Monday, February 28, 2011

Practicing Hospitality

I sent the weekly email to our congregation a few minutes ago. We are fortunate to have a lot of visitors each week, and we are always working on how to be more hospitable. I included some tips on practicing hospitality at the end of this week's email. Here they are for your review.

1) Choose a seat in the middle instead of the aisle. When I am flying on an airplane, I love the aisle. I never know when I might need to get up and go to the bathroom or get something in the overhead bin. My legs are long, and I also like to stretch them. However, church is not a flight and the sanctuary is not an airplane. Why do most people gravitate towards the aisle? We’re not really going anywhere! Rather than coming in and taking an aisle seat, how about moving to the middle and making room for others who might come later and need to sit on the aisle?

2) Immediately introduce yourself. It happens to me often – I introduce myself only to hear, “I’ve been here before.” It’s a little awkward, for sure, and I try hard to remember someone’s name. However, it is better to err on the side of safety and say, “I’m not sure I have met you before,” than to not say anything at all.

3) Invite someone to coffee hour with you and show them how to get to the Fellowship Hall. I am a huge extrovert. I love people. However, I am often completely intimidated by large gatherings where I do not know people. The same is true for coffee hour. It is so hard to walk into that space alone. It is easier to make a bee-line for the door. Our goal is to make sure no one bee-lines for the door but instead that everyone is asked and then personally accompanied to coffee hour.

4) Arrive on time – or a little early! Most of our first-time visitors arrive early – in order to find a place to park and then figure out how to get to the sanctuary. They often walk into a sanctuary that is almost empty. The service then starts with around 25 people in the pews and then somehow, by the end of the service we have 85 people in the pews. Help us make the right first impression – the impression of a vital church with a beautiful, diverse congregation – by being on time!

5) Reverse Greet – we are great at providing greeters for people who come into the church but we sometimes miss some of the bee-liners because we have so many different doors. Would you be willing to help us by going to one of these doors following the service and letting folks know how glad you are that they chose to come to your church?

6) Sign in – all the way in. Have you heard the statement, “monkey see, monkey do?” The same thing happens with our visitors. When you only write your name in the red book, they only write their name in the book. However, when you write your name, address, email and phone number, they will do the same. This information is so important to us! Your signing the book is also important to us as we are seeking to do a better job of keeping track of who has missed worship. I know it takes a little longer – but would you be willing to sign in as if it is your first time even if you have been here 500 times – letting us know all your information so that the person sitting next to you will do the same?

What about you? What makes you feel welcome when you are visiting a church for the first time? What are your tips?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Red Carpet

Our television is tuned to the Oscars. We have just over twelve minutes to go before the show begins. But we don't have to wait for the show to start to get a glimpse of the action. Television cameras are set up along the red carpet, and we are already being entertained by different television personalities who are stopping stars on their way to the show. The question being asked is not, "How are you?" or "What excites you about being here tonight?" Rather, each star is being asked, "Who are you wearing?"

Who are you wearing? The responses have ranged from Valentino to Oscar de la Renta to Marchesa and countless designers in between - some of whom I have never heard before. Some of the dresses are couture - a word that seems to bring about an even more impressive response.

Who are you wearing? The question is asked repeatedly as if the average viewer can afford a dress by the same designer.

Who are you wearing?

For the last five weeks we have been examining the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon, as recorded in Matthew, is perhaps the greatest sermon ever to be preached. Jesus uses the sermon to form an alternative community. He uses the sermon to teach the crowds about what it means to follow him. The sermon describes the transformed life offered to all who follow Jesus. Jesus has the power to change people, and a changed life is expected of all who follow him. Disciples of Jesus are to be like light in the night. They are to turn the other cheek if someone strikes them. If one asks for a coat, disciples are beckoned to give their cloak as well. Disciples are blessed - but not in the way we expect people to be blessed. Disciples, followers of Christ, are different. They wear Christ by not worrying, by treating everyone around them with an abundance of grace, by salting the world around them.

The dresses on the red carpet illicit many oohs and ahhs. Many people will go and purchase a dress by a designer simply because of hearing the designer named tonight. The dresses have an effect on people watching.

Our discipleship is to have a similar effect. Others are to be able to see who we are wearing - who we follow - who is in control of our lives.

Who are you wearing?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Seeing Evil

I have spent time with the Board of Ordained Ministry twice in recent weeks as we interview candidates for ordained ministry. I relish in the opportunity to have theological discussions, to learn new things, to be reinvigorated about the future of our church, and to spend time with precious colleagues. Without fail, I always return home wrestling with some of the same topics with which we have wrestled with the candidates. What is grace? What is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and how do you apply it to an ethical issue? How would you respond to this issue if it were to happen in your church? What is evil? How does evil work in our world?

After wrestling with evil last week I saw evil firsthand with my own eyes on Saturday. Taking advantage of a recent Groupon that offered half-price admission, Craig and I journeyed to the Newseum on Saturday afternoon. Our visit started with our eyes being overwhelmed by light as we marveled at the glass structure and its magnificent views of Washington. But it did not take long for the darkness to become more powerful than the light.

Our eyes gazed upon several pieces of the Berlin Wall as we imagined what it must have been like to wake up one day separated from the rest of the city. It did not take long to start thinking about other walls that have been created - barriers created with wire and concrete and barriers created with minds and hearts.

We marveled at a twisted piece of a tower that used to stand tall upon the World Trade Center and looked at how newspapers reported the events of 9/11. We saw bodies falling and people running. We saw with our eyes the power of a decision that involves a few people - how a person's actions can impact thousands and thousands of people.

We also heard the cries of the people of New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina, watching and listening to desperate mothers and the children shouting for food and drink. We heard their cries and then listened to the story of how so many of these voices were not really heard at the time - how we all turned our backs at first.

We saw evil. I saw evil lurking around every corner. I saw what happens when goodness is overcome with evil, when an ordinary Tuesday becomes a nightmare, when a storm exposes the sin of our nation.

I could not sleep on Saturday night.
I woke up feeling heavy on Sunday morning.
I then heard a different voice harkening from the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome the light.

I have come that you might have life and life abundant.

Consider the lilies of the field...and imagine how much more God cares for you.

Have no anxiety about anything.

We have a savior. We have a savior who came into the world and promises that no matter how harsh this world might be, this harshness does not have the final world. We have a savior who tells us stories about arms open wide ready to welcome home prodigal children no matter what. We have a savior who lived a life that showed us how to live and then died a most violent death so that we might all live again. We have a savior, and this savior and not the evil one, has the final word. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What the United Methodist Church Can Learn From Glee

I'm a fan of the television show Glee. I love the music. I love the cast. I love the message and the ways in which this show has the capacity to tell people young and old alike about what it means to be nothing less than who you are.

The episode that aired following the Superbowl has me thinking. Titled, "The Sue Sylvester Shuffle," the episode has a lot to teach the denomination of which I am a part.

The students at William McKinley High School are divided. They have an opportunity to win the Conference Championship in football but the team is stuck on their differences instead of their similarities. Half of the members of the team are in the Glee Club. Half of the members of the team despise the Glee Club, believing it is nothing short of a group of singing sissies. The team is filled with talent but cannot win because of the ways in which they allow their differences to enter the game.

Upon losing another game, Football Coach Bieste and Glee Club Sponsor Mr. Shue come up with a plan. Asking if Coach Bieste trusts him, he proceeds to tell her how he knows a way to get her team united again. We then watch as the team comes together not on the field but in the Glee Club's practice room - in the place that represents their disagreement.

Mr. Shue gathers the team with the words, "Bullying is born out of ignorance." He then tells the team that it is time to come together. It is time to find some common ground. "We have to find a way to come together or we are going to get our asses kicked."

Coach Bieste and Mr. Shue know that the actions of the team impact not only the players on the team but the entire community. The divisions of one group have a ripple effect on the entire school.

Their efforts succeed initially, and the entire team starts to sing. Mr. Shue notices the talent of the player who is most known for his bullying and says to Dave, "If you took the energy you used bullying people and put it into this you'd be the most talented guy in the school."

The episode continues and we watch as the cheerleaders have to sacrifice being cheerleaders - the very thing they believe makes them popular - and the football players have to sacrifice their egos and sing. In the end, the entire group sings Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to the delight of everyone in the stands and the football team wins the Championship game.

Everyone wins.
Everyone wins when people focus on what is really important.
Everyone wins when they let go of their pride and see what's best for the wider community.

I don't know about you, but I think the United Methodist Church is getting its rear kicked in many ways. We are a declining denomination. Read these words from a report on new church development:

Congregation Size

The United Methodist Church has lost members every year since the merger of 1968.

Congregation Age

The average age of worshippers are on the rise throughout the nation, however, the United Methodist Church is “already gray.” The congregational life survey,” “Who Attends United Methodist Churches?,” conducted by the Office of Research and Planning makes the following observations:

For every young adult under twenty-five years old, there are six senior citizens. In fact, there are almost twice as many senior citizens occupying United Methodist pews than there are adults aged twenty-five to forty-four. In typical congregations, those aged forty-five to sixty-four make up the largest group.18

The survey concludes, “If a denomination’s future rests upon the shoulder’s of the young, then The United Methodist Church must intensify its efforts to attract and involve young adults who currently make up the smallest portion of its population.”19

Household Type

A significant warning sign to note is that in United Methodist congregations across the country, only four in ten United Methodist worshippers have children living at home. This is a full 25% below the national average. The people filling United Methodist pews are most likely to be women, well educated, and aged forty-five years or older.20

These words do not paint a picture of a vital denomination. They do not speak of a flourishing church.

At the same time, many congregations are growing. The church I serve, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, has experienced a complete transformation in the last five years. We have gone from a congregation with an average age of 82 to a congregation that is known for attracting young adults and their families. Just five years ago, our chair of SPRC was 97 years old, our Finance Chair was 93 and our lay leader was 90. We now have in place an entirely new leadership team composed of people who have come in the last three to four years. What's changed? A whole lot. But one of the things that has changed is that we flung open our doors. We intentionally decided to be open to all people. We discerned a call to become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network. And one of our five-year goals is to work towards a transformed United Methodist Church.

Starting now, bodies across our country known as Annual Conferences are starting to look at pieces of legislation that will come before them this summer. At least three pieces of legislation that will come before the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference deal with sexuality. We'll debate again throughout the summer about who is welcome in our churches and who is not. We'll decide via votes about whose lives are incompatible with Christian teaching, ignoring all the while that most of our lives are incompatible as many of us are considered rather wealthy and are not sharing near what Jesus calls us to share. I'm what is described a goat in Matthew 25 more days than I would ever be considered a sheep.

Meanwhile, we are getting our butts kicked. We are losing members. We are growing older. We are becoming irrelevant.

What would it mean for us to take one for the team - for us to take one for Christ's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? What would it mean for us to put the energy we use on bullying people - on telling people that they are less than us because of the way they love - and put it into what is really important?

I pray for a transformed church. I pray for a church that is known for what we stand for - Christ's love, mercy, and grace; our love of God and neighbor; our commitment to justice; the impact we have on the communities of which we are a part; our ministries for and with the least of these. I pray for a championship win - the kind in which more people are being won over to Christ because the door was opened to them instead of being shut out.

What will it take for us to come together? What will it take for us to sing our hearts out - together as one - dancing in delight?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Excessive Celebration

One penalty from Sunday's Superbowl has left me thinking. Green Bay's Nick Collins made a touchdown and then bowed down on his knees while lifting his hands in the air. He was overcome with excitement as most of us would be if we scored a touchdown in the biggest game of the year. He was filled with emotion and lifted his hands - in praise? in excitement? in delight? It is a rather normal reaction and yet Collins was penalized for these actions. His team suffered as a result of him lifting his hands in the air while kneeling.

Later in the game another player was found kneeling in the end zone. This time it was Greg Jennings. Jennings knelt down and then also bowed his head. He did not get penalized. Apparently it is okay to pray after scoring a touchdown but it is not okay to praise - to express jubilant celebration.

I posted on Facebook Sunday night how I would love to be accused of excessive celebration. Seriously, I would love to be the kind of person who is judged not for being uptight or wound up but for being filled with joy - celebration - wonder - delight.

One of the best descriptions of the church is found in Acts 2. Here we are told of the disciples' actions and how these actions were filled with joy. "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved" read verses 46 and 47. There is an abundance of praise, worship, gladness and generosity in this passage. The people are filled with joy over what God has done for them through Jesus' life, death and resurrection. They are bending their entire lives towards God, sharing everything they have. They are celebrating...excessively.

I yearn for a life like the early disciples. I yearn for a church like the one described in Acts 2 - not the kind of place we dread going but the kind of place where we cannot wait to gather on Sunday mornings. I yearn for a community that is filled with joy - one that understands the great things God has done for us, leaving us no choice but to celebrate. We have so much to celebrate. We have so many reasons to be thankful. God has done great things for us. God's grace is overflowing throughout our lives. God's love is immeasurable - there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can to do make God love us less.

We have a reason to celebrate excessively - with absolutely no penalty.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Rock Climbing

The writer Reuben Job has instructed me to start each day this week with the words of the Psalmist found in the 61st Psalm:

Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I.

These words have become convicting words to me - touching my mind, my heart and especially my spirit. Lead me to a rock that is higher than I.

I have chosen too often to stay in the valley of myself and the way things are rather than the way things can be. I check our property values often and worry that we'll never be able to live in more than a one-bedroom condo. I read articles about how interest rates are forecasted to increase and worry about what our payments will be in the future as I recognize how far under-water we are today on our home values versus what we paid. I know bits and pieces of family situations and worry about people I love. I so often choose to stay in this valley of worry and despair. I so often fail to see how great God is, limiting the powers of God instead. I too often choose to wrestle with situations in my mind, going over a dozen different scenarios, instead of turning to God and praying these powerful words.

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I.

I look at the number of unhoused people in our community and wonder if we'll ever solve the problem of homelessness. I listen to the words of a colleague who shared with me recently how he works three jobs and still only made $26,000 last year - a person who is struggling hard to get his life back in order and defy the odds stacked against him as a former convict - and I wonder if we'll ever learn to trust that God gives second chances no matter what a person has done. I think about the situation in Egypt and the protests that are taking place and I wonder if peace will be found.

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I.

The Psalmist knows the power of God. The Psalmist is aware that we do not have to remain where we are - that we worship a God who longs to take us from our broken places in the valley and place us on a high rock, to lift us up from despair and into hope, to open a door where we can only see a closed door. Our God is an awesome God.

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I. Help me, God, to not worry but to trust in you. Show me how big you are. Reveal yourself to me and to our world. Enable me to see your movement in my life and call me to respond in places where I can assist. Lead me to a rock that is higher than I. Help me stand in high places of trust and comfidence with you. Amen.