Friday, April 22, 2011

Beautiful Feet

We washed feet at Mount Vernon Place last night. Foot washing is not a practice I have been drawn to. While I love to have my own feet washed while sitting in a vibrating chair at a nail salon, I have never gotten down on my knees and washed the feet of my congregation. In an effort to establish new traditions and introduce new practices at our church, my colleague and I decided that last night's service would have two acts of response and remembering: the Eucharist and foot washing.

Instructions were given following the Great Thanksgiving. The intimate congregation was invited to come forward to the table or to the basin - it did not matter which place people arrived first. Each person was invited to come barefoot, leaving their shoes in the pew. We prepared for many people to come to the basin, unsure of exactly how many people would accept our invitation. I got down on my knees and waited for people to come. I soon discovered my eyes filling with tears as different emotions filled my heart and mind. And, I also found myself praying.

I gave thanks for feet that now live in China where they walk to schools to teach English. I gave thanks for the person these feet belong to - a beautiful individual who I wish would leave China and move back home because I miss her dearly.

I gave thanks for feet that lead our Serve ministries - feet that belong to someone who is willing to hold me accountable - feet that push us to embrace more people - feet that demonstrate foot washing to me often.

I gave thanks for feet that come to worship early to make sure the sanctuary is set up and feet that remain after to put each hymnal and songbook back in its place. These feet are servant's feet that show up often - feet that make my tired feet not so tired on a weekly basis.

I gave thanks for feet that not long ago stood in a garden with her fiance for marriage - feet that I got to journey with in pre-marital counseling and then celebrate with on the day I pronounced her married. These feet have blessed me so often as I see the love of God in the person to whom these feet belong.

I gave thanks for feet that have just started coming to church. These feet are hearing the story again after being away for a while. These feet are beautiful feet that are embracing the gift of community. They are loving feet that I get to watch interact with a transforming Gospel.

I also gave thanks for feet that belong to a father. This father's feet never miss a Sunday. I watch these feet care for his children and his wife. I see these feet becoming more involved in our community. I see feet that want to serve.

I'm still thinking about these feet this morning. These are feet filled with blessings. These are feet that have served countless people. These are feet that make more of me each week as they allow me to be a pastor and embody for me what it means to love others. Washing these feet has renewed me in a profound way.

"How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Willing to March?

I watched with interest a discussion taking place on Facebook last week. The mayor of Washington DC had been arrested in a protest in downtown DC, and many people were offended that someone in office would be arrested. Many people took the position that a city leader should tow the line and never cross it.

As I watched the discussion taking place, I immediately thought of the pastors I know who have been arrested along with those whose names are written in history who have been arrested or jailed because they stood or marched for a different reality. I thought about the dreams of biblical proportion that have been given to numerous colleagues and the ways in which colleagues have been willing to do whatever it takes to work towards making these dreams a reality.

When is it appropriate for us to march for something new? How have we been led to believe that Christians should always tow the line and conform to society's ways instead of standing for something new?

I shared with the congregation yesterday morning how Jesus' triumphal march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was just as much a political demonstration as it was a religious demonstration. The temple and the state were ruled by the same people. Animals were being sold for sacrifice placing a tremendous burden on the poor who had to buy doves for the forgiveness of their sins. Economic exploitation was widespread, and a system was set up to make people believe that God was the engineer of the system, and not the wealthy elite ruling on behalf of Rome. Everything needed to change. Jesus came, and the whole city was in turmoil when he entered Jerusalem. Much stood in need of redemption, and the redeemer was on the scene.

I asked our congregation yesterday what keeps them up at night. What realities exist today that stand in stark contrast to the ways God has designed them to be? Where is there oppression? Where are people being told that they are less than who God has designed them to be? What is in need of redemption? What are we willing to march for?

A member of our church makes regular visits to Capitol Hill. He has used his time and talent to work arduously for the appeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in the military. He's marching for a different reality.

Another person in our congregation works with immigrants in our city who are looking for jobs. She passionately seeks to secure the documentation they need in order to put food on their tables and a shelter over their heads. She's seen injustice firsthand and is working for a different reality.

Other individuals are working for affordable housing. They know firsthand how expensive it is to live in the city and how some people have to work three jobs in order to pay the rent.

Some people in our church are working with a reentry program for people who have recently been incarcerated. They know that many people are not willing to offer second chances to people who are getting their lives back in order, and so they stand alongside of these individuals while they put pieces back together and seek employment and housing.

Still other people in our church are marching for an end to sex-trafficking. They know that the victims are the ones who are often prosecuted while the pimp selling the young girls is allowed to do his own thing. They are working for a different reality.

Many people in our church are working for a transformed United Methodist Church. We long for the day when all people are treated equally in our denomination - when our Book of Discipline does not call LGBT people "incompatible with Christian teaching."

What are we willing to march for? When are we willing to say, "I've had enough, Lord. I know that the way things are is not the way you designed them to be. Give me the courage to work for the needed change. Grant me the capacity to see your dream and then passionately live into your dream. I need you, Lord. The world needs you. Help us, God, to be the people you have called us to be."

Friday, April 08, 2011

Essential or Non-essential?

My husband and I have been watching this week's budget standoff with interest. Craig is a government employee, and all week he has been reminding me that he might not be paid during a shutdown. He has cautioned me often to think about what we are spending, going a bit overboard with worry in my mind. We have watched the news stories. We have ached in sympathy with the thousands of tourists who have traveled to Washington for the ending of the Cherry Blossom Festival, a parade that is likely not to pass by. We have prayed for a solution and for the people who will be impacted the hardest by a shutdown. I have also thought a lot about the terms "essential" and "non-essential."

Who is it that is deemed essential on every other day but non-essential during a shutdown? How are these decisions made? How does one feel when they are told to stay home because they are non-essential?

As I have thought about our federal workers, I have also thought about how these views are used in the church. When it comes to a congregation, who is essential and who is non-essential?

Too often people are led to believe that the pastor is essential, the organist or pianist is essential, and the person who unlocks the doors is essential. We forget or fail to realize often how everyone is essential in the body of Christ.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ...Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, 'Because I am not an eye, I did not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body...But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them as God chose." Paul then says, "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

I am reminded every Sunday how each person in our congregation is essential. If a visitor arrives and one or two people are at the door ready to greet them, show them their way to the sanctuary, and give them a bulletin, then that person is more likely to come back. If someone sits down in the pews and the people next to them in the pews or behind them or in front of them say "hello" or show them where the right songbook is or invite them to coffee hour following worship, then that person is likely to come back. If someone makes coffee or volunteers to bring food for fellowship time, then a stronger sense of community will be evident. If someone volunteers to serve in the nursery, caring for our many children, then our children's ministry is likely to grow stronger and other families might be led to come. If a lot of people choose to take the Sunday off for whatever reason and there are a lot of gaps in the sanctuary, then one person may be led to believe that the church is not so vibrant after all - the absence of one family in a small congregation makes a huge difference. If we pray for someone who is sick on Sunday and then continue to pray for that person throughout the week, letting the person know they are being carried in prayer, then our prayers could make all the difference.

Everyone is essential outside of worship, too. When our committees met on Wednesday night, one person made all the difference in whether or not one group had a quorum. When it comes to our shower ministry, one person can be the decisive factor in whether or not a dozen people get to shower. When it comes to church life, it is the little things that can make a huge difference whether it is our prayers, presence, gifts, service or witness.

We are the body of Christ. Some of us are feet. Some of us are hands. Some of us are mouths. Some of us are ears. Some of us are eyes. Some of us are noses. Every part of the body is essential.

Thanks for being part of the body. See you on Sunday!

Monday, April 04, 2011

How Can I Keep from Singing?

I sang on my way to work this morning. The sun was rising over Washington, and my car radio was tuned to the local Contemporary Christian station. With the music playing in the background and cherry blossoms in view around the Tidal Basin, I could not keep from singing. I wanted nothing more than to keep on singing my praises to God for the dawn of a new day and the anticipation of another week. How could I keep from singing?

Most of us sing when we are happy. We sing in response to the joy in our lives. But I learned again last night the power of singing at all times - not just when we are filled with joy - but especially when we have no words to fill the pain of life - when only a song will do.

"60 Minutes" Lesley Stahl took me to Harlem last night where we were introduced to Vy Higgensen's Gospel for Teens program. Vy has been teaching teenagers in Harlem how to sing their lives for many years now. She uses the power of gospel music to reach individual hearts and transform spirits. The program's theme song includes the words, "How can anyone ever tell you that you're less than beautiful? How can anyone ever tell you that you're less than whole?" She pushes young people who have been told all their lives that they are far from beautiful and less than whole to belt out these words - to sing them until they own them. She also informs the teenagers that the one thing slaves always had was song - the ability to sing. "Song is our story" she tells them. "'The storm is passing over' is music born out of slavery," she continues.

Vy has a way of telling the teenagers that their storms are still passing over - that they can keep on singing through the darkness until they can again see the light. She shows the power of this abiding belief in their power of song when she invites a young person who has just watched a 15-year-old relative be slain to get up and sing - to get up and sing about the darkness going away - being replaced by God's presence and light. In Vy's world, song is filled with hope and possibility - singing allows us to see a different alternative.

The story of Gospel for Teens had me in tears last night. I listened to the power of God's call on this woman's life - how she has taken the gifts God has given to her and used them to bring out the God-given gifts in others. I watched as young people started to uncover the brightness of their light. I witnessed the power of music - the power of song - completely transforming dozens of lives.

Singing plays a central role in scripture. In the book of Acts, we are told that Paul and Silas are in prison. It is about midnight when they are praying and singing hymns to God. We are then told how there was suddenly an earthquake that shook even the foundations of the prison, "and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened." Music brought about release from captivity. It loosened the ties of bondage. We are told that the disciples sing a hymn immediately after the Last Supper in Mark's Gospel and just before Jesus tells of Peter's denial (Mark 14:26). Certainly the Psalmists are singing people. People sing for all kinds of reasons in the Psalms.

What about you? When do you sing? When sadness robs every ounce of your joy, do you turn inward and refuse to acknowledge God let alone sing? When darkness starts to evade the light of life, do you ever turn to singing? When prayers seemingly go unanswered do you give up on God or do you keep singing?

Vy's right. We have so much to learn from the genre of Gospel. We have so much to give thanks for when we sing the songs of people who knew the pain of darkness and bondage all too well but still kept on singing their faith in God. Their songs are a testament to God's power. Their songs are a testimony of a deep, abiding faith in a God who promises to never leave us nor forsake us.

What would it mean for you to hold your arms out and shake them fast and furiously, just as Vy instructs her students? What would you think about when you were instructed to shake away whatever is weighing you down, whatever is causing you pain, whatever is keeping you up at night? And once you have done a little shaking, how about starting to sing songs about how the storm is passing over, about how no one can ever tell you that you are anything but beautiful and whole, about God turning your darkness into light?
God, make our church a singing people. God, make me a singing disciple. How can we keep from singing?