anything under the sun today and then sit down and play the piano does not have a place to call home. And, I realize that I'm sad tonight. I don't like watching someone walk into the night.

I believe with all my heart that the table fellowship I shared today was a sign of God's inbreaking kingdom on earth. When I sat and ate with people who have so much and people who have so little, I realized that this is the way it is supposed to be - that Christ calls us to be one body - Christ calls us to get rid of our divisions or our 'us vs. them' mentality. But, I also believe that the ending of the day is a sign of why we desperately need God to come again. We need Christ to come again and make all things right.

We're on the cusp of Advent - this season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ. We think of him being born as a humble babe in a barn. And, this image is perhaps more comforting than us thinking of him coming again. We don't always want to think about him coming again because we don't want to think about being judged. But, I need him to come again. I need him to come again and push through the fullness of his kingdom - that place where all of God's children have a place to call home, that place where the poor have good news given to them, where the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the blind receive their sight, and all is made well. I need to know that a different reality will one day take over and cause my heart not to ache as it does tonight but to instead celebrate because all is finally right - all is finally aligned with God's ways.

I'm grateful for this day. I'm filled with deep and profound thanksgiving for so many things. I rejoice for my church family and the people who show me how to live a life centered upon Christ. But I am especially grateful for Christ - for his presence in our lives and for that day when he unrolled the scroll and said, "The kingdom is at hand."

Come, Lord Jesus. O come, O come Emmanuel. I need you, Lord. We need you, Lord. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Defined by Generosity

Our fall stewardship season concluded yesterday. For the last four weeks, we have journeyed together through Adam Hamilton's book titled "Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity." It has been a great experience to gather with all kinds of people from all walks of life to talk about what it means to live a life of simplicity and generosity. The conversation has pushed me to second guess many purchases while also forcing me to stand inside my closet, looking at the many things I have accumulated. I counted my purses for the first time, for example, but have not yet had the courage to see how many dollars I have invested in these bags of all shapes, sizes and colors! (Seriously, does anyone need more than a dozen bags including two pink ones and one green one?)

Our sermon series ended yesterday as I preached on being defined by generosity. Having been the presiding pastor at a graveside service for someone I did not know this past week, the thinking about the kind of legacy I want to leave behind was fresh on my mind. The thought of having a pastor stand and describe an empty or busy life when referring to me was a terrifying thought. I had been thinking all week about how I want to be described when my obituary is written one day. I concluded, along with many others, that I want to be defined by generosity. My mind is now creatively engaged in a process of discerning what this life looks like.

How can one be defined by generosity? The possibilities are rather endless.

One of the individuals in our study shared last Wednesday night how when he was 17-years-old and a rising high school senior, he learned that one of his classmates might not be able to finish high school in their private school. Her family did not have the money to pay for her tuition and she was being forced to finish at the public school instead of at the small Christian school she had attended for more than 10 years. My friend shared how at 17-years-old he came to the decision to use his savings and secretly pay for his friend's tuition. Generosity!

One of the defining practices that has shaped and transformed Mount Vernon Place UMC is the act of sharing coffee, snacks and conversation following each worship service. Every Sunday, more than half of our community gathers in the Narthex and lingers over a cup of coffee and something yummy to eat. For almost a year, the same person came early to prepare the large pots for coffee and hot water. She then patiently cleaned the pots following each time of fellowship. Not many people offered to help. I'm not sure how many people even acknowledged her gift. She simply did a job that needed to be done - a thankless job that made all the difference in the world when it came to our being formed as a community. Generosity!

I worked in seminary admissions for four years prior to returning to Washington. While at Duke, I got to know so many amazing people all around the nation. One of these individuals is a pastor in Florida. He has written many books. He is responsible for a large church with hundreds and hundreds of people. He is a busy person with a full life. Yet, in all the years I have known him, he has stopped often to name my gifts. He has the uncanny ability to make more of me by pointing out the gifts God has given to me. He makes time for me whenever he is in the area. He wants to read what I am writing. He has been a sign of God's abundant love cheering me on. Generosity!

From the place I sit in our church, I have a wonderful view of people coming in for worship. Two weeks ago, I watched as one of our greeters did not just say, "hello" and hand a first-time visitor a bulletin but instead actually led this individual into the sanctuary and sat her next to a church member who was also by herself. The greeter worked hard to establish an immediate connection for this person. When worship was over, I watched as another church member introduced himself to this visitor and then personally accompanied her to coffee hour where he introduced her to many other people. The greeter did not have to lead her into the worship space and find someone with whom the person could sit. The church member could have gone first to people he knew and catch up with them. But, both of these people went out of their way, going the extra mile. When I had coffee with this visitor last week, she told me how these two actions made all the difference in the world. Generosity!

We have countless opportunities to practice generosity. Imagine what it would be like if we all started to see what we could do to live a more generous life? I invite you to try a few things this week:
  • Pick out someone in a restaurant where you are eating - a couple who appears to be having a dispute or a woman eating by herself who appears to be lonely. Tell one of the servers that you want to secretly pay for their meal without them knowing who paid for it.
  • Call your pastor and ask who makes the coffee at the church each week. Ask if you can sign up to help. If there is a person who does this every week, tell your pastor that you'd like to give that person the month of December off so that you can make the coffee each week.
  • Write a note of gratitude. Think about someone who has made a difference in your life and then take time to write them a note - a handwritten, stamped note - letting them know how thankful you are for their presence in your life.
  • Rather than getting caught up in the consumerism of Christmas and the need to buy, buy, and buy, think about how you can give, give, and give. I know one pastor who tells his congregation that they can spend as much as they want on Christmas as long as they bring an equal gift to the church - a Christmas gift that is then invested in a clinic in Africa where lives are being saved through much needed medical treatment. This church has actually built an entire clinic with their Christmas gifts!
  • Rather than buying gifts only for your family, imagine a person in your life who makes all the difference. It might be the person who cleans your office at night. It might be the person at the gym who greets you in a way that makes you glad you came. It might be the person dressed in red who you see picking up trash in the streets of the city. What about surprising that person with a gesture that shows them how much you value their work.
  • When you go to church next week, work extra hard to find someone sitting alone. Sit with that person, introduce yourself, tell them how glad you are that they came. If you cannot find such a person on your way in, do whatever you can to find them on your way out. Your greeting them could make all the difference in that person's day and even their life.
  • Walk through the streets of the city with your head held high and say, "Good morning" to everyone you pass. Try it on the Metro, too. People will look at you with strange looks but it will be fun to see a few people smile, too.
What else comes to your mind? What are your thoughts on a life defined by generosity - on going out of your way to share with others what you have been given? I'd love to hear them! Comment away!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Evangelism 101

Craig and I were on vacation last weekend which afforded us a rare opportunity to worship together. While in Washington, Craig has his church and I have my church. But when we are on vacation we always try to go together. It is a gift to sit in the pew together from time to time. It is an even larger gift to sit next to my husband in the pew.

While in San Diego, I checked out a few church websites in Pacific Beach. I knew that Craig wanted me to go with him to the Catholic Church but I was tempted to go to a place where I, too, could be welcomed at the table. When the investigation was over, I discerned that worshipping with my husband was more important last Sunday than being in a Protestant church, and I gladly obliged.

We arrived at the church ten minutes before the start of Mass. We made our way to the restrooms, passing a few people along the way. We then returned and entered the sanctuary where we took a seat in a pew about halfway back from the pulpit. We were greeted by no one during the journey to the restroom or the sanctuary. Not one person spoke to us. No one said "Good morning." No one said, "Welcome to our church." No one said, "hello." We entered as strangers who were hungry for hospitality and left as strangers who were hungry for a different worship experience. And, I'm still reflecting on the priest's central message of the sermon. He said over and over again, "Actions speak louder than words."

Indeed they do!

I visited a church where no one seemed ready to welcome a new person. I visited a church where no one seemed prepared to offer information or assistance. I visited a church where I was eager to find the presence of Christ in people since I would not experience this presence at the table, and I left with a void. Sure, I loved singing the hymns and I thoroughly enjoyed holding my husband's hand during the homily. But, I expected so much more.

Why is it that our churches cannot get the basics right?

From church, Craig and I traveled to Vons Grocery Store where we picked up a few things. When we walked in the door, two employees immediately greeted us. When we were looking for the perfect bottle of wine to give as a gift, the person in charge of the wine section immediately greeted us, asking how he could help. When we were still in the aisle five minutes later, he asked again, "Are you sure I cannot help you with your selection." As we left the checkout, the cashier called us by name, getting the information from our Safeway Shopping Card. I was not in my ordinary grocery store. I was a first-time visitor in this store. Yet, everyone made me feel more than at home.

What if we were to take a few cues from the local Vons and always have someone standing at the doors of our churches on Sunday morning, eager to say, "Good morning" and "Welcome?" What if we were to take note of the names of people who have signed the pew pad and are sitting next to us so that we can call them by name as we leave? What if we were always looking for a visitor, never taking a first-time visitor for granted? What if we were always prepared to offer radical hospitality to whoever walked in our doors?

Our sign out front says, "All are welcome. Come as you are." But our actions speak so much louder than our words.

I know we do not always get it right. But I hope and pray that no one ever gets out of the doors of Mount Vernon Place without being warmly welcomed.

Our actions speak louder than our words.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Keeping Connected

I should start this post with a clever list of all the reasons I have not kept connected through my blog. There are many excuses and many items on the pages of past calendar days. But, I'm not feeling creative enough to come up with that list. Rather, I'm pondering what it means to be connected to something else.

For the past 30 days, I have been connected at all times to a heart monitor. Four electrodes have been attached to my body, all stemming from the same sensor. This sensor has been in constant contact with a cell phone that has been (at most times) within 10 feet of my body. I've carried the thing around with me for a month. I have scars to prove that the electrodes have been attached to me as my skin developed an allergic reaction to the sticky substance that attaches them. I have been connected at all times.

There are times, however, when it was impossible to stay connected. I had to un-attach all the wires at shower time. There were other times when I mistakenly failed to bring the battery charger with me and the hours of the day ticked past the hours allowed by the phone. There were other times when my body moved too much during the night, forcing the electrodes to become unattached. And, there was another day when try as I might, I could not get the sensor and the phone to communicate with each other.

I was to be connected at all times. When a connection failed, I was alerted. My phone beeped. My sensor beeped. The company who administers the test would call leaving messages on my voice mail. Every effort was made to keep me connected - to keep me in contact at all times.

And it was hard. It was downright difficult. I hated the monitor by day 10. I was counting down the remaining days by day 5. My skin was a mess at day 15. I wanted to do whatever I could to flee from the presence of the monitor - to un-attach everything and send the unit back to the company who mailed it to me. But Lifewatch would not let me get too far. The beeping captured my attention. The phone calls continued. I could not get away from the monitor and the instructions I had been given on how and when to wear it.

In the 139th Psalm, David speaks of an inescapable God. There is no place we can go that is outside the boundary of God's presence. "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast," state verses 7 to 12.

There is no place we can go to escape God's presence. God is with us at all times - whether we are running towards God or running away from God - whether we are embracing God's call or pretending as though we can no longer hear.

I tried to run last week. I put my hands in my air and sought to tell God that I was no longer going to do something God wanted me to do. I threw my fist in the air and shouted at God, asking why God would make me stay in something I deemed not worthy of my time and attention. But, God won. God sent people into my life to tell me what a difference I had made in the exact situation I was seeking to flee. God reminded me through powerful voices of who I am and what I have been called to do - even if I don't like it. God met me in the exact place I was trying to get away from. And, I now am praying for an opportunity to redeem myself - for a chance to do over again what I sought hard to escape last week.

The heart monitor was a pain - it was a nagging presence that I could not get away from. And yet, that little machine has the capacity to help me. It has the potential to show physicians what might be causing me pain and discomfort - what might be pushing me to pass out. The pain might actually be filled with a blessing. Only time will tell.

God's voice can also be a pain. I don't like everything God tells me to do. I cannot figure out why God does not seem to listen to everything I say - why God is seemingly absent at times. I have not yet figured out how to mold God into the God I want and think I need. Still, God keeps nagging. God keeps speaking. God keeps affirming. God keeps calling. And somehow, in the midst of it all, I have grown to love this voice - to see the blessing that comes from this still small voice.

Thank you, God, for searching me and knowing me. Thank you for being with me whether I sit down or rise up. Thank you for never allowing me to run too far. I am grateful for the ways in which you always lead me back. Amen.