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!