Friday, December 30, 2011

Lessons in Living and Dying

As a Methodist, I have been taught to believe that I am going on to perfection. I even told the bishop on the day of my ordination that I expect to be made perfect in this life since that is what candidates for ordination are supposed to say. But I am reminded daily of how far I need to travel before reaching perfection.
It's hard to believe in perfect people.
However, I said goodbye last week to the most perfect person I have ever known.
People often ask me about how Mount Vernon Place has turned around. How is it that we have transitioned from a congregation of 35 people with an average age of 82 to a growing congregation composed of countless young adults? I am still trying to put my finger on the exact recipe for the transformation but I know that Ruth DuLaney was a key ingredient.
She was not one of the young adults who joined the church in the last five years, taking a chance that change would come. Rather, she joined the church as a young adult in the late 1930s and was married at the church in 1940. She then spent the last 71 years encouraging other people to take chances - to let go of rigid ways and dream a new dream. And, she regularly told her peers that they needed to trust their new pastor - words that became my manna in the wilderness.
When I arrived at Mount Vernon Place in 2005, Ruth DuLaney was our lay leader. She was 90 years old according to her birth certificate but her energy level was on par with the average 40 year old. I met her prior to my arrival as a member of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. I next encountered her on the day my boxes were delivered to the church as she and her husband were out in the church yard pulling weeds and tending to the gardens. Her name appears on the list of those in attendance at every church meeting in my first four years. She was there when we voted to become a Reconciling Congregation and then went out to lunch with a group of young people to celebrate our church's decision to boldly welcome all people. She was there when we needed cookies baked or cards sent. She was there when we needed a location for a ladies luncheon. She was there when two young people needed a place to stay. She was there - always there. And her always being there has taught me a million lessons.
It was towards the end of the summer when a hospital bed arrived in Ruth's room. The bed was accompanied by several nurses who tended to her needs before transitioning to sitting with her round the clock. When the bed arrived, Ruth told people it was the most comfortable bed you could imagine. When the nurses started to bathe Ruth from the bed, Ruth told people it was a luxurious experience to be cared for so well. When people came to visit, Ruth lit up as she called you by name and made you feel as though you were the Queen of England knocking on her door. When cards came, Ruth shared a memory and then named a gift or talent bestowed upon each person who sent a card. In fact, reading greeting cards that arrived in the mail became one of my favorite things to do with Ruth because of the way she responded to each one.
Visiting the sick is part of my pastoral obligations. It is something I am expected to do. But I went to Ruth's not out of an obligation but because I knew Ruth would not let me leave without making more of me. She would not let me go without affirming my gifts, expressing her appreciation, telling me how excited she was about our church and then letting me know how she wished she could do more to support our church.
We knew Ruth's days were limited. I understood how each visit to her home could very easily be my last visit. And while I hope that decades of life await me, I want to embody Ruth's lessons in living and dying:
1) Serve God with all that you have and seek to really love each neighbor as you love yourself.
2) Take time to treasure the simple pleasures in life.
3) Express gratitude often.
4) Regularly name the gifts of the people around you.
5) Treat each day and each conversation as if it is your last.
The prophet Joel describes a time when old men shall dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Ruth dreamed many dreams. Thank you, Ruth DuLaney, for the ways your dreams enable me and so many others to see a beautiful vision for the way we are to live and to love.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Imagine If...

A portion of Thanksgiving day was spent with church members. Following a feast of turkey and all the trimmings with the aroma of pumpkin pie all around us, we transitioned from eating to playing.

A game was selected from the shelf nearby, one that was new to me: iMAgiNiff. The rules are quick to learn. Each person selects a color to represent themselves on the board. Cards are then selected and read. The words on the cards read something like, "Imagine if _____ was an item in the office. What would she be?" On this particular card, there are then six possible answers which range from an inspirational poster to a to-do list. One player roles a dice to determine whose name will be inserted into the question. The card is read, and the other players pick the answer that best fits the person. The players who have selected the most popular answer get to move forward on the game board.

The game was delightful. I learned a lot about others but especially a lot about myself. The people at the table had a hard time discerning whether I was the inspirational poster in the office or the to-do list. On another question, some people actually picked Cinderella as the character that best fit me (crazy, right?). I cannot recall all the questions, but I know I left the evening delighted to discover more about the light in which people viewed me.

We all like to be told that we are good at something. We love to hear that we are beautiful. Someone pointing out our gifts for us can be a wonderful gift in and of itself. It is a blessing to be affirmed. The words of others have the capacity to make more of us.

But how often are we affirmed? How often do we hear positive words instead of negative words? And even if we are told positive things, do we allow our ears and our minds to hear the good over the bad? When we look into a mirror, do we see the parts of ourselves that we would love to change or the parts that we appreciate? What are the words we use to describe ourselves?

Imagine if you are beautiful. Imagine if you are smart. Imagine if you have tremendous gifts, unique one of a kind gifts that only belong to you. Imagine if you are the reason one's heart beats and sometimes skips a beat. Imagine if someone would stay up waiting for you no matter what time it was when you finally turned the key in the door. Imagine if you are spectacular, amazing, remarkable.

One of the gifts of faith is seeing ourselves through God's eyes. I imagine God like a mother who thinks her daughter is the most amazing thing since sliced bread on some days and then imagine that God is like a father who knows that her daughter has messed up but will still do anything to make it right on other days. I believe God sees our hearts before God sees the size of our hips or noses. I am convinced that God sees our true colors - and that God loves us because of all these remarkable hues.

Imagine if you are a masterpiece, rather remarkable - made in the image of God.