Friday, December 30, 2011

Lessons in Living and Dying

As a Methodist, I have been taught to believe that I am going on to perfection. I even told the bishop on the day of my ordination that I expect to be made perfect in this life since that is what candidates for ordination are supposed to say. But I am reminded daily of how far I need to travel before reaching perfection.
It's hard to believe in perfect people.
However, I said goodbye last week to the most perfect person I have ever known.
People often ask me about how Mount Vernon Place has turned around. How is it that we have transitioned from a congregation of 35 people with an average age of 82 to a growing congregation composed of countless young adults? I am still trying to put my finger on the exact recipe for the transformation but I know that Ruth DuLaney was a key ingredient.
She was not one of the young adults who joined the church in the last five years, taking a chance that change would come. Rather, she joined the church as a young adult in the late 1930s and was married at the church in 1940. She then spent the last 71 years encouraging other people to take chances - to let go of rigid ways and dream a new dream. And, she regularly told her peers that they needed to trust their new pastor - words that became my manna in the wilderness.
When I arrived at Mount Vernon Place in 2005, Ruth DuLaney was our lay leader. She was 90 years old according to her birth certificate but her energy level was on par with the average 40 year old. I met her prior to my arrival as a member of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. I next encountered her on the day my boxes were delivered to the church as she and her husband were out in the church yard pulling weeds and tending to the gardens. Her name appears on the list of those in attendance at every church meeting in my first four years. She was there when we voted to become a Reconciling Congregation and then went out to lunch with a group of young people to celebrate our church's decision to boldly welcome all people. She was there when we needed cookies baked or cards sent. She was there when we needed a location for a ladies luncheon. She was there when two young people needed a place to stay. She was there - always there. And her always being there has taught me a million lessons.
It was towards the end of the summer when a hospital bed arrived in Ruth's room. The bed was accompanied by several nurses who tended to her needs before transitioning to sitting with her round the clock. When the bed arrived, Ruth told people it was the most comfortable bed you could imagine. When the nurses started to bathe Ruth from the bed, Ruth told people it was a luxurious experience to be cared for so well. When people came to visit, Ruth lit up as she called you by name and made you feel as though you were the Queen of England knocking on her door. When cards came, Ruth shared a memory and then named a gift or talent bestowed upon each person who sent a card. In fact, reading greeting cards that arrived in the mail became one of my favorite things to do with Ruth because of the way she responded to each one.
Visiting the sick is part of my pastoral obligations. It is something I am expected to do. But I went to Ruth's not out of an obligation but because I knew Ruth would not let me leave without making more of me. She would not let me go without affirming my gifts, expressing her appreciation, telling me how excited she was about our church and then letting me know how she wished she could do more to support our church.
We knew Ruth's days were limited. I understood how each visit to her home could very easily be my last visit. And while I hope that decades of life await me, I want to embody Ruth's lessons in living and dying:
1) Serve God with all that you have and seek to really love each neighbor as you love yourself.
2) Take time to treasure the simple pleasures in life.
3) Express gratitude often.
4) Regularly name the gifts of the people around you.
5) Treat each day and each conversation as if it is your last.
The prophet Joel describes a time when old men shall dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Ruth dreamed many dreams. Thank you, Ruth DuLaney, for the ways your dreams enable me and so many others to see a beautiful vision for the way we are to live and to love.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Imagine If...

A portion of Thanksgiving day was spent with church members. Following a feast of turkey and all the trimmings with the aroma of pumpkin pie all around us, we transitioned from eating to playing.

A game was selected from the shelf nearby, one that was new to me: iMAgiNiff. The rules are quick to learn. Each person selects a color to represent themselves on the board. Cards are then selected and read. The words on the cards read something like, "Imagine if _____ was an item in the office. What would she be?" On this particular card, there are then six possible answers which range from an inspirational poster to a to-do list. One player roles a dice to determine whose name will be inserted into the question. The card is read, and the other players pick the answer that best fits the person. The players who have selected the most popular answer get to move forward on the game board.

The game was delightful. I learned a lot about others but especially a lot about myself. The people at the table had a hard time discerning whether I was the inspirational poster in the office or the to-do list. On another question, some people actually picked Cinderella as the character that best fit me (crazy, right?). I cannot recall all the questions, but I know I left the evening delighted to discover more about the light in which people viewed me.

We all like to be told that we are good at something. We love to hear that we are beautiful. Someone pointing out our gifts for us can be a wonderful gift in and of itself. It is a blessing to be affirmed. The words of others have the capacity to make more of us.

But how often are we affirmed? How often do we hear positive words instead of negative words? And even if we are told positive things, do we allow our ears and our minds to hear the good over the bad? When we look into a mirror, do we see the parts of ourselves that we would love to change or the parts that we appreciate? What are the words we use to describe ourselves?

Imagine if you are beautiful. Imagine if you are smart. Imagine if you have tremendous gifts, unique one of a kind gifts that only belong to you. Imagine if you are the reason one's heart beats and sometimes skips a beat. Imagine if someone would stay up waiting for you no matter what time it was when you finally turned the key in the door. Imagine if you are spectacular, amazing, remarkable.

One of the gifts of faith is seeing ourselves through God's eyes. I imagine God like a mother who thinks her daughter is the most amazing thing since sliced bread on some days and then imagine that God is like a father who knows that her daughter has messed up but will still do anything to make it right on other days. I believe God sees our hearts before God sees the size of our hips or noses. I am convinced that God sees our true colors - and that God loves us because of all these remarkable hues.

Imagine if you are a masterpiece, rather remarkable - made in the image of God.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I Am Thankful

Thankful. Heart overflowing. Gratitude. Thanksgiving.

I have so much for which to give thanks:

A partner in life who makes me laugh often and who regularly asks why we are in such a big hurry. Craig provides balance like nothing else in my life.

A call upon my life for which I am not worthy and the privilege of responding to this call by serving God as the pastor of a remarkable congregation.

A family that is only a phone call away and the joy of knowing that no matter what there will always be a family member willing to listen and to again say three words that mean the world to me, "I love you."

A place to call home and the blessing of having this home right outside of Washington. There is no other city I would rather call home at this point in my life. Seeing the skyline of Washington still has the capacity to take my breath away. It is a humbling privilege to serve in a place that offers so many contrasts and so much diversity.

A community of friends who have known me through thick and thin and who continue to journey with me through different stages and challenges of life.

The gift of being part of Mount Vernon Place. From presiding at the memorial service last week of one who spent his life serving our church to talking on the phone with our oldest member yesterday who sang to me at 103-years-old, I realize often what a gift it is to be a pastor. But it is a special gift to be the pastor of a place that is constantly seeking to discern what we are called to become. I'm grateful to be part of this place that is committed to making room for all people, this place that is constantly seeking to discern what it means to be faithful in our context, and this place that is willing to take courageous risks to see what God can do. At the same time, I praise God that my learning curve is as steep as ever and that each day provides a new opportunity for an experience of God and a challenge to go deeper.

I am thankful.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Just Words

With visitors in town, I finally tracked over to the Tidal Basin to see the thirty foot stone statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a crisp fall day in Washington with hues of red, yellow and orange leaves dancing across the sidewalks leading to the Mountain of Despair that has been broken apart in order to lead visitors to the Stone of Hope from which the imposing Dr. King emerges. It is an impressive work of art that has been created by a Chinese master sculptor – the kind or art that compels you to sit down and stare in amazement as you are overcome with wonder.

With our backs against the waters separating Dr. King from President Jefferson and our bodies resting upon other pieces of cold stone around the monument, we watched as dozens of grade school children ran through the Mountain of Despair before plopping down in front of the Stone of Hope for a group photograph with Dr. King. We then made our way through the words carved into smooth stone walls that stand on both sides of the memorial. The words form quotes that have been taken from Dr. King’s sermons and speeches. As we walked along, we noticed that many people stopped to read the quotes while others brushed on by in hopes of finding the perfect photo op with the leader of the civil rights movement.

Though I was reading most of the quotes, my friend stopped me and said, “We have walked by these words as if they are just words! But these words were the life and the light of so many people.”

Just words.
The life and the light of people.

I wonder how often we mount the pulpit with words that are just words versus seeking to offer words that can provide light and life to people who are sitting in darkness. I wonder how often we fail to remember the power of the words we proclaim. I wonder how often we use just words when we have been given the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[1]

Our words are needed – not words that are just words – but words that make sense of senseless situations where the emotions of anger, hatred, revenge and despair are tangible to the sight, sound and touch. Our words are needed in the hurt, pain and frustration of the world in which we find ourselves.

Less than a mile from where Dr. King stands sit dozens of people who sleep in tents at night and huddle under tarps in the day. The Occupy Wall Street movement is in its third month of capturing the hearts of imaginative and passionate people who are demanding hope and healing in a landscape of economic despair. Signs with angry words can be found in corners of America stretching from New York City’s Zuccotti Park to California’s Port of Oakland. Most of the protestors know what they are demanding: a fairer redistribution of wealth, a less powerful financial system, and more assistance for the poor and powerless in our nation. And still, words that bring light and life to people are missing from their vocabularies. The message is becoming lost in traffic jams caused by their marches and angry slogans painted across pieces of poster board because the message is just words instead of words that can be the life and light of people.

We have the words needed. The first song in Luke’s Gospel is sung by a teenage virgin who sings about how the Lord has done great things for her, looking with favor upon the lowliness of his servant while bringing down the powerful from their thrones. When Jesus teaches a group of disciples to pray, he invites them to ask for a daily provision of bread. When God rains bread from heaven, the Israelites are instructed to take a day’s provision on every day but the sixth day when they take enough for the sixth day and the Sabbath day because anything else will spoil.

The Bible has plenty to say about people who take too much and even more to say about what those who have too much are to do with their excess bounty. We have been given the words needed for this time just as Dr. King was given the words needed for his time. But these words have been treated as though they are just words. The words are absent from a movement in which they could become life and light for countless people around the world.

What are the words that regularly flow from your lips? Perhaps it’s time for us to brush up on our vocabulary. Maybe it’s time for us to enlarge our lexicon with words that can become the life and light of all people. After all, the Word has become flesh and dwells amongst us.
[1] John 1:1-5.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In Need of a Blessing

I had met the woman only once. Each time I called asking if I could visit, I was politely told to not come. I continued to mail birthday cards each year, along with a Christmas card when I was organized enough. The woman's children have showed up a couple of times at church in the last six years. When I inquired why she did not come, I was told that she was an introvert who did not really enjoy being around people.

When this woman died, her children immediately called me to let me know that she had died. They wanted to have the funeral at the church. Plans were made, and I started to invite current church members to tell me about this woman's life in preparation for the celebration of her life. One member did not give me helpful information. She instead said, "That's hypocritcal. That woman has not wanted anything to do with the church for more than ten years. She got mad and left. Why would she be buried from our church?"

An email arrived today. It is from the granddaughter of two of our former church members who have entered life eternal. The granddaughter is engaged and looking for an officiant for her wedding. I loved her grandparents dearly and presided at both of their funerals. I have not seen the granddaughter since but she has turned to the pastor she knows for a blessing. I cried when I read the email and will do anything I can to be with her on her wedding day - to not only bless her marriage but to honor her grandparents who meant the world to me.

In both cases, there are some people who believe that the church's services are only available to those inside the church. Some clergy and laypeople cannot get past seeing people who return to church for a burial at the end of life or a blessing at the beginning of life whether it is a child or a marriage as nothing short of hypocritical.

And yet I wonder. I wonder if one of the greatest gifts entrusted to us is to offer blessings.

I was sitting in a pew this week at our annual meeting when a woman I have met once or twice before told me about her plans to publish a book of poems. She then reached inside her purse before shoving a journal in front of me - the delicate book where she has placed each piece of carefully crafted art was placed on my lap. "Will you bless it?" she asked. The next thing I knew I had my hands on the fabric covering the journal and was asking God to bless the work inside.

What exactly is a blessing?

When I am denied access to the Lord's Supper at my husband's church, I long for the priest to offer me a blessing. I do not belong in the Catholic Church. I am a stranger inside its walls, but something happens when the priest is willing to bless me. I become included in something larger than myself.

When I am denied access to the Lord's Supper while on my annual retreat at a local monastery, I make sure to sit on the edge of the pew for evening prayer each night. I want to be one of the first people to be sprinkled with the Abbot's holy water. I know it's just water - but it is water that has been blessed and water that I believe can bless me as I turn in for another night.

Both of these acts make all the difference to me in the way I see a church to which I do not belong. Both of these acts have a way of overwhelming me with God's love when a barrier of doctrine would keep me out.

There are enough barriers to the church all around us - physical, spiritual and theological. Why, then, would we deny a blessing at some of the most sacred moments of life - when a child has been born, when a vocation has emerged, when a couple is covenanting to spend the rest of life together, when a person has breathed their last breath?

God, help me to be a blessing by offering blessings to others.

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Life Depends On It!

Our marriage began with a diet of moules and frites. Honeymooning in Quebec, we were motivated by our hotel to visit many French restaurants where we had our fill of mussels and french fries on a daily basis after eating chocolate-filled croissants in the morning. When the six days of consuming a diet rich in saturated fat were over, I said good-bye to Weight Watchers. Never mind the fact that I had just lost some thirty pounds and was wearing a wedding dress that was still too big on top because the seamstress could not keep up with my shrinking chest and waistline. I have no idea how many pounds we packed on during the honeymoon because I was afraid to step on the scales when the thank-you notes were all written.

A life of excess has continued during the last three years of blissful marriage. We have not paid a lot of attention to what has entered our bodies and have consumed countless bottles of our favorite $7.89 wine from Costco. But it is all catching up with us. My weight is now higher than it has ever been and Craig is borderline diabetic, two things we have always struggled with but two things that can no longer be hidden as we reach mid-life.

I emailed Craig last week on a very busy day at work to inquire what was for dinner. Exhausted and worn out from countless crazy demands at the church, I suggested that we order Chinese for delivery, go to a nearby pub for 50-cent wing night or stop by Harris Teeter for the scallops that were on sale. I was leaning towards the first two options out of their pure ease. Craig, however, wrote back with words that were alarming.

I have to eat healthy. My life is depending on it.

We had sauteed scallops for dinner that night with a plentiful side of steamed vegetables, but the chapter is not over. Craig's words are still haunting me. The decisions I make regarding what to buy at the store and what to prepare for dinner have a huge impact on Craig. The decisions I make can lead to us both being healthier and enjoying a full, long life or they can lead to us suffering from sickness and having our lives cut short.

We so often live life as if we are in control. We can do whatever we want to do. We can eat whatever we want to eat. We can enjoy whatever we want to enjoy. It's my life, we repeat over and over again. But what is our life dependent on? Are the choices we make only about us?

What is your life dependent on? What is my life dependent on?

A song kept entering my mind as this question rattled throughout my spirit last week. I don't know the title or the full words but I do know several phrases. "You are in the air I breathe" and "I'm desperate for you."

I was grounded again last week, brought down from my ego that believes I really am capable of doing anything and that I can cross each item off my to-do list without even calling upon God. I was brought down on my knees again last week. With a rush of responsibilities upon me, a body running on empty, and a spirit that is weak, I realized again that there is no way I could even leave the house without realizing that my day was completely dependent upon God. I was chained to the table with a Bible open and eyes that were ready to be filled with tears of defeat when God gently picked me up again and promised to work within me.

The decisions I make impact countless people, especially the people I am closest to. The same is true of you. What we do matters in big and small ways. It's rather alarming to ponder how much power we have.

My body and spirit are more tired this morning than they were last week. I am exhausted. This will be another week when it will be easier to grab junk than to drink deeply from the wells that never run dry. But, my life depends on those wells. My life depends upon the bread that satisfies until I want no more.

Here we go again, God, into another demanding and overflowing week. I'm depending upon you to guide me, to strengthen me, to increase my faith and to work within me and in spite of me. Please stand by my side this week. Please help me to see you and to acknowledge you at all times. I need you, Lord. My life depends upon you. Help me to be focused. Help me to be more disciplined. Help me, Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Playing Favorites: A Sermon for 9/11

Playing Favorites
Exodus 14:19-31 and Matthew 18:21-35
September 11, 2011
Donna Claycomb Sokol
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington

Sides are sometimes drawn in tangible ways and other times drawn in virtual ways. There are times when we can see a person taking a side and other times when we can only feel the power of a person taking a side.

A dozen or so blocks from where we are now, Democrats sit on the left side of a sometimes tangible and other times imaginary aisle while Republicans sit on the right side of the aisle. These Members of Congress are lobbied by some 12,000 people who spend over three billion dollars each year in an effort to lure them over to the side of whatever issue they represent. Phone calls and appointments are made. Cocktails and crab cakes are consumed, all in an effort to get people to make a decision, to choose a side. Whether it is the environment or taxes, gun rights or how to create jobs, we can all choose a side.

But sides are not limited to Congressional politics. When talking with a colleague this week, I reminded her of the importance of completing an online survey designed to evaluate our bishop. I shared with my colleague how the “other side” was organized and ready, referring to those people who are working hard to get rid of our current bishop. I told my colleague how important it was for those of us on our side to complete the questionnaire – to stand against the other side. As I reflected on the conversation driving back to the church, I realized how easy it is to create divisions with our words and our actions. We are good at taking sides.

I learned the pain of taking sides when my parents were divorcing. When Dad moved out I watched as friends, neighbors, church members and grandparents all took a side – some choosing to stand with my mother and others choosing to stand with my father. Some people who were once close to both of my parents were no longer visible in our lives. I also learned how easy it is for a parent to lobby his or her children into taking a side – that even children are sometimes unfairly swayed to take a side in complex parental disputes.

When have you taken a side? How many times have you aligned yourself with someone or something? How many times have you responded to the question, “Whose side are you on?”

We all take sides both consciously and unconsciously.

But what about God?

Does God take sides?

Does God play favorites?

We are in the second week of our sermon series, Exiting Egypt: Examining Exodus. We started last week by looking at the Passover. We heard the specific instructions God gives to Moses concerning God’s plans to kill the firstborn in each Egyptian home while passing over the Israelites. Since last week, the Egyptians have awakened to the horror of devastating loss while the Israelites are vowing to always remember what God has done for them by roasting the right-sized lamb with the right herbs and the right unleavened bread. The Israelites have seen the strong hand of God while Pharaoh’s heart is still hardened with an unwillingness to let the Israelites go.

It’s time for the journey to continue. God knows that the Israelites are still a little tenuous when it comes to leaving Egypt. The Israelites are still more comfortable with what they know, even though what they know is bondage, than they are with letting go and trusting God to lead them into freedom. As a result, God is doing everything God can to make sure they continue towards the Promised Land.

While a more direct route exists between the current location of the Israelites and the Promised Land, God knows that if the Israelites see an Egyptian army pursuing them that they will immediately turn back so God comes up with an alternate plan.

Going ahead of them as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, God leads the Israelites to the side of the sea. But the mass of more than 600,000 people plus children and animals is not able to move without catching the attention of the Egyptians. Pharaoh learns that he is seemingly losing all of servants and quickly gets ready for battle. 600 picked chariots along with every other chariot in Egypt are readied to push in on the Israelites. The Egyptian army is fully prepared for battle. The Israelites are running out of room with the army on one side and the sea on the other. But God has not forgotten them.

As we just read, God instructs Moses to lift his hand over the sea. Moses follows the instructions, the sea parts forming walls of water on both sides, and the Israelites walk through the sea on dry ground. When every Israelite has safely crossed to the other side with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, the walls of water disappear covering the ground that was once dry, and every Egyptian drowns. Not one person in Pharaoh’s army survived while all of the Israelites safely crossed over the sea.

Does God take sides?

Does God play favorites?

Like most of you here today, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news of airplanes crashing into the twin towers in New York City. I remember the Dean of Duke Divinity School opening the door of our student services staff meeting to let us know that something terrible had happened in New York City. I remember gathering around a television set to watch the replays of planes being used as weapons. And I remember gathering in the Divinity School chapel to pray after we learned that four planes had crashed in three different cities.

I remember the first time I met a 9/11 widow who forced me to imagine what it was like to have a toddler at home and to be pregnant with your second child. She illuminated my mind with the story of waiting for confirmation of her husband’s death, telling me how the only piece of her husband that remained was a bone from a finger that a policeman brought to her door months after 9/11.

I remember reading an email from a dear friend who told me about losing his best friend on United Airlines flight 77, a flight number we will never forget even though the number will never be used again.

I remember the sight of sanctuaries being filled to capacity as people who never went to church before packed into pews, yearning for a word of hope on the Sunday following 9/11.

I remember seeing more bumper stickers with the words, “God Bless America” printed on them than I had ever seen before.

I remember relearning how easy it is to take sides and how easy it is to assume that God is always on our side. Some of us were so angry that day because things like this do not happen to the United States. We have been taught to believe that we are always God’s favored nation.

But does God take sides?

Does God play favorites?

The Exodus journey begins with God appearing to Moses in a burning bush. The Lord says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…”[1] God continues, “I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress the Israelites.”

God calls Moses to help God deliver the people. God does something but only after God has seen the pain of the people. God responds when God sees suffering. God shows up when God sees oppression. Like all of us, God is sensitive to pain. God sides with people who are in pain, people who are in misery and people who are being oppressed.

Many people have asked where God was on Tuesday, September 11. It is a difficult question to answer when we have been taught to believe that God is all powerful and all knowing. While we are all grateful for the gift of free will, there are times when we would give anything for God to not give us so many choices, especially choices that can lead to so much harm. What if God would have tied the arms of terrorists instead of allowing them to execute their plans? What if God would have used the terrorists to strike another nation so that we might continue to live with unnecessary goggles that only allow us to see a favored nation status?

God does not take away our ability to make decisions – no matter what. We are not puppets on a string with everything already figured out and God holding the handles.

But if God is Emmanuel, God with us, then God is fully present in all places and at all times. If the steadfast love of God is established forever then this love seeps in to all places and perhaps especially the broken cracks around us.

There is no doubt in my mind that God was with all 2753 persons who died in New York City – that God knew each one by name, each family member they left behind, each award they had won, each dream they had dreamed. And I believe that the same is true for every single one of the 189 people who died at the Pentagon and the 44 people who died in Pennsylvania. Each person was a beloved child of God, intricately woven by God in the depths of their mother’s womb. God was present in every memorial service, funeral and burial. And, God has seen the pain and misery that has been magnified in the last ten years.

God wept on this day and if we could hear the sound of God weeping, perhaps it would be just as loud as the sounds coming from Egyptian houses on the day after the Passover. God wept with each person on the planes. God wept with each person who lost a loved one. And God’s weeping was not only for the victims. God’s weeping was not reserved for our side.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text that was created around the 10th Century to be read at each Passover Seder table. The Haggadah is the text from which people read the story that helps Jews remember how they have been passed over. But the Haggadah does not allow people to travel far into believing that God is only on their side. Rather, part of the tradition of the Haggadah is that the salt water of the sea represents both the sweat of Israelites slaves’ brows and the tears of the Egyptians who are mourning their great loss. While many people want to cheer when the Israelites obtain victory on the other side of the sea, the midrash pictures God telling the people to please quiet their cheers. God is not celebrating when the Israelites are safely on dry ground. Rather, God is weeping. God is weeping because the Egyptians who have died are also God’s children.

If this teaching is true then God wept at the actions and deaths of the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked the four passenger planes just as God wept at the deaths of their 2,966 victims who expected Tuesday, September 11, 2001 to be just another day.

I purchased a new devotional book this week. The book provides a pattern for daily prayer that goes like this: becoming aware of God’s presence, inviting God’s intervention, listening for God’s voice, reflection time, making our requests known, offering of self to God, and blessing. I used the book for the first time on Friday morning. With the rain still falling and a cup of coffee in my hand, I allowed the book to guide me through my devotional time only to find myself being completely arrested when I got to the guidelines for making my requests known.

I was invited to make my requests known to God by offering specific prayers: prayers for our world, its people and leaders, prayers for the church and its leaders, prayers for those in our circle of responsibility, and prayers for myself. I was doing fine until I got to the prayers for those in my circle of responsibility. My first reaction was to think, “Well, that’s easy. I only have to pray for Craig.” But God would not let me stop with my husband. Rather, different people kept entering my mind. My imagination was soon expanded to include many people in my circle of responsibility: my mother and father, my sister and brother, my nieces and cousins, my neighbors and friends, and every single one of you. I soon discovered that my circle of responsibility is very large, and that I am not allowed to pray only for the one person with whom I most closely and intimately share life.

I then thought about God interceding on behalf of God’s circle of responsibility. While we like to think that we are always at the top of the list or that God is always far more eager to bless America than God is ready to bless another nation, a song kept coming to mind. It is a song many of us were taught as children when we sang, “He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

God’s circle of responsibility includes every single living thing: every bird in the air, every animal that walks the earth, every creature in the sea, and every single person – terrorist and victim, Christian and Muslim, believer and doubter, innocent and guilty, you and me. And just when we are convinced that we are finally recipients of most favored nation or most favored person status, God shows us how big God’s hands are before letting us know that God’s heart is even larger.

It is not our responsibility to figure out which side God is on. It is our responsibility, however, to rest with confidence that God’s hands are upon us. We can believe without a shadow of doubt that God has seen and continues to see our pain, that God feels our pain, and that God is with us in our pain. We can face this day and all of our days to come with the full assurance that God is with us and that God will never leave us nor forsake us. And when we have done everything we can to place ourselves on the other side of God, we discover that God does not turn God’s back on us like we are so prone to do to others around us. Rather, we are promised that we can come back to God no matter what because the thing about God is that God’s side and God’s favorites seem to constantly be changing.

[1] Exodus 3:7-8.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Defriended

I love Facebook. Facebook is a place where I have reconnected with friends from as early as elementary school. It is a place where I can glean creative ideas from pastors who are doing great stuff in their churches. It is a place where I can communicate with friends and church members. It is a place that enables me to feel connected.

While Facebook does not offer a full glimpse into our lives, Facebook does provide many details.

Earlier this week I got a text from my niece asking me if my mother (her grandmother) had my Facebook password. Rather than saying, "No," and leaving it at that, I decided to pass on my exact thoughts about pictures that had recently been posted on her profile. I shared with my niece hurtful words and let her know that I was horrified by how she appeared in some of the pictures. It was five minutes later when I realized that my niece had defriended me on Facebook.


While I have chosen to defriend other people, I don't like the feeling of being defriended. I don't like the feeling of being cut off from someone's life. Her choice of defriending me has caused me a lot of pain and also caused me to do a lot of reflection this week.


My niece chose to defriend me rather than take the risk that I might allow other people to see the pictures that were posted on Facebook. She chose to remove not only my access to her profile but the access of other family members, as well.


I wonder if her response is the exact way we interact with God sometimes.

We pretend that God cannot see everything. We pretend that there are places of our minds, our hearts, and our lives that God cannot reach. We pretend that what we do in the dark stays in the dark or that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." We like to pretend that there are some parts of our lives that God will never see.

But the Psalmist describes a very different God. In Psalm 139 we are told that there is not a single place where we can go and not encounter God.

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.

No matter where we are, God is with us.

God sees everything and loves us in spite of it all.

We cannot hide from God.

We cannot limit God's access to our lives.

We can turn our backs, but God still comes to us.

What would it mean for us to live our lives as though God was watching everything? What would we do differently if we really believed that God could always see us?

I regularly joke that there are some days that I would prefer Jesus to return on compared to other days. There are definitely moments when I have my discipleship on - like having my makeup on - and definitely days when I do not have my discipleship on. There are parts of my life that I want God to see and other parts of my life that I don't want God to see. While I am striving for perfection like a good Methodist, I have a long way to go before I reach perfection.

Why do I think I can hide the less than glowing parts of my life from God? Do I really believe it is possible to limit God's access to each pocket of my life?

The Psalmist ends Psalm 139 with these words:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in my,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Amen, and amen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stopped!

I have an addiction or two. I am addicted to Facebook and email. It does not matter what day of the week it is, I regularly read status updates from 1000 "friends," log on to my Hotmail account to make sure I am not missing the latest travel sale or coupon deal for another bag to put in my closet and carry on occasion, and then log on to my church email account. I have a strong desire to always know what is happening in my life, in the lives of those around me, and at church. I cannot seem to get away from it - even on my seventh day - the day I have been invited to set aside for rest and renewal.

I'm also rather addicted to work. As a pastor, it seems that our work is never over. There is always another person to visit, always another hour we could spend perfecting or learning the sermon manuscript, always another conversation to share, and always another blog entry to write. There is so much to do that I rarely feel on top of it all. And while the majority of my members tell me that they are striving to work a 40 hour work week, I find the weeks of five, eight-hour days to be the exception and not the norm. I can regularly push myself to the point of exhaustion and even if I am not in the office, I'm daily (and sometimes hourly!) reading, writing or responding to email.

But things stopped yesterday.

Friday was switched with Tuesday as the appointed Sabbath day this week. With a wedding rehearsal on Friday and the ceremony on Saturday, I knew I needed to make sure that there was one day on which I would not be "on" - one day on which I could seek rest and renewal. I cancelled my one appointment with a church member and made a hair appointment instead. The hair appointment was followed by lunch at Chipotle and then an afternoon matinee of "The Help." It was 4:00 when I returned to the house which gave me plenty of time to check and respond to email except....except the Internet was not working. I tried fifty times and kept coming up with a blank screen. Nothing was working. I went to the couch and opened a book. An hour later I opened my laptop and tried again. Still nothing. The Internet did not start working again until about 8:30 last night.

Coincidence? Probably so as I don't believe God is involved in Verizon's Internet service. Yet, I still saw God show up. God was revealed in powerful ways.

I could have easily worked on my sermon yesterday. I instead went to the movie where I got a wonderful sermon illustration. I could have easily written something. It's been over two weeks since I have blogged, after all. I instead read the work of a colleague whose article had nothing to do with what I am preaching on Sunday morning and yet, I got additional insights for Sunday's sermon. I stopped working and did things that renew my soul. But God showed me how God was still working. I rested while God continued to labor. I relaxed while God showed me that it would be okay.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Remember that the Lord who brought you out of the Land of Egypt worked for six days but on the seventh day, the Lord rested.

Why do we have such a hard time keeping this commandment?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

In Step with the Music

The tiny instructor is a master dancer. I often walk away from class trying to figure out how she remembers each step of every routine. She never misses a beat as she leads people of all shapes and sizes to mimic her moves as the heat in the mirror-walled room rises each Saturday morning at 10 o'clock.

But she could not remember the next step this morning. She was teaching us the moves to a new song, and she stumbled as she sought to remember which foot to move where. Not allowing herself to get frustrated, she explained that she would be able to teach us as soon as the music started. She knew the moves well but needed the music in order to know how to move her feet and hips. And sure enough, the instructor did everything right on cue as soon as her iPod started to play the appointed song.

I know exactly what to do as long as the music is playing.

I need the music in order to move.

So do you and I.

There is a melody that accompanies my life. It is a tune I learned to whistle as a child when people repeatedly told me that I was beloved. As I grew older, I detected that the melody was not as simplistic as the pretty pictures in the children's books at church made it out to be. Rather, I discovered that the melody required many people playing many parts and that I, too, had a part to play. I learned to let go of some of what I thought belonged to me, realizing that I was only a steward of my time, talent and money - that it all belonged to God anyway - and that the music became more beautiful when I and others were willing to consistently play our parts.

There are times when the music is so loud that I cannot help but to sing and dance and move along. I discover that my life is in step with the long line of ordinary saints and faithful witnesses who have come before me, those who have demonstrated firsthand what Jesus said when he told the disciples that those who lose their life for his sake will discover a fuller life than they ever imagined while those who seek to cling to their life will lose it.

There are other times when I have a hard time hearing the music, times when I surround myself with other melodies both knowingly and unknowingly. In my teens and twenties, I chose to make these music-less chapters of life last a few years before discerning that I missed the music. By the grace of God, I soon encountered people who were willing to help me hear the music again, showing me how to stay in step with the melody one move at a time.

I know well how easy it is to forget the next steps. Not a day goes by when I am not seduced into believing that I can dance through life on my own and that I can teach others how to dance without turning on the music. I then quickly find myself stumbling and falling, realizing that I need the music in order to lead others. But I also need the music in order to live the life I have been invited to live.

I need the music in order to move.

I need to be surrounded by people who are singing praise to God. I need to be in the company of individuals who show me how to love God with all that I have while also loving my neighbor as myself. I need to be with a sister who joyfully tells me what a precious privilege it is to give what we have away - that it is only then that we comprehend how much has been given to us. I need partners who can introduce me to new songs - pushing me to play more difficult pieces that require more of me. I need the church - a church where each person is willing to play their part so that others might hear the music.

I need the music in order to move.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Get Out of Jail Free Card





What if God loves us so much that we are set free from all of our failures and sins no matter what?


What if there really are no boundaries to God's love - that God is with us even when we make our bed in Sheol?


Are there any limits to God's forgiveness?


What if all of us, no matter what, have been given a "get out of jail free" card that is redeemable every time we seek forgiveness?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Radical Hospitality

We have grown to expect someone wearing a blue vest to say "hello" to us when we walk through the doors of Wal-Mart. We believe our water glasses should remain full when we journey through the doors of a sit-down restaurant. But one does not always expect everyone to say "hello" when visiting a college campus.

I've spent a lot of time on college campuses. I love university life. The energy of the quad could latch on me like a band aid when walking across Duke's campus at the end of a workday. But there is something remarkable - something rather tangible - about the hospitality of the place where I have spent this past week.

Over 100 monks have made St. John's Monastery their home. While you expect to see men in black in the chapel where they gather to pray three times a day, you also see these men in black getting something to drink in the refectory or walking across campus. The men in black are a fixture of the campus of St. John's University. And there is something about their way of life that has penetrated every aspect of this campus.

The rule of St. Benedict reads, "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for him himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Another rule reads that the maxim for hospitality itself is from 1 Peter 2:17, "you must honor everyone."

These words are found in different places across campus. They sneak up and surprise you as you are walking along a paved path. But what is more striking is the ways in which these words are being lived.

Everyone speaks to you on campus.

Students hold doors open for you when you are walking into different buildings.

When I say "thank you," for something, a person asks if there is anything else they can get me.

When I open the refrigerator where our sessions are held to get something cold to drink, I see not only Coke and Diet Coke but some seventeen different varieties of soda and three flavors of sparkling water. There are five different kinds of milk for my cereal or coffee. Another refrigerator holds orange, apple and cranberry juice. We had fajitas last night for dinner - accompanied by six different kinds of Mexican beer. On the first day we were here, we were invited to let them know if there was anything else we might need during our stay that was not already here. I put "low calorie Gatorade for electrolyte imbalance" on the list and came home to find four flavors of exactly what I asked for in my apartment's refrigerator.

Small details. Some would say wasteful. Others would say extravagant or over the top.

But there is something about the Benedictine way of life that is not reserved for only the men in black. Each person has had a taste of this hospitality and understands the impact it can make upon a person. All here seem to understand the power of not only being noticed but abundantly welcomed into this space and place. Each one, whether fully aware or not, is doing their part to practice the ancient practice upon which the place is built.

We believe coffee hour at church is something we do because we have always done it. But perhaps coffee hour is the time in which we can most expect to greet Christ as we go out of our way to offer a cup of coffee or hot tea to the stranger whose name we do not yet know. Perhaps coffee hour should be given as much effort as the worship hour when it comes to the energy expended on a Sunday morning.

We often find it easier to pass the peace with the people we know. But if we were to expect to greet Christ then we would go out of our way to make sure the person we do not yet know is welcomed first.

We eat dinner together at the church on Wednesday evenings, always preparing food for the one who has not RSVPd. I sometimes get annoyed when extras come who have not taken the time to call or email me with their intentions to eat, but perhaps this extra person is Christ - Christ who says, "you were a stranger and you welcomed me."

There is something about the fabric of this place. The love and welcome of Christ is woven throughout it. It's a powerful thing to experience.

Christ, help me to see you today and welcome you. Christ, help us to expect you each Sunday morning when we gather as we go out of our way to welcome the stranger. Christ, help us to soak up your love and grace until all that we do is patterned after you. May we abundantly welcome others as you have welcomed us. Amen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why I Write

As many of you know, I am spending this week in Collegeville, Minnesota with Martin Copenhaver, Lillian Daniel, a writing tutor and eleven other remarkable pastors. We are pastors who love to write, and we are seeking to learn more about our vocation as writers. What follows is my response to the question of why I write.

When I was first experiencing my call to ministry, I asked my pastor to point me towards women pastors with whom I could talk and learn. I wanted to have coffee or lunch with pastors who were “like me.” My pastor referred me to many different women but none of them had been able to balance the demands of the church with being a wife and a mom. None of them wore red lipstick or had perfectly manicured fingernails with toenails to match. It was not until seminary when I discovered that there were plenty of women like me – people who loved to have a cocktail on Friday night before getting their nails done on Saturday morning, individuals who loved to get dressed up just for the heck of it and dreamed of having it all – a growing church, a loving husband, and a couple of well-behaved kids.

I now realize that I have searched the last six years for stories with which I could resonate. I yearned for someone to journey with me through the wilderness of congregational decline where the signposts that read “closure” were much more identifiable than the ones that read “pathway to new life.” I would have paid for advice and assurance from pastors who had stood with good church folks who could initially see only six inches in front of them and yet seemingly lead these same people to the place where they had the capacity to see far into the future – a future filled with hope and new life instead of chained-link fences around a condemned property. To use language from St. John’s University – I wanted people like Donald Jackson who bought the entire supply of ink needed for the St. John’s Bible at pennies a stick decades before he was hired to create the project, or individuals like the potter on campus who asked for 300 years worth of clay found in a source that would soon dry up because he believed that the people at St. John’s would be creating pottery for three centuries to come. I longed for visionary mentors, pastors, and advisors who could help me lead my people to becoming more visionary. What I found was something different.

I found a seminary president who told me that I was a Hospice chaplain to a group of committed 80 and 90-year-olds who had given their life to the church. This seminary president told me that all I needed to do was to hold their hands while I waited for them to die while starting a new church at the same time.

I found a myriad of authors who made church growth seem as easy as following a recipe for homemade chicken potpie.

I found colleagues who were in the same boat with me – people who believed with their whole hearts that God was not finished with the church but had no idea where to begin in order to transform a congregation from a place of decline to a place of vitality.

I then found a congregation who was willing to do something new. They did not like the changes at first but they showed me that if I demonstrated love and commitment to them that they would try anything. I learned that bringing balloons to the home of a 94-year-old chairperson of the Finance Committee who had little positive to say about me at first could change everything – that the balloons would still be in her apartment, deflated and under the table, long after the budget she fought me tooth and nail on had passed.

I believe there are people yearning to be in conversation with someone like me – an under-forty woman who loves getting my nails done and then finding the perfect shade of red lipstick, one who knows the joys and discomfort of online dating before meeting a partner who has promised to stand with me for life, one who is still discerning whether to add ‘mother’ to the list of titles found in my biography, and one who absolutely loves being a pastor – one who has, in fact, discovered that W.E. Sangster was right when he said that being a pastor is a joy for which none of us are truly worthy.

I believe there are pockets of enormous potential across my denomination as well as the universal church – pockets that seem to gravitate towards darkness instead of allowing the glorious light of the resurrection to shine. I believe there are countless other people who have responded to God’s call on their life and then found themselves in the middle of a committee meeting where every participant wants to damper their pastor’s excitement instead of respond to their leadership and try something new. And, I believe there are many churches just like the one I serve – churches who say they don’t want to change only to later thank their pastor for bringing about so much change because the change has assured them that their church is not going to die – at least not anytime soon. I long to reach into my heart – into a vessel filled with pain, doubt, hurt, disappointment and immense joy and then strike a chord in the hearts of others who are experiencing these very same emotions as result of the church and the office of pastor. I don’t know how it will turn out – but I am willing to put myself out there and see what happens.

I’m a pastor at the core of my identity. Being a pastor is my vocation. But I am also a writer – someone who longs to take words and shape them, praying that God will use them to provide light, hope, and anticipation in the lives of others.

Will you be in conversation with me?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Drenched in Words

I'm spending the week in Minnesota as a guest of the Collegeville Institute. As one of twelve incredibly lucky pastors selected to participate in a program called, "The Working Pastor, The Writing Pastor," I am surrounded by words.

We have each brought a project with us that is made from words. We are reading these words and then offering other words in hopes of helping each other to become better writers. We are thinking about words. We are benefitting from a tutor who is helping us with our words. And two other incredibly gifted pastors, Martin Copenhaver and Lillian Daniel, are telling us even more about what to do with our words - how we can use better words.

When we started last night, the director of the institute prayed a prayer in which he asked God to drench us in words.

What a powerful image.

Imagine someone covering you with words. Think about words being on your head and on your chest, on your ankle and on your knee, on your wrist and on your nose. What words would you want to be covered with? Imagine you covering someone else with words. What words would you choose?

Words can be used to build up and words can be used to tear down.
Words can be used to praise and words can be used to criticize.
Words can hurt and words can help.
Words are subtle and words are strong.
Words are powerful things.

If words were covering your body right now, what would they say?
What would others be able to read if you were drenched in words?

We believe Jesus is the Word made flesh who came to dwell amongst us. I am reminded that my words enable others to learn about Jesus - that what I say on Sunday mornings allows someone to better comprehend who Jesus is (or grow more confused!). But perhaps it is the words I use outside of Sunday worship that are most telling - the ones that creep up in my thoughts and pop forth from my mouth when I am stuck in traffic or when someone is annoying me or when my patience is running thin.

Words are powerful things.

God, come and drench me in words. Enable my words to be helpful - not just here and not just on Sunday mornings - but in all times and in all places. Cover me with your words and especially with your Word who dwells with us. Amen.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The 7th Inning Stretch

Today begins my seventh year as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. The last six years have included some of the most difficult moments of my life, including many days when I was convinced that I was being called to do anything but pastor this congregation. The last six years have also included countless moments when all I could do was ponder how I cannot believe that I get paid to be a pastor because many days are paved with more blessings than I can count.

I have had five offices in the last six years including three in the historic building, one in a single-wide trailer on the front lawn, and one in a trophy office building.

I have said good-bye to many beautiful people who made great sacrifices to make sure that Mount Vernon Place would be poised to welcome new people long after they were gone. Mabel, Louie, Dorine, Gilbert, and many others come to mind on this day. I continue to believe that leading one to their final resting place is a privilege that none of us are worthy of.

I have had my heart broken when the life of a peer ended tragically and much too soon. Tracy, your story will always shape and form my ministry and our congregation.

I have had the joy of baptizing babies and adults while also leading more than 60 people in the new member vows. Welcoming people into the community of faith is one of the best parts of my job.

I have gained extensive expertise in the real estate development world that could likely never be gained from any other appointment. I know what I would have done again and what changes I would make if we were to do it over again. I also learned and passionately believe that a church does not need a building to be the body of Christ. There was great freedom that came when we only had a trailer during the week and borrowed space for Sunday worship. And still, I cannot see our building without seeing it as a huge gift from God. We could not have sold our property at a better time, and I am reminded of this timing daily.

We have watched some ministries be pruned, others die, and others emerge from the ground. I am a strong advocate for pruning. Churches cannot continue to have ministries that are leading to decay instead of life, all the while zapping valuable resources.

I have started some days by praying Psalm 56, "Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me." Other mornings have commenced with Psalm 116, "I love the Lord, because God has heart my voice and my supplications."

I have gained a voice that speaks often for those who are not yet fully included in our denomination. I am grateful to pastor a congregation that is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network and pray that God will never allow me to shy away from working for justice for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I long for the day when I can marry all members of my congregation and when I can faithfully cultivate calls to ministry within all gifted members without fear of one having to stand in the closet if they are to be ordained in our denomination.

I have learned that being a pastor is very hard work and that change is rarely easy. I have heard countless words of painful criticism aimed at me and also have enough notes in a file folder labeled, "Happy" to sustain an entire day of reading.

I have learned that everyone needs holy friends in ministry - people who are not afraid to name the gifts you have failed to claim while also naming the sins you have grown to love. Two Baptist colleagues, Amy and Jim, held my hand through my first year and kept me going when I wanted to quit. People at the Fund for Theological Education often gave me a place to share my story which reminded me that God was doing something even when I could not see it. Classmates and teachers at Wesley Theological Seminary gave me a greater place to reflect as I finished my Doctor of Ministry degree. The people of my first appointment have constantly encouraged me and reminded me that I am a pastor even when the folks at MVP did not want me to be their pastor. Our bishop has showed up often at just the right time and was always there especially during the first couple of years which were filled with more tears than laughs.

It's time to stretch. It's time to sing. It's time to be filled with joy. It's time to get a box of Cracker Jacks. We're winning! We're ahead! We have had a few home runs. But, the game is not over.

It's also time to get back to work - to buckle down, to pray, to work tirelessly until countless others know the gift of this congregation - this place at the corner of 9th and Mass. and the wondrous blessing of One who is Emmanuel - God with us at all times and in all places. We serve a God who is constantly transforming us - leading us from places of darkness and into the light, from places close to death to places filled with possibility.

Thank you, Mount Vernon Place, for six wondrous years. I cannot wait to see what the future holds with you!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

Today is my 39th birthday and our 3rd wedding anniversary. It's one of my favorite days as I get to celebrate both my life and my life with Craig. I have worked hard to incorporate many of my favorite things into this day. Here they are in chronological order:


1) Pushing the snooze button. The day started with pushing the button not once but three times so I could stay in bed and snuggle with Craig.



2) Pampering myself at a day spa. My appointments started at 9:00 and included a massage during which I learned just how stressed I am as she kneaded the knots in my upper back, a facial where I learned that the oily skin I complain about is actually making my skin look younger, and a haircut where I spotted Newt Gingrich getting a shampoo before having him in the chair next to mine while we both got haircuts. It took all that I had to refrain from telling him that his brilliant Contract with America is the reason I lost my job in 1994.



3) Breaking bread with my husband. I then met Craig at an amazing restaurant in Old Town where we over indulged on an exquisite meal made possible by a very generous gift certificate from my in-laws. The staff went out of their way to make us feel special. We held hands. We gave thanks. We laughed. It was wonderful. I really am married to someone who is unlike anyone I have ever met before. Craig is the kindest person I have ever met - someone who constantly makes me a better person while also making more of me. Here's to the start of our 4th year together, love of my life.



4) Being a pastor. The day continued with a stop at the hospital where one of my favorite church members has been for the last month. Howard will turn 103 next Friday. For the last six years, I have seen Howard twice a week on most weeks as he rarely missed being in church on Sunday and was also a regular participant in our weekly Bible study at the home where he lives. Howard is someone who has affirmed my gifts often. He is someone who has regularly taught me that it is far better to give than it is to receive. He is someone who was reluctant to see change at the church and voted against the sale of the church property only to become one of the members who regularly gets excited by all the new people at church. Howard is now in that thin space where heaven and earth collide. His body and his spirit are exhausted. He refuses to eat. And while he sang, "He Lives," to me almost every day last week, he now cannot seem to muster the strength to sing so I sang to him today, repeating those familiar words about our risen Savior who is in the world today. I prayed the entire time I was with him that I could hold back my tears until I got into my car only to discover tears streaming down my face as I sat next to his bed with my hand on his shoulder, poking him until he would open his eyes so I could tell him once more how much he means to me. I know that I'll soon say good-bye to this wondrous gift in my life - one who has reminded me often of how being a pastor is a privilege that none of us are worthy of. It was a blessing to be reminded of this gift on my birthday.



5) Being loved by friends and family. I've concluded today that everyone should be a Facebook user on their birthday. If one does not use it any other day of the year, one should sign onto Facebook on the day of their birthday and see what an amazing gift it is to receive birthday greetings from 200 people from every stage of life - birth to now, elementary school to college, people I see often and people I have not seen in 20 years.



I'm thankful. I'm thankful to be alive. I'm thankful to be married to Craig. I'm thankful to live in Washington. I'm thankful to be a pastor. I'm thankful for the gift of another year. And I am thankful to know that my Savior lives and promises me that all will be well no matter what tomorrow or any day in the future holds.



Here's to my final year of being in my 30s!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I See You

My mother is one of the most gifted people I know. Her career has included time as a college professor, a college dean, the mayor of a small town in Colorado, and a small business owner. She is wonderful with people and a great public speaker. These gifts have been affirmed many times throughout her life as doors have opened.

However, the last couple of years have not been easy. She became a widow after the loss of her husband. She decided to give up city politics, opting to not run for a third term, and she sold her house so she could move closer to my sister. For the first time in a long time, she has found herself in an unfamiliar city with a very small community of people who know her. She has been working at a high-end outlet to pass the time and earn some spending money, and she has learned how long days can be when one is standing behind the cash register ringing up clothing sales.

But something has happened recently. Customers have started to come in and ask for her by name. People have repeatedly told her how helpful she is. More clothing is being sold when she is on the sales floor. Her gifts are being identified, and a manager has started to take note. The more people ask for her, the more the district manager has come to see that she does not belong behind a cash register but instead could be doing so much more for the company. She has a series of interviews this week in order to discern what might be possible in the future.

At the same time, Mom sounds happier than she has sounded in a long time. She seems to be discovering her place in the world again - a place where she is noticed and where her gifts are utilized. She's excited about what tomorrow might hold and considering opportunities that she would have never considered before - all because people took time to identify her gifts and then make space for these gifts.

The same thing happens in the church regularly. I listened to a story last week of a colleague who is near 40 telling of what happened when he was growing up in a large church. An older woman in the congregation took him aside and said repeatedly, "Boy, you have gifts that God can use in the church. God is going to do great things with you." My colleague has not forgot the first time his gifts were noticed and named by this woman. Her voice continues to echo in his ears as he takes his next faithful step in church leadership.

There are gifted people all around us. Our churches are filled with remarkable people at all ages and stages of life. Many churches are filled with what one colleague would call, "an embarrassment of riches." At the same time, the church is in great need of committed, passionate, and creative leaders - lay and ordained. There are many around us with the capacity to awaken what some consider to be a sleeping giant.

How much time are we spending seeking to notice the gifts in people around us? How are we naming the wondrous talents and commitment of people in our pews? What are we doing to help people hear and respond to the call or claim God has placed on their life?

It takes only one voice to awaken the possibilities and potential found deep within the well of one's soul. It takes only one comment to ignite a lifetime of dreaming.

I see you, and I think you are remarkable. God's hand is upon your life. God has great things in store for you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pentecost and Pride

Pentecost is one of my favorite celebrations in the church. I have been singing the words "Holy Spirit Rain Down" in my head over and over again during the last seven days. I have pondered the gift of being present when people started speaking in many different languages with a central message understood by those who did not know the language. I have imagined the incredible diversity present in Jerusalem on that day. And, I have given thanks for seeing this diversity following our Pentecost worship last Sunday.

It was a typical June day. A bit of steam was rising from the sidewalks. Vendors selling water were stationed on each street corner. The sun was beating down upon Pennsylvania Avenue as people filled every corner of the popular street.

I walked down the city block in search of familiar faces and soon found the table from which members of our church were telling others about our unique community of faith. Armed with a fresh dose of the Spirit and a powerful reading of the scripture passages in which diversity is central and the Spirit falls upon all people, I could not wait to tell others about our church.

If I heard it once I heard it 50 times, "Are you really a gay friendly church?" or "Are you sure that I am welcome in your church?" A one word response, "Yes," was not enough to satisfy some of the visitors stopping for a rainbow cross or cold bottle of water. We had more convincing to do as a group representing Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

As I read the story of Pentecost found in Acts, I see a community in which everyone is a candidate for a fresh anointing of God's Spirit - the Advocate whom Jesus promised to be with us. I notice how God did not anoint only one type of person or only one group of people from a particular place. Instead, I see God's Spirit powerfully falling upon all who are present in real, tangible and transformational ways.

How has the church come to believe that it has the authority to discern who can receive the Spirit and who cannot? How has the church come to believe that diversity is something we should keep in our schools or other institutions but not a key mark towards which every Christian community should passionately work? How has our church come to pride itself on keeping some people in while keeping other people out?

As I stood on the street with the sun scorching my feet, I prayed for our church. I prayed for our church to look more like the crowd I saw at Pride - old people and young people, people with a lot of clothing and people with not very much clothing, people filled with confidence and people clearly afraid of being seen, people with dark skin and people with light skin, gay people and straight people, people aware of God's presence in their lives and people who have sought to lock God in the closet because the only God they have ever been told about is a God of judgment, people who were alive and well last Sunday afternoon because they were in a community in which they were fully accepted and valued - just as they are.

Holy Spirit rain down!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Inconvenienced

It was a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope in South Africa that led me to my current appointment at Mount Vernon Place. While in South Africa with Peter and Elizabeth Storey in 2004, I began to pray a prayer: "God, please take me out of my place of comfort and success. God, please give me a heart for hurting and broken people. God, please make me more prophetic." I returned home and told the dean at Duke Divinity School that I would be resigning my position at the end of that academic year, explaining that as much as I loved being the Director of Admissions that my heart was in the local church. I then did everything I needed to do to be in contact with my bishop and other folks. God eventually led me back to Washington where my heart has been broken and my burden becomes heavier instead of lighter.

Sunday was one of those days. It was one of those days when my eyes could not keep from seeing the pain of this city.

It started at 6:50 a.m., just as I was approaching the intersection of 13th and L Streets in downtown Washington. I saw one woman first. Her clothing (or lack of clothing) gave her away. Her tiny bag and high-heeled shoes had gone to places that night that I cannot imagine going. I passed her in my car and then saw four other victims. In addition to these five girls, I saw three different men working their cell phones while adorned in large gold jewelry. My heart started to break open as I saw each person. My eyes started to tear as I pondered the pain of their night. I said a few prayers. I gave thanks for places like Courtney's House that are doing a remarkable job of getting girls off the streets, out of the hands of pimps and into a better life. I then wondered what more we could do - how God was calling us to respond.

God captured my attention once more following worship. The quiet woman who comes in and sits towards the back was there once more. She is filled with humility and gentleness. She lingered after worship in coffee hour until almost everyone else had gone. I then learned again that she had no place else to go. Her eyes welled up with tears as she explained to me that she was living with a friend but had to roam the streets during the day. "I just want a place to call home," she shared. She then continued, "It is so hard to be on the streets all day and have no where to go." She explained how she was back on the wait list of a local shelter where our church serves and where we met her but that nothing had yet opened. She shared how she was looking for work and was a really good housekeeper but how nothing had yet opened. I wanted desperately to wrap her into my arms. I wished more than anything that we had a bed at the church where she could stay for the night - that we had put a little apartment in the space where our chapel is for people to rest. I had just preached about a Good Shepherd who makes us to lie down in green pastures. I had just preached how God wants all of us to rest on lush grass instead of concrete sidewalks, and here was this woman telling me how she had no place to go - no place to go during the day and only a temporary place to go at night.

These women - the women who were still on the street corner as I drove to church and the woman who shared her struggle to find work and housing - will not let me go. They have caused my heart to be heavy and my spirit to be dampened. They have also caused me to pray - to not just pray for them but to ask God what role God is asking us to play. How are we to work for the end of sex-trafficking and the end of homelessness?

I then came across the above cartoon. We can see all of ourselves in this picture. We are so quick to line up for a reassuring life instead of an inconvenient truth. We want a reassuring life as individuals, as families and as a church. So much of the focus of the church seems to be about saving individuals and saving the church as an institution. We often invite Jesus into our hearts and then fail to invite Jesus' friends into our hearts. We have gotten so caught up in these things that we sometimes cannot see the inconvenient truths all around us.

Retired UMC Bishop Ken Carder was recently interviewed at Duke Divinity School on the UMC's Call to Action. He shared in that conversation how "God's preoccupation isn't with how many members are in the United Methodist Church but with the salvation of the cosmos." He then continued to say, "God's vision isn't difficult to discern. It's just inconvenient to follow."

I believe what I preached on Sunday is true. I believe that our Good Shepherd longs for every child on this earth to have a place to call home and a cup that is overflowing. I believe this Shepherd longs to anoint all of our heads with oil and to provide us with complete care. And, I believe that our churches are God's only hope for making these things happen. Jesus says in the 14th Chapter of John that we who believe in Jesus will not only do the works that he has done but do far greater works. When Jesus ascended to heaven, he left us to care for the needs around us - to heal, to restore, to release, to provide, to forgive.

I have no idea how to end sex-trafficking. I have no idea how to end homelessness. Truth be told, I find it easier to throw my hands in the air and say, "There will always be homeless people" and then stand in the line for "A Reassuring Life." And then God catches my attention once more. God does not allow me to let go of the pain around me. God pushes me to see how God has answered my prayer - by causing my heart to ache. I then seek to move one step closer to faithfulness - one step closer to where God is calling us to be, overwhelmed the entire time because the task is so big.

God, help us to be the people you have called us to be. Please show us what we can do to be part of the transformation of this city. Let us not shy away from large tasks but instead faithfully trust in you to show us the way because you are the way, and the truth and the life, and you long for all of your children to have abundant life on this earth as it is in heaven. Please help the church be more like you each and every day. Amen.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Last Week

I live in a city that is a haven for people with news to share. Whether it is the protestors who stand outside the Convention Center across the street from the church or the people who line the fence outside the White House, my eyes regularly see people proclaiming a message.

For several weeks now, if I drive into the city at just the right time, my eyes see many trucks parked along the National Mall. Someone has spent a lot of money painting the trucks. The purpose of the trucks is to warn all who pass by that judgment day is coming. In fact, according to the trucks, judgment day is scheduled for next Saturday, May 21.

Now I believe that we live in the between times - that Jesus has come and is coming again. Yet, I also believe we should heed Jesus' words found in Matthew 24:36 where we are told that no one knows the time nor the hour when Jesus will return - not even the angels of heaven. I do not believe that Jesus is coming next Saturday to end the world and judge each one of us. I am quite sure that Jesus would tell us to spend our money feeding the poor and housing the homeless instead of buying big trucks that tell others how he is coming. Still, I have found myself wondering what I would do if this week were my last week. What is it that I would do if I had only one week to live?

Here is my list:

1) I'd spend time with my family. I'd visit my mother, my father, my sister, my niece, my grandparents, my extended family and all of my in-laws. I'd make sure each person knew how much I love them and treasure them.

2) I'd write checks. I would give away every single penny I have to organizations and ministries that are making a difference in this city and around the world.

3) I'd call someone who I had a disagreement with and apologize one more time for screwing up.

4) I'd hold Craig's hand all day and all night - never letting it go.

5) I'd spend time with the oldest adults in our church. I'd let them know how much they mean to me and how I cannot spend an hour with them without being reminded of what a gift it is to be a pastor.

6) I'd preach my heart out. I would say everything I have ever wanted to say from the pulpit on Sunday morning with the central message being, "God loves you. God loves you no matter what. God loves you and there is nothing you can do to keep God from loving you."

7) I'd go to the homeless shelters and spend time with the poor because I don't think we have to wait for Jesus to come back in order to see him today. I believe he is regularly found in the fringes - amongst the people who are most likely to be forgotten by we who have much.

8) I'd get a manicure, a pedicure and a massage.

9) I'd send as many thank-you notes and cards as I could simply to tell others that I care and am thankful for them.

10) I'd climb a mountain and put my feet into an ocean.

11) I'd confess my sins and praise God with my whole being because no matter what, even when this life comes to an end, I believe that my redeemer lives and because of Jesus' life, that I, too, will live eternally.

12) I'd buy a lot of tulips and place them in my home and on my desk.

What about you? What would you do if this were your last week?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Called to Action

I serve a church in a denomination that is declining. The loss in numbers has not happened over the course of the last few years. Rather, we have been losing members for decades. We are now at a place where nearly half of our churches have not taken in a single new member in the last year. We are closing many churches. We have buildings that are in need of great repair. And, while the alarm has been sounding for years, we are finally being called to action. We are being led to take note of what is happening and do something different.


Assigned by the Council of Bishops, a working group in our church has created a new document based upon extensive research. Bishops are now introducing the document in Annual Conferences, encouraging each church to respond and make plans to incorporate 16 ministries/strategies that were found in 5,000 vital congregations across the connection by setting SMART goals and taking note of current trends and statistics. We are all to respond to a call to act - to do something different.



I have participated in two conversations with my bishop on the Call to Action. One conversation was with a large gathering of pastors and laypeople in my region. The other gathering was a phone call with about five pastors and the bishop. We have talked through the document together. I have left each conversation being both inspired and completely frustrated. I cannot get past the first page of the document without feeling my heart rate escalate.



The first page of the document reads, "Disciple making and world transformation occurs through vital congregations." It then says, "Vital congregations are Spirit-filled, forward-leaning communities of believers that welcome all people." The document then refers to Galatians 3:28 in which Paul says all are one in Christ Jesus.



While the church I serve, Mount Vernon Place UMC, abundantly welcomes all people, the denomination of which I am a part is not a forward-leaning community that welcomes all people. Rather, we are still a denomination that discriminates. While we have moved past the days of discriminating based on color, we are still discriminating based on sexual orientation. We are still saying that some are welcome but others are not because their sexual orientation is incompatible with Christian teaching.



While the Call to Action report is calling me to action as I have already started to work with our Congregational Council on the 16 points in the document, the issue of inclusiveness is the real issue that is calling me to action. A lunchtime conversation two weeks ago has heightened my awareness on the need for change.



The woman started coming to our church in the fall having recently moved to Washington from the South. She knew she wanted to attend a Reconciling Congregation but had not yet found the right fit. Someone from the Reconciling Ministries Network had recently spoken at our church, and he suggested she give us a try. He then took time to tell me what a blessing this woman would be to any congregation. She came, and she continued to come. She was there almost every Sunday, attending a few mid-week gatherings, and was back for our Christmas Eve worship.



January came, and I did not see her much. I reached out to her and learned that she had been traveling. February came, and I did not see her much. I reached out again. This pattern continued until we were finally able to meet for lunch two weeks ago.



Over the course of lunch I learned that she had started dating someone. Her weekends were taking her to another place where this woman lived. In addition, the gift of a blossoming relationship built on the common interests of the church, music, family and other aspects of life was causing her to reevaluate her relationship with the United Methodist Church.



She shared with me how she had been part of a congregation that fought hard for change in our denomination. She told me stories of the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. She shared the pain that had come from these battles in addition to offering glimpses of hope. She then continued to talk with me.



I'm not someone who is only going to come on Sunday mornings, Pastor Donna. I am the kind of church member who gives it my all - the kind of church member who always shows up.



I love the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church has been my life. But I cannot continue to be part of a structure that does not honor the fullness of who God has created me to be.



With marriage equality a reality in the District of Columbia, I want to be part of a church that will not only accept my membership and all my gifts but one that will allow me to be married - to honor my desire to share the rest of my life with someone I love.



I then asked her where she was going to church when she was in Washington on the weekends. She told me she was going to another church of another denomination right up the street from us. When I asked her what she liked about the church she responded by saying, "The website tells me that I can be married in their church."



When are we as a denomination going to start being the church Jesus has called us to be? We allow rich people to be pastors. We allow divorced people to be pastors. We allow adulterers to be pastors. We allow people to be pastors who fit in a category that Jesus actually had something to say about but we do not allow people to be pastors who are gay or lesbian - no matter the fullness of their gifts.



I have the authority to marry couples who have only known each other for three months. I can marry people who have already been married seven times. I can marry people who have major issues that should keep them apart instead of joined together as one. Yet, I cannot marry people whose lives are a perfect complement to one another - people who deeply and passionate love one another and seek to glorify God through their marriage.



The church I serve still holds a mark of its sin-filled past. One cannot enter our historic sanctuary building without walking beneath the words, "Methodist Episcopal Church South." The grand church was created as a monument to slavery - a testament to a white man's ability to make a black man his slave. Thankfully, different voices started to fill our pulpit at the beginning of the last century. These voices called for an inclusive church. The most prominent voice - the voice that led the church to a place of having over 4000 members, even said on his last Sunday in 1950 that "The problem with the church today is that we have to get past our deep-seated prejudices if we are ever going to be the Body of Christ." I have no idea if he was being called to action by a group of bishops who were concerned about the church. What I do know is that he planted seeds of inclusiveness on that day - seeds that have led to a beautiful congregation that is black and white and many colors in between, housed and unhoused, believers and people struggling to believe, gay and straight, liberal and conservative. He stood for something different - for a new reality - for a congregation aligned with the ways of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.



Church - my dear brothers and sisters in Christ - it's time for us to wake up. It's time for us to get past our deep-seated prejudices and be the Body of Christ. Hundreds of people are all around us longing for an opportunity to come in. Countless individuals are in need of being told of God's love and experiencing this love through us - the Body of Christ around the world.



I've been called to action. What about you?