Tuesday, May 17, 2011


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?