Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Pocket of Prayer

"I have these moments of deep peace in the midst of my anxiety," he told me. "It's almost like I am walking through a pocket of prayer," he continued. "It's made me see and realize that people really are praying for me."

A member of our church shared these words with me yesterday in response to my question about his current health situation. This church member is waiting for additional questions to be answered concerning something that has been found in his body that should not be there. It is a time of waiting and uncertainty - moments in which one's thoughts about all that could be wrong can easily overcome the realization of all that can be right. He is experiencing the natural emotions of concern and worry, along with many who love him. He is also being prayed for - often.

A pocket of prayer.

Imagine the gift each of us can offer someone going through a difficult time. Imagine the peace that God can make manifest through our prayers. Imagine the power of prayer. Through our words spoken to God, someone can feel a difference. Someone can literally walk through a pocket of prayer. One can find themselves in the midst of an unexpected peace in the middle of a field of deep anxiety. What a gift we can offer to one another in the church and beyond.

"If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." 1 Corinthians 12:26-27

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We Miss You

I used to go to the restaurant at least once a month as it is a few blocks from the church and quite affordable. The manager of the store closest to the church is also one who provides care for one of our members with special needs. She has even emailed me when she noticed that this person has not been taking his medications, winning my respect for more than the burritos she makes.

While I have not been there in a while, I love getting emails from this local burrito chain. Their marketing manager is filled with spunk, and I can hardly wait to see what she has to say each week. But yesterday's email made me realize just how good this restaurant is at reaching their customers. They want my business and are willing to do what it takes to get it.

The email read:
Dear Donna,

Where the heck have you been? To show you how much we miss you, we got you a little something--but we can't give it to you unless you come in. So here's the scoop: we've just put a FREE TACO on your Burrito Elito card. All you have to do is visit any Cal Tort, with your card, within 2 weeks of this email to get it. After 2 weeks it goes away--so hurry!

We're holding our breath until you get here. 1, 2, 3...

Yours Truly,
Queen of Burritos

The Queen of Burritos does more than make me laugh - she also reaches out to me to let me know that I have not been to the restaurant in a while. She misses me. And, if I take her up on her offer, I'll likely go in for more than a free taco for what is a taco without chips and salsa!

I wonder what our church can learn from her. How is it that we reach out to people who we have not seen in a while? What do we do to let people know that there is something waiting for them when they return - a loving community, a timely message, authentic worship, people who care? What do we do to make sure that no one falls through the cracks by recognizing absences?

"We miss you" are three rather powerful words.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The State of the District

I received two calls from the District of Columbia Mayor's office yesterday. Two individuals called in an effort to find a pastor who could offer the invocation at the Mayor's State of the District Address scheduled for Monday night. My colleague at a nearby church could not do it, and she graciously suggested they call me. I cannot do it either as I am scheduled to be meeting at another church. But I cannot help but think about what I would pray if I could be there. What is the state of the city I love - a city where I serve - a city our church is seeking to transform with God's help?

I'll start by saying that Washington is breathtakingly beautiful this time of the year. The grass on the National Mall is turning green again. The cherry blossoms are opening into extraordinary beauty in order to dazzle thousands of people who will flock to the Tidal Basin this weekend. The monuments stand tall and proud. We can gain the appreciation of many a tourist who comes to our city if we keep them in certain areas of our city. We can awe people with our Metro and amaze people with our food choices. We can impress people, and we do often. But my eyes have seen a different side of the city, and my ears hear stories that demand attention, correction and leadership.

When I first moved to Washington in 1994, I selected a small apartment that was as close to work as I could find. My commute from my door to my desk in the Hart Senate Office Building was exactly four minutes. Living on the Hill, I was not allowed to see many of our city's problems. Homeless people are not allowed to linger on the Hill but are rather sent off to other parts of the city. Hungry people do not go through trash cans just outside the Capitol building. The sadness of the city is often blocked from the view of Members of Congress and their constituents who visit.

When I came back to the city in 2001, I was led to live in Columbia Heights. I quickly saw a different part of the city that my eyes had not seen before. I was awakened to the reality of gangs, violence, and killings. I noticed children lining up for their annual vaccinations at a local health clinic. I saw the very rich and the very poor all living on the same block. I learned to pray for peace not in places like the Middle East but for my own block.

At the same time, I was adjusting to being a pastor in the center of the city. When I arrived at the church I was greeted by huge metal gates that had been installed to keep people from sleeping on the porches. I fought hard to get the gates removed and was successful in the process. I now anguish over how to get people off the porches because we cannot keep up with hosing urine off the steps and clearing cardboard boxes. I have learned that the one thing our city has an abundance of is grey metal blankets that are given to people on the streets. I would be perfectly content to never see one of these grey blankets again.

Today, I open the pages of the Washington Post and read how 15.8 percent of the people living in Washington do not know where their next meal will come from. 93,000 people living in our city struggle to find their next meal - more than one in ten people! The radio informed me earlier in the week how the gap between those who have and those who have not is wider in the District than any other city. At the same time, I read stories of a Council Chairperson who chose to lease a luxury vehicle, demanding every feature he could find, at an expense of $2,000 a month to the city. I'm also perplexed by stories of what happened during the campaign - of who was promised what job and at what expense. I wonder who is telling the truth and who is not. I wonder what it will take to improve our city's school system - how if there will ever be another President or Member of Congress who will send her children to city schools instead of private, elite schools.

What would I pray if I could be there on Monday night?

O God, our help in ages past, you who have guided us through the wilderness and protected us in the storms, you who broke down barriers and welcomed all people, you who turned the tables upside down and sent money changers away, you who said the first shall be last and the last shall be first, you who call us to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with you, we turn to you once more on this night. We gather as ordinary citizens and leaders who have been vested with extraordinary power. We gather as people who love this city and individuals who want the best for this city. We gather, and we pray for our city. We pray for our Mayor who will speak on this night. May he speak a word of truth and a word of vision. We pray for the members of our City Council who gather in the front rows. May they lead by example and show us how they are seeking the best interests for our city and not for themselves. We pray for every citizen of this city. Show us how to provide food for those who are hungry. Tell us how to provide a quality education for all who are eager to learn. Equip us with what we need to remove the violence that pervades too many neighborhoods and city corners. Help us, Lord, to care for each citizen of this city and especially those who are not here on this night. Grant us the capacity to seek your forgiveness in areas where we have gone astray. Help us to always tell the truth. Make us people who are willing to do whatever it takes to make us one - one city where all are valued and no one is tossed aside. Make your presence known in this place as we gather with hope and anticipation. Amen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Too Busy

It happened to me again. Someone treated me in such a way that I knew they were busy. I just phoned a restaurant to change a reservation. The hostess answered. I knew she was busy by the way she rushed through the name of the restaurant and her own name when answering. I shared with her the reason for my call, and she interrupted me mid-sentence. "I need to change my reservation for Sunday from four people to five people." "No problem," she said. She hung up. I'm still holding on - hoping she got my name right, hoping she made the change, hoping she is eager to greet us when we arrive for Sunday brunch.

The same thing happened when I went to pick up my car after getting it serviced on Monday. I walked into the cashier's area and felt as though I was interrupting a deep conversation. I was prepared to hand over another few hundred dollars in exchange for my car and more business down the road. She took my credit card, continued her conversation, and handed over my key. She was busy, and I was frustrated - frustrated enough to even mention what appeared to be a lack of service when the email arrived asking me about my experiences with the dealership.

So many people around me are busy - too busy to do the work they are being paid to do - providing me service. And, I am one of them. I'm often too busy. I come across as someone who is trying to juggle a million things at once. I have people call or email and say, "I know you are really busy, but..." When asked how I am, I often say, "I'm really busy."

But part of my Lenten discipline is to no longer use these words - these two words that often tell others that we may not have time for them. Rather than telling people how busy I am, I am acknowledging the fullness of life.

The fullness of life.

I realize often that most of the time I am busy because I have taken more than I can chew. When we started Wednesday night dinners at Mount Vernon Place, I volunteered to cook each Wednesday. When invitations arrive to preside at a wedding for someone I have never met or preach for a special event or serve on another Conference committee, I often say "yes" and then consider the impact it will have on the rest of my schedule. I often chose to be all things to all people, and I am realizing that I cannot keep this pace without always telling others, "I'm busy." I'm tired of being busy and long to focus on the fullness of life. I'm seeking to focus on that which makes more of me instead of that which robs my joy along with the joy of others who I am called to be with and journey with.

My life is so full - full of really amazing gifts and blessings. I am convinced that I am married to the absolute best partner that God could find for me - someone who is far more patient and kind in one day than I am in an entire month. I am convinced that I have a really great extended family. From my birth family to my in-laws, I am surrounded by people who love me and who make more of me. I am convinced that I am in the appointment that is the very best match for me. There is no other place I would rather be working and no other congregation I would rather be serving right now than Mount Vernon Place. And, I am convinced that I have great friends - longtime friends and newer friends - friends who constantly make me laugh often, think deeply, and see more of God's hand around me. These things add to the fullness of life - these things make up the very best life.

I'm asking myself often what it means to be filled with these things. What does it mean for me to focus on these things: to seek to be the very best wife, the very best family member, the very best pastor and the very best friend? If I am seeking to do these things, then I know there are many other things I can and should let go of - things that are not nearly as important as my first priorities - things that are causing me to be too busy and thereby emptying my spirit instead of adding to the fullness of life.

God, help me to see what is really important. Grant me the capacity to live a more disciplined life. Show me how best to use the time, resources and gifts you have given to me. Help me to stay focused on each person you send into my midst. Enable me to not be busy with unnecessary things but to instead be filled with the joy of knowing that I am right where you have called me to be. Amen.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Choose Life

I worshipped with my clergy colleagues earlier today at a Board of Ordained Ministry meeting. The liturgy was geared towards us - towards our call to be spiritual leaders and our need to let go of ourselves. We were reminded that it does not matter what role we play, what appointment we are in, or how many people are in our congregations. We are all dust and to dust we shall return.

These are the words of Ash Wednesday. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I felt the grit on my forehead. I looked at the smudged cross in the mirror of the restaurant bathroom. I thought about dust. I have since thought a lot about life.

If we journey through this season well, I believe we find life and not death. Sure we all have to journey through the cross of Good Friday but we are all on our way to the resurrection celebrated on Easter morning. We are journeying through a season that ends with resurrection and the life offered through this magnificent gift.

What does it mean for us to choose life? As I have wrestled with this question I have found my heart being called back to its center - back to the place where I believe Christ calls me to be.

When I choose life, I realize again that my body is a temple and my health is a precious gift from God. Choosing life means being more aware of what I put into my body and how I treat my body. Choosing life means making physical activity a priority instead of something done on my day off. It means making salads and staying away from drive-through windows. It means limiting my caffeine intake and watching my empty calories. It means embodying the discipline needed to get weight off that has crept on since our wedding. Choose life.

When I choose life, I realize that life is best spent in community. My heart is most fully alive when I am with others. I love the community that gathers on Sunday mornings in the church I serve. I love the community of my friends and family. I need to spend more time with these precious people. I need to make community a priority. Choose life.

When I choose life, I realize that I can never be fully human if another is not allowed to be fully human - my humanity is wrapped up in your humanity. Choosing life means working for equality for all people. It means seeking to make a difference in the world. It means acknowledging the hurt and pain of others. Choose life.

When I choose life, I realize how little things make a big difference. I imagine the joy of writing personal notes that let someone know I am thinking of them. I think about the reward that comes from selecting cards at the Hallmark Store that are sent for no reason other than to say, "I think you are wonderful" or "I'm thinking of you today," or "Thanks for being you," or "I'm praying for you." Choose life.

When I choose life, I realize that Jesus is the most important thing in my life. Because he lives I really can face tomorrow - in all my shortcomings. Because he lives, I know how to care for others - how to love others, how to be with others. Because he lives, there is nothing I should be afraid of. Because he lives, every Sunday really is a little Easter - a celebration of his resurrection and life that demands the best from me. I need to spend more time with Jesus - reading the scriptures, praying to him, seeking to follow him, serving like him, forgiving like him, living like him. Choose life.

My Lenten discipline is to choose life - to repent of my sin but to then accept the freedom God gives me to live - to really live. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Why I Need the Church

Conversations this week have pushed me to think a lot about the church. What is the purpose of the church? Why do I go to church? I wrestled with these questions most of the night and woke up giving thanks once again for this imperfect body and my imperfect role within the body. There are many reasons why I need the church.

I need to be in the presence of people who are seeking to follow Jesus and willing to hold me accountable to the same. The biblical accounts are filled with stories of people seeking to do their own thing, seeking to protect their own interests. Eve disobeys God in the garden. The Israelites are constantly doubting God. The people who Jesus encounters are not much different. Neither am I. I can easily be focused on everything I need to get done and everything I want. I can easily believe that life is about me. But the Gospel will not allow this thinking. Jesus is constantly calling me to let go - to let go of my time, to let go of my talents and to let go of my resources. I need to be in community with others who are seeking to do the same thing. I need to be in the presence of people who will push me to be more faithful - who will dare to ask the question, "How is it with your soul? or When is the last time you freely offered your gifts? or How much time are you spending in prayer each day?"

I need to be in the presence of God. Sure I have experienced the Holy Spirit at this same dining room table where I write today. I have also experienced God in hospital rooms and in the midst of a conversation at Starbucks. But there is something about Sunday mornings in the sanctuary that enable me to sense God's presence more clearly. I love gazing at the brilliance of the stained glass and looking at the ways in which the light of God comes through these different colors. I love singing songs and repeating choruses written 200 years ago and ones written 20 months ago - melodies of praise that cause my heart to swell up over 'alleluia.' I love reading the words of the liturgy that call me to praise, to confess, to pray. I also love what happens when it is time for the word to be preached - how God shows up during that time in ways more powerful than I can imagine.

I need to be with people who are caring for one another. My mom has been in a tough situation recently of being in a new city where she knows only a handful of people. She has needed rides for medical procedures and even needed a ride home from the hospital this week. I suggested she call the church she has been attending. At its best, the church longs to be a place of comfort and spiritual growth but we also long to be a body that is caring for one another. I want to know if someone is planning to go to the hospital by herself or is already in the hospital. I want to know if someone is spending time trying to figure out how to get to a doctor's appointment. I want to know when someone is sick and in need of our prayers. I want to know when pain is seeping into previously joy-filled places. I want to be with each other - in times of joy and in times of pain, in times of celebration and in times of sorrow. The church has the capacity to be present like no other body - and sometimes even better than our birth families.

I need Jesus. I need to be told of his stories over and over again. I need to be reminded of his grace - how his grace was infused in me long before I ever sought to respond and how this grace is offered to me every single day. I need to be told of his life, death and resurrection - how he died for me so that I might experience the newness of life that comes when I confess my sins but also so that I might live eternally. I need to be reminded often of the call to go the extra mile, to turn the cheek, to forgive at all costs. I need to be pushed to care for the people around me who are struggling to secure the basic needs of life. I need to be transformed in ways that nothing and no one other than Jesus can transform. I do not believe Jesus is confined to churches. In fact I think he rather prefers the streets of our city but there is something about being in church that allows me to see and sense Jesus.

The church is far from perfect. I as a pastor am far from perfect. But there is something about this body that calls me to offer my best and reflect when I have fallen short. There is much about Jesus that calls me to be more.

I cannot wait to see what happens this Sunday. See you in church.