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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Going on to Perfection

I remember standing on stage in the heat-filled auditorium at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina alongside the other candidates for ordination. Bishop Kammerer was going through the historic questions of John Wesley that are always asked of each person about to be ordained. Some of the questions are easy to answer and require little thought: "Have you faith in Christ?" Other questions still poke and prod me: "Will you visit from house to house?" One question continues to stand out from the rest: "Are you going on to perfection?"

As United Methodists, we are all on a path to perfection through the grace made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our understanding of grace is one of the things I love most about being a United Methodist. We believe grace is infused within us - all of us - long before we ever begin to understand who God is or how God works. When we are introduced to God, we start to respond. One of the ways we respond is by turning around, repenting of our sin. We then experience justifying grace that cleanses us from our shortcomings and enables us to start fresh. With this clean slate, we strive for holiness - seek to live holy lives - and it is sanctifying grace that accompanies us on this journey with the end goal being perfection.

Are you going on to perfection? I do not know many people who embody a life that is going on to perfection. My blemishes are far more abundant than my signs of perfection. But my friend, Howard, seemed to always be striving for perfection.

I wrote about Howard on his 100th birthday nearly four years ago. Howard was our oldest church member. He came to Washington in the 1940s after being drafted to work in a government agency. He joined our church and has spent his last 70 years faithfully supporting it. When I arrived at Mount Vernon Place in 2005, Howard was our lead usher. He was 97-years-old but still greeting people and taking the collection each Sunday. He never missed being at the church for Sunday school or worship. He also joined us for a midweek Bible study each Wednesday morning.

That midweek Bible study has continued for the last seven years. It now meets on Tuesday mornings at the Hermitage where Howard has lived for the last ten years. Each week, a small group of folks gather with me to study a passage of scripture and then answer two questions, "What are you thankful for this week?" and "How can we pray for you?"

I have a notebook filled with the answers to these questions. Almost always, Howard gave thanks for the place where he lived and the care he received. And almost always, Howard prayed that God would help him to be a better Christian.

Howard was going on to perfection. It did not matter how old he was, Howard knew that God was still actively involved in his life, and Howard wanted to serve God as faithfully as possible. He set quite an example, always reminding me that God is never finished with us. We are always a work in progress no matter how old we are.

Howard died early Sunday morning. He took his last breaths a little before 2:00 in the morning. He told me two weeks ago that he "would try to be at church on Sunday" even though his body had not allowed him to travel far in several months. His body did travel far this past Sunday, however. I believe he made it to church. And I also believe that he has finally made his way to perfection.

Well done, thy good and faithful servant. You have set quite an example for us to follow. May my prayer request be the same as yours, "God, help me to be the best Christian I can be. Show me how I can continue along the path to perfection." It has been a precious privilege to be your pastor.