Friday, December 24, 2010

My Christmas List

I have been reflecting a lot this week about Christmas in years past. I recall the year I finally got a Cabbage Patch Kid. Mine did not come in the box like everyone else for mine was carefully created in the home of a creative craftswoman, but I loved it just the same. I also remember the time when my sister and I came home from school to find water beds in our rooms, an early gift for Christmas. There was another year when we found a small bowling ally in the family room, waiting for us under the tree. Many of these gifts were the result of conversations with Mom and Dad or our making lists for Santa and hanging them on the refrigerator for all shoppers to see. Each year, it seemed as though we were granted many of our desires. We made a list of what we wanted, and many of these items magically appeared under our tree on Christmas morning with Santa tracks around the house in the snow.

I'm making a similar list for Christmas this year. While the list is not pegged to the refrigerator in our home, I suspect there is one who hears the cry of my heart, one who also longs to see some of these things come to fruition.

All I want for Christmas is...

Time with my family. It has been a rough week this week with my mom being in the hospital since Sunday morning. We have had several scares with her health and have been on our knees through much of the week, asking God to bring her healing. It appears she'll be home tomorrow for Christmas. I am grateful. As we get older, the preciousness of family seems to grow more intense. I am so incredibly thankful for family and yearn for more time to create priceless memories together.

Time for friends. As we have been praying this week, I have continuously been reminded of others who are praying with us. I am convinced that I have some of the most amazing friends in the world. I am so thankful for the calls and texts and Facebook comments that have been received. I pray in the New Year that I can become an even better friend - that I can remember each birthday or anniversary, that I'll be led to write a note for no reason other than to express thanksgiving for the gift of someones presence in my life, that I'll make more calls just to say 'hello' and that we'll make more time to be with people whose lives mean so much for us.

Craig and I have some control over the above two wishes. I need a lot of help with the remaining ones.

An end to homelessness. I'm tired of seeing people wrapped up in gray blankets distributed by the city, snuggled on top of cardboard boxes even when the temperature is below freezing. I don't understand why so many people are homeless in our city and in our nation. The more I get to know some of these individuals personally, the more confused I grow. How is it that more space can be made until all people have a place to call home? What role can our church and churches around the nation play in making this wish a reality?

An end to violence. I live in a city where violence erupts regularly. I do not understand why kids are carrying guns. I have no idea why anyone feels a need to own a military style defense weapon. Why are kids killing kids? Why does an argument become so fierce that someone feels a need to end another person's life? What is worth so much that someone will kill another person in order to get it? I long for the day when war will be no more because weapons will be beat into plowshares - into tools that are used for the building of community instead of the tearing down of community.

A denomination that truly embodies Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors. I'm grateful to be a United Methodist. The United Methodist Church is the only church I have ever known other than a few Sunday nights spent in praise at the local Assembly of God Church. I love our focus on grace and the ways in which these beliefs are made manifest by the ways in which we go out of our way to abundantly open all people to the table of the Lord whenever the sacrament is administered. I am so thankful for our emphasis on practical divinity - on our believing not only with our minds but with our hands and our feet by our putting our faith into practice. I love our church. Yet, I long for a church that practices what it preaches. I long for a church that truly is abundantly open to all people. I long for a church with people who realize constantly that there go any of us but by the grace of God. I'm tired of my denomination putting one group of people aside, pulling out one aspect of who a person is and allowing that aspect to hold them down. I think about what Peter Storey recently told me about something Desmond Tutu used to say in South Africa, "I'd love to be reconciled with you but it is hard to shake your hand when your foot is on my neck." Our church continues to place our feet on the necks of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We continue to say that all are welcome, that all people are of our sacred worth, and then we put our foot on the neck of a gay brother when we say that their life is incompatible with Christian teaching and that they cannot experience two of the most amazing gifts I have ever received - the gift of marriage and the gift of being a pastor. I want a more inclusive United Methodist Church. I want a transformed United Methodist Church.

More people who will come to know the incredible gift of Mount Vernon Place. Not a Sunday goes by when someone does not stop and say to me, "I love the authenticity of this place." As I write to each first-time visitor, we are young and old, lifelong churchgoers and people new to the church, individuals filled with faith and people struggling to believe, housed and unhoused, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, Methodists and Catholics, and countless things in between. What unites us is a sincere desire to figure out what it means to be faithful in our context of downtown Washington I have honestly never experienced a congregation like the one I am privileged to serve. I watch as individuals in my church family open their doors and their hearts and now even their homes to people in need whether that need is the gift of someone to listen, a place to shower and sometimes a place to stay at night. I watch as people are really wrestling with the gospel and the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. I watch as our community of faith is growing deeper and wider. There is something happening in this church, and I am so excited to see what the future holds for us. I pray that people who have been hurt by the church or told they are not welcome at the church will find their way to us. I pray that people who have only seen a hypocritical side to the church will be led to us. I pray that people who want nothing to do with the church will give us a second chance.

An End to Hunger. The local newspaper has educated me this year on how many children in our city are relying upon the public school system to feed them three meals a day. I wonder what these children are doing during the Christmas break - who is feeding their stomachs. I also wonder why I am not moved to do more each time I fill my grocery cart at the local Safeway, buying some things that will not even get eaten but rot in the refrigerator and then be placed in the trash. I long for a world where no one is dying of starvation, where no child is having a hard time focusing at school because their stomach is empty, where all people are fed.

My list could continue. There many other things I would love to have. And yet, as I write this list, I realize how much we have been given.

Thank you, God, for every gift you have so generously given to us. Thank you for a warm home and plenty of food, amazing friends and beautiful family members, prophetic colleagues and a remarkable church. Thank you for my health and for arms and legs that provide mobility. Help me, God, to know what part I can play in making my wishes a reality.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Becoming an Angel

I was touched by these words this morning from Ann Weems:

Wouldn't It Be Grand To Be An Angel

Wouldn't it be grand to be an angel
and have your address
"The Realms of the Glory of God"?
And swing on rainbows,
and gather stars in your pockets,
winging in and out of earth
in a flurry of moondust
with the messages of God?
Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous,
delivering the just, guarding little children?
Of course, we can comfort and warn
and deliver and guard.
Maybe, if we get that right,
we can swing on rainbows later.

Ann Weems, "Kneeling in Bethlehem," 1980.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I'm a Survivor

It was a typical holiday party. The food table held fresh-baked sugar cookies with different colors of frosting stacked on top, spicy chicken wings, and many different kinds of dips with chips and vegetables standing ready nearby. All kinds of sodas were stacked in the corner. A tree stood in another place with dozens of gifts nearby ready to be distributed.

I arrived with a family of four and took an empty seat at a table. The person sitting next to me immediately introduced himself and said, "I'm a survivor." He had a personality larger than life. He seemed to know everyone in the room. I could quickly see that I would be blessed by any conversation I shared with him. We talked about high school and future plans. We laughed. We commented on the cookies. And I listened a lot as he engaged in conversation with six people at the table. Four of the individuals had much in common. They were all high school students, teenagers. And, they were all survivors of sex-trafficking. They were so innocent and yet I knew before I walked into the room that their innocence had been robbed a long time ago. I knew that they had seen far more ugliness, far more misdirected passion, far more hours of the night and darkness in the day than any of us can begin to imagine.

When it came time to open their presents, I watched in delight. I knew that our church had purchased the gifts for two of the individuals. I sat and observed as the young people opened gifts like the ones my 15-year-old niece will open on Saturday - a digital camera and UGG boots, an iPod and a new shade of eye shadow, a pair of pants and a new coat, books and music, and many other things. And, I gave thanks that somehow my niece had been sheltered from the horror that has evaded these young lives.

I remember so well when I first started to see prostitutes on the street. It happened soon after I moved to Virginia and would drive into the city before 7:00 on Sunday morning or any other morning of the week. I can vividly picture the first time I watched someone being arrested in a very short skirt and very high-heeled boots. I know well the time my eyes were opened to the business of the night. But it took a lot of searching and being educated to have my heart and mind opened to what is really happening.

We are often led to believe that any woman working the street is a modern day Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." We somehow have concluded that women choose this life where they can make a thousand dollars a night and then be filled with hope of Richard Gere finally coming along, their Prince Charming whisking them away into an abundant life. Boy was I wrong.

The average age of a girl who enters sex-trafficking is 13. Individuals are found standing alone in shopping centers. Heavier girls with low self-esteem are befriended by men who tell them they are beautiful when no one else is paying them attention. Promises of beautiful clothing or the sneakers that every other kid seems to have are made, and the kids offer more trust to the giver of the gift. They are soon made to pay for the gifts - sent out on the streets with instructions for how to make money. The younger the girls, the more money can be made. Pregnant girls can also beg a higher price. And the trade is not only for girls. Boys are being trafficked, too. And, a really sad reality is that some of the boys who are being trafficked are on the streets because of their sexuality - because their parents kicked them out of the house when they learned their son was gay. Innocence is robbed in the blink of an eye - with many eyes watching. And it's not happening only in far off countries. It's happening here - in Washington and countless other cities in our nation.

It took us a long time to find an organization like Courtney's House. Founded and run by a survivor herself, their mission is to get boys and girls who are being trafficked off the street and into a better life. I got to see their work firsthand on Sunday as I sat with these young people. I could literally see how the chains had fallen off as a result of their passion and dedication. They are in the business of setting the captives free - captives that many of us will never see because we cannot believe that prostitution is alive and well in Washington or because we choose to believe it is a choice instead of forced labor.

Thank you, Courtney's House, for what you are doing. Thank you for the powerful ministry you are embodying in our community. Thank you for opening my eyes and showing me the truth of the matter.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Completely Covered

A group in our congregation has been journeying through Blair Meeks' book, "Expecting the Unexpected" during the season of Advent. Each participant is invited to use the book as a daily devotional guide before coming together on Wednesday night for dinner and discussion. The book offers a wonderful opportunity to not only read scripture passages but to imagine a different reality based on scripture.

Part of today's assignment is to read Isaiah 57:14-24. Meeks then invites the reader to imagine the dwelling places of God that are mentioned in verse 15:

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

As I took time to picture in my mind this morning the places where God dwells, my mind took me first to a high and lofty place in our city - the United States Capitol. It is in this place where 535 individuals have been entrusted with a significant amount of power. It is in this place where dreams can literally come to life, where captives can be released, where resources can be redistributed, and where justice can be done. As I thought about God hovering in this place, I said a prayer. I prayed that justice would be done this weekend as legislation is being discussed that allows all people to serve in our military, in particular. I then continued to pray but to also to praise God for dwelling in this high and lofty place.

My mind then went to the places where the contrite and humble dwell. I thought about all the places I pass in the early hours of the morning. I imagined the places where boxes are stacked and blankets are found in abundance - where unhoused people are sleeping even with snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s. I imagined God dwelling in these places - but not for long - because I cannot imagine God dwelling there without wanting to do something about it. I also imagined God dwelling in the homes of people whose hearts are broken during this holiday season. I thought of people like my mom who mourn the loss of a loved one during Christmas. I thought of families who are entering the season for the first time without someone precious to them. I thought of all who are suffering because of a medical diagnosis, or a disease, or a loss of a job, or a broken relationship, or a loss of a home. I continued to pray but I also gave thanks to God for dwelling in these places.

God's presence cannot be contained in one space. There is not a physical tent big enough in which to hold God. God's hands are far more outstretched than any of us can imagine - and certainly wider than most of our bodies who are seeking to be the body of Christ. God's goodness reigns over all people in all places. And for that, I give thanks!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom the captives wherever they are on this day. Make your presence known in lofty places and make your presence known in the dark corners of the city. Where individuals are held captive to their power, help them to see the ways in which their power can set other captives free. Where individuals are held captive to sadness and depression, set upon them the dawn of a new day made possible through your love and mercy. Make your presence known in churches and make your presence known in city halls. Make your presence known on every street and in every building of this city. Help all who want to follow you to do our part in following you not only to the high and lofty places but also to those who are contrite and humble in spirit. O come, O come Emmanuel. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Scarf No One Wanted

One of our members told a story last week during joys and concerns about something that happened recently during the shower ministry. Volunteers were distributing hats, gloves, coats and scarves to shower ministry guests. When almost everything was gone, the two volunteers looked at the remaining scarf and wondered if anyone would want it. I don't know what the scarf looked like but it was apparently rather loud and unique. While colorful scarves are often valued and appreciated, this particular scarf was a little too colorful. The volunteers wondered aloud if anyone would want it.

Our church member went on to share how a shower ministry guest looked at the scarf and exclaimed with great joy that it was just what she needed. The scarf that was seen as too loud or perhaps even unwanted by two volunteers was exactly what the guest needed. The thing that could have been easily discarded was welcomed as a great gift.

After hearing the story, I shared with the congregation how the church is in the business of finding scarves that no one else wants. Part of our role is to discover individuals who have been too easily tossed aside or seen as not as useful and then uncover their gifts. We take delight in putting someone who is normally on the sidelines in the front and center - allowing the spotlight to shine brightly.

When I think about the congregation I am privileged to serve, I am constantly awed and amazed by the ways in which different people shine the light of Christ to me. We have one member who cannot communicate in complete sentences. She can only say a few words. And still, not a Sunday goes by when this member does not touch me in a profound way. While we are stumbling through the liturgy with our words or trying to sing the right tune, this member embodies the worship of God with her whole being as she lifts her hands or sways to the music in praise, wonder and delight. I see God every time I am in this woman's presence - without any words being spoken.

There is another member of the church about whom I could write an entire book. He drives me crazy at times, leaving up to 14 voice mail messages on the same day. I never know what to fully expect when I am in his presence as his life is kept in balance by different medications. And still, this individual has demonstrated to me time and again what it means to be like Christ. He is constantly asking me about a woman whose daughter died tragically too soon a few years ago. When it comes time to wake up our unhoused neighbors who are sleeping on the porch, this member shows me how to gently awaken people in a way that shows me that they are indeed respected and valued. When it comes to the care of the church facility, this member always wants things to look perfect. When we visit the sick or shut-ins, this person has the capacity to sing in a way that brings delight to all who are listening. I would not trade the privilege of being this person's pastor for anything - even though he often takes all of the patience I can muster!

Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, one of our largest United Methodist Churches, often shares how the United Methodist Church is one of the few places where he has been given a spot on the team. He shares how it is in this forum that he has been noticed, named and nurtured - able to play as well as he can. I think often of these words and am so grateful for our church allowing Mike to play. His leadership is making a huge difference in our denomination. I am so thankful that someone took time to see his gifts.

I have just returned from a holiday market where there were numerous vendors selling scarves. There are some scarves I loved and some scarves that I would never choose to wear. Yet, someone will likely love the scarves I did not choose and someone will likely hate the scarves I love.

When it comes to the church, I am so incredibly thankful for the same diversity - for the ways in which we are so many different colors, ages, theologies, backgrounds, sexual orientations, gifts, appearances, and the list goes on and on. I am also thankful that this church is one that seeks to welcome everyone - never knowing how Christ might be revealed to us in all of these people.

God shows up in the least likely places - in the womb of a virgin, in a borrowed barn in Bethlehem, in the beggar asking for money, in your life, and in my life. Thanks be to God!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Avoiding the Conversation

It is Advent. I have not written anything on the blog for over two weeks. I spent the day at home because I nearly worked myself sick by working 8 straight days. I have eaten too many little chocolates. I have spent more money than I intended to spend. I have gotten caught up in the hustle and bustle of the society again instead of remembering the reason for the season.

It's Advent. The Sunday morning lectionary texts will not allow me to forget the mystery and wonder of this season. My preaching preparation has pushed me to reflect often on how we are called to be prepared. We have sung "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and I have dreamed of a white Christmas.

It's Advent and while I have already journeyed two weeks into the season in a way far more different than what I originally planned, I cannot help but to be filled with hope. I cannot help but to sense God's presence gently nudging me to expect something different with hopeful anticipation. I can feel a new reality on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues was sharing with me how we might need to spend more time talking to God about what we don't want to talk to God about - that if we are actually expecting God to do something different then we should address the issues with God that we have somehow concluded were too far out of control to be fixed or too far lost to be found. I've been thinking about this suggestion often during this season of hope - asking God to provide hope in situations that I have found to be hopeless. I have been thinking about what it would mean to pray for and work towards a completely differently reality. Rather than avoiding the conversation on big issues, I have been thinking about how to address them with God.

So often I get exhausted by the needs around me. I look at all the people sleeping in or on top of cardboard boxes in the city and I wonder if there will ever come a day when every person has a bed on which to sleep and a place to call home. I have grown cynical in the process, treating the issue of homelessness as if it is just a part of reality that we can always expect in the city. And then the congregation I serve shows me how if we help even one person it is making a difference. I watched as our congregation accepted a responsibility to provide a place to sleep for a week or two at a time to a couple of men who have been sleeping on our porch for almost two years. The family who first welcomed them to their
home is celebrating their first child's second birthday tomorrow and waiting for the birth of their second child to happen at any time. "Are you kidding me?" I ask as I learn about what is happening - about this family opening their hearts and their doors. Perhaps we can really work towards an end to homelessness. Perhaps we can have the audacity to pray for God to help us end homelessness, trusting that God will grant us wisdom and courage to play our part in the process.

When I drive downtown around the hour of 7:00 each morning, two things happen. 1) I want to cry when I see different girls and women who I know have been out all night, victims of sex-trafficking. 2) I want to literally run my car into the pimps that I see standing on the street corners or driving in their fancy cars with tinted windows. Prostitution is just something we have to accept in the city, many people say. It's just the way it is - the oldest job in the world. But I have watched as one of our building partners has done extraordinary work in seeking to get girls off the streets - out of the place of being a victim and into the place of being a survivor. I watched yesterday as many members of our church returned gifts for a victim of sex-trafficking and her sister. The generosity pouring through the doors was extraordinary. Perhaps we can work to end sex-trafficking. Perhaps we can have the audacity to pray for God to help us in this task.

God, there are so many things that seem too big for anyone to master. I have no idea how to end homelessness - how to get everyone on board to make the changes needed for all to have a place to call home. I lose hope when I hear of another person who has been diagnosed with cancer or when I see someone who is struggling with mental illness. I feel like I am facing an uphill battle when it comes to getting the discipline needed to live a healthier life and take better care of my body. I become so overwhelmed at times when I think about how far under water my husband and I are on our homes and how we may be living in a one-bedroom apartment the rest of our lives - how it may take a decade before we are finally able to sell these places. I lose heart when I think of world hunger or ending peace or getting people off our porch at night. God, there are so many needs around me. Help me, Lord. Help me to trust you. Help me to cast my worries upon you because you care for me. Show me what changes I can make. Teach me how to make a difference. Increase my faith! Help me, Lord. It's Advent, and I am waiting for you to come again but in the meantime, I long to do what I can to be a sign of your kingdom on earth. Let me not avoid the conversation or shy away from the work that needs to be done. Amen.