Monday, December 31, 2012

Trusting Enough to Let Go

"My wife was in the best mood possible."

These words concluded a story that seemed stressful at best. My friend told me how he recently sent his wife and two young kids off early for the holidays while he remained in Washington to finish another week of work. When my friend dropped his family off at the airport, he left his wife, a two-year-old toddler and a baby who is a few months old standing in line at the ticket counter. Along with these three people of different sizes, there was one stroller, two car seats, one carry-on bag and two suitcases.

It was more than any one person could handle.

When his wife stepped out of the car, she said how she was filled with confidence that someone would help them. She trusted there to be people at each twist and turn who would be willing to carry a child, play with a toddler, hold a bag or pick up a car seat. She stepped into the airport trusting the goodness of humanity. And at the end of the day, his wife described it as one of their best travel days. "My wife was in the best mood possible."

People showed up.

Help was offered.

Bags were carried.

A load was lightened.

I'd like to think of the church as such a place. In my best images of the church, there are people at every twist and turn who are ready to assist - to care for a child, to prepare a meal, to provide a ride, to pay for an unexpected doctor's bill, to help someone move, to be present when everything seems empty, to show up often. And while there are several pockets of incredible care in every congregation, I know we often fall short.

But I also cannot help but to wonder how much I try to carry it all on my own when others are trying to assist.

How much do we try to do by ourselves when a community surrounds us?

And how often do I start a day convinced that there is too much to do that I cannot possibly take time to pray for guidance or ask God for help? How regularly do I turn to God in times of great need before first scheming on my own?

What if we went into each challenging situation trusting there to be someone to help? What if we carried too much because we knew we would not carry it long before someone came to our aid? What if we believed in one who invited us to cast our burdens upon him because he cares for us enough to really leave our worries, our anxieties and our fears with God?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Light in the Darkness






Our spirits have been through much since our Facebook feeds lit with news of a senseless tragedy in a storybook small town in Connecticut. How could any person kill his mother, enter her place of vocation and then kill more than a dozen children? How could anyone be so overcome with evil? Is there any place that is completely safe today?

My tendency yesterday was to go on a rampage about gun control. I hate guns. My father and I have been bantering over gun laws since 1994 when I worked for a Member of Congress who lost hundreds of votes and an election when he voted in support of a ban of semi-automatic handguns. It was during that year when I started making donations to Handgun Control in order to cancel my father's donations to the National Rifle Association. I cannot understand why anyone in our country needs a military style assault weapon tucked inside a cabinet in a closet in the basement or placed beneath the bed. Eighteen years have passed since I learned of Congress' inability to make lasting change on gun control, and hundreds of additional lives have been sacrificed and slaughtered since our argument started.

I then glued my eyes to the news, allowing my spirit to be transported to Newtown. I imagined myself as a child who miraculously got out. I thought about what it would be like to be a parent not yet united with a child who I had kissed good-bye less than five hours earlier as I rushed out the door to get to work on time. I sought to think about the twenty-year old person who had the gun - a child himself when I saw his picture for the first time.

And then my thoughts turned to Advent - to this season of waiting and watching for a savior who has come and is coming again. I thought about the mess into which Jesus was born - a borrowed barn in Bethlehem because there was no room for him at the inn. I recalled the words of the prophets of long ago who told all generations of one who was to come and why this one was desperately needed. The words of the prophets are painted amidst a background of darkness of oppression to a people who know violence, unrest, hunger and thirst. And still the prophets proclaim with all their passion that people must hold on. One is coming who will make all things right.

And the one came.

And when he got here he immediately threatened the powers of the day. In the book of Matthew, Herod got word of the birth of Jesus and did everything possible to find Jesus. The wise men told Mary and Joseph of Herod's hot pursuit, and encouraged them to flee to Egypt until Herod died.

We then read words of horror that are often overlooked in the Christmas story. "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under...." (Matthew 2:16).

There is darkness all around the birth of Jesus. Countless kids were killed. And yet, the Savior, the Prince of Peace, the Mighty One survived. And he continues to live and rule today.

His light has been shining into darkness for more than 2000 years. His light has power to penetrate into every place where darkness seems to have a hold - into mental illness, into senseless tragedy, into grief, into loss, into unspeakable sadness. And the darkness has never and will never overcome the light.

Are you trying to find hope in this situation? Are you at a loss in your efforts to make sense of them?

Nothing about what happened yesterday makes sense. It is filled with darkness and evil. But the message of Advent - the reason that thousands of people will gather in churches tomorrow - is that Emmanuel has come. We will sing again tomorrow "O Come O Come Emmanuel." We need him today like never before. It is Emmanuel's life, death, resurrection and promise of his coming again that enables me to find hope in the hopeless, to experience peace in the grief and to know that the light has come and will continue to come.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Seeing the Signs

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory...Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times..." (Luke 21:25-36).

We are always looking for a sign.

Some people regularly check their horoscope in the morning, searching for an indication that today will be the day when love will finally come knocking, a job offer will be received, or a dilemma will be solved.

Barren women longing to be pregnant scrutinize other signs. A different kind of cramp, a change in mood, a delayed period can all be seen as signs that God is finally listening.

A young woman in love can look for other signs. "He has not asked me what I want for Christmas. Does that mean he finally purchased a ring." "He was looking at my fingers rather intently. Does he know my size?"

We long for signs. We want to know that some things are changing and other things are staying stable. We long to hear how others are pleased with our performance, a sign that we are successful. We need to hear that life is in order, that things are looking up, that someone is in control.

But what are the signs we seek as followers of Christ? Do we recognize the movement of God in our lives?

I'm not the kind of Christian who regularly looks for a sign that signals how Christ is finally on the way to make all things right. I don't keep my ears open for the sounds of trumpets blowing, and I don't scrutinize weather patterns, comparing them to descriptions like the one above.

But I am the kind of Christian who is longing to see signs of God at work.

And perhaps the signs are all around us.

It's hard to walk into any grocery store during the days that separate Thanksgiving from Christmas without hearing bells ringing. I can't remember ever putting money in the bucket next to the bell. But I wonder how God might use even this sound as a sign - an invitation to ponder how we are invited to be of assistance to someone in need or share the gifts God has given to us with others?

Throughout the day, thoughts of different people regularly enter my mind. There are times when I am thoughtful enough to stop at that moment and make a call, letting someone know I've been thinking of them only to hear someone say, "You have no idea how much I needed to hear from you today." What if I paid more attention to these signs - to these thoughts - considering each one as an invitation to reach out with a phone call or a note of encouragement?

I recently shared communication with someone who shared how he longs to be in a faith community where his gifts are being noticed, named and nurtured. He has gifts to share but the gifts have not always been recognized, let alone put to faithful use. I wonder how God is using this conversation as a sign, a sign of ways in which I can do a better job of noticing and nurturing the gifts of people in our congregation, making sure everyone has a place to serve.

The signs of Christmas are all around us. Brightly lit trees reach toward the sky in parks around us and towards the ceiling of shopping centers far and wide. Wreaths adorn doors, and poles are wrapped in red ribbon. Advertisements fill our inbox and scamper across our screens, beckoning us to consider the perfect Christmas gift.

Still it's easy to miss the main message.

Christ is coming. We are between the time when he arrived in a borrowed barn and when he will come again. In the meantime, he longs to burst into our lives. He longs to dwell within us, tempting us to respond to his never-ending love and amazing grace. He longs to be the reason we act different, think differently, speak differently, give differently, love differently and live differently. He's ready to again be the greatest gift we have ever received.

So what if all these signs were not reminders of how far behind we are when it comes to buying, baking and bagging but instead how far we have to go when it comes to unwrapping the gift of Christ - the gift of Emmanuel who is always with us - the gift of a savior who makes all things new.

Dear Jesus, please open my eyes and ears to how you are at work all around me. Let me see the many ways in which you are trying to capture my attention. Show me how you want to use me this day. Come amongst me. Come inside me. Come and make all things new. Amen.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Vacancy: Room Available Immediately

While it may ruin my reputation as a faithful Wesleyan, I must confess that I have been carrying around two Powerball tickets in my purse this week. One was purchased by my partner who almost always plays and one was purchased by me since we were far from home with no one looking. I did not think we would win when we made the purchase with some postage stamps at Publix last week, but we decided to take a chance.

It's probably good that we did not win.

Sure, we could have finally traded two underwater condos for a house with more than one bedroom. We could have enabled everyone around us to have the Christmas of their dreams. We could have planned a New Year's Eve extravaganza. It would be fun to have $175+ million at one's disposal.

But, it's good we did not win.

Had we won, I would have likely quit my job on Thursday morning. I would have forfeited plans for an amazing summer sabbatical and gone on a permanent sabbatical. I would have not just told God how God was crazy for calling me to the impossible task of leading a church but instead come close to telling God to "Take this job and shove it. I ain't working here no more."

I'm tired.

Running on empty.

I've been trying to do it all. I've stayed up late fretting over the pledges that have not yet come in. I've been filling parts of a role that has been empty at our church for months. I've been trying to see several shut-ins, have coffee with new people and be present for my people. I've been reading materials for the Board of Ordained Ministry and thinking about a new exam process. I've been working with a coach and filling the pages of a notebook with things I should be doing. I've been leading a church through growth, hoping each week that the Vital Congregations Dashboard will show how I am a successful pastor. I've made it. If they could see me now!

But I have been missing the main thing. A stack of devotional books on my table will reveal to you when I last picked up some of them as the place-marker falls on a date that is long passed. I am not in the pulpit for two weeks in a row which means that my Bible has not been opened for study much, let alone for seeking to encounter God. I've thanked God for meals because I'm married to someone who never forgets, while often going about my day with more cuss-words yelled on I-395 than prayers of praise and adoration.

I'm running on empty. And I'm convinced that this life is not the life I am called to live. No doubt Jesus keeps on knocking, keeps on trying to get my attention. But I keep giving him one message: There's no room here for you. There's no vacancy. Can't you see how much is on my to-do list, Jesus? Can't you see how success is measured in this thing called the United Methodist Church? Can't you see how I can come to you later - after I've done all these other things?

No room.

I'm full.

And yet....I'm empty. I'm in need of a savior and a second chance.

As we approach the eve of Advent, I'm crawling back. I'm determined to not make these next 26 days about holiday lights, pretty packages, sugar cookies, greeting cards, overeating and overspending. Rather, I want to do everything to show Jesus how there is room available here. There's space that is wide open, chiseled out like the middle of a vessel that is ready to be filled.

This Advent will be different. I refuse to be like the innkeeper who told Mary and Joseph how there was no room at the inn. I refuse to push Jesus to the barn out back. Rather, I want him to take the best space possible - all of it - every pocket of my life and every ounce of my being.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I'm ready for you. There's room available here: a great big vacancy waiting to be filled by you.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Stuck in the Middle

The United Methodist Church has been filling much of my Facebook feed in recent days. Last week, I watched as many of my friends grunted and groaned over the closing of brick and mortar Cokesbury stores across the land. Cokesbury is our store. It is the place where we went to buy our books in seminary, the place we returned to during fall convocations to get books we could easily buy at home, paying for nostalgia in the process, the place where we could hardly wait to see what a professor was assigning to her class in the spring semester.

We love Cokesbury.

We love it even though most of us switched to buying our books on Amazon years ago, frustrated within seconds of not being able to easily find even a United Methodist product on the Cokesbury website. We all know the challenges of the Cokesbury website. We also know how often we walk into a Cokesbury store and find only one or two persons shopping alongside of us. We know how expensive print media is and how often we get mailings from Cokesbury. If we think about it for a few minutes, we might start to wonder how Cokesbury stayed open as long as it did. But we can't stand the thought of it closing.

My Facebook feed has also been erupting with news from the United Methodist Judicial Council, the equivalent of a Supreme Court for the church. The Judicial Council is getting a reputation for undoing decisions made by larger bodies. First it was the move of our General Conference to let go of guaranteed appointments. And now the Judicial Council is reversing a decision that would let go of a bishop who was determined to be ineffective. Many clergy celebrate the first decision, taking delight in a lack of accountability. Some clergy are angry about the second decision, especially those in the annual conferences where this bishop may be assigned to lead.

The United Methodist Church is in trouble. At the current rate of decline, our denomination will be dead in 50 years in the United States. Many people point fingers as to who is responsible. Others come up with plans that could reverse our decline. Still others make moves to hold people accountable. One group moves forward and then another group says the move is illegal according to church law. In the meantime, we cannot even agree to disagree on matters like homosexuality - with our church's stance causing heartache and pain in countless churches, including the church I serve.

Do you know of any organization that is actually growing without holding its leaders accountable?

Do you know of any business that grows - and is sustainable - with an ineffective CEO (i.e. bishops) and ineffective local managers (i.e. pastors)?

While we don't like the decision made by the United Methodist Publishing House, the closing of Cokesbury stores should awaken our denomination. It takes guts to make hard decisions. Hard decisions are rarely popular. I applaud this decision even though I love going to Cokesbury and buying books there once or twice a year.

I'm ready for our denomination to make other hard decisions - to learn that one regularly has to let go of what we most love in order to discover life again. I'm ready to be part of an organization that is known for its vitality instead of its decline. But I have not seen the denomination make many hard decisions and ultimately stick with them. It feels like being stuck in the middle - with one side ready to lead in new ways and another side resistant to any change.

It can be lonely in the middle.

But rather than being stuck, I'm going to give thanks for what God is doing at Mount Vernon Place, the church I know and love the most. I'm going to keep surrounding myself with fellow disciples who are asking what it means to be faithful in our context of downtown Washington. I'm going to keep pondering the ways we can do church outside the box. I'm going to keep following Jesus. I'm going to keep asking God what it means to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, including our denomination's stance on same-sex marriage. I'm going to keep being the best pastor I know how to be.

And, I'm going to give thanks for the $10 coupon that Cokesbury sent to me, one that did not even require a minimum purchase, allowing me to enjoy a new Advent devotional for a couple of bucks.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Enough? vs. Enough!

I consider it a privilege to serve in the center of the city of Washington. I love urban ministry. I take delight in living in the midst of the city where one can walk many places or rely upon public transportation, interact with a wide range of people on a regular basis, and have a mind that is constantly inspired to think.

But there are times when I loathe living in the city.

I get tired of people always asking me for something.

There are many days when I am tempted to put my head down and walk or drive in autopilot instead of allowing my eyes to make contact with the eyes of a person in need.

But something recently happened that is causing me to think again. It is a story I shared in my sermon on Sunday morning and one I am still reflecting upon.

I was riding in the car with my colleague, Alisa. We had experienced a magnificent morning of prayer practices, connecting our bodies with our spirituality through the gift of a Paulist priest and a grant given to six clergywomen in our annual conference. Our morning of stretching, twisting and praying was followed by a delightful lunch on the sidewalk of a neighborhood pizza place where we were all encouraged to order our own individual pizza only to discover that our table of six women needed three pies instead of six. When our bellies were filled and our souls satisfied, we had our leftovers wrapped in foil that concealed the pizza we planned to bring home to our partners. The shiny packages were placed in our bags as we hopped in the car and made our way home.

The car had stopped at a busy intersection where I am trained to keep my focus straight ahead instead of looking at the people on the sidewalk who regularly approach cars waiting for a green light. I did what I always do - look ahead - while Alisa looked outside the window - my window.

Are you hungry? I heard her ask as I turned my gaze to match hers. I don't know what exactly transpired next but I remember reaching into my bag while saying out loud, "We have food!" A moment later I was rolling down the window and handing over our two packages of pizza. We then watched....and learned a lesson.

The man took the two packages and immediately handed one to a friend waiting on a bench. They both sat down and started to eat with a pace that confirmed that the answer to Alisa's initial question was, in fact, "Yes." They were hungry. The two pieces of pizza in each package were consumed before our light turned green.

The man who gave one package of pizza to a friend never examined the packages before handing one over. He did not peek inside to see if one package had something he liked better than the contents of the other package. He did not hold the packages up to see if one weighed more than the other or if one had three pieces while the other had two pieces. He received two packages and immediately gave one to someone with a similar need to be satisfied.

How often do we do the same?

Do we ever give without first evaluating whether we have enough? How often are we given the equivalent of two packages of pizza and quickly consume them both when we could have been satisfied with one, allowing someone else to be satisfied at the same time? How often do we give joyfully because there is a need without asking how our giving might negatively impact us - whether it is our time, our talent or our resources?

The man was hungry but he revealed one of my hungers as he took our leftover pizza.

I long to live a life where the word, "enough" has an exclamation point behind it - a life where I can always see the abundance God has given to me - instead of being in a place where I am regularly asking, Is there enough? or Will there be enough for ME if I share what has been given to me?

God goes to great lengths to help the Israelites see the power of taking just enough when God rains bread from heaven, providing manna in the wilderness. The Israelites then learn what happens when they take more than enough - the leftovers spoil.

In what ways are we being invited to share?

The words are rather beautiful. Read them once more. "I have enough!"

Friday, October 19, 2012

What Would Make Your Heart Sing?

What would make your heart sing? 

I was first exposed to the Lilly Endowment's deep impact upon seminaries, churches, pastors and other organizations while serving as the Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School. The Lilly Endowment funded unique scholarships and fellowships that attracted the best and the brightest to our entering class. Students were able to serve in exceptional congregations around the country for a summer, growing in their pastoral formation in transformational ways. I have since benefited from the generosity of the Lilly Endowment in other life-giving ways - through my work with the Fund for Theological Education, a summer writing program at the Collegeville Institute, and now with the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. The Lilly Endowment has had a profound impact upon the church - and upon my life.

And it is the Lilly Endowment that has caused me to ponder, dream and reflect upon what would really make my heart sing. A creative and passionate team of people was pulled together last spring to help clarify my response while asking the same question for our congregation. Together we dreamed of a summer of deep engagement - intentional time to engage deeply with Jesus, deeply with our city and deeply with each other.

We dreamed about what would enable our congregation to take additional risks in their discipleship while also going away to escape the fumes and demands of city life. We dreamed about our children and how to bring more vitality to our ministry of sharing the love of God with them. We dreamed about how we can better see and experience Jesus by going to the places where Jesus most tangibly dwells in our city. And we came up with a plan.

We would invite my teacher, mentor and friend and his wife to spend six weeks with us, filling the pulpit and leading an evening session of learning. We would seek to learn as much as we can from the Church of the Saviour and their ministries in our city. We would go away for a weekend on retreat. We would do yoga together and create some pottery or paintings. And we would enjoy a grand morning of music.

At the same time, my dreams for a summer of deep engagement started to become clearer. I would travel to Iona with Craig, a thin place where I have always longed to encounter God. I would go back to London, a place where I lived as a college student but have not returned to in nearly 20 years. I would develop deep rhythms of life in Washington - starting with putting my health in the first priority by working out with a personal trainer four days a week and then seeking to offer myself to different organizations in ministry with the poor in our city. I'd take an acting class, get a few massages and read books because they bring me joy and not because I need a great sermon illustration. I'd go to New York City with Craig for a weekend, stay out until midnight on Saturday night and perhaps go to Mass and Sunday brunch with him, relishing the gift of a Sabbath together. I'd go back to South Africa - to the place where I experienced my call to let go of success and comfort in order to return to the city and take on a church that was close to death instead of exhibiting signs of life. I'd visit the places of pain and hope that turned my world upside down. I'd see the church in action. And, I'd look for God's creative touch up close and personal through a safari.

Each piece of the application was carefully crafted, printed and placed in an envelope last May. Postmarked to Indianapolis, I said a prayer in the Post Office while asking for a return receipt. We then waited...

And then we learned that some dreams come true.

Monday, October 08, 2012

I've Been There

The food was quite different, forcing a constant craving within me for Chinese dumplings. The preferred method of eating was with chopsticks instead of silver forks. Traffic was far more intense than the height of a Washington rush hour. And yet, there were many things that were the same.

Starbucks was easy to find. M&M candies and Snicker's chocolate bars were sold in most stores. The weather remained within five degrees of what was forecasted in Washington. And, I never had to change my watch. When we landed in Beijing at 2:20 in the afternoon, my body said it was 2:20 in the morning. Still, I sought to quickly fast-forward my body an entire twelve hours.

When I was arising the next day at 6:00 in the morning, I thought about how my husband, Craig, was likely preparing to leave work. When I was preparing to go to bed at 9:30 at night, I thought about how Craig's work day was just beginning. My prayers started to take on a new shape and form as I interceded on behalf of the people at home - those twelve and thirteen hours behind.

"God, it's been an incredible day. Thank you for all of the people we have encountered and the sights we have seen. As I reflect on the goodness of this day, I pray that you would give Craig an equally wonderful day as he goes to work and then spends time with friends."

On Sunday evening, my prayer went something like this, "What a joy it was to see so many people in church today. Thank you for the witness of strong women leading the church. Thank you for the songs that were sung and the people who welcomed us. Please be with my people as they prepare to gather. Bless James who will preach in my absence today. Be with Rachel as she leads the people through the liturgy. Help all who have gathered to receive a blessing."

There is something powerful about going through a day before the people you love start the day. There is something really profound about reflecting upon the gifts of a day and wanting the same gifts for the people you love at home.

I'd like to think that God has similar desires for us all the time.

In the book of Deuteronomy, when God is making a leadership transition near the end of Moses' life, God speaks through Moses, telling Joshua to be bold and be strong. Moses then says, "It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed: (Deuteronomy. 31:8). What an amazing gift - to know that God has gone before us - that God is ahead of us - that God knows where one is going and that no matter how many obstacles stand in our way, God has already crossed them.

We receive this same gift from Jesus. We believe God was incarnate in Jesus - that Jesus was born in a borrowed barn, tempted in every way, and that he knows suffering and joy. God knows the exaltation that comes with a hug, the pain that accompanies sore feet or the piercing nuisance of a headache. God has been there, done that, felt that, experienced that.

I'm not willing to preach a sermon about the marriage of Jesus. I know several people who had their feathers ruffled by the recent discovery of a papyrus that mentions the wife of Jesus. We much prefer a faith that is figured out instead of one that is changing. But if Jesus was married, then he's gone before us in one of the biggest blessings and challenges of life, too. Marriage is a source of constant joy, laughter and blessings. At the same time, it requires an unlimited supply of give and take, confession and forgiveness, grace and patience. Not all dreams for marriage come true whether it is the children who have been named during an engagement but are never conceived or the multiple anniversary celebrations that do not come to fruition because a partner becomes unfaithful. If Jesus was married, then I can only imagine how much he intercedes on behalf of my marriage and every other married couple. There is something about this thought that is rather delightful to me - no matter how unorthodox the thought might be.

What kind of pain are you experiencing right now?

What is it that causes you anxiety when you are longing for peace?

What situation in life is weighing you down?

Imagine a God who has been there - one who knows exactly what you are going through. Consider the weight of your pain, and know that God is not only with you but God has felt that pain, too. And think about a God who knows the greatest joys and blessings of life and longs for you to have the very same joys and blessings.

I think God is like that.

I'm grateful that God has been there already.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Scary, I Mean Holy, Business

I happened upon this picture while scrolling through my Facebook feed last Sunday. It was the end of a very long day when I came home with more questions than answers and more tears than joy. A myriad of thoughts were racing through my head.

What does faithfulness look like in this situation when I have been brought into the middle of a pastoral care situation that is downright messy? I have been asked to do something that makes me horribly uncomfortable. God, help me. This is a frightening place to be.

How do I get our congregation to see what all goes into Sunday morning worship, getting more people to help me with so many tasks that need to be done, especially when we are short-staffed, so I can spend Sundays being the most present pastor I can be instead of fighting with a laptop and computer program or tending to details that can be shared?

Why has that person not returned my email? Did I do something wrong?

Well, we had fewer people in worship today than we did the last two weeks. What's this statistic going to say about me when it's reported on the Vital Congregations dashboard? It's a holiday weekend and all, but the denomination seems focused on the bottom line.

There are so many people around us, and 1000 more scheduled to move into new condos and apartments just one block a way a year from now. How will we ever reach them?

God, I know that person is hurting so much. Why have you not answered her prayers? How can I minister to her in a way that brings comfort and hope? I'm at a loss for words.

Look at the schedule ahead. Three evenings at the church. Show me how to be fully present to Craig tonight so he'll be patient with me and the church this week. And how will I ever exercise when the morning commitments start at 7:30 and the evening commitments end after 8:00?

Charge Conference is coming up soon. There is so much vital ministry to be done - so many key roles to be played - such exciting potential all around us. Who will fill these roles?

God, are you sure you want me to be a pastor? There are times when I have no idea what I am doing or what to do next. We have come so far and there are moments where I have a clear idea of where you are leading me and other times when I'm not sure what the next step is to get us there. This is so overwhelming - so scary.

Enough colleagues hit the "like" button when I reposted the picture to tell me that I hit a nerve. The picture says what many of us are reluctant to admit. This odd and wondrous calling is hard at times. While I still believe Mabel was right - that I have "the best job in Washington" - there are moments when I am tempted to believe there are other places I could be that would be so much easier and less demanding - enabling me to live a more balanced and healthy life. Being a pastor is a joy for which none of us is truly worthy - and one that is painfully hard at times.

When I posted the picture, I did not see the bottom words, "but fear is natural, fear is good - it just means you're growing." I'm not sure I would have been so quickly captivated by the picture had I seen the whole thing and not been taken by it's opening upon reading.

As a Christian, I am convinced that fear is not good. Fear is not of God. Time and again, we are told that God is with us. We are not to be afraid.

"When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown."

"Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

"So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

I've journeyed with God long enough to know that God keeps God's promises. I have seen God at work enough to know that I am, indeed, called to this place. And each time I become overwhelmed and afraid, I hear God speaking words that cast out fear, calling me to return to God.

It's when I am trying to do it on my own, putting God in second place instead of first, that the fear creeps in. I'm in a different place today. The future is still filled with large mountains that need to be climbed and rivers that need to be crossed. But I have felt the hand of God again. I've been infused with the presence and power of the Spirit. I'm ready to step out once more.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Unexpected Barriers

Passing the peace is a ritual at our church. Immediately following the confession, many of us relish in the opportunity to stand and greet one another. Some people know they will receive their weekly allotment of hugs during this time. Other people use it as a time to find a fellow small group member. As a pastor, I utilize these moments to seek out first-time guests to our church, making sure they feel welcome in our midst.

I love passing the peace. It is a time that often encourages me and fills me with joy. But passing the peace yesterday knocked me completely off-center.

I was greeting a woman who I recognized as a first-time guest from the week before, letting her know how happy I was to see her again when she asked me a simple question, "Do you have gluten free wafers or bread for communion?" It is a question I should have thought about earlier but no one has asked me the question before. I ashamedly said, "I'm sorry. We don't." and returned to my seat as my mind raced to come up with an alternative solution.

We created a barrier to her experiencing Christ yesterday. It was far from intentional and more a result of our not being expectant enough about who God might send to our midst. While we gladly and proudly opened the table to all who would come, there was one who was not able to come yesterday - one who could not receive the bread and the cup.

We will have gluten free wafers on the table from now on. But what other barriers have our churches created - aware and unaware? What are the signals and messages sent to others through our buildings, our signs and our actions as people who are part of the church?

We used to have horrible, physical barriers in front of our doors, gates that remained closed six days of the week. I promised myself that similar gates would never go back up once these gates came down. But I know we still have barriers. There are some people who are above the age of 70 and remember what our church once stood for as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. It does not matter how ethnically diverse we have become today, some African Americans who have lived in the city a long time see the historic name of our former denomination etched in a stone building and are reminded of the pain of past separation and sin instead of being able to see where God has led us today.

We are journeying with James in the month of September, and I shared yesterday how our lives can be barriers to people coming inside the church. If people see us professing one thing with our lips and then doing different things with our actions, then the church is not receiving very much positive public relations. If we profess to be followers of Christ who was always with people in the margins - the poor, the sick and the forgotten - but continue as though we can forget about people with real needs, then those on the outside take notice. Hypocritical Christians, myself included, can provide countless reasons for people to continue to use Sunday mornings for sleeping in, errand running and stops at the farmers market. What we do matters.

People of faith have provided countless barriers to keep gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual people away from God's all-encompassing love.

Historic architects have done all they can to preserve beauty at the sake of enabling any with a physical disability to come inside or serve in church leadership on the chancel area.

Good-intentioned church-folk who look with disgust when a baby is crying or someone walks in who is not dressed the ways others are dressed for church can send countless people away with one reactive gaze.

And even the signs in front of our churches can be confusing. What is the "service" we do on Sundays at 11:00 if one has never been to a Sunday service? Or at our place, what does it mean when one parking sign abundantly tells folks coming to church to drive into the garage and take a ticket while the building's sign says the parking lot is full?

I am reminded often of how far we have come and how far we have to go. May God open my eyes to see anything we are doing as a congregation to provide barriers instead of paths to entry. And may God help me to see how my life can be better used by God as an invitation to others instead of anything that would cause harm.

I'm off to order gluten free wafers now.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Saying Goodbye to a Bishop

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God's people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God's Son. God's goal is for us to become mature adults -- to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren't supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let's grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that is builds itself up with love as each one does their part" (Ephesians 4:11-16, Common English Bible).

In the United Methodist Church, some are called to be active laypeople, others are called to be deacons, others elders and still others bishops. Bishops are people who seek to faithfully hold it all together, teaching pastors how to become fully grown into the image of Christ so that they can lead individuals in their churches through this same growth. Bishops are called to recognize how the body is only as strong as its members and how each person has a part to play.

I've known several bishops in my life. Some have spoken in such a way that I could see their authority. One has given me a literal thumbs up when I was hearing a call to leave the local church and go into extension ministry. Some have breezed past me. Some have preached God's presence into me. And one has had a profound impact on me.

I'm getting ready to say goodbye to this bishop as he leaves the Baltimore Washington Conference in order to fulfill his duties in his new assignment in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference. And my heart is heavy - heavy with a profound sense of gratitude and a sadness that comes with loss.

I can still picture the first time I met Bishop Schol. It was at a transitional workshop for pastors getting ready to start new appointments. Bishop Schol did not come in and share a few words of obligatory greetings. Rather, he was standing at the door, opening the door to the Conference Center for everyone coming inside that day.

Bishop Schol then showed up for worship on my second Sunday at Mount Vernon Place. He took time to call me an hour before worship started, giving me enough time to experience my blood pressure rising. He greeted the congregation that day and thanked them for the new adventure they were about to undertake. He then took time to critique my sermon in an email written two days later. Rather than saying, "Good sermon, pastor," he gave me pointers I needed to hear. He told me how my sermon had been written for the few dozen people with an average age of 82 sitting in the pews that day before telling me that I had to preach to my mission field. He shared how I had to preach to the young adults we wanted to reach - people who were not in the pews yet but who would someday come. "Start designing all your illustrations with young adults in mind," he wrote. "You have to preach your people into identifying with young adults and you have to preach in such a way that young adults will identify with you when they do come." It was powerful and necessary advice. The young adults have come. The congregation has been transformed.

I remember walking into the Bishop's office for a status meeting on the real estate development. The plans were progressing but I was ready to quit. Many in the congregation were vocal about being against me instead of for me. Weeks had passed without a single visitor. All I could think about was what I had given up in North Carolina in order to come to Washington. But Bishop Schol would not let me quit. Rather, he reached out and prayed for me, reminding me of who I was and what I had been called to do. He asked God to show up, and God has showed up in powerful ways.

Not long after, the Bishop knocked on the door of my office. This time it was with a simple word of encouragement and a tangible gift that came with the words, "I support you and all you are doing here."

Bishop Schol gathered a group of young adults to plan a Conference event in my first year at Mount Vernon Place. Those young adult clergy continue to be some of the most important relationships I have in this Conference today.

Bishop Schol has taken time to get to know my husband. Today, my Roman Catholic husband is just as sad about saying goodbye to "his bishop" as I am. For Craig, Bishop Schol has been a connection to the United Methodist Church - a denomination that Craig is still learning on the sidelines.

Bishop Schol has demonstrated to me and countless others how being a leader who makes change happen is never easy. Whenever the boat is rocked there are bound to be people who are upset because they are no longer in charge of its course or expected to come and row a little more often or with a bit more passion. The boat rocking has led to new disciples and churches being changed. His leadership has had a rippling effect.

I don't know how one says goodbye to a bishop. In the local church, pastors are not to have any contact with their congregation for one entire year after they leave. I am not familiar with all the written and unwritten rules that accompany bishops going to a new assignment. What I do know is that I am grateful - extraordinarily grateful - for the joy and the privilege of having served with and under Bishop Schol for the last seven years. It has been a gift - a gift that has possibly kept me in the ministry and kept the doors of our church open.

God bless you, Bishop Schol.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

That's Where I Come From

This morning we watched a carefully planned introduction of a candidate for Vice-President of the United States of America. The stage was carefully set with a huge ship called "Wisconsin" behind the podium from which the Congressman from Wisconsin would be introduced. Oscar-like music sounded from large speakers, letting the crowds know that something significant was about to happen. A crowd with a little bit of diversity stood behind the main platform. Perfect looking children were on the edges.

The candidate for President spoke and then the candidate for Vice-President spoke. He painted pictures of America - the America he sees in his mind and the one he sees in his dreams. He talked about how this is a country where people can do anything they want with enough hard work.

But is it really possible to be self-made?

I'm on a team of folks that includes one person who has worked and is working tirelessly to put their life back together after making some significant mistakes early in life. The person works at our church often, coming in on Sunday mornings even when he has been working the entire night at another place. He's cobbling together the schedules of three different positions in order to stay afloat.

If someone works 80 hours a week, will they eventually make it to the top?

What exactly is the top?

Is it possible to be self-made?

I just got back from a week in Missouri. I spent the first 21 years of my life in Missouri, and this recent trip enabled me to see countless people who have played a role in making me, me. I traveled across the state from Kansas City to Saint Louis and then up to the Iowa line in an effort to see many people who have played a role in making me who I am.

While being enrolled in vocational agriculture classes in high school was one of the least popular decisions I could have made in terms of climbing the social ladder, vocational agriculture classes and my involvement in the National FFA Organization shaped and formed me in significant ways. My dad will tell you to this day that the reason I am a competent preacher is because I entered every speaking contest offered in the FFA and not because of what I learned in seminary. The one high school teacher I sought out while in Missouri recently is my high school agriculture teacher. He and the organization he advised have played a key role in making me who I am today.

I also had an opportunity to see several friends from college. Though I was more involved in other organizations on campus than I was my sorority in the three years I spent at William Woods, I realize today that my best friends from college are women I met in the Delta Gamma house. These women taught me the power of community. They saw me at my best and at my worst. They know and seemingly appreciate the Donna "before the call" and the Donna "after the call." They make me laugh when they tell stories about our past, and they respect where I am today. Being present when my Delta Gamma pledge daughter got married two weeks ago was an incredible gift. These women have played a role in making me who I am today.

The church also has something to say about who makes us. As people of faith, we are reminded often of the power of community. We find these words in the book of Ecclesiastes, "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Paul writes to the people of Corinth, "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free —and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many." And the Israelites are constantly asked to remember what God has done for them. They did not bring themselves out of bondage in Egypt. God led them into freedom, and they cannot forget what God has done.

None of us got to the place where we are on our own. None of us can get one step further on our own. We are part of a greater story - a story that started long before we were ever brought forth into this world. This story is a story of hope, redemption, good news and second chances. But our stories also contain people who where willing to journey with us and stay alongside of us as well as institutions and organizations that we have been privileged to be a part of. My heart overflows with gratitude for teachers at each step of my life, for family members, for college friends, for seminary professors and classmates, for a husband who is always reminding me who I really am, for clergy mentors who have taught me how to be a more faithful pastor, for a church family that seeks to live into faithful community with me and for countless other people.

Going through life alone is never recommended.

Looking back and being led to believe that you are where you are today because of what you have done is nothing short of sad.

We are meant to be in community, and we are who we are today because of the communities of which we have been a part.

Remember...and be thankful.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lessons from a Construction Company

Our church, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist, is surrounded by new activity. There are condominiums, apartments, a grocery store, some office buildings and a few places to shop all being constructed within a few blocks of our church. Our neighborhood is constantly evolving - one of the many things I love about being in ministry at this place.

In addition to this construction, the city's largest hotel is being constructed directly across the street. A Marriott Marquis is the needed complex to sway convention planners to our city according to the Convention Center authorities. And while we have learned to see hotels as places that host individuals that we are called to bless and be in relationship with on Sunday mornings, we have been tremendously blessed by the construction company building the new Marriott.

The construction company, Hensel Phelps, is teaching us how to be the church.


The doors of our church open at 6:00 a.m. each Tuesday and Thursday morning and some 25 to 35 unhoused men and women come inside to get clean. Once inside the doors, they are greeted with hot coffee, boiled eggs, granola bars, clean undergarments and a buffet of toiletries from which to choose. The individuals rotate in and out of the four showers located beneath the sanctuary while community is created in the center. The ministry is organized and executed by church members. On Thursday mornings, Hensel Phelps employees are added to the mix of volunteers seeking to make a difference.

Hensel Phelps has been sending volunteers across the street for months. They have donated coffee and basic supplies. They have prepared holiday meals for our guests. They have done simple repairs. They have provided some cleaning. They have been partners with us - in real, tangible and generous ways.

We have been told often how stories of life-changing interactions with our unhoused neighbors are lifted regularly in team meetings. Lives are being transformed through interactions with those who have so little materially and yet somehow seem to have everything, teaching all what is really important. This ministry is impacting construction workers is deep and penetrating ways. But this is not the main reason the company sends laborers across the street.

I learned from the coordinator of our shower ministry how Hensel Phelps seeks to never just build a building. Rather, when they know they are going to be in a community for several years working on a project, they also seek to become part of that community. They want to build a better community while they build buildings. They want to invest themselves where they are in ways that make a difference.

When the coordinator of the shower ministry told me about Hensel Phelps' commitment to make a difference, I quickly interrupted him. "Jason, that is our job!" I then continued, "Our job as a church is to invest ourselves so deeply in the communities of which we are a part that the community knows we are here and would miss us if we were gone."

Hensel Phelps is embodying what the church is supposed to do! They are providing an amazing example that we can learn from.

What would it look like for us to invest ourselves widely in the communities of which we are a part? To go searching across the avenue and down the street for places and people with needs that we can help meet? What would it mean to have one member of our church whose ministry is to scour the internet looking for ministries in our community that need assistance? What would it look like for us to see that our real job is to provide spiritual nourishment for those who come inside our church while constantly seeking to make sure that the church is bigger than a building but has legs and arms, hands and feet, hearts and minds touching all kinds of pockets and people in the community?

Can you imagine?

We are trying hard to be the church - to be the body of Christ on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts. But we are also seeking to allow ourselves to be transformed so that God can use us to transform our city and even our world.

And a construction company is teaching me lessons in what this kind of impact looks like. A construction company is setting the bar.

Thank you, Hensel Phelps.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Becoming a Bishop

I cannot recall any of the specific lessons taught during our confirmation class but I'll never forget the day we met the bishop. I was a twelve-year-old precocious girl being raised by two goal-oriented parents who taught me the value of setting goals, getting the right job and turning dreams into reality. At the time, Robert Schuller was one of the religious figures I gravitated to weekly, turning my attention to his glass-enclosed building whenever my parents allowed me to stay home from church. I loved his charisma, his passion and his ability to tell stories. He had gifts that I had never before seen in my local church. I did not know any pastors with that kind of charisma until I met Bishop W.T. Handy at the Bishop's annual confirmation rally. 

Bishop Handy could preach, and I was completely taken by him. I was so taken by him, in fact, that during the question and answer period I asked a question that pushed some people to laugh and others to become uncomfortable. Bishop Handy, how much money do bishops make? I still don't know what provoked me to ask that question other than I was in an idealistic phase in life where I believed any job worth having was one that paid a lot of money.

There was something about Bishop Handy that caused me to want to be like him. There was something about his spirit that captivated me. He commanded respect and attention the moment he said, "Good morning!" To this day, I think bishops should have a certain presence about them - that's what Bishop Handy taught me.

I've seen a lot of bishops since that time. I remember going to one Bishop's Retreat filled with joy as I anticipated meeting a new bishop. I watched as the bishop entered a room, said "hello" to a few people and then left to play golf with a group of his buddies and I've had another bishop hold the door while greeting every person coming to a retreat. I have observed compassion overflowing from the lips of some bishops sitting in the presiding bishop's chair at General Conference and watched other bishops lose their patience when people were seeking deep change. I have questioned why some bishops would want to give up the role they currently have to enter the episcopacy and seen others who entered the role as a natural step in life. And, I have become the pastor I am today because of a bishop who continued to stand by my side when my congregation was anything but eager to have me as their pastor, teaching me specific skills from how to be a better preacher to how to turn around a dying church. We have all kinds of bishops.

I'm thinking a lot about what it takes to become a bishop as we prepare for Jurisdictional Conferences to meet next week. I'm the second clergy alternate so I'm not sure if I'll get to cast one vote, but I have read with interest the information received on each episcopal candidate for the Northeast Jurisdiction.

Most of our candidates call themselves visionary leaders. Several of them want to learn a second language. The majority have served in the role of District Superintendent. Some of them are well read. Quite a few of them are working on taking better care of themselves. Most of the candidates followed the directions given for how to format a form. Other candidates showed an inability to follow directions. Some are quick to admit their shortcomings and others seem to have struggled to find their growing edge.

What does it take to become a bishop? What am I looking for in an Episcopal leader?

1) An ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ and lead congregations through change. It's no secret that the United Methodist Church is in decline. Less than half of our congregations are growing. The average age of a United Methodist is increasing. I want a bishop who knows how to make new disciples - someone who has grown churches. If you have not grown churches and made disciples yourself, then how are you going to teach others to do so? Show me a proven track record for leading churches that have grown and made a vital difference in their community, and I am more likely to support you.

2) A commitment to diversity that seeks to radically open the doors of worship, membership and ordination. We talk a lot about racial diversity while forgetting the fact that we are denomination that continues to close its doors to many people. The official teaching of the United Methodist Church describes one-third of my congregation as incompatible with Christian teaching while denying hundreds of people the opportunity to fully accept the claim God has placed on their lives because of their sexuality. If you can only talk about racial diversity, then you are not seeing how our church continues to do real harm to thousands of people. I want a bishop who values diversity at all levels - a bishop who is not afraid to take a stand and say our denomination has to get over its deep-seated prejudices if it is ever going to be the body of Christ.

3) An understanding of what it takes to connect with people who want nothing to do with the church or have been hurt by the church. Our jurisdiction asked every episcopal candidate to respond to the question, "There are roughly 28,000,000 un-churched people in the Northeast Jurisdiction. How would you be 'their bishop?'" 

Labeling people as "saved" and "unsaved" is not going to do it. Fliers are not going to get people in our churches. I want a bishop who understands that church is more than what happens on Sunday mornings. Church is what happens when people are making a difference - a real difference - in a community. People don't want to hear about the church. They want to see the church. And sometimes an invitation to church comes first when we invite someone to help us meet a basic need. Bill Easum recently taught me that every pastor needs to be spending 20 hours a week with unchurched people. It's a huge undertaking. We all need to be spending more time having coffee at Starbucks or even a beer at the bar. I want a bishop who is not afraid to close churches so that new churches can start. I want a bishop who is going to push me to constantly get out into the community. I want a bishop who talks about the unchurched because she knows dozens of unchurched people and not just her two college-aged children who no longer go to church.

4) The capacity to ask pastors about their spiritual lives as much as they ask about our numbers. While I am now asked to report weekly the number of people who come to worship and participate in a small group, I have yet to be asked by anyone in a supervisory role how many hours I spent praying or searching the scriptures in any given week. I want a bishop who knows Jesus, listens to Jesus, walks with Jesus, serves like Jesus, stands alongside of the broken like Jesus, and asks me about how much time I am spending with Jesus vs. simply telling others about Jesus.

5) Someone who will work with their cabinet to strategically make appointments based upon missional needs and specific gifts vs. years of service and salary level. The old boys network has faded away in most places but is still alive and well in other places. Enough said.

Bishops play a crucial role in our denomination. Bishops can lead change and transformation or continue with the status quo. I'm in awe of the people who have offered themselves for this role and praying continuously for God to show us who is being called to equip the saints for ministry.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come and show us the way.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bowing to Nebuchadnezzar vs. Dancing with God

I introduced myself to the first-time visitors who were in worship with us last Sunday. I learned their names and told them how good it was to have them with us. When worship ended, and I went back into the sanctuary to gather my manuscript and keys, I saw them lingering by the organ. "Oh, you must be getting married here," I said in delight. "Yes, we are getting married in August. But you were not available to do the ceremony," they responded.

My calendar is open for most Saturdays in August this summer. I love making extra money from weddings. Wedding money is what we have used for vacations and time away from the city. But I'm not emotionally available this summer.

The request to officiate their wedding came during a week when I heard God clearly speaking to me. I found it too painful to say "yes" to presiding at a wedding for a couple I don't know - people who want to use our beautiful sanctuary in downtown Washington - when I cannot say "yes" to couples who come to this sanctuary every Sunday - not for its beauty but to encounter and serve a living God.

When God calls me, God tends to speak rather clearly. The first time I heard God's call was in April of 1996 while chaperoning a group of young United Methodists from the Baltimore Washington Conference on a United Nations Seminar in NYC. It was a remarkable four days in Manhattan, and I heard God inviting me to consider going to seminary instead of law school. God used those four days and a prayer at the end of the journey to awaken me to the possibility of a life of ordained ministry instead of a life in the political arena of Washington. I returned to Washington, started looking at seminaries, enrolled in Duke Divinity School in the fall of 1997 and have never looked back.

God's call was not as easy to respond to the second time it reverberated across my ears, heart and mind. It was on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope in South Africa in the summer of 2004. We had spent two weeks experiencing places of deep pain caused by apartheid in South Africa from District Six to Soweto to Robben Island and countless places in between. Mixed in with the pain was an abundance of hope - hope born through the church's witness of standing up in the face of evil and injustice. The pilgrimage changed my life. I found myself praying a prayer, "God, please take me out of my place of comfort and success. Please help me to be more prophetic. Please give me a heart for hurting and broken people." I then remember my mentor, Peter Storey, praying for me one night, asking God to give me the courage to accept the new call on my life. I returned home to tell a bewildered seminary dean that it would be my last year on his administrative staff. I would be resigning a position I had excelled in and mastered in order to go back to the local church. I had no idea then that I would end up at Mount Vernon Place UMC. When I got to MVP, it was anything but an easy appointment. It was far from comfortable. It was the first place where people vocally told me they would not mind if I left. It was God's call that came in South Africa that kept me faithfully working when I wanted to quit many times and do anything but be the pastor at Mount Vernon Place. Seven years later, I would not trade where I am for anywhere else in the world.

God's call is getting harder and riskier now.

God's call clearly came to me again when I was on retreat this past Lent. A book I was reading kept referencing the biblical book of Daniel. I could not remember the last time I read the book of Daniel. I was moved to grab my Bible, go outside, and sit in the spring sunlight as I read again the story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I was seeking all the while to find inspiration for a sermon series. What I found instead was God telling me that it is time to move - time to act - time to respond.

It's a story we may remember being told as children. We used to sing songs about the fiery furnace. But I did not remember the details.

King Nebuchadnezzar is a powerful man whose power is threatened by a dream that only Daniel can interpret. Nebuchadnezzar hears from Daniel that other kingdoms will arise - kingdoms more powerful than the one over which Nebuchadnezzar rules. These kingdoms will have the power to crush Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom. It's a threatening interpretation - particularly for anyone with insecurities - and Nebuchadnezzar cannot handle it. He builds a huge golden statue and requires all people in the land to bow down before it. But Daniel and his friends refuse to bow down to this false sense of power - to this false god. "...We will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up," they explain to the king.

The king cannot stand the thought of anyone failing to worship the statue and pay homage to him. So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into a fire that is burning seven times hotter than normal. The fire is so hot that the men who throw them into the fire are consumed. Raging flames kill those who toss the men into the fire designed to consume those who have gone against the king. But nothing happens to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The fire has no power over them. Even more, the three men are joined in the fire by another figure - an angel. When I read this part, I imagine these three men dancing with God. God shows up, God protects them, and God dances in delight because the men have been faithful to God and not Nebuchadnezzar.

Remember, I have been reading this story while on a spiritual retreat, sitting on a porch with the sunlight kissing my skin. And it is at this point that I start to weep. It is here in the story where God speaks to me. My first thought was to pray - to pray that our denomination's General Conference would have the courage and capacity to change our Book of Discipline when it comes to the language we use to describe LGBT people and the limits placed on a pastor's ability to minister and care for LGBT people. I nearly got down on my knees on the cement patio to pray. And then I kept pondering the passage and the voice I had heard. I'm still pondering this experience now that General Conference is well over, leaving us more hopeless than hopeful when it comes to the church's Discipline.

I believe with my whole heart that the United Methodist Church is feeling threatened. We are spending thousands of dollars trying to discern how to attract new disciples to our churches, particularly young adults. We are about to invest millions of dollars to call and equip a new generation of young clergy. At the same time, we are telling extraordinarily gifted young people that they cannot be ordained if they are gay or lesbian - unless they choose to stay in the closet. We are also telling thousands of United Methodists that they are incompatible. One delegate even used the word "beastiality" to describe homosexuality on the floor of General Conference in Tampa.

Meanwhile, many churches are flourishing. Our church, with an average worship attendance of less than 100 people, was named as an example of a small vital church. We are vital, and we are growing. And, we are welcoming all people. Approximately 25% of our worshipping congregation is LGBT. We are boldly seeking to minister and welcome all people. We take seriously the Discipline's command to change and adapt as your church's community changes. We have changed a lot. God has done great things in our church. But welcoming people is not enough. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Part of my call as a pastor is to love my church members as much as I love myself.

Next week, I'll celebrate my fourth anniversary of marriage. The last four years of marriage have been filled with blessings. I cannot imagine going through life without Craig. Though both of us are far from perfect, we have found a way to share life in such a way that eases one's burden and sprinkles delight onto each day. No matter what a day holds, I always have someone to come home to. No matter how stormy a night might be, there is always someone to cling to in the middle of a night. No matter how challenging the journey might be, there is always a hand I can take as I keep walking. Together, we are more financially stable, more spiritually mature and more of the people who God has created us to be. We are far more together than we could ever be on our own. Notice I wrote nothing about sex. Our marriage is so much more than sex. Our relationship is so much more than what we so often reduce same-sex relationships to.

Why would I deny this gift - this incredible blessing - to anyone? Why would I not want to bless the deep, compassionate, loving and Christ-filled relationships of others in my church? Why would I not want them to experience the greatest blessing I have experienced?

The fire is hot. The institution of the United Methodist Church is as powerful as King Nebuchadnezzar. And, their fire scares me. Their flames could consume me in a way that causes me to weep. My heart aches at the thought of ever being moved from Mount Vernon Place or ever being told that I could no longer pastor in the United Methodist Church.

And in spite of my fear and trembling, there is something in this story that God has used to call me. When God spoke on my Lenten retreat, God showed me how the flames might be hot - but the flames consume those who toss you into the fire. The flames never consume one who is being faithful to God. Rather, those who stick close to God, allowing God to have their first fruits and full devotion, end up getting to dance with God - even in a fiery furnace.

We are starting a conversation at Mount Vernon Place. Our goal is to be as thoughtful and as faithful as possible as we discern what God's call on my life means for all of us. Our task force meets again this Thursday, and we will continue to meet as we develop a wedding policy that is a faithful expression of our commitment to Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again so that we might have life abundant - on this earth and forevermore - Jesus who says all of the laws boil down to one thing - loving God with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. It's this law of love that we are seeking to have define us - over any other law.

The journey is not easy. It's rather scary. I'm praying for faith and courage to dance with God even when the fiery furnace is a real possibility.

God, help us all to be faithful to you and you alone. Amen.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Defined by Generosity

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).

We celebrated the life of a beautiful person in our church last Friday. Howard was our oldest member of the church, having died two months before his 104th birthday. He was one of my favorite people in the world - someone who I have grown to love dearly.

Funerals have a way of forcing me to both face my own mortality while also imagining my own end of life celebration. What is it that I want to define me? How do I want to be remembered? What can I do today that will cause people to want to celebrate my life at the end?

Howard was defined by his generosity. Throughout the pews of the church sat people who understood the impact he had made. People from the seminary were in the pews, knowing how Howard had given gifts that would help young people be able to accept their call and go into ordained ministry. More than a dozen people came from a nearby geriatric daycare center, individuals who are cared for today because Howard fought for a place for their center and supported it throughout his life. Another person there told me about the impact Howard had on the retirement community's annual gift to a certain cause. Other people in the pews understood how much Howard had given to make our church what it is. Howard was the epitome of someone who supported the church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness. I alone could offer many examples.

When I arrived at the church in 2005, Howard was often ushering. He was in his late 90s but still greeting people.

When we were in the midst of our building renovation in 2007, Howard did his own research on who should restore the stained-glass windows. He wanted to be involved, and he wanted the church to get the best product possible.

When Howard turned 100, his entire family came to town to celebrate his birthday. Yet, he made time to come to my local wedding reception before going to his party that night.

When Howard thought I needed to improve my speaking and "slow down so that old folks could understand me," he brought me a book titled, "Training the Public Speaking Voice."

Howard regularly asked me if there was anything the church needed. I can picture him vividly at the end of Bible study when he had the biggest smile on his face as he gave me his offering envelope to take back to the church.

And, a couple of weeks before his death, Howard took time to offer generous comments that I'll not forget. I was getting ready to leave and Howard stopped me to say "thank you." He then continued to offer thanksgiving for my coming regularly to have Bible study with him, for my always treating him the way I wanted to be treated, and for everything I had done for our church. Those comments were a healing balm for my soul. They are comments to be savored for life. All I could say was, "I love you Howard," as I walked to my car in tears.

There is no doubt in my mind that Howard was abundantly blessed by his generosity. He knew that Paul was right when he said that "God loves a cheerful giver" and that "God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work."

I cannot think of any better way to be remembered than to be remembered by the ways one has embodied generosity - generosity of time, generosity of talent, generosity of resources and generosity of spirit.

What are we doing to be remembered this way? In what ways will we be defined by generosity?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Setting the Stage

I went to the gym at 4:45 today with expectations of spending 20 minutes on the elliptical trainer followed by a half hour of squats, sit-ups and weight lifting. Though I used to regularly attend the 5:30 Body Jam class, the class has changed enough in recent weeks to influence my work-out preferences. But with a few dozen calories burned on the machine and several squats and sit-ups behind me, I ventured over to the exercise studio to see what was happening.

Everything looked different.

It was not what I expected.

An instructor was preparing the room - someone I had not seen before. One class participant was handing out glow-in-the-dark bracelets while the instructor set up strobe lights that flashed dancing lights on the ceiling. The woman was smiling in delight as she prepared the room for us. She mentioned several times how we were in for a treat - how we should prepare to really move.

Many things were different. It was definitely not what I expected! I could hardly wait for the class to start. My anticipation had sky-rocketed. It didn't matter if I liked the class, I knew we were about to have fun. The stage was set. And one hour later, as I walked back home, I became filled with gratitude for both going to the gym and staying for the class.

Sitting at home now, I cannot help but to wonder how many cues we in the church can take from this instructor - especially if our churches are surrounded by people who think the church is stale and dying.

What kind of expectations do we set when it comes to worship? How do we prepare the space? What ways do we build worshippers' anticipation before we ever say, "Welcome to worship?" When people walk into our sanctuaries, do they know that something is different or does it look like just another church service? Are we raising anyone's expectations?

Our church is both blessed and challenged by a monumental, historic building. Just last night, a couple who has been visiting our church for a couple of weeks told me how surprised they were to find so many young people inside since the building is so old and historic. The historic space is connected to a glass building by a four-story glass atrium, but we still wrestle with how to tell others that we are a church and not a museum, and that we are a vibrant, vital church with a young adult congregation.

Still, once inside the sanctuary, we are surrounded by...well...what one would expect in a monumental, historic building - priceless stained-glass windows, pews that are attached to the floor, thick red carpet, and a chancel separating worship leaders from the congregation by a couple dozen feet.

What can we do to work within this space to get people excited before worship ever starts? How does our worship continue to build from the moment we say "Good morning?" so that people want to stay and not miss a minute?

We are in the process of hiring a new part-time Director of Music, Worship and the Arts. I'm excited about this position and can't wait to see who applies and who is ultimately hired. We have high expectations for this role and my next colleague in ministry. We want to see God, hear God, taste God and touch God. I want to open the bulletin and say, "I'm so excited for worship today." I want to walk into the sanctuary and see an image on the screen or a symbol on the altar or something tucked inside my bulletin that makes me think, "Something is going to happen in the next hour. This is no ordinary worship service." I long to hear music that creates a melody that I cannot get out of my head until a new song is introduced the next Sunday. I want to be transformed. I want to not only hear about Jesus - I want to meet Jesus.

Do you know someone with these kind of gifts who is looking for a place for their gifts to be fully utilized? Do you know anyone who wants to be part of a unique congregation that is seeking to be a prophetic witness in downtown Washington? Are you aware of an individual who can work with toddlers, resonate with young adults, and build bridges across all age groups? Please tell them to go to our website and download the job description.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

But I'm Not a Mother...

While the church never seeks to do harm, I see the church sometimes adding salt to the wound. We ask first-time visitors to stand and introduce themselves even though some of them have gotten enough courage to finally set foot in a church for the first time in more than a decade. We create divisions with words from the pulpit, letting folks know who is worthy and who is not. And, we celebrate in grand style holidays like Mother's Day and Father's Day.

I was taught in seminary that one of the problems with the church in the United States is that more people go to church on Mother's Day than on Good Friday. Our church learned early on that I don't take note of all holidays in the context of worship since my first Sunday happened to be the 4th of July. I came well prepared with an idealistic Hauerwas theology about what could and could not happen in the sanctuary. But it was a member of the church who has showed me how hurtful the church can be when it comes to the ways we celebrate mothers and fathers. I've learned to weep with her when we casually say things about our children in such a way that enables those who don't have children to be hurt. While I'll thank God for being like our mother and our father, I've learned to chose my words carefully on these set-aside days.

And still, I cannot tell you how many times the words, "But I'm not a mother," came out of my mouth on Sunday. The words were spoken to people who are part of our church family and strangers in a restaurant. "Happy Mother's Day" are the words repeated by individuals who know me and know that I have no children and people who have no idea who I am.

How did we get to be so insensitive?

How have we gotten to the place where we believe every woman approaching the age of 40 has a child?

I thought I would have a child by now. Having been married "officially" in the Catholic Church, I was sincere when I told the priest that I would accept children as a gift from God. We have had names picked out for our children since we were dating: Joseph Donald and Grace Ivy. But Joseph and Grace have not arrived. Not all of our earlier dreams for marriage have come to fruition.

Conceiving a child is far more complicated than the sex-ed teacher made it out to be when she warned us how easy it is to get pregnant.

Craig and I have learned to love our life - the time we have together, the flexibility we have when it comes to spending money or working late or going on vacation. We honestly have a hard time imagining what life would be like if Joseph and Grace were in the house - especially in our one-bedroom home. We are content. Nothing is missing in our lives. We have grown to see our freedom and flexibility as a gift. And, I have grown to love the children in our church, realizing that they are part of my family through baptism.

Nothing is missing. Nothing is missing until people look me in the eye and say, "Happy Mother's Day."

You see, I'm not a mother. Many of the women around you are not mothers either. Some of us have made this decision. We have no desire to be mothers. Others of us have accepted our situation and do not wish to take any extra steps to make it happen. Still others go to bed each night begging God for a child. While we think your children are beautiful we may not always want to hold them. Though we admire you for being able to balance work and family, we have gotten to the place where our plates are full enough with just work. And while you may have been able to conceive easily and within a few months, some of us have been trying for years.

Please don't assume I have children. Please don't wish me a Happy Mother's Day. You see, I'm not a mother.

I am a pastor.

I am a wife.

I am a friend.

I am a child of God.

And I am whole - just as I am.